In recent years much has been written about the "left wing of the Reformation" or the "Radical Reformation." These terms refer to those individuals and groups who rejected both the Roman Catholic tradition and the Protestant alternatives to it, in the name of what they considered true or apostolic Christianity. As a result, they were persecuted by Catholics and Protestants alike and their ideas and lives were bitterly attacked, often without a genuine knowledge of what they stood for. The attacks of their opponents were given wide currency, while their own statements about themselves were ignored or suppressed, so that for centuries little accurate knowledge was available. Only in recent decades has the balance been rectified by the work of scholars who have uncovered the basic documents and subjected these documents to objective scrutiny. It is now clear that the importance of the radicals was great and that the Reformation cannot be understood without them.

For the sake of clarity, the term Protestant will not be applied to these groups, but will be reserved for the followers of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and the other founders of churches that in one country or another received official sanction. One characteristic of the radicals some scholars see it as their essential distinction is the rejection of any connection with the state. For the rest, it is difficult to reach any general definition because of the great variations within the movement. We will follow the common classification that divides the left wing into three main tendencies: the Anabaptists, the Spiritualists, and the Evangelical Rationalists.


The word Anabaptists means literally rebaptizers, and it was employed by contemporary enemies of the radicals, and by later generations as well, to describe the entire left-wing movement. It is, for several reasons, an unfortunate and misleading term. Strictly speaking, none of the religious groups of the Reformation period believed in rebaptizing; many advocated adult baptism, or believers' baptism, convinced that infant baptism was invalid. They, therefore, claimed that the true baptism was not a rebaptism but the only one. Furthermore, though believers' baptism was important to them, it was not the central point in their faith, and it is inaccurate to name them after it. It was convenient for their enemies to call them rebaptizers because this made them liable to prosecution under a provision of the Code of Justinian, originally used against the Donatists, making it a capital offense to rebaptize or deny the Trinity.

The origin and the distinctive characteristics of the Anabaptists are still debated topics. Some scholars emphasize their doctrine of the church. Unlike the Catholics and the chief Protestant groups, which all believed in territorial churches closely connected with the state, the Anabaptists believed in a gathered or voluntary church. In a territorial church, membership was compulsory for all persons living in the area where the church was established, and the civil authorities cooperated with the church in imposing ecclesiastical discipline. For the Anabaptists, the church was a body of the saints, membership was voluntary, and discipline was administered by the church. The most severe form of this discipline was the ban, whereby the erring member was to be completely cut off from any dealings with the faithful and absolutely shunned by them.

In their separation from the world, many Anabaptist groups refused to serve the state as magistrates or as soldiers, and some refused to pay war taxes, though in all other ways they believed in being obedient subjects. However, they denied that the state had any right to interfere in the internal affairs of the church. They believed themselves to be following the pattern of the Apostles and looked upon their contemporaries with some spiritual arrogance, so sure were they that the truth resided exclusively in their own keeping. There were also plentiful quarrels and conflicts among the Anabaptist groups themselves. Their belief in separation of church and state led naturally to the idea of religious toleration, and some of their leaders spoke eloquently in defense of this principle, but some of them displayed small tolerance for those who disagreed with them.

Some modern scholars, particularly those whose religious affiliations make them the spiritual descendants of the Anabaptists, find the essence of Anabaptism in the idea of discipleship. Certainly this was one of their main themes; they took literally the Bible commands, including the injunction to go into the world and preach the Gospel.

Hostile contemporaries, including Luther, regarded the Anabaptists as violent revolutionaries, deriving their origins from such men as Müntzer, Carlstadt, and the "Zwickau prophets." The disorders of the Peasants' Revolt and later at Mnster (to be discussed later) seemed to confirm these suspicions, which were later given literary form in the writings of Bullinger, Zwingli's successor at Zurich. Some modern writers agree that there was indeed a violent strain from these sources in the early days of the movement.

Others emphasize the peaceful character of most of the Anabaptists, and trace their origins to events in and around Zurich. Among the early followers of Zwingli in that city, there were men who felt as time went on that the reformer was betraying his earlier views by his willingness to submit to the civil authorities in matters of religion and to accept the idea of a state church. The Second Zurich Disputation in October 1523 helped to bring the final break, and by the following summer there was a party in Zurich that was opposed to him.

[small portait of Zwingli] Its earliest leader was Conrad Grebel, called "the first Anabaptist." He came from a family of the lesser nobility, which formed part of the ruling oligarchy of Zurich, and he himself was a university-trained man with a humanistic education. He was for a time a close friend of Zwingli, through whose influence he experienced some kind of conversion in 1522 to a more serious religious outlook. As Grebel and others became increasingly disillusioned with what they considered Zwingli's abandonment of evangelical principles, they found themselves being denounced from the pulpit by Zwingli and the other Zurich ministers. The leading issue between the radicals, who came to be called the Swiss Brethren, and Zwingli, and the civil authorities who supported him, was baptism. Grebel and his followers reminded Zwingli he had once rejected infant baptism, and they claimed they derived their own view from him.

In January 1525, a public disputation was held in Zurich, with Zwingli and his colleague Bullinger facing Grebel and his friends, Felix Manz, Wilhelm Reublin, and Georg Cajacob, called Blaurock. Though the radicals defended their views with great eloquence, denying that infant baptism had any sanction in the Scriptures, the city council ruled in favor of Zwingli and infant baptism.

Meetings of the Brethren were forbidden, and parents were ordered to have their infants baptized within eight days if they had not already done so, on pain of expulsion from the city. The response came on January 21 when Grebel, a layman, baptized Blaurock, an ordained priest. Hitherto the Brethren had openly opposed infant baptism; now they went farther and, by this fateful step, introduced the practice of adult baptism. Thus January 21, 1525, marked the beginning of a movement that added a new dimension to the religious ferment of the period and a new element in the history of Christianity.

The movement spread rapidly. The Brethren began evangelizing the surrounding territories with great success, converting and baptizing many. In October, Grebel, Manz, and Blaurock were all arrested. After another disputation, in which they again faced Zwingli, they were put on trial. Here Zwingli spoke against them, making charges based on second- and third-hand reports and without basis in fact: They were opposed to all civil government, believed that all things should be held in common, and held that those who had received believers' baptism could not sin. He also reported, on hearsay evidence, a remark of Blaurock that seemed to sanction armed resistance.

Although the accused vigorously defended themselves from the charges of communism and revolution, they were all sentenced on November 18 to imprisonment on bread and water. During the winter other Anabaptists were imprisoned in Zurich, including Hubmaier, of whom more will be said later. The movement continued and grew, however, with the result that a new trial was held in March of 1526, leading to a sentence of life imprisonment for the three leaders and fourteen others, including six women. On March 7, the council issued a decree against rebaptizing; the penalty for disobedience was to be death by drowning. Two weeks later the prisoners escaped. The three leaders went their separate ways, still preaching their faith. Zwingli's policy toward the Anabaptists continued to harden; in November the council decreed the death penalty for anyone listening to Anabaptist preaching.

In December Manz and Blaurock were caught and tried. Blaurock, who was not a citizen of Zurich, was whipped and banished. Manz was executed by drowning on January 5, 1527, thereby becoming the first Anabaptist martyr. Grebel had already died, apparently of the plague, around August 1526.

Among the other Anabaptists who were in Zurich about this time was Balthasar Hubmaier (d. 1528). He had the degree of Doctor of Theology from the University of Ingolstadt, where he had had a distinguished career. Later he had been chief preacher in the cathedral of Regensburg (Ratisbon). There he had taken a leading part in an anti-Semitic movement, which led to the expulsion of the Jews from the city in 1519. By 1522 he had abandoned the Roman church. He came to Zurich and there espoused radical views like those of Grebel. He left the city after the disputation of October 1523, and was subjected to harassment by the imperial authorities because of his views. In 1524 he wrote a little tract entitled Concerning Heretics and Those Who Burn Them. It is the earliest plea for complete religious toleration. If heretics cannot be turned from their errors by means of the Scriptures, he argues, they should be left to their madness. The inquisitors who condemn heretics to the fire are the greatest heretics of all. To burn heretics is in appearance to profess Christ, but in reality to deny him.

By 1525 Hubmaier, now living at Waldshut, had become an Anabaptist, accepted rebaptism for himself and begun rebaptizing others. He became involved in a controversy with Zwingli in which he defended believers' baptism while Zwingli argued that the Anabaptists threatened the overthrow of the established order. Late in 1525 Austrian troops occupied Waldshut because of the radical religious views that had become established there, and Hubmaier fled to Zurich, where he was soon arrested. Under torture he recanted his views, a lapse he later bitterly regretted. Expelled from the city, he finally found a refuge in Moravia for a while. In Moravia, a fief of the Bohemian crown, the nobles enjoyed a large degree of independence and could protect religious radicals on their estates. Some of them were converted by Hubmaier, who was able, as a consequence, to work freely in the neighborhood of the town of Nikolsburg. Within a year six thousand persons were said to have been rebaptized.

Within the community, however, a split occurred. Hubmaier was more conservative than some of the other leaders, especially Hans Hut, who had been much influenced by the radical ideas of Thomas Müntzer. Hubmaier believed that the state was ordained by God, envisaged the possibility of a Christian magistrate, and sanctioned capital punishment and just wars. The more radical group wanted community of goods, and denied that Christians could use the sword in self-defense, serve as magistrates, or pay taxes. Hut, like many of the Anabaptists, lived in an eschatological atmosphere: He expected the imminent coming of Christ, which he was said to have predicted for Pentecost in 1528. He was a believer in visions and dreams as bearers of divine revelations. He spoke with a wild enthusiasm that convinced many; before coming to Moravia he had had great success in leading the Anabaptist community in Augsburg. It was his mission, he claimed, to announce the overthrow of the ungodly by the righteous. In Moravia, however, he was successfully opposed by Hubmaier, who had the support of the local nobles, and Hut was imprisoned.

Hut managed to escape and made his way to Vienna. In Austria he preached with great success. In 1527, while attending the so-called Martyrs' Synod of Anabaptists in Augsburg, he was arrested, tortured, and put on trial. Before the trial was over, he died, either accidentally or in an attempt to escape. His corpse was condemned to be burned at the stake.

Hubmaier's favorable attitude toward civil government did not save him from the fate civil government reserved for Anabaptists. In 1526 Ferdinand, brother of Charles V, became margrave of Moravia when he was elected king of Bohemia. He set out at once to crush the Anabaptists. Hubmaier and his wife were imprisoned and tried. This time he was steadfast under torture and was burned at the stake in Vienna on March 10, 1528. Three days later his wife, whose loyalty to her husband and his principles had never wavered, was thrown into the Danube River with a rock tied around her neck.

At Nikolsburg, conflict continued between the Hubmaier and Hut factions, until the lord of the area asked the radical group to leave his lands. They moved to Austerlitz, about thirty miles to the north, where they were well received by the local nobles; they settled there in 1528. This Austerlitz group occupies a position of great historical significance because they were the first Anabaptists to form a completely communistic society. Following the example of the Apostles and the early church, they practiced complete community of goods, administered by elected officials. Communism was fully established by 1529, the year that saw the arrival of Jacob Hutter, whose influence among them was so profound that they took his name and have since been known as the Hutterites.

Hutter was a Tyrolese who had learned the hatter's trade, from which he took his name (the German word for hat is Hut). He became leader of the Tyrolese Anabaptists, and to escape persecution organized a migration of his followers to the greater safety of Moravia. He remained in the Tyrol, but was called to Moravia to settle the conflicts caused by the arrival of the newcomers, which had aggravated the discord that was endemic among the Moravian Anabaptists. Convinced of his divine mission to lead the Moravian groups, he eventually succeeded in having his claims recognized. He also believed, and induced his followers to agree, that they were the true church, outside of which there was no salvation.

Ferdinand I continued his efforts to suppress the Anabaptists, and in 1535 they were expelled from Moravia. They had nowhere to go, and suffered great hardships as homeless wanderers. This was the common fate of the Anabaptists in that period. Hutter, urged by his followers to look out for his own safety, returned to the Tyrol. He believed that suffering was the inescapable lot of the chosen and would lead to their eventual triumph. Captured by the Austrian authorities, he remained steadfast under torture. On February 25, 1536, he was put to death by burning.

Persecution failed to break the spirit of the Hutterites or to destroy their organization. In 1536 they decided to divide up into small groups and seek homes and work. The nobles, who had been reluctantly compelled to expel them the previous year, were happy to receive them back, though they were careful to avoid open defiance of the law. The Brethren were able to rebuild their old communities, establish many new ones, and set up a systematic and effective missionary organization, the best one in Europe at the time. The missionaries were persecuted without mercy; four-fifths of them were executed. The Moravian communities were subject to another period of severe persecution from 1547 to Ferdinand's death in 1564. This was followed by a period during which they were left alone to a great extent and were able to carry on their proselytizing activities, which were often accompanied by a sense of proud and intolerant self-righteousness and self-assurance. One reason for this attitude was the number of different sects that developed around them in Moravia; according to a Venetian traveler who visited the area, there were thirteen or fourteen different ones in Austerlitz alone.

Even within the Hutterite group there was dissension and a lack of charity. The preachers were domineering and exclusive; the members were in constant conflict with each other; and the use of the ban, a regular feature of Anabaptist communities, was carried to such extremes among the Hutterites that the excluded members were even refused food and drink. Nevertheless, the prosperity of the Hutterites and the degree of toleration they enjoyed proved very attractive to other religious radicals, who visited them and made attempts to unite with them. These included Greeks, Italians, and Poles.

By 1572 the Hutterites had reached the height of their success and prosperity, with perhaps as many as thirty thousand baptized adults and a flourishing economy. In that year the tide turned when their protector Lord Liechtenstein died without heirs. In 1576 the emperor sold his domains to a member of a devout Catholic family, who proceeded to take energetic measures against the heretics in and around Nikolsburg. His work was completed in the seventeenth century by the combined efforts of the Jesuit order and the Austrian government. Thousands died in the persecution; according to a chronicler, they were torn to pieces on the rack, burned, roasted on pillars, torn with red-hot tongs, shut up in houses and burned in masses, hanged on trees, killed by the sword, drowned, starved in prison, and so forth. They were forced to live in caves and pits, in wild forests, in rocks and caverns. Eventually they were obliterated in Moravia, but they have continued to exist in other countries, including the United States.

Something should be said about the economic and social organization of Hutterite communism. Its motivation was not economic but religious. Community of goods was seen as an expression of fellowship, of brotherly love. Only if all things were held in common could selfishness be overcome and the true imitation of Christ attained. The Hutterite organization was anything but individualistic. The community of the faithful was the true church, outside of which nobody could find salvation, and to which each individual owed complete obedience. The basic unit in their communities was the "household," which normally included several hundred persons living in one building under a head officer known as a "householder." All members ate in a common dining room; nurseries, sick rooms, and schools were also shared in common. Outside of such personal effects as clothing and bed linen, there were no individual possessions. Marriage to an outsider resulted in expulsion from the community, and young women were sometimes forced into marriages that were distasteful to them.

The head of the entire Hutterite community was the officer known as the chief bishop. Under him were "ministers of the Word," or elders, and "ministers of necessities," or deacons. Preachers were chosen by the whole community and had much authority. Thus the Hutterian Brethren present one of the most highly organized religious communities of the time. If it did not flower into a model of brotherly love, it did undeniably achieve a remarkable economic prosperity. The Hutterites raised the largest crops in the area and bred the best horses. Their craftsmen were similarly outstanding.

The Anabaptists were people of peaceful habits who were not interested in the violent overthrow of existing institutions. That they were considered dangerous was the result partly of their unorthodox religious doctrines, which were considered subversive in an era of close union between church and state, and partly of the activities of such men as Andreas Carlstadt, Thomas Müntzer and Melchior Hofmann, as well as the tragic events of 1534 and 1535 in Mnster, events which appeared to be linked with the ideas of these men.

Andreas Bodenstein von Carlstadt was an older colleague of Luther on the faculty of the University of Wittenberg, and became one of Luther's followers. However, he soon went beyond his leader in the radicalism of his views, and was banished from Saxony in 1524. While living in Rothenburg he became implicated in the Peasants' Revolt, was imprisoned, escaped, and found refuge with Luther, who generously received his old adversary in his own home for a while, and made it possible for him to live in the neighborhood of Wittenberg from 1525 to 1529. In his last years Carlstadt became more conservative. He ended his days as a professor of theology at Basel, where the plague carried him off in 1541.

His radical views had a good deal of influence. He was the first to state publicly a purely symbolic view on communion that the bread and wine were merely symbols of the body and blood of Christ and that Christ was not present in the communion. Both baptism and the Lord's Supper were completely unnecessary ceremonies. He refused to baptize infants and may have suspended celebration of the Lord's Supper while he was still a priest in Saxony. He thus went even beyond the Anabaptists's position, since they still believed in these ceremonies, though not in the traditional form. His view of the Lord's Supper may have influenced Zwingli, and he seems to have had some impact on humanists and artists; in 1519 he dedicated a book to Albrecht Dürer.

[Portrait of Muntzer and link to his Sermon
to the Princes] A more formidable figure was Thomas Müntzer, who has been much studied in recent years by western scholars and Communists alike. Since the time of Friedrich Engels, Communists have made a hero of him. Müntzer, however, was interested not primarily in the class struggle but in religion. He was a learned man, with a degree in theology and a knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. As a priest in the Saxon town of Zwickau, he began to preach sermons, which became more and more radical. He became associated with the Zwickau prophets, who believed in direct revelation by the Spirit, rejected infant baptism, and looked for the triumph of the Turk as Antichrist, followed by the millennium. Müntzer believed that the millennium would be ushered in by a bloody rising of the elect, who would slaughter the ungodly.

He began to direct his preaching to the poor exclusively and to place his hopes for the recovery of the truth in the common people. His preaching was so inflammatory that he was expelled from Zwickau and later from Prague. Like Carlstadt, he was at one time a follower of Luther, but later rejected Luther's teachings. At the Saxon town of Allstedt, where he became a pastor in 1523, he acquired a large following among the humbler classes, and organized the "League of the Elect" to carry out the final reformation, which would bring in the millennium. As a result of his leadership, a nearby chapel was destroyed by his followers in March 1524. Müntzer did not hesitate to preach the imminent bloody destruction of the ungodly in the presence of the brother and nephew of Frederick the Wise (both of whom were to be electors of Saxony), urging them to take the lead in this pious work. Here he seems to have been identifying the ungodly with the Lutheran pastors and perhaps Luther himself. Later he turned against the princes, predicting their overthrow in the near future. When the princes, justifiably alarmed and warned by Luther, tried to restrict his revolutionary activities, he responded by pamphlets attacking both the princes and Luther. The princes, he wrote, must be put down and the poor must take over provided that the poor were properly led by a new, inspired servant of God. The prophet was, of course, Müntzer himself. In August of 1524, he escaped from Allstedt, breaking his previous promise not to leave the town.

After further wandering, preaching, and expulsions, his career reached its climax and ended in the Peasants' Revolt. He built up a following among the Thuringian peasants, whom he urged to hasten the triumph of the saints through renewed violence. In April 1525 he took part in a raid that destroyed convents and monasteries. In the same month he wrote a bloodthirsty letter to his followers in Allstedt: "At them, at them, while the fire is hot! Don't let your sword get cold!" At Frankenhausen there was an army of eight thousand peasants who asked Müntzer to lead them. He did so, confident that the wrath of the Almighty would destroy the enemy. The peasants lacked training, proper equipment, and skilled military leadership. They faced an army of the princes, led by Philip of Hesse, which was well trained, well equipped, and skillfully led. The peasants were offered the chance to depart unharmed if they would turn Müntzer over, but Müntzer promised them that God would give them protection and victory. The princes, receiving no answer to the offer, attacked. The peasants were dispersed and cut down. This was the battle of Frankenhausen (May 15, 1525). Müntzer did not long survive it; he was found hiding in a cellar, and after being tortured was beheaded on May 27. Before his death he recanted and took communion according to the Catholic rite.

Another inflammatory prophet with an eschatological outlook was Melchior Hofmann, a Swabian furrier, who also started as a follower of Luther but later broke with him. As an itinerant preacher, he compiled an impressive record of expulsions. He was evicted from the territories of the Teutonic Knights and of the kings of Sweden and Denmark; he once had to take flight from the city of Lbeck to save his life. He became an Anabaptist in Strasbourg in 1530, and later had great success in the Netherlands, where he acquired a large and fanatical following. In 1531, ten of his followers were beheaded in The Hague. Hofmann also spent a good deal of time in Strasbourg, which he became convinced would be the scene of the coming of the kingdom of Christ. First there would be a terrible slaughter of unbelievers, but the righteous would triumph. Christ would appear, to be greeted by the 144,000 of the redeemed mentioned in the fourteenth chapter of the Apocalypse, with Hofmann at their head. In May 1533, in Strasbourg, Hofmann intentionally provoked his own arrest. He remained in prison, continuing to predict the siege and the Lord's coming, until his death in 1543.

Hofmann saw himself as Enoch or Elijah, that is one of the ordained witnesses of the Second Coming. Unlike Carlstadt and Müntzer, he was not a man of learning, but he believed that the inspiration of the Holy Spirit made up for his lack of education and that book learning was really a hindrance. His teaching of the imminent end of the world, his visions, dreams, revelations, and prophecies, all had a great and unsettling effect in the excitable and overcharged religious atmosphere of the time, especially among the poor, always eager to look for future and supernatural solace for their present miseries. Although he advocated unconditional obedience to the civil government which in any case was not destined to last long, since the world was hastening to its end the inevitable result of his work was violence and disorder. Contemporaries saw a connection between his work in the Netherlands and the tragic events at Münster. Among his converts was Jan Matthys, a baker of Haarlem, later to be the leader of the movement in Münster. Between 1528 and 1536, the Low Countries experienced war, famine, flood, and plague, heightening the eschatological mood induced by Hofmann's teaching. In Amsterdam some of his followers caused disturbances in 1534 and 1535; the climax came when a party of forty tried to take the town hall by storm. Some of the Melchiorities, as Hofmann's followers were called, broke with the extremist group, but it was from the extremists that recruits were supplied for the New Jerusalem at Münster.

In the episcopal city of Münster in Westphalia, the Reformation was introduced in its Lutheran form in 1532 and 1533, under the leadership of a priest named Bernhard Rothmann. Soon he moved to a more radical position, thereby splitting the Reformed party. He was strengthened by an influx of Melchiorites from the Netherlands. Many of these newcomers were poor, and together with the poorer classes of the city were attracted by the communistic ideas that Rothmann began to emphasize. True Christians, he claimed, must emulate the early church and have all things in common. By the early days of 1534, he was the dominant figure in the religious life of the city. At that time, two followers of Matthys appeared, rebaptizing Rothmann and many others. Within a few days, over fourteen hundred had been rebaptized.

The climactic phase of the events at Mnster began with the arrival of Matthys and one of his disciples, Jan Beukelszoon, or John of Leyden. Soon these men were the leaders of the Anabaptists, and by means of an armed uprising they succeeded in taking over the town and expelling all Lutherans and Catholics who refused to join their movement. By the beginning of March 1534 the expulsions were complete. They took place in bitter cold weather, and no consideration was shown to the old, to the sick, to women or small children. Those expelled had to leave all their belongings behind and were reduced to beggary. Matthys had announced his intention of killing the godless, but he had been dissuaded from so drastic a step.

The bishop of Mnster, aided by both Catholic and Protestant rulers, including Philip of Hesse, besieged the city. Meanwhile Anabaptists from the Netherlands swarmed to the New Jerusalem. Under these conditions Matthys set up his theocracy, based on communism and terror. All citizens had to give up their money; food and lodgings became public property, and doors of houses had to be kept open at all times. Those who objected were suppressed; when a blacksmith spoke out against him, Matthys called the population together and in their presence killed him by his own hand. Others were executed or imprisoned. All books were prohibited except the Bible; all others had to be turned over to the authorities for burning. Meanwhile, in neighboring areas, because of the attraction that Mnster was exercising, governments became alarmed and took rigorous measures against Anabaptists, putting large numbers to death.

On Easter Sunday, April 4, Matthys received a divine command, as he thought, to conduct a sortie with a few men against the besieging forces. He was convinced that God would give victory to his small group. In the sortie he was killed, and the leadership passed to John of Leyden. This man of illegitimate birth, a failure in business, with a smattering of education, was handsome and eloquent, and knew how to establish a powerful hold over the minds of the people. He brought about a profound change in the constitution by running through the city naked, in a frenzy; afterwards there followed three days of ecstasy during which he did not speak. He then announced that the Lord had revealed to him the necessity of putting an end to the former system of government the work of men and replacing it with one that came from God. At the head of the new government he placed himself, assisted by a body of twelve men, appointed by him, who were known as the elders or judges of the Tribes of Israel. In September he had himself crowned king, and announced that he was to rule not only Mnster but the whole world.

The new government had power over all the affairs of the town and the lives of citizens. Artisans were compelled to work without pay. The death penalty was to be imposed for a vast number of offenses including lying, slander, avarice, quarreling, insubordination of children against parents and of wives against husbands, adultery, blasphemy, complaining, and any insubordinate behavior against the government. The most radical change was polygamy, to which there was initially a great deal of resistance and even an armed rising, which put John in jail for a while. In the end he won out and executed the rebels and others who objected to polygamy. All persons of marriageable age had to marry. One reason for polygamy was that the number of women in the city far exceeded the number of men, many wives having been left behind by the exiles. Many men acquired a plurality of wives; one of the most enthusiastic was John himself, who had fifteen. Some women were executed for refusing to obey the new regulations; some established wives were put to death for quarreling with new ones whom their husbands had married. Eventually divorce was permitted, and the marriage ceremony discontinued, so that marriages could be made and unmade freely. This led to sexual promiscuity, a condition far different from the strict morals common among Anabaptists.

John surrounded himself with the trappings of monarchy, including splendid clothing, a court of two hundred persons, a crown, a scepter, and a globe, which signified his dominion over the whole earth. He changed the names of the gates and streets of the city and of the days of the week to celebrate the beginning of a new epoch for mankind. All this was at the expense of the masses, who had to submit to further confiscations of property; their homes were searched, and much of their clothing and bedding was taken from them. John found it advisable to form an armed bodyguard, made up not of members of the native population but of immigrants who had come to Mnster destitute and were entirely dependent on him.

The bishop had not been idle. Early in January 1535, the city was completely surrounded by the besieging forces, and famine set in. The desperate population ate animals, shoes, and the bodies of the dead. The king and his court appear to have had plenty of food at all times. The terror was intensified in an effort to subdue discontent. When starvation had become widespread, John permitted the departure of those who wanted to leave. This did not end their sufferings; the able-bodied men were killed by the besieging troops; and women, children, and old people were not allowed to pass through the lines and remained to starve. Finally the bishop executed some of the survivors and sent the others to remote parts of the diocese.

The besiegers offered an amnesty to the inhabitants if they would hand over John and his court, but John's ruthless terror prevented this. Eventually the city was betrayed by two men who escaped to the enemy and showed them where to attack. On the night of June 24, Mnster was entered and taken after a bitter struggle. The surviving men accepted the offer of a safe-conduct, only to be massacred after laying down their arms. All the leading Anabaptists were killed. John of Leyden and a couple of his chief henchmen were led around in chains for months and publicly exhibited. On January 22, 1536, they were tortured to death with red-hot tongs in Mnster. The bodies were placed in iron cages and suspended from the tower of one of the churches. Mnster became once more a Catholic city and its fortifications were razed.

Though there were a few more manifestations of this sort, the violent phase of Anabaptism declined after the ghastly events at Mnster. The entire movement, however, had to bear the terrible burden of association in the public mind with what had happened there. That it survived was due, to a great extent, to the work of Menno Simons (1496-1561). As a priest in West Frisia, he was in a good position to learn about the excesses of the Mnsterites and their followers in the Netherlands. The earliest of his extant writings is an attack on John of Leyden, whom Menno identifies with Antichrist. Meanwhile, however, he had come to reject some of the leading Catholic doctrines, and in 1536 he voluntarily renounced the priesthood. Some time during the following year he was rebaptized.

Soon thereafter he began his work of holding together, strengthening, and building up the scattered Anabaptist communities. From 1536 to 1543 he worked in the Netherlands, and it testifies to his success that rewards were offered for his arrest and that Charles V issued an edict against him in 1542. From 1543 to his death in 1561, his field of activity was northern Germany. His position was that of the chief of a number of bishops, each of whom was in charge of a specific territory. It was largely as a result of his activities that the movement in the Netherlands and northern Germany was neither destroyed by its enemies nor taken over by the fanatical fringe.

Menno aroused a good deal of opposition among the Anabaptists by his increasing severity on the subject of the ban, which, as we have seen, was the Anabaptist form of excommunication and was accompanied by the "shunning," or avoidance, of the excommunicated members. At a conference in Strasbourg in 1557, at which many countries were represented, Menno and his northern colleagues were urged to be less harsh on this issue. Instead of yielding, they excommunicated their opponents. In his opinion, the ban and shunning applied to every human relationship, even those between wives and husbands and between parents and children. Yet, although his views were rejected by many Anabaptists, Menno is considered the greatest of their leaders, and it is appropriate that they should be known by his name as Mennonites.


The term spiritualism, used in connection with the radicals of the Reformation, refers to a type of religion that minimizes the importance of external forms and organization and that even diminishes the authority of the written word of Scripture. It emphasizes inward religion, the illumination of the heart by the Spirit through the witness of the inner Word. Stated in such general terms, spiritualism can be found in many places in the Reformation period; there were spiritualist tendencies in Luther himself, though Luther had no sympathy for the spiritualists. By the nature of their outlook, the spiritualists were not founders of churches or of an organized movement, yet some of them had a great influence. Carlstadt and Müntzer may be called spiritualists, but most of them were peaceful rather than violent. One of the most important was Caspar Schwenckfeld (1489-1561).

A well-to-do Silesian nobleman and landowner, he was for a while a follower of Luther, but in time his views diverged from those of the great [Caspar Schwenckfeld,
1489-1561] reformer. Unlike Luther, he believed that the man who is justified by faith is not a sinner, but can keep God's commandments and achieve sanctification; he was distressed at the absence of regenerated lives among Luther's followers. He also came to renounce the doctrine of the presence of Christ in the bread and wine at the Lord's Supper, adopting a purely spiritual interpretation according to which Christ feeds the soul spiritually but not physically, and only the soul of his true followers. Luther, for his part, treated Schwenckfeld with outstanding rudeness. Schwenckfeld also minimized the importance of the external rite of baptism, though he differed from the Anabaptists; unlike them, he did not repudiate water baptism where it had been performed in infancy, and he did not accept believers' baptism.

When Ferdinand became king of Bohemia and Hungary in 1526, his domains included Silesia. He was even more hostile to Schwenckfeld's views than to Luther's. In 1529 Schwenckfeld went into voluntary exile, and for the rest of his life was a homeless wanderer, living in a number of places and facing constant danger. However, his lot was far better than that of many of the other radicals; he had powerful friends who showed him favor and extended hospitality to him. He was frequently involved in controversies, of which one of the most important was with Pilgram Marpeck, an Anabaptist leader who wanted to unite the Anabaptists and counteract their tendency to go over to Schwenckfeld. Schwenckfeld objected to what he considered the excessive concern of the Anabaptists with externals; he also had a much higher regard than they for the Old Testament. While Marpeck upheld the view that Christians should be obedient to the state, but must not wield secular authority or bear arms, Schwenckfeld had a much more positive attitude toward the civil authority. He felt that the magistrate's authority was Christian and that the state should take positive measures in the fields of charity, education, and public works. On a wide range of issues, the differences between the Anabaptist position and that of Schwenckfeld became clear.

Schwenckfeld also engaged in debate with the Lutherans. Philip Melanchthon himself took the lead in producing a document attacking Luther. The main point of difference between Schwenckfeld's position and that of Luther is that, while Luther did not find in man a spark of righteousness, Schwenckfeld believed that man could, through Christ, be transformed and restored to his original being, immortal and divine. The new man can understand the Word, both the primary Word, which is the inward revelation, and the secondary Word of the Bible, which can be understood only by the man who has first received the inner Word. The church, for Schwenckfeld, was spiritual and invisible, existing throughout time and space and bound together by faith under the headship of Christ. Therefore, he could not identify himself with any of the existing churches and had no desire to found another one.

Another important spiritualist was Sebastian Franck (1499-1542). A well-educated man, he was ordained as a priest but soon became a member of the Lutheran clergy. By 1530 he had moved to the spiritualist position and left the Lutheran church. In an early writing, he referred to the new sects of Lutherans, Zwinglians, and Anabaptists and declared that a fourth the spiritualist would reject all outward forms. The outward church, according to him, went up to Heaven after the death of the Apostles, so that for fourteen hundred years there had existed no true outward church or sacrament. The inner truth remained and was received by the faithful from the Spirit. All outward things in the church have been done away with and are not to be restored. He had a broad conception of the nature of the true church, declaring there were many Christians who had never heard of Christ, as among the heathen and Turks.

He agreed with Servetus on the Trinity, which means that he denied the orthodox doctrine. Like Schwenckfeld, he believed that the Bible could not be understood except by those who are taught of God, and he advised against too much reliance on the literal word of Scripture. He minimized the importance of theological commentaries and disputes, declaring that the Ten Commandments and the Apostles' Creed contained enough doctrine for pious Christians. He even pointed out what he considered contradictions in the Bible. His views aroused such strong opposition that he was forced to lead the wandering life of the religious radicals until he finally found refuge in Basel, where he spent his last years in comfort, having married a woman who brought a good dowry. In 1540, a meeting of theologians at Schmalkalden, attended by Melanchthon and Bucer among others, condemned Franck, Schwenckfeld, and the Anabaptists, emphasizing the visible church and the external Word.

One of Franck's numerous writings was a translation of Agrippa von Nettesheim's book on the vanity of the sciences. Franck shared Agrippa's views on the unreliability of human knowledge, and this led him to a more tolerant position than was common at the time. Since all knowledge is worthless, according to him, error and truth are equally distributed among Christians and non-Christians, orthodox and heretics. He claimed to have learned more from Plato, Plotinus, and Hermes Trismegistus than from Moses.

Schwenckfeld and Franck are only two of the men who may be called spiritualists in the sixteenth century. Their influence, by the very nature of their beliefs, is impossible to measure; nevertheless, it has been great. The idea of an inward religion, without formal creeds and ceremonial observances, had a powerful appeal to men who were indifferent to, or disgusted by, the dogmatism and bigotry sometimes manifested by the official churches. Though the men who espoused such radical views were treated as outcasts by the ruling authorities in their day, their quiet influence, working as it were beneath the surface of events, has continued to provide, for many persons, a more satisfying interpretation of the Christian life than they could find anywhere else. The Christian tradition, and perhaps the survival of Christianity, owe much to them. Possibly they illustrate what Paul Tillich meant when he said that "... those who seem weak in history finally shape history."10


In some ways, the most radical and daring of the dissidents of the Reformation period were those persons who are now known as the Evangelical Rationalists. They rejected both the Protestant and Catholic communions, had faith in reason as a source of religious truth, and were distinguished by a rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity. They shared characteristics of the Anabaptists and spiritualists; they might reject infant baptism and minimize external observances. Like the Anabaptists, but unlike the spiritualists, they believed in the formation of groups of like-minded believers. They came predominantly from the south of Europe, often from Italy, and in a sense they may be said to represent the spirit of the Renaissance applied to religion; the boldness of their thought in the face of established tradition, their reliance on reason, and the Italian origin of so many of them, all make this connection at least plausible. Michael Servetus and Sebastian Castellio, discussed elsewhere in this book (see Chapter 14), were among the most important of them. Here we shall single out two men: Lelio Sozzini and his nephew, Fausto Sozzini.

Lelio Sozzini (Latinized as Laelius Socinus, 1525-62) was a member of a distinguished legal family of Siena. Study of the Bible led him to become a Protestant while still very young, and from the first he was attracted to the more radical elements in the movement. These tendencies were no doubt encouraged by his residence in Switzerland, a favorite refuge for religious radicals from Italy whom he had a chance to meet, and by his extensive travels. In Poland, one of the places he visited, the doctrine of the Trinity had already begun to be questioned. He had a habit of presenting Calvin and others with questions about abstruse theological doctrines, and Calvin advised him to bridle his curiosity. He criticized Calvin for the execution of Servetus, whose death drew Lelio's attention to the doctrine of the Trinity. Although his orthodoxy was questioned, he managed to live in Zurich without serious trouble until his death.

His nephew, Fausto, often paid visits to him, and after his uncle's death acquired his papers and books. Fausto Sozzini (Latinized as Faustus Socinus, 1539-1604) is a major figure in the history of the Reformation. A Sienese like his uncle, he lived in Italy, France, and Switzerland before moving in 1579 to Poland, which was to be the chief center of his activities. Before this date his radical theological views had already begun to develop. He insisted that there was nothing in the Bible contrary to reason, and, therefore, that the rational meaning of the Scriptures had to be grasped. He also refused to accept the traditional doctrine of the two natures in Christ. His view was that Christ, while on earth, was purely human; but that after the resurrection God shared His power with him and made him, though human, truly God. Man is by nature mortal, according to Fausto; and Christ, being entirely human, was also mortal. Christ did not provide satisfaction for man's sin; to make the innocent suffer for the guilty was unworthy of God. Instead of emphasizing the death of Jesus on the cross, he emphasized his resurrection and ascension; instead of God's wrath, he laid stress on his loving kindness.

When Fausto arrived in Poland, he came to a country that occupied a singular position in the history of the Reformation. Though ruled by Catholic kings, it provided a refuge for religious dissenters from all over Europe. This unusual situation was made possible largely by the peculiarities of the Polish constitution. The monarchy was weak; from 1572 it had been elective. The nobles exercised great power, and individual members of the nobility were able to provide protection on their estates for religious reformers and radicals whose ideas appealed to them. Conditions became even more favorable in the reign of King Sigismund II (1548 72). He was a Catholic who refused to suppress religious dissent, and in words which rang out in that age, he declared that he would not try to force anyone's conscience, because it was not his business to lay down what people should believe. In 1555, the Polish Diet, the national representative body, permitted every nobleman to introduce on his estates any worship that he pleased. At about the same time, a Reformed church, strongly Calvinistic, was organized. When Poland and Lithuania were united by the Union of Lublin in 1569, Reformed and radical ideas spread into Lithuania.

When the diet met in 1573 to elect a successor to Sigismund, the Catholic members favored the candidacy of Henry Anjou, brother to the king of France. To allay the fears aroused among the Protestants by Henry's known connection with the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of the preceding year (See Chapter 17), the Catholics agreed to the "Confederation of Warsaw," a guarantee of religious freedom to all sects, which made Poland unique in Europe at the time. Henry was elected king and had to abide, though reluctantly, by this declaration. When he gave up his Polish throne in 1574 to become king of France, his successor, Stephen B thory (1575 86), had to observe the same conditions. Though a Catholic, he maintained during his reign a policy of toleration.

Within the Polish Reformed Church a schism developed when some members, in the 1550s, began to deny the doctrine of the Trinity. These members officially seceded from the church in 1563 and held their first synod in 1565. Their new organization was known as the Minor Reformed Church of Poland. It was the earliest organized Antitrinitarian church in Europe. It was opposed by both the Catholics and the more orthodox Protestants and was divided within itself. Although all the members rejected the orthodox doctrines of baptism and the Trinity, they were by no means agreed as to what teachings they accepted in their place.

There was also a conflict within the new church concerning the relationship of Christians with the secular world. Members were not in accord over the questions of whether it was allowable to hold property, perform military service, pay taxes for military purposes, or hold public office. The more extreme group, believing in complete separation from the state and civil life, held that it was wrong for a Christian to do any of these things. Since he must not resist evil, the Christian, they held, is even forbidden to have recourse to the law to seek redress of injuries. He must submit to the loss of whatever is taken from him by some enemy, and obey any conqueror, even the Turk.

These extreme positions appealed most to those who had the least to lose from them, namely the poor and the foreign refugees, although some nobles adhered to these views, freed their serfs, and renounced the use of the sword. The chief center of those who held this position was the community of Rakw, founded in 1569 in an effort to withdraw from the world and create an ideal society. Against the extreme positions held by the Racovians were arrayed many nobles and other members of the Minor Reformed Church. For them the civil authority was established by God: A Christian could hold public office, even the kingship; could own property; hold serfs; and take up arms in defense of his country, his possessions, and the lives and well-being of his family and himself. It was not wrong to enjoy noble birth or to have recourse to the law for redress of injuries.

These controversies were going strong when Fausto Sozzini arrived in Poland in 1579. He applied for admission to the Minor Reformed Church in the following year and was refused. There were a number of differences between him and the church, of which the chief one was their practice of baptism by immersion, which he rejected. He argued that water baptism, and even more clearly rebaptism, were not needed by Christians. The chief opposition to him came from the Anabaptist Rakw community, which objected to his rationalistic and, in their view, worldly spirit. He never became a member of the church with which he was to be so closely associated. Later, though not in Poland, the church was to be called Socinian after him.

Nevertheless, the Racovians asked him to defend in writing their views on society and the state, which were then under attack. He did so in a much more moderate way than was customary, trying to ward off the accusation that these views were subversive of public order. He, therefore, made many concessions to civil authority: A Christian can hold office if he does not shed blood; he can even go to war if he does not injure anyone; and he can seek redress in a court provided that he does not demand punishment of the party who has injured him. In spite of these and other conciliatory ideas, he incurred the wrath of the king and had to hide for a while.

Over the years the extreme ideas of the Racovians lost out, and the prevailing opinion in the church came to grant the right and duty of the Christian to accept and participate in the activities of the state and society. Fausto himself approached this position more closely. He had a great deal of influence over the rising generation who objected to the strictness of their elders, and in hoping to answer their questions and resolve their doubts he was led to modify and soften his own views. However, he always refused to sanction the taking of life by Christians, under any circumstances. The death sentence for criminals is forbidden because it deprives the victim of a chance to repent and thus of the prospect of eternal life. (Translated into more secular terms, this is not far from the position of Albert Camus on capital punishment, as expressed in his Reflections on the Guillotine.) On the other hand, if one accidentally kills a man while defending oneself, this is a sin but only a venial one. And one should not strike his wife unless this will be certain to reform her.

Such was Fausto's influence that he was given credit for purifying the church of its former extreme outlook. The famous Racovian Catechism of 1605 shows the completeness of the change. Fausto had begun in 1603 to draw it up, but had died in 1604 before it was finished, and others completed it. It sanctioned, with appropriate safeguards against violation of the law of Christ, the holding of office, the swearing of oaths, going to court, and charging interest. By this time, the growing moderation of the movement had strengthened it to the point where it began to propagandize foreign countries. In the seventeenth century the Polish Brethren, as they came to be called, undertook missionary journeys to many areas, getting as far west as England and making converts. In 1658 the members of the Polish Minor Church were banished from the country by the diet, and in 1660 they left. Their influence continued and lives today in the Unitarian groups of various countries, including England and the United States.


One of the most heartrending aspects of the Reformation is the brutal persecution that was everywhere the lot of the religious radicals. The amount of suffering to which these essentially peaceful and upright people were subjected is incalculable. It has often been said that this persecution was caused by their attitudes toward society, government, and military service that the rejection of normal social obligations by so many of them appeared to pose a threat to the established order and was met by a ruthless effort to exterminate them. No doubt there is much to be said for this point of view; society will normally strike back, sometimes with the fury born of panic, at apparent threats to its stability. But it ought not to be thought that the religious reasons given for this persecution were mere pretexts. The churches were stronger then than they are now, and the problem of salvation more urgent; those whose religious beliefs challenged the orthodoxies of the time might very well seem to cast doubt on the eternal destiny of those who disagreed with them, and to suppress the views of the radicals could be in essence a suppression of one's own doubts.

Fortunately, the persecution never succeeded in entirely silencing the voices of the radicals, and they have lived on and made invaluable contributions to modern religion and society. The idea of a voluntary church, separate as far as possible from the state; the idea of a religion of the spirit, unhampered by form, creed, or ritual; and the idea of the application of rational thought to religious issues without these, we should be poorer indeed. The intensity of the persecution makes us realize the wide appeal that radical ideas actually had; it would be interesting to know how many people would have been converted to them if they had been free to do so. On all the evidence, the number would have been great indeed.