The Anabaptists (which meant the ‘re-baptizers’) made the most radical attempt of the Reformation era to renew the church in central Europe. Whilst Anabaptism was a grass roots movement with diverse expressions often opposed by the establishment in its early development, its enduring legacy has included:

  • a view of the church in which participation is voluntary and followers look to the scriptures and to each other for guidance.
  • a commitment to the way of peace and other teachings of Jesus as a rule for life.
  • a separation of church from civil authority.
  • baptism as a personal profession of faith.
  • worshipping congregations that create authentic community and reach out in mission and service.

More on history of the Anabaptists here.

Some Early Anabaptists of 16th Century Europe

Conrad Grebel (c. 1498 – 1526) was a co-founder of the Swiss Brethren movement and is often called the “Father of Anabaptists“. He began as a supporter of the reforms of Zwingli. When Zwingli compromised on abolishing the Mass due to pressure from the Zürich canton city council, Grebel broke away maintaining he was obeying God rather than men. Grebel met with others labelled as young radicals for prayer, fellowship and Bible study. Grebel wrote to both Andreas Karlstadt and Martin Luther in Germany in 1524 hoping to build connections with the other reformers, which did not eventuate.

Grebel and the radicals came into harsh conflict with Zwingli over the issue of infant baptism. A public debate was held on 17 January 1525 when Zwingli argued against Grebel, Felix Manz and George Blaurock. The city council who sided with Zwingli and infant baptism ordered the Grebel group to cease their activities and for any unbaptized infants to be submitted for baptism within 8 days. Failure to comply with the order would result in exile from the canton. Grebel refused to baptize his daughter Issabella. A few days later Grebel’s group met  for counsel in the home of Felix Manz in a meeting considered illegal by the council. George Blaurock asked Grebel to baptize him upon a confession of faith. Afterward, Blaurock baptized the others who were present. As a group they pledged to hold the faith of the New Testament and live as fellow disciples together. They left the little gathering full of zeal to encourage others to follow their example.

Grebel left the work to others and set out on an evangelistic mission to the surrounding cities. In October of 1525 he was arrested and imprisoned. While in prison, Grebel was able to prepare a defense of the Anabaptist position on baptism by choice. Through the help of some friends, he escaped in March of 1526. He continued his ministry and was at some point able to get his pamphlet printed. Grebel moved to the Maienfeld area in the Canton of Grisons where he died.

Though his entire life was less than 30 years, Grebel’s Christian ministry was compressed into less than four years, and his time as an Anabaptist was only about a year and a half. Grebel performed the first known adult baptism associated with the Reformation, and was referred to as the “ringleader” of the Anabaptists in Zürich. Grebel’s differences with the establishment reveal a deep division of thought on the nature of the church and its relationship to the state authority. The beliefs of Conrad Grebel and the Swiss Brethren have left an impress on the life and thought of Amish, Baptist, Brethren, and Mennonite churches, as well as numerous free church movements. Freedom of conscience and separation of church and state are two great legacies of the Anabaptist movement. With Petr Chelčický (1390-1460) of Bohemia, Conrad Grebel is considered among the earliest Christian pacifists in modern times.


Michael Sattler (1490 – 1527) was a monk who left the Roman Catholic Church during the Protestant Reformation to become one of the early leaders of the Anabaptist movement. He was particularly influential for his role in developing the Schleitheim Confession.

Born in Staufen, Germany, Sattler became a Benedictine monk in the cloister of St. Peter after attending the University of Frieburg. However, in 1523 he left the church to join the Swiss Brethren in Zurich, and also married a former Beguine named Margaretha that year. They were banished from Zurich in 1525 and traveled to Horb, Rottenburg, and eventually to Strasbourg. In February of 1527 he chaired a meeting of the Swiss Brethren at Schleitheim, at which time the Schleitheim Confession was adopted.

In May, 1527, Sattler was arrested by Roman Catholic authorities, along with his wife and several other Anabaptists. He was tried and sentenced to be executed as a heretic. As part of his execution his tongue was cut out and red hot tongs seered his body. He was then taken outside the city where the tongs were used on him again before he was burned at the stake. The other men in the group were executed by sword, and the women, including Margaretha, were executed by drowning.


Menno Simons (c. 1496 – 1561) was an Anabaptist religious leader from Friesland (today a province of The Netherlands). Simons was a contemporary of the Protestant Reformers and his followers became known as Mennonites. Around 1526 or 1527, questions surrounding the doctrine of transubstantiation caused Menno Simons to begin a serious and in-depth search of the scriptures, which he confessed he had not previously studied, even being a Catholic priest. At this time he arrived at what some have termed an “evangelical humanist” position.

Menno’s first knowledge of the concept of “rebaptism”, which he said “sounded very strange to me”, was in 1531 when he heard about  the beheading of Sicke Freerks Snijder at Leeuwarden for being “rebaptized”. Through a new search of the scriptures  Menno Simons believed that infant baptism is not in the Bible. He discussed the issue with his pastor, searched the Church Fathers, and read the works of Martin Luther and Heinrich Bullinger. While still pondering the issue, he was transferred to Witmarsum. Here he came into direct contact with Anabaptists, preaching and practicing believer’s baptism. Later, some of the Münsterite disciples came there as well. While he regarded them as misled and fanatical, he was drawn to their zeal and their view on the Bible, the Church, and discipleship. When his brother Pieter was among a group of Anabaptists killed near Bolsward in 1535, Menno experienced a spiritual and mental crisis. He said he “prayed to God with sighs and tears that He would give to me, a sorrowing sinner, the gift of His grace, create within me a clean heart, and graciously through the merits of the crimson blood of Christ, he would graciously forgive my unclean walk and unprofitable life…”

Menno Simons rejected the Catholic church and the priesthood in January 1536, casting his lot with the Anabaptists. His date of baptism is unknown, but by October of 1536 his connection with Anabaptism was well-known. In that month Herman and Gerrit Jans were arrested and charged with having lodged Simons. He was probably baptized not long after leaving Witmarsum in early 1536. He was ordained around 1537 by Obbe Philips. Obbe and his brother, Dirk Philips, were among the peaceful disciples of Melchior Hoffman (the more radical having set up the kingdom in Münster). It was Hoffman who introduced the first self-sustaining Anabaptism to the Netherlands, when he taught and practiced believers’ baptism in Emden in East Frisia. Menno Simons rejected the violence advocated by the Munster movement, believing it was not Scriptural.His theology was focused on separation from this world, and baptism by repentance symbolized this.

Menno rose quickly to become a man of influence and by 1544 the termMennonite or Mennist was used in a letter to refer to the Dutch Anabaptists. He is especially significant in coming to the Anabaptist movement in the north in its most troublesome days, and helping not only to sustain it, but also to establish it as a viable Radical Reformation movement.


Dirk Willems (? – 1569) was a martyred Anabaptist who is most famous for, after his escape from prison, turning around to rescue his pursuer, who had fallen through thin ice while chasing him.

Willems was born in Asperen,Netherlands, and was rebaptized as a young man, thus rejecting the infant baptism practiced at that time by both Catholics and established Protestants in the Netherlands. This action, plus his continued devotion to his new faith and the rebaptism of several other people in his home, led to his condemnation by the church of the Netherlands. After his harrowing escape and recapture, he was burned at the stake near his hometown on 16 May 1569.

Today, he is one of the most celebrated martyrs among Anabaptists and is seen as an example of selfless love for one’s enemies.

Extracts adapted from sources in