The abuses of the Catholic Church in the Early Modern Period led to diverse 'reformers' writing tracts on how best to reform the Church, which was in general recalicitrant. Along with the so-called Magisterial Reformation (led by men such as Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli, who believed reform should take place in agreement with local authorities) there was the Radical Reformation, who were the 'extremists'. They took their lead from Zwingli, Calvin et al., but disagreed with their methods. They had no sympathy for the religious 'conservatives' who wanted things to move slowly or not at all, and so broke away from society rapidly. One such group was the Anabaptists.
Baptism was not only a fundamental sacrament of the Church, but also a very important part of Early Modern society. In the sixteenth century, as it had done for centuries before, baptism didn't just introduce an infant into the Christian religion, but into the community as a whole. The stability of society was believed to be derived from religious uniformity (uniformity was always one of the goals of sovereigns when instituting religious changes). But Anabaptism was a dangerous new idea: having found no instance of infant baptism in the Bible, its followers believed that baptism could only be valid when undertaken by a consenting adult. Had not even Jesus' baptism waited until he was an adult?1 But adult baptism was unpopular amongst not only the religious conservatives but the other reformers - Zwingli saw it as a recipe for social anarchy because people would be able to choose whether to become Christians or not. This would lead to disagreements among the common people and bring social instability, which would worsen the situation for the reformers.
The first of the Anabaptists in Switzerland were Conrad Grebel, George Blaurock and Felix Manx, all of whom were disciples of Thomas Munzer, a German. As if the possibility of them causing social unrest wasn't enough, they also rejected other key tenets of society: they refused to pay tithes to the Church, and wanted to elect their own ministers rather than having the authorities have a say. Their influence spread in various outlaying villages of Zurich, which began to select Church officials without reference to the central authorities. By opposing the existence of the official Church they were necessarily opposing the State itself.
Confession of Schleitheim
In 1527 the Anabaptists published what was the closest to any statement of unity they ever came to. This was the Confession of Schleitheim. Some members of their ranks called themselves "Spiritualists" and rejected even the Bible, saying instead they had an "inner light". The Confession rejected this extreme interpretation, but was itself radical to the minds of the Magisterial Reformers. It said that God -
"further admonishes us to withdraw from Babylon and earthly Egypt that we may not be partakers of the pain and suffering which the Lord will bring upon them."
Believing that the Apocalypse was nigh, Anabaptists thought they should withdraw from the World into their own little communities.
"Therefore there will also unquestionably fall from us the unchristian, devilish weapons of force - such as sword, armor and the like, and all their use (either) for friends or against one's enemies - by virtue of the Word of Christ. Resist not (him that is) evil."
Force, they held, was not in accordance with the principles taught by Christ. This was seen as dangerous by rulers who often needed to raise armies from amongst the peasantry - they didn't want Anabaptism to spread and leave them with a pacifist population unable to fight other rulers! Another result of the above two was that Anabaptists were banned from holding office in the State - they held such offices to be un-Christian and a demonstration of force. To their rejection of the state, Zwingli argued that "We cannot make a Heaven upon Earth" - he believed the State was needed to keep order in a corrupt world.
"we should learn that everything which is not united with our God and Christ cannot be other than an abomination which we should shun and flee from. By this is meant all Catholic and Protestant works and church services, meetings and church attendance, drinking houses, civic affairs, the oaths sworn in unbelief and other things of that kind, which are highly regarded by the world and yet are carried on in flat contradiction to the command of God, in accordance with all the unrighteousness which is in the world."
They rejected even the Protestant works and all Church services even of the reformed Churches. They were taking the ideas of the Magisterial Reformers to the logical extreme by rejecting even reformation within the existing system.
"In the perfection of Christ, however, only the ban is used for a warning and for the excommunication of the one who has sinned, without putting the flesh to death - simply the warning and the command to sin no more."
The only power of a Church, said the Anabaptists, was to excommunicate - remove someone from its membership. This would condemn someone to not enter the Kingdom of Heaven anyway, so it wasn't necessary to harm them (ie. like burning of heretics).
The tragedy of Münster
Melchior Hoffmann was a Spiritualist who took Anabaptism to an extreme, rejecting the pacifism inherent in the Confession. He claimed he was a second Elijah who was preparing the World for the triumph of God over the unrighteous. He claimed Apocalypse would take place in 1533, which it failed to do, but that year did see himself put in jail, where he would remain until his death. But by now he had gathered a following of "Melchiorites" that took his predictions to heart. They took control of Münster after Hoffmann converted the city's mayor, who allowed Melchiorites to flow in. The Bishop of Münster was expelled and a mob took control of the city, Jan Matthys becoming dictator. The Bishop began to gather forces around the city and besieged it, and under tough conditions a brutal theocracy was established.
Private property was abolished and polygamy legalised. Matthys himself took no fewer than sixteen wives, one of whom he executed by his own hand for "impertinence" in the marketplace. All sins (including complaining and scandal-mongering) were made punishable by death. In 1534-35 the city was entirely in the control of "King Jan", as he named himself, and said all his actions were inspired directly from Heaven. In 1535 the city was liberated by the Bishop, aided by diverse sovereigns including even Philip of Hesse, a prominent Lutheran. The leaders of the theocracy were brutally tortured and put to death.
Although the fanatics of Münster did not represent mainstream Anabaptism, they barely did the name of the sect any favour throughout Europe. It was the only time the movement had the chance to achieve political prominence, and afterwards the Anabaptists sought other names2. But persecution against their heresy stepped up after Münster, with 4000 put to death in the Netherlands over the next forty years. The sect continued to accept martyrdom and suffering as radical sects so often do, accepting their suffering as Christ's suffering. As they became more and more distant from normal society and a 'Black Legend' developed around them, they became more and more convinced they were the persecuted ones of Christ. The Diet of Speyer of 1529 followed an Imperial edict a year earlier against them, and it was about the only thing agreed upon at the Diet by Catholics and Lutherans that Anabaptists should be persecuted.
2. After Münster, Menno Simons wandered for twenty five years preaching. His followers, the Mennonites, were granted tolerance in the Netherlands and Germany in 1572. Other sects included the Swiss Brethren and the Moravian Brethren.