Beliefs of Our Fathers (Part 1)
September 8, 2018
This begins a study on the beliefs of our forefathers, based largely on the Dordrecht Confession of Faith from 1632. We will discuss different doctrines from the Dordrecht Confession and the Bible. Do we still believe today what our forefathers believed? The first section, presented here, tells some of the history of the Anabaptists.
HISTORY OF THE OLD ORDERS
By Dr. Ken Rathbun
In the sixteenth century, during the European Reformation, many people held religious beliefs that did not fit into the Catholic or Reformer molds. Several religious leaders emerged in Zurich, Switzerland, and nearby areas in the 1520s, where they won converts to their point of view. Scholars and historians often give various labels to these groups. However, in that important decade, names and labels which are familiar to us now were not clearly defined. “Anabaptist” was one such label.
People often refer to any and every group that was not Catholic or Protestant during the Reformation as Anabaptist, whether or not that group believed the views common to true Anabaptists. Because we want to look at what our forefathers believed, we now offer a brief sketch of some of their history. This brief overview will focus primarily on their beginnings.
Reformer Ulrich Zwingli
In January 1525, a momentous event took place in Zurich. The Reformer Ulrich Zwingli had worked for several years to overthrow the Catholic Church and replace it with his own vision of a state-enforced reformation movement. He criticized papal authority and warned people of the uselessness of earning their way to heaven through honoring relics, participating in religious processions, and visiting holy sites. He taught that salvation came through faith in Jesus Christ alone.
Eager young men flocked around Zwingli to study the Bible and theology. They believed in justification (to be made right or declared innocent) by faith alone for their salvation. As they learned Bible study methods from their teacher, these men began to question the widespread tradition of baptizing babies. Eventually, this concern caused divisions within the town.
With Zwingli’s encouragement, the city council voted in mid-January 1525 to require infant baptism of all births. He thought it was important that a person be “born” into the state church and that God’s church should include all the people in a given area. However, he also believed that the church is born of the Word of God, and that Christ alone is its head. In direct opposition to this command to baptize babies, the men in Zwingli’s Bible study met one evening to baptize each other as believers. This new group became known as Anabaptists, which means “re-baptizers.”
Those who participated in that historic night (January 21, 1525) all suffered persecution, exile, and slander for their belief. Some were even killed. That first Anabaptist baptism took place in the home of Felix Manz. George Blaurock, Conrad Grebel, and others also participated.
Felix Manz was later drowned in Zurich for his faith (a cruel irony for those who professed believer’s water baptism). George Blaurock was beaten in Zurich, later exiled, and was eventually burned at the stake in Austria. Conrad Grebel died of the plague after a brief preaching ministry.
The questioning of infant baptism as a means of salvation came from reading and studying the Bible. This new group’s findings gave them the courage to act upon their beliefs and to go against both the religious and civil authorities. Other people in the region also found the biblical arguments for believer’s baptism logical and convincing.
The topic of baptism was an issue within a wider area of disagreement – that of one’s view of the church. The Reformers had a different understanding of the church than these Anabaptists. The Anabaptists believed that a church should be free from the control of the government and that church membership should be voluntary, not based on the baptism of an innocent infant. They were also against persecuting people for their beliefs. While these ideas might not seem earth-shattering to us today, many who accepted these views in the sixteenth century suffered horribly.
Michael Sattler also contributed to the founding of Anabaptism. He was highly respected by several Reformers in Strasbourg, even though he was exiled from Zurich for his Anabaptist beliefs. In February of 1527, he authored the first statement of distinctives (specific beliefs characteristic of their group) in Switzerland. This statement of beliefs was called the Schleitheim Brotherly Union.
Many Anabaptists adopted this confession, which was more commonly known as the Schleitheim Confession. It promoted believer’s baptism, church discipline practiced by the local church, a memorial view of the Lord’s Supper, holy living for church members, qualifications of pastors, non-resistance (no participation in the military), and the forbidding of making oaths. In May of 1527, Sattler was caught, tried, tortured, and burned for his faith.
Another champion of believer’s baptism was Balthasar Hubmaier. This highly-educated former priest wrote several influential books against infant baptism and against persecuting people for their beliefs. His arguments were difficult for the Reformers to answer, and he is well known for ending his books with the classic phrase, “Truth is immortal.” He was tortured in Zurich and later burned at the stake in Austria in 1528. The loss of such stable leadership directly affected later events.
Other beliefs and ideas regarding how to reform or break from the Catholic Church came from non-Protestants during the 1520s and later. If any idea united these groups (and it is difficult to find one), it was the idea of a church separate from the control of the state. Crucial to all non-Catholic and non-Protestant groups was what they viewed as their ultimate, or final, authority. The Anabaptists highly valued the New Testament. Other groups preferred the Old Testament. Additional groups, known as Spiritualists, valued the Bible, yet placed a greater emphasis on revelation received from God.
Religious leaders in that day often gathered followers by their forceful preaching. More than a few leaders claimed to have received prophetic messages predicting a final battle and the coming of Christ. Strasbourg (then in Germany), and later, Münster, were each identified at one time or another by one of these leaders as the New Jerusalem.
In 1534, one of these groups forcefully seized control of Münster and proclaimed it the capital of Christ’s kingdom. After much violence within the city, a combined Lutheran and Catholic army retook the city and brutally executed the leaders.
Though Anabaptism would long be remembered and harshly criticized for the events at Münster, it remains a fact of history that Anabaptists made non-resistance and non-participation in the military one of their distinctive key characteristics. (Mennonites and Amish are one of the largest Christian non-resistance groups in the world today.)
During this same time, a Catholic priest in northern Holland with an uneasy conscience gained fame by preaching against obvious Catholic abuses. This man’s name was Menno Simons. After learning about Anabaptism and studying the Bible, he became convinced that infant baptism was wrong. He struggled, though, with separating from his church and joining the Anabaptists.
After seeing many Anabaptists (including some of his own family members) suffer, he took compassion on these scattered, leaderless groups. He knew the way forward would be treacherous, lonely, and difficult, but in 1536 he gave up his secure position and joined the Anabaptists.
Menno lived a life filled with constant travail and harassment, which included hiding and escaping from religious authorities. Amid these hardships, he provided essential leadership that held the Dutch and North-German Anabaptists together. His writings revealed a desire to help his extended flock and showed a concern for church discipline. The impact of his ministry is demonstrated by the fact that eventually many Anabaptist groups in locations far from Menno’s area of ministry were called Mennonites. However, Menno held an unusual view of the origin of Christ’s flesh, and it was a view that his later followers did not hold.
Anabaptism grew in strength in Holland, North and South Germany, Switzerland, and Moravia. The only effective way of limiting its impact was through persecution. The Catholics, especially, killed many, as Martyrs Mirror recounts. The Reformers’ common method of exiling Anabaptists from their regions frequently resulted in the death of the exiled one, as the Catholics often burned the Anabaptists fleeing the Reformers’ territories. Anabaptism continued in Switzerland, but persecution continued. Some Anabaptists relocated north to the Rhine River Valley, where they enjoyed greater freedom for a time.
In 1693, a division arose among the Swiss Anabaptists that is still apparent today. An elder named Jakob Ammann expressed dissatisfaction with the way the brethren lived out their faith. Ammann wanted to see stricter separation from the world in dedicated disciples of Jesus, as well as church discipline with the practice of shunning, even for family members. He also expected obedience to the 1632 Dordrecht Confession of Faith, which included foot washing as an ordinance of the church, which the Swiss congregations had not observed.
The conflict raged not only in Switzerland, but also in the Rhine Valley, including southern Germany and Alsace (located in France). After much discussion, the conflict remained unresolved, and the stricter Anabaptists took the name of their leader, becoming known as the Amish.
Persecution by governmental authorities during this time never ceased. With news of available land in the New World and elsewhere, immigration seemed to offer relief from oppression, and the thought of relocating interested many Anabaptist groups. In some regions, emigration was actually forced upon them by the rulers.
While moving to a new land offered freedom to follow their beliefs, relocation also brought challenges about how to preserve their identity in these new settings. Concerns about religious beliefs, culture, appearance, and language were important to both Mennonites and Amish. The extent to which these issues caused problems differed among the various groups.
Beginning in the eighteenth century, many Mennonite and Amish groups travelled to North America to start a new life. Many settled in Pennsylvania, though some continued westward as farmland became less available. Some settled in Ontario, as well. Both the midwestern United States and Canada’s western provinces saw many Anabaptist settlements.
Beginning in the 1760s, some Mennonite groups in Germany and Switzerland travelled east into Russia. They enjoyed a long and often profitable existence until the rise of communism in the 1920s. When that happened, many tried to leave for North and South America.
The stricter Mennonite and Amish groups faced a number of challenges when relocating. One of the challenges dealt with the extent to which they were to apply the principles of strict discipleship to Christ. These groups saw conformity to the world as directly opposed to faithfulness to Christ. Standards of how this loyalty to Christ proved itself in response to technology and industry caused conflict over time. They valued simplicity, separation from worldliness, and the daily practice of their faith. Specific rules demonstrating these concerns were classified in their Ordnung, a set of guidelines for life and conduct. Over time, however, not everyone agreed on the everyday application of these principles.
In the 1870s, the Amish in the United States became divided, and the stricter among them formed the Old Order Amish. The remaining progressive-minded Amish joined together as Amish Mennonites. In the early twentieth century, more and more groups united, and the Amish Mennonites became known simply as Mennonites. Some joined the Mennonite Conference churches. Today, the Old Order Amish maintain their distinctions with practices including social shunning, foot washing, strictness in dress and appearance, and shunning of technology. The Old Order Mennonites formed during the late nineteenth century, and they, too, favored traditional forms of living and limited use of technology.
Emigration didn’t always mean freedom in every sense for the Amish or Mennonites. Though they enjoyed church membership based on the baptism of believers, the liberty to practice their beliefs raised other issues that proved difficult. Neighbors and local authorities did not always accept these German-speaking people, and at the national level, the United States government did not always embrace the non-resistance of these pacifist churches. This difficulty continued at least through World War I. The laws regarding the education of their children also caused difficulty, especially in the twentieth century, for those in the United States and Canada.
Throughout the latter nineteenth century in Europe, the Amish trend of merging with the Mennonites was apparent. In 1937, the last Amish church united with a Mennonite congregation.
In the twentieth century, the Old Order Amish and Mennonites in North America faced the challenge of disunity from within. Groups formed that favored greater use of technology and less strictness in their personal lives. Despite these conflicts, the Old Order Amish experienced a strong growth rate (which continues today), and the retention rate of children who decide to receive baptism and remain in the Old Order is extremely high.
The future of the Old Order Amish and Mennonites will be somewhat determined by whether or not they maintain their distinct plain appearance and customs, and more importantly, whether or not each generation will maintain a clean heart for the Lord and seek the new birth by faith, as Jesus explained in John 3.
The above text is an excerpt from the book, What Do the Amish Believe? We are selling this book on our website's store. If you are interested in purchasing or learning more, Click Here.comments powered by Disqus« Back to Articles