I. The Beginning in Zurich

The Anabaptist Story was initiated in a brief historical period that was marked with other important events. The timeline will help contextualize the period.

Zwingli/Luther Time Line

A. The Man Ulrich (Huldreich) Zwingli

Zwingli, who was bred a mountain man, was an amazing combination of intellect, passion, and wit. He was political to the core, but central to understanding his life and work is the fact that he became a devout student of Scripture. He was transformed and shaped by the Word yet, like all of us, his vision was limited by his own peculiar place and time--the freedom-loving city of Zurich in the early sixteenth century.20

  • Zwingli was a humanist and studied New Testament. An admirer of Erasmus, in 1515 they held a meeting and Zwingli adopted Erasmus' method of inquiry--the "humanist method."
  • The pacifism among the Anabaptists was mentored through Erasmus.
  • In 1516-17, Zwingli was pastor in the town of Einsiedeln and had a sexual encounter while there. This was not all that uncommon, but it did impact his life because Zwingli will preach against the prohibition that priests barred priests from marriage. He later married secretly and then, sometime later, declared the marriage publicly.
  • He resolved to preach nothing but the gospel (was this the effect of the liaison?).
  • It was that resolve that he took with him when he moved to the Grossmünster church and became the people's priest in Zurich. He preached his first sermon and assumed responsibilities on New Years Day, 1519, at the age of 35.

After arriving in Zurich, a plague decimated the city. Nearly three of every ten people in the city died. Zwingli ministered to the victims and was struck with the disease himself, but recovered. He identified with the people and became an important bridge in the relationship of the people to the city. He composed a "Plague Hymn" about his ordeal.

The first four stanzas were written as the disease first struck.


Help me, O Lord,Yet, if thy voice,

My strength and rock;
In life's midday,

Lo, at the doorRecalls my soul,

I hear death's knock.
Then I obey.

Uplift thine arm,In faith and hope

Once pierced for me,
Earth I resign,

That conquered death.Secure of heaven,

And set me free.
For I am Thine.


The next four stanzas were written as his health deteriorated.


My pains increase;Lo! Satan strains

Haste to console;
To snatch his prey;

For fear and woeI feel his grasp;

Seize body and soul.
Must I give way?

Death is at hand,He harms me not,

My senses fail,
I fear no loss

My tongue is dumb;For here I lie

Now, Christ prevail.
Beneath thy cross.


Zwingli nearly died from the bubonic plague in September, 1519. He did recover and he chose to finish the hymn:


My God! My Lord!Though now delayed,

Healed by the hand,
My hour will come,

Upon the earthInvolved, perchance,

Once more I stand.
In deeper gloom.

Let sin no moreBut, let it come;

Rule over me;
With joy I'll rise;

My mouth shall singAnd bear my yoke

Alone to thee.;
Straight to the skies.21

The plague also awakened spiritual concerns and enhanced his desire for study of Scripture and the reading of reformed authors like Luther. Zwingli

  • attacked Roman Catholic doctrine and practice, and
  • corresponded with Luther regarding Luther's attacking Roman Catholic doctrine and practice. This was the time of the Diet of Worms.

Zurich, like most of Europe, accepted a church-state relationship. One had to be a member of the church to be a citizen in the city.

In 1521 Zwingli found himself in conflict with bishop of the diocese because of Zwingli's attack on the regulations pertaining to Lent. The Zurich city council defended Zwingli, but the effect of this was to begin a process that eventually resulted in the city council removing itself from the episcopal authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

In November, 1521, he began a study group. This group began with ten men. Some in that group were Simon Stumpf, George Binder, Conrad Grebel, Valentine Tsuchude, J.J. Amman, and Felix Manz. Reublin, Blaurock, Brotli, and Hübmaier were also most likely in the group.

This began as a cultural, not a religious, group. They would read Plato, for example. The influence of Erasmus moved them to the study of biblical languages. This was the humanists approach. Humanism had a great deal of appreciation for antiquity, and this was the motivation for their study the biblical languages. Zwingli had a greater place for reason than Luther, and, in fact, was more a humanist than Luther.

They became more an evangelical group. This was the modus operandi of their biblical study:

  • They gathered at 7 AM in the Cathedral everyday except for Sundays and Fridays.
  • They read the Latin text of a particular passage--Zwingli would lead in examination.
  • They would then look at the Hebrew or Greek, and if they were
  • studying an Old Testament passage, also the LXX.
  • They would do an exegesis in the local (German) dialect.
  • They then moved to the practical--how to use the passage.
  • One would bring expository sermon in German.22

In 1522, after Zwingli had resigned the priesthood and was immediately reemployed by the city council as evangelical pastor in the same post. About this time, the Reformation movement began to show a splintering.

  • In Wittenberg, Carlstadt was destroying images and Luther returned and restored order.
  • Princes and cities sought to free themselves from Roman Catholic control. The Reformation rode on a political happening (but then don't all events like revivals?).

B. The Disputations in Zurich23

In March 1522, a group of Christians in Zurich broke the Lenten fast citing Zwingli's assertion of the sole authority of Scripture as their justification. Although Zwingli, himself, did not break the fast, he had full knowledge of the event and came to the defense of those who did. He published works defending their action and openly preached of the right to obey only Scripture. When the bishop of Constance sent a commission to repress the happening, the cantonical government all but ignored the authority of the bishop and took matters into their own hands. The Zurich council ruled that although the New Testament imposed no fast, fasts should be maintained in order to keep the peace within the canton. The compromise holds great importance because it set the precedent of cantonical authority over the local church, even as above the authority of the bishop.

Zwingli believed that the ultimate authority of the church is the Christian community, "the local assembly of believers under the sole lordship of Christ and of the divinely inspired Scriptures that bear witness to redemption through him." This authority was to be exercised through civil government acting on the commands of Scripture and for the benefit of the community. The situation in Zurich was one in which the cantonical government gradually implemented the reforms of Zwingli, the community's popular leader and trusted interpreter of Scripture, at least partially persuaded by the prospect that the civil government's authority would be increased by allowing Zwingli's changes in religious policy. Thus the religious power structure in Zurich centered on the city council acting on Scripture as interpreted by Zwingli.

In Zurich there were three classes of people seeking to remove themselves from Roman Catholic control:

  1. The anti-Catholics. We might call these "negative Protestants."
  2. The libertines. They wanted the freedom to indulge in their own desires. We might call these "permissive Protestants."
  3. The evangelicals. Persons who wanted to see the "Word of God" honored. They might be called "evangelical Protestants."

l. The First Disputation, Jan 29, 1523

Zwingli had persuaded the council to let him resign his position in order to be under the direct authority of the cantonical government. This was late in 1522. The council's official hiring of Zwingli and the disputation's affirmation of his authority marked Zwingli's break with the Roman hierarchy and set the Swiss reformer on the road of independence. At this disputation, Zurich became an evangelical city through the act of the council. The civil government's supremacy in matters of religion in the canton had been established. The city accepted Reformation teaching by issuing a decree. They removed themselves from being under the Pope. The Mayor and members of the city council decreed, "that Master Zwingli may continue to preach the holy gospel ... until he be instructed differently." Zwingli was basically responsible for this action, but those who were studying with him were also a part of the representing body that was asking for this to be accomplished. What was meant by the city's acceptance of the Reformation teaching was not clear. Luther, in his Address to the German Nobility (1520), had denied that the pope was over secular rulers, or over the Scripture. It was, according to Luther, the secular power--not the pope--who could call a council for the reformation of the church. Probably this was all that was being implied by the council's action.

2. The Second Disputation, Oct. 26-28, 1523

Nothing really had happened in Zurich in the 10 months since the Jan 1523 decision. Everything was the same, with an occasional priest implementing something new or changing something in the practices of the church. The three days of debate centered on the three questions that had prompted the disputations--tithes, images, and the mass. As many as 800 priests and laymen may have been present.

The debate was straightforward on two of the three issues. The Council rejected both the view of the mass as a sacrifice and the use of images within the church. The Roman Doctrine which made the mass a repetition of the sacrifice of Christ was judged false and contrary to the Word of God. The third question, that of the tithe, was not addressed.

Now something was about to happen that may, at first, seem inconsequential. When this ruling about the mass and the images was made and the council was about to move on, Conrad Grebel stood up and addressed the Council, asking that the Council give instruction on the future celebration of the Lord's Supper (formerly called the "mass"). The Council had ruled that the mass was not right, but what was right? The council gave nothing to take the place of what was dismissed.

  • It is important to note that Grebel was still giving the Council authority over the church.
  • Zwingli replied for the council. He said that it was necessary to leave to the city council the decision as to the timing and the ways and means of carrying out the proposed reforms.

This was on Oct. 27, 1523. Lets do a little contrast and comparison here that will provide us with some understanding of what was to follow. Note carefully the personalities of Grebel and Zwingli: Grebel is aggressive and Zwingli is cautious. These traits will be significant as the story develops. Their goals were the same: Both Zwingli and Grebel were wanting the elimination of the abuses under the Roman Catholic system. But Grebel wanted it sooner. As with most reformations, there will be those who wish to proceed slowly and those who wish to have speed. Zwingli was willing for it to come about slowly. The people, he felt, were not ready for change; they needed more instruction in the Word of God.

he beginning of a rending between these men went like this:

Zwingli: "Milords (the council) will discern how the mass should henceforth be properly observed."
In response to Zwingli's words to Grebel, Simon Stumpf said, "Master Ulrich, you have no authority to place the decision in Milords' hands, for the decision is already made: the Spirit of God decides. If therefore Milords were to discern and decide anything that is contrary to God's decision, I will ask Christ for his Spirit and will teach and act against it."

Right here is a key--the word of God is above civil authorities in the matter of religion. Had Luther said that? No! This is a characteristic of the radical reformation.

Zwingli responded that the city council initiated the reform and now has the right of decision making concerning the reform. All the magisterial reformers--Zwingli, Luther, Calvin--have an inherent commitment to the state church. Later the radical reformers will refer to the magisterium as "partial reformers." Although this was a term of derision, I feel that the was a correct interpretation of what was transpiring.

Now before us we have two roads--Zwingli, holding to state church reform by the city council, and Grebel and his associates who are advocating that the free church be reformed by the Word of God.

From Oct. 1523 onward, the relationship between Zwingli and Grebel became more and more strained. Ludwig Hätzer, now a member of the group, gave an exposition from Ephesians to Hebrews in the study group. In June 1524, Hätzer criticized Zwingli for not adhering to the Word of God with all strictness. That phrase "with all strictness" sounded repeatedly in many of the groups that splintered from the radical reformation. Conrad's group was expecting a church of confessing Christians. The split beginning here was due to a difference in ecclesiology. The doctrines of Christ and of salvation were both the same--but the issue was, "what does it means to be the people of God."

In effect, the Reformation in Zurich was indefinitely postponed after the second Disputation. When Easter 1525 came, the churches were still having mass--but without sacrifice. They were still having infant baptism, and the cup was still not being given to the congregation. In essence, they were practicing all the Roman Catholic trappings of religion with only a few modifications. Keep in mind that this issue had begun in Jan 1523, and over two years had passed. Wayne Pipkin calls these people "impatient."24 Is a two-plus year wait a mark of impatience? Yes, I believe they were impatient, but they had curbed that impatience and were attempting to work within the system.

Another hint of the coming breach between Zwingli and Grebel and his followers is in a letter written to Thomas Münzer, which is now in the archives of St. Gall in Zurich. Münzer was one of the so called Zwickau prophets who criticized Luther and Grebel had read some of his tracts. They had never meet, but Grebel felt that they had some things in common. Grebel wrote the letter, but Münzer never received it (they, too, had problems with postal delivery in that day).

In the letter to Münzer, Grebel criticized Zwingli and envisioned a restoration church after the primitive New Testament church model. The church would be built upon the confession of faith and baptism of its believers. The Lord's meal would be a simple meal, and the services would be held in the evening with only words of Scripture being read. The service itself would be held in the home of some believer.

There is an interesting mention in the letter--it mentioned that a Christian should not make war. Could this be perhaps a subtle criticism of Münzer based upon what they might have heard about him?

Things were fermenting.

In December, 1524, Felix Manz wrote the Zurich council setting out the argument against infant baptism and asked that Zwingli reply in writing. Manz wanted to have a written debate. He had hope for the debate, because formerly Zwingli had been in agreement with the group on the matter of rejection of infant baptism. In an informal discussion Zwingli had said that infant baptism was wrong.

It was the question of infant baptism which became the first major issue to divide Zwingli and the radicals, with each side holding different views on theology and authority. We of today must see infant baptism not just as practiced today, but as a rite identifying one as a citizen of Zurich. It was, therefore, needed for secular reasons--what a birth certificate is for us, infant baptism was for them. It certified their citizenship and their parentage. The religious reasons for baptism were seen as secondary or non-existent. Everybody in medieval Europe was therefore a "Christian." This was an understanding that emerged from centuries of Constantinian Christianity. As 1525 began, Grebel made several attempts to persuade Zwingli to his position. The group continued in their study and discussion on every Tuesday evening, but Zwingli only attended twice--clearly, he was avoiding this group. The division was widening and all parties involved were sensing it. About this time Grebel wrote, "the Christian church is the congregation of the few who believe and live right."24a Zwingli received the message and responded, "we must proceed slowly and eliminate the Catholic rites in a forbearing manner."

Balthasar Hübmaier wrote to Zwingli reminding him of his former stance.

In 1523 ... I conferred with you in Graben street upon the Scriptures relating to baptism; then and there you said that I was right in saying that children should not be baptized before they were instructed in the faith; this had been the custom previously and therefore such were called catechumens. You promised to bring this out in your exposition of the Articles.... Anyone who reads it will find your opinions clearly expressed.25

Compare this with Article Eight in Zwingli's dissertations: "From this follows first that all who dwell in the head are members and children of God, forming the church or communion of the saints, which is the bride of Christ, ecclesia catholica."26

Why do Luther and Zwingli come down of the side of infant baptism? At least a partial answer arises from the social order of the day. Infant baptism brought the child into the church and into society. To reject infant baptism would be to undermine the medieval concept of the church and state. So Anabaptists, by rejecting infant baptism, were considered anarchists.

3. The Third Disputation, Jan 17, 1525

Zwingli and Grebel and his group each put forth the views of their respective sides on baptism. The issues were decided, in essence, before the disputation; the council meeting was only a formality. The decisions, already made, were announced in two decrees:

  • First Council decree, Jan 18, 1525.
    "All infants must be baptized eight days after birth and those who do not bring infants to baptism will be banished from the city."
  • Second council decree, Jan 21, 1525.
    Forbade all opponents of infant baptism from meeting together and Grebel and Manz from speaking in public. Those of the study group not native to Zurich were banished from the city."

C. The Formalization of Anabaptists

1. The Home of Felix Manz

What do you think happened on the evening of Jan. 21--on the same day when the council had forbade the opponents of infant baptism from meeting together? The group did just that, probably in the home of Felix Manz. I have stood before what has been suggested as that probable house in Zurich. The meeting was probably on the second floor. The emotions that were present we can only imagine. At least they must have sensed that they were at the crossroads. In their conversation they became convinced that they must either turn back and abandon their position or go forward to translate their study and learning into practice.

They entered into a time of group prayer. Following that prayer, George "Blaurock" Cajacob (nicknamed Blaurock because he wore a blue coat), stood up and asked Conrad Grebel to baptize him on his profession of faith. The baptism was by effusion. After Blaurock's baptism, Blaurock baptized all the others in the company.

At this moment the Evangelical Anabaptists Movement was born.

An old Hutterite account of the meeting describes what took place:

They came to one mind in these things, and in the pure fear of God. They recognized that a person must learn from the divine Word and preaching a true faith which manifests itself in love, and receive the true Christian baptism on the basis of the recognized and confessed faith, in the union with God of a true conscience, [prepared] henceforth to serve God in a holy Christian life with all godliness, also to be steadfast to the end in tribulation And it came to pass that they were together until dread (Angst) began to come over them, yea, they were pressed in their hearts. Thereupon, they began to bow their knees to the Most High God in heaven and called upon him as the Knower of hearts, implored him to enable them to do his divine will and to manifest his mercy toward them.... After the prayer, George Cajacob arose and asked Conrad [Grebel] to baptize him, for the sake of God, with the true Christian baptism upon his faith and knowledge. And when he knelt down with that request and desire, Conrad baptized him, since at that time there was no ordained deacon to perform such work. After that was done the others similarly desired George to baptize them, which he also did upon their request. Each confirmed the other in the service of the gospel, and they began to teach and keep the faith.27

Thirty-five baptisms took place in the week of Jan 22-29, including four servants, thirty self-employed farmers, and one woman. All took place in Zollikon on the eastern shore of Lake Zurich some three miles from the city. The services during which these baptisms occurred followed this pattern: Bible reading, exposition which challenged the hearers, baptism for the converted in the name of the Trinity, then the observance of the Lord's meal. Their study group with Zwingli was the model, at least to a degree, of what is being done now.

2. Summary

These were the acts leading to the radical reformation that began in Zurich:

  1. Personal disillusionment with Zwingli. Grebel and the others who were humanists turning biblicists (see p. 75) were disappointed because of the temporizing of Zwingli, who had been their friend and teacher.
  2. Political disappointment in the council. They had hoped for an election of a truly Christian council that would endorse the radical reformation that would implement at once the reforms as preached by Zwingli. They were naive in the art of politics.
  3. They sought to contact those outside of Zurich who they felt were of kindred spirit. There was an attempt to establish contact with Münzer and there was even an attempt to contact Carlstad. These two men were supposedly struggling for a similar reform.
  4. The loss of the debate on infant baptism on Jan. 17, 1525.
  5. The baptism of Blaurock, and then the others in that service.

3. Reaction to the Movement

  1. Zurich authorities could not let this go on. All those known to have been involved were arrested and, from that moment on, Anabaptists were a hunted people.
  2. On December 16, 1527, the council opened an inquisition on Felix Manz, Jacob Falk, and Henry Reiman. All these were drowned to death. Drowning, they felt, was a fitting punishment for rebaptizers (some cynics of that day dubbed the penalty "the third baptism").
  3. At the Diet of Speyer, in 1529, all the heads of Europe and the church passed a sentence of death upon all Anabaptists. Because of their view on infant baptism--which was seen as against the state just as much as against the church--they were considered anarchists and therefore dangerous to "Christian Europe."
  4. Most of the Anabaptist leadership had been killed by 1530--the attempt to obliterate the movement nearly succeeded. The movement continued but the leadership now fell to those who were without the same commitments, biblical training, and skills.

4. Conclusions

  1. The Anabaptist movement was a child of the Reformation in general and the Zwinglian Reformation in particular. They are my people in the same sense as Luther is mine in his "he just shall live by faith" exposition.
  2. Anabaptism originated as a religious movement and not a political movement. Although it challenged the church-state relationship, it did so from a theological and not a political position. The movement was born in an academic and theological milieu with middle class people. The movement centered around the problem of ecclesiology.
  3. Believers' baptism was first put into practice as an organizing center of the church in Zurich on Jan, 21, 1525.