From violent debacle to active peacemaking . . .
Anabaptism emerged in 16th century Europe under the same conditions that gave rise to the Peasants’ War, and many people showed sympathies for both.
Charismatic Anabaptist evangelists and inspired spiritual leaders popped up in many different places. Some emphasized Scripture, or the outer word, as the key to following Christ while others insisted the inner word – listening to the voice of the Spirit – mattered most. Activity in Switzerland, in South Germany/Austria, and in North Germany/the Netherlands loosely created the Anabaptist movement in the 1520s and beyond. Anabaptist means “re-baptizer” because these groups baptized adults on confession of faith. Every person had been baptized as an infant, so this was their second baptism.
Living under significant social and economic distress, many people believed they were facing the end times as described in Revelation. Anabaptists gripped in end-times fervor gained elected political control of a German city, Munster, declared it New Jerusalem, and called other Anabaptists to join them! In 1534 and 1535, as people poured into the city, leaders made bizarre laws supposedly received through heavenly visions. Everything went downhill fast!
The city’s expelled Catholic bishop returned with an army and lay siege that lasted more than a year. This harrowing episode in Anabaptist history ended with city residents starving and, finally, a two-day bloodbath that left thousands of Anabaptist dead.
Shortly thereafter, Menno Simons, a Catholic priest in nearby Witmarsum, Netherlands, left the priesthood and shepherded a group within the chastened Anabaptist movement. While other leaders continued to consider “the sword” a useful tool, in response to Munster, Menno called those following Christ to lay down violence and take up mutual, practical care for one another – within the community of faith and beyond. It is from Menno Simons that Mennonites get their name.
A significant way Anabaptist ideas have survived over 500 years has been through Mennonite communities teaching the “gospel of peace,” a way of understanding Jesus that features and doesn’t fringe peacemaking.
Even as Mennonites constantly struggle to live up to their own peacemaking ideals, they call all Christians to active peacemaking as followers of Jesus.