The Radical Reformation that began Anabaptist history was a time of aligning back up with Scripture on many points. The early Anabaptists desired to radically follow Scripture on all points regardless of persecution. And just like the earliest persecution of the Church, their persecution came from the religious groups that were in power at that time.
If Anabaptists would have practiced their faith and their re-baptizing of adults quietly, they probably could have avoided a lot of persecution. But they went out and preached, trying to convert and baptize as many others as they could. They took Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:19 very seriously:
“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” (Emphasis added)
They wouldn’t be quiet! (The title “quiet in the land” definitely would not have described them) They went to Scripture to see how Jesus and the early church did it and they followed what they read. When a new believer converted, he was baptized immediately and publically.
The religious leaders were against the re-baptizing of adults (which is generally all we ever hear about). But even if they would have accepted that, the fact that the Anabaptists were not examining the converts enough (or letting the leaders do the examining) or waiting for the right time would have been a problem as well.
Anabaptists pointed back at Scriptural accounts of baptism. When Jesus was baptized (Matthew 3:14-15), He asked John to baptize Him and John questioned it. But Jesus said to him, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” (NKJV emphasis mine)
This account and all the other baptisms recorded in Scripture followed immediately upon the request of the converts.
But as time went on, the church changed things, especially during the Dark Ages. The church began a policy of examining a convert seven times before baptism was allowed. They also would baptize converts at only two specific times: Easter and Pentecost. 1
Anabaptists, on the other hand, would give teaching and instruction for several hours, or in some cases, several days. But when the ones being taught came to believing faith, any new converts were baptized immediately.
Early Anabaptists saw no conflict between pouring or immersion. They did both. Where the baptism happened did not matter either– in rivers or ponds, barns, caves, mills, forests, or where ever they happened to be.
Anabaptists tied faith, repentance, and baptism together and did not postpone any of the three. They couldn’t wait to baptize until a more convenient time because there was no convenient time. They baptized at once because they believed baptism is the outward testimony of the inward new birth itself. 2
Anabaptists believed strongly that the new birth and baptism were both incomplete by themselves. So they always tied both together in one event.
It wasn’t that they thought if they baptized a sinner, it would immediately make him a saint. Nor did they wait until someone had proven themselves to be a saint before they baptized them. They just baptized people who confessed faith in Jesus as their Savior and expressed a desire to follow Him. Only repentance and faith were necessary for baptism. And then from this Anabaptists expected the Christian life to spring forth. 3
Anabaptists and Baptism Today
Flash forward five centuries later… Anabaptist beliefs today look a bit more like those of the religious leaders that persecuted the early Anabaptists for their beliefs than they look like the beliefs of their Anabaptist forefathers. Most conservative Mennonites today only baptize about once a year. Even then, baptism is only for those that have gone through instruction class and meet all the requirements of church membership. Conversion and baptism have been conveniently separated again. Converts must, once again, prove their worthiness of baptism (today by their dress standard and lifestyle) before they can be baptized.
How did this lapse happen again? I believe it came about in part a couple centuries after the first Anabaptists, when Instruction Class was first introduced. Originally, Instruction Class was not intended for new converts. It was a class started for the purpose of bringing young people to conversion. 4
I can easily see that from there it began to be a requirement for all young people because the churches wanted to be sure the young people all understood well. And soon it became a requirement for all converts, young and old. Something that was started with perfectly good intentions easily became an extra-Biblical requirement for all believers– just as it did in the Dark Ages.
We do want converts to understand what repentance and faith are before they are baptized, but does it need to be a three to six month class? Could it not be explained in a couple hours? And those young people who have been taught by their parents already are ready for baptism as soon as they choose to make the decision to follow Christ. Even those who don’t have a life long teaching can ask questions if there is areas they don’t understand. And who of us understood everything when we converted? Does that not come in the weeks, months, and years following conversion?
Did not Jesus Himself say, “But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.”? (John 14:26)
Anabaptists used to stand out from the rest of the religious groups mainly because of their radical willingness to baptize or re-baptize any new believers immediately upon conversion. But today they are known to be the opposite of that. We want people to prove that they are “true Anabaptists” before we will baptize them. And the only thing that seems to make us Anabaptists is our dress and separated life style. And we equate that outward look and separate lifestyle to be evidence of true faith.
History has a tendency to repeat itself. Who will be the Radicals this time? Who will turn back to Scripture and re-align themselves concerning baptism– regardless of religious persecution? Will this be the generation of Anabaptists to again take a Biblical stand?
1. Menno Simons, Dat Fundament des Christelycken leers . . . 1539 “We are informed by those who know history that baptism and the time of its administration was changed. In the beginning of the holy commune, people were baptized in ordinary water. They were baptized as soon as they professed the faith and on the confession of their faith, according to the writings. Afterward a change was made. Church leaders began to examine people seven times before baptizing them. After that they were baptized only at two special times, at Easter and Pentecost.”
2. Peter Hoover, The Secret of the Strength, chapter 12 “On to Commitment”
3. Peter Hover, The Secret of the Strength, chapter 11 “On to Baptism”
4. Peter Hoover, The Secret of the Strength, chapter 12 “On to Commitment” In the footnotes (number 3) of this chapter “No Anabaptists held ‘instruction classes’ for converts. Instruction classes for the young people (Jugendunterricht) did not develope until centuries later. Even then they were not intended to be classes for “converts.” Their purpose was to bring young people to conversion and baptism. This is still their stated purpose in Old Order Mennonite churches.”