Last Saturday, January 21, was the 487thanniversary of the first adult baptism, one of the events marking the beginning of the Anabaptist movement. I asked Dr. Lawrence Klippenstein, MHV board member and well-known Mennonite historian, to provide a brief overview of the circumstances surrounding this event. Following is his narrative:
“The jelling of a ‘reformation’ in Switzerland focused on leadership given by a Catholic priest, Ulrich Zwingli, beginning around 1520. After he began to read the New Testament in Greek, he concluded that there were beliefs and practices in his church which he could no longer agree with or support. He challenged the city council to consider changes, but there was reluctance and resistance there.
“Among followers of Zwingli were persons like Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz, as well as some university students, who soon saw that discussions of reform in the Zwingli circle were being checked by city council views, and that Zwingli was beginning to waver in his views for needed changes as a result of this resistance. He would, these radicals realized, stop short of what in their view was really needed to ‘reform’ the Catholic Church.
“One of the issues on which a major controversy emerged was that of baptism. Practice had always been to administer baptism to all infants soon after birth to ensure that membership in the Catholic Church would be firmly in place. The radicals did not find infant baptism supported in the Bible and instead concluded from their study of the original Greek that baptism was meant exclusively for believers who chose voluntarily to join the Christian community on the basis of their expressed faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.
“A crisis point in this debate was reached when the city council formally declared itself as in support of infant baptism and decreed that this form must be retained for all new-born children. At the same time, it forbade the meeting of groups supporting believers’ baptism which the radicals had continued to call for. Opponents of infant baptism who did not reside in Zurich were expelled from the city. It was now illegal to refuse baptism of infants in the area.
“In this context, it was therefore illegal for the radicals still residing in Zurich to meet to consider anything other than infant baptism. It happened nevertheless. On January 21, 1525 (generally believed), a group gathered in the house of Anna Manz, the mother of Felix, in the Neustadtgasse to discuss what course of action was called for as the appropriate response to the city’s anti-believers’ baptism decree.
“During this gathering George Blaurock, a co-leader of the movement, asked for baptism from Conrad Grebel, who was heading up the group. Grebel agreed to do so. Blaurock then baptized others in the group who requested it. The size of the group is not known, hence it is not clear how many persons accepted baptism on this occasion. It has come to be seen as the formal beginning of a distinctive new group of believers, soon to be referred to as the Anabaptist Movement. Members of the group at that time originally identified themselves simply as Swiss Brethren.
"Conrad Grebel moved on quickly to baptize other believers (the majority of adults, in fact) who sought the new (but held to be biblical) form of baptism, notably in the nearby town of Zollikon. In fact, this town then became the location of the first Anabaptist congregation, started already in 1525. Manz, Blaurock, Grebel and others spent the months after January, 1525, preaching in the regions outside the boundaries of Zurich, baptizing believers as they went. The movement spread quickly beyond Zurich and Zollikon to become a mass phenomenon which would arouse the authorities and lead to persecution in short order.”