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Luther and the Baptists

The "Baptists" are not a homogeneous group. They share a rejection of infant baptism and instead advocate "baptism in faith", in which the person seeking baptism must testify to their beliefs. 

Peter Pietersz made his boat available for secret services. Image by Jan Luyken, 1685, Wikimedia Commons 
Peter Pietersz made his boat available for secret services. Image by Jan Luyken, 1685, Wikimedia Commons

Given that this form of baptism is also performed on persons who have already received the sacrament as infants, the group is also known as Wiedertäufer in German, "Anabaptists" in English, and Doopsgezinde in Dutch. 

The Mennonites, a confession named after Menno Simons, the Hutterites and the Amish are well-known groups that continue to exist in Europe and in America, where they emigrated. In contrast, the 1535 Münster Rebellion by militant Anabaptists came to an abrupt end. 

The cages in which the executed rebels were put on display are still visible on the steeple of St. Lamberti. The Baptist movement includes evangelical groups as well as mystic/spiritualist and apocalyptic denominations. 


The most important Baptist's synod was held on 24 February 1527 in Schleitheim, Switzerland (Canton of Schaffhausen), under the leadership of Michael Sattler. The attendees agreed on what was known as the "Schleitheim Articles".  

In consequence, most groups reject any form of violence and cultivate a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible. Indeed, scripture does not explicitly mention infant baptism, which, as a practice, can only be inferred from the Gospel (Mark 10: 13-16 par) and the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 10: 48) through a somewhat convoluted exegetic process. 

According to their understanding of the Bible, they do not swear oaths and maintain a position of conscientious objection. They have a distanced relationship to government. Due to these facts and the connections between some groups and seditious farmers or Thomas Müntzer, the ruling classes tended to view the Anabaptists as "trouble-makers", leading to their cruel persecution. 

Here, the Reformers placed themselves on the side of the rulers to ensure that their own positions were seen as separate. Zwingli, for instance, who had initially welcomed the Anabaptist movement, connived with the Council of Zürich, and Felix Manz became the movement's first martyr when he was drowned in the river Limmat in 1527. The Wittenberg theologians, Luther included, also joined with the ruling classes in adopting a merciless approach to the Anabaptists. 

The 1529 Diet of Speyer – venue of the Protestation at Speyer – imposed the death penalty on all Anabaptists. Urged by the Emperor, Elector Ludwig V had already passed an edict against Anabaptists in 1528, which led to the execution of fifteen people in the administrative district of Alzey. 

By order of the Elector, discussions were held with the Anabaptists – who were strongly represented in south-west Germany – on 25 August 1557 in Pfeddersheim. Melanchthon attended the talks. The Anabaptists were described as "Satanic vermin" and their expulsion was ordered. In Worms, two marginal figures of the Anabaptist movement, Hans Denck and Ludwig Hätzer, produced a translation of all Old Testament prophets in 1527, so before Zwingli and Luther. 

But they were both familiar with the translations and also used them. Although he valued the translations, Luther rejected them with the statement that "false and pestilent spirits cannot translate faithfully" and also because they had used Jewish assistance. Zwingli's reservations were also more dogmatic.

Philipp the Magnanimous, Landgrave of Hesse, took the unusual step of rejecting the advice of theologians and refusing to execute an Anabaptist. He also sought a compromise with the Anabaptists in the Ziegenhain Church Statutes, which introduced the practice of confirmation.