A dry wind howls out of the Sierra Madre on Pfingsten, the day of Pentecost, when Old Colony Mennonites get baptized. On this day the churches will be full. Horses and wagons, like columns of ants on dirt trails ruler-straight across the vast drought-scorched plateau, move toward the churches: Kronsgart, Gnadenfeld, Neuhoffnung, Rosental. . . . The sun shines weakly in a pale blue sky through the dust that already blurs the shapes of surrounding mountain ranges. This is the day Justina Wall will be baptized -- "join church" in Old Colony Mennonite language -- and commit herself for life to the church from which, if she ever leaves, she will lose her claim to the grace of God.1
I started school with Justina back in Canada. She was a quiet, sensible girl. Now she is in her twenties and I still respect her. But someone remarks, before the converts (dressed in black) file into the stark auditorium: "I wonder why Justina is getting baptized. She does not have a boyfriend yet."
Justina Wall's Anabaptist forefathers came from the Netherlands. They did not get baptized on Pfingsten. They could not have pictured Mennonite villages on the Mexican plateau, nor the church to which she committed herself for life. But Justina's ancestors would have known that one does not get baptized to marry.
Conrad Grebel wrote:
We clearly see what baptism is and when it shall be practiced. People are to be baptized when they are converted through God's Word, when their hearts are changed and they desire to live a new life (Rom. 6).2
Within a few days of the first baptisms in Felix Manz' home at Zürich in Switzerland, in 1525, dozens of baptisms had taken place in the city and surrounding countryside. Within a matter of months, dozens of baptized converts were baptizing hundreds and thousands more in the German cantons of Switzerland, in Austria, in Bavaria, in Württemberg, Ansbach, Saxony, Thüringen, Hesse, the Kurpfalz and down the Rhine into the Netherlands and Belgium.
Baptism followed teaching. But because they tied faith, repentance and baptism together, the Anabaptists did not consider postponing one of the three. They did not wait to baptize until a convenient time after the new birth took place. There was no convenient time. They baptized at once, because they believed that baptism is the outer testimony of the new birth itself.
They desired baptism even though they knew it would cost them their lives.
The water of baptism did not create the urgency. The urgency was commitment. Because baptism is the act of committing oneself to Christ, the Anabaptists believed it should take place while the convert is still in the glow of his "first love." Commitment at conversion is "striking while the iron is hot."
When adults repented and believed, the Anabaptists gave instructions for perhaps several hours, or in some cases several days. But most people repented during the meetings in which they received the seal of water baptism at the end.3
One day down at the Jordan River, "when all the people were being baptized" Christ came to John. "Baptize me," he said.
John hesitated. "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?"
"Let it be so now," replied Jesus. "It is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righeousness." Then John took him at once into the river and baptized him.
This example, along with the examples of spontaneous baptisms recorded in the book of Acts, left the Anabaptists with no question about the time to baptize. Baptism was to be administered upon request -- immediately -- unless there was a valid reason to wait. Menno Simons explained how this practise was changed by the church of the Dark Ages:
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.4
Hans Hut traveled throughout southern Germany and Austria, preaching at every opportunity. He called men to follow Christ and gave them this charge: "Go out into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature. He who believes the Gospel and is baptized will be saved, and this is saving baptism (die seligmachende Taufe): to endure anxiety, necessity, sorrow, and all manner of trouble for Christ."
Those he saw as likely canditates, Hans Hut ordained, after baptism, to be messengers of the Gospel. He sent them out, young, unmarried men, to preach and baptize. Many of them promptly met torture and death. Leonhard Schiemer, Hans Schlaffer, Ambrosius Spittelmayr, and other writers quoted in this book were among them.
Eucharius Binder, baptized and ordained by Hans Hut at Königsberg in Franconia in 1526, traveled at once through Nürnberg and Augsburg to Steyr in Austria, baptizing hundreds of people along the way. The following year they caught him at Salzburg and locked him in a house with thirty-seven other Anabaptists. The authorities then set the house on fire and all of the prisoners perished in the flames.
Leonhard Dorfbrunner baptized more than three thousand people in less than a year's time after his conversion. Many young men like him traveled from city to city and from house to house, meeting with those who longed to follow Christ.
Usually the service began with the reading of a passage from the New Testament and ended with the baptism of such as desired it, and with a general participation in the Lord's supper. Baptisms took place at any time and at any place, in the morning or in the evening, in the house or at the stream. The water was the symbol of the washing of repentance and the putting off of sin, the outward sign of the decisive entrance into a new and holy life. He who received it was henceforth no longer the master of his own life, but a servant of Jesus Christ, ready to do his will at whatever cost.5
In the Netherlands and northern Germany, spontaneous baptisms caused new congregations to spring up, as one historian put it, "like mushrooms."6 Many Anabaptists testified on arrest that they did not know who baptized them. Those who baptized avoided revealing their names, and those who believed avoided it too, for safety's sake. But a few men like Leenaerdt Boewens kept numerical records. For thirty years he baptized, on the average, more than three hundred people a year.
The Anabaptists asked people to wait for baptism only when they found the "document" to which the seal was to be applied incomplete.
In a letter "written in the dark with poor materials" in the dungeon of the castle at Gent in Belgium, Jannijn Buitkijns, burned at the stake on July 9, 1551, tells of nine other Anabaptists who were interrogated with him. One of them was an adolescent boy.
The boy confessed that he thought the baptism of believers was right and good. He had gone to the teacher once to be baptized, but he was not baptized yet.
"Why did the teacher not baptize you?" the interrogator asked.
The boy answered, "My lords, when the teacher explained the faith to me and asked me questions, he noticed that I was still immature in my understanding. He told me to go and search the holy writings some more. But I wanted to be baptized. The teacher then asked me whether I knew that the world puts to death and burns those who are baptized. I told him that I knew that well. Then he said to me that I should be patient until he came the next time. He told me that I should search the holy writings and ask the Lord for wisdom because I am still so young. Then we parted."
"Are you sorry that you did not get baptized?" asked the interrogator.
"Yes, my lords."
"If you were not imprisoned would you be baptized?"
"Yes, my lords."
For these words they sentenced him to death, and Jannijn did not see him again.7
Lauwerens van der Leyen, imprisoned at Antwerp in 1559, faced the question: "Are you baptized?"
Lauwerens answered: "No."
"Is baptism necessary then," the interrogator asked.
"Yes," said Lauwerens. "It is necessary for perfection."
"Why then are you not baptized?" asked the interrogator.
"I was not good enough yet."
"Because I was involved too much in this world. I was, and still am, deeply in debt. I thought that if I were caught, people could say I was a hypocrite. Many could be turned away from the truth. Therefore I declined to receive baptism. But I consider it good and right and I want to live and die in this belief. Though I have not yet become baptized, the Lord in his mercy will save me because of his sufferings and precious blood. I believe all that a Christian is bound to believe, and I will stand firm in it. You may do further with me as you please for I am in your power."
They beheaded Lauwerens at Antwerp in Belgium on November 9, 1559.8
Exceptions to the rule were common in the sixteenth century. Some believers fell into the hands of the authorities before they got baptized. Some, arrested during meetings, became believers during arrest or in prison. Some missed baptism for other reasons. But the question of their salvation did not become an issue. The Anabaptists had no doubts about God's mercy on the faithful.
Roman Catholic and Protestant authorities often tried to rescue Anabaptist children from their "heretic" parents to baptize them. They accused the Anabaptists of murdering infants' souls. But the Anabaptists, resting on the Word of God, did not worry. Conrad Grebel wrote:
All children that have not come to know the difference between good and evil, who have not eaten from the tree of knowledge, are surely safe through the work of Christ.9
Menno Simons wrote:
Little children, especially those born in Christian homes, have a special promise. It is a promise given to them by God with no rites involved. It comes to them through pure and abundant grace, through Christ who says: "Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." This promise makes glad and assures all the saints about their children.
Christian parents have in their hearts a sure faith in the grace of God concerning their beloved children. They believe that their children are sons and daughters of the kingdom. They believe that their children are under grace and have the promise of eternal life, not by any ceremony, but through Christ. As long as they are mere children they are clean, holy, saved, and pleasing unto God, be they alive or dead.
Christian parents thank God for his love to their children, so they train their children in godly ways. They correct, chastise, teach, and admonish them. They exemplify to them the irreproachable life until the children are able to hear the Word for themselves, to believe it and obey it. Then is the time, and not until then, that they should receive Christian baptism as Christ and the apostles practiced and taught. . . .
If children die before coming to the age when they can decide between good and evil, before they have come to years of understanding and before they have faith, they die under the promise of God and that by no other means than the generous promise of grace given through Christ Jesus (Luke 18:16). If they come to the age where they can decide for themselves and have faith, then they should be baptized. But if they do not accept or believe the Word when they arrive at that age, no matter whether they are baptized or not, they will be damned, as Christ himself teaches (Mark 16:16).10
"Simia semper manet simia, etiamsi induatur purpura (a monkey stays a monkey even though you dress him in purple)," wrote Menno Simons. "In the same manner infant baptism will remain a horrid stench and abomination before God, no matter how finely the learned ones adorn it with garbled passages from the holy writings."11
Then, in a more serious tone he added:
Because true Christian baptism involves such great promises, among them the promise of remission of sins (Acts 2:38, Mark 16:16, 1 Cor. 12:13, 1 Peter 3:21, Eph. 4:5), some would like to baptize their children. But they fail to notice that the above promises are given only to those who believe and obey the Word of God.12
Conrad Grebel wrote:
The baptized are dead to the old life and circumcised in their hearts. They have died to sin with Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and arisen with him. . . . To apply such things to children is without and against the writings.13
Who Shall Baptize?
Even though they baptized spontaneously, the Anabaptists usually waited until the brotherhood sent them out before they baptized others. Peter Rideman wrote:
It is not for anyone to take upon himself the responsibility of teaching and baptizing. James says: "Dear brothers, do not all strive to be a teacher. . . . " For this reason no one should take upon himself or accept such a responsibility unless he has been properly chosen by God in his commune.14
The Mode of Baptism
The Anabapists did not write about the mode of baptism. They baptized by pouring or immersion, in rivers or ponds, or in the houses, barns, caves, mills, or forests where they had their services. Shortly before Conrad Grebel baptized Wolf Ulimann in the Rhine River, Felix Manz baptized Hans Bruggbach in a house at Zürich in Switzerland. This is the account:
After Hans confessed his sins and requested baptism Georg Cajacob (Blaurock) asked him, "Do you desire baptism?"
Hans replied, "Yes."
Then Felix Manz asked, "Who will forbid me that I should baptize him?"
"No one," answered Georg.
Then Felix Manz took a metal dipper (of the kind commonly found in Swiss kitchens) and poured water over Hans' head saying: "I baptize you in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit."15
The Anabaptists saw no conflict between baptizing by either pouring or by immersion. Menno Simons, who no doubt baptized mostly by pouring, freely spoke of "burial in baptism." Conrad Grebel, who baptized by immersion after the example of Christ and the apostles, wrote about the apostles themselves:
After that, they were poured over with water. Just as they were cleansed within by the coming the Holy Spirit, so they were poured over with water, externally, to signify the inner cleansing and dying to sin.16
Christ is the head of the body of believers. The Anabaptists believed that in water baptism we become members of that body. They called it an Einverleibung, literally a going into and connecting onto a body, or a growing into each other. That body, they believed, is one, glorious, universal body consisting of all those who have committed themselves -- unconditionally -- to Christ, the head.
An Ausbund writer wrote:
Those of us who have been washed with the blood of Christ and made free from sin, are tied together in our hearts. We now walk in the Spirit who shows us the right way and who rules in us. The Spirit rules in our sinful bodies, that are now dead. And in Christ we become members of his body (eingeleibt), and buried with him through baptism in his death. Now we live for him and keep his commandments.17
Menno Simons wrote:
Those who hear and believe the Word of God are baptized into the body. They have a good conscience. They receive remission of sins, they put on Christ and become members of the most holy body of Jesus Christ. . . . All who hear the Gospel and believe in it, all those who are made alive by the Holy Spirit within them, no matter of what nationality or speech they are, Frisians, or Hollanders, Germans, Belgians, Jews, Gentiles, men or women, all are baptized into one spiritual body of which Christ is the head -- that is, they are baptized into the Lord's commune (Col. 1:18).18
Felix Manz, before they drowned him at Zürich in 1525, said to the Protestant court:
Those who desire to follow Christ's example and to be obedient to his Word unite themselves in baptism.19
Jakob van der Wege, burned at the stake at Gent in Belgium in 1573, wrote to his wife from prison:
The apostles first taught, then they baptized all those who feared God. Those who believed in the Son of God received baptism for a burial of sin and a washing of the new birth. . . . And through baptism they entered and became one with the body of Christ, for by one Spirit we are all baptized into one body.20
Noah's Ark and the Lord's Commune
The story of the flood held symbolic significance for the Anabaptists. Noah was Christ. The ark was Christ's commune, and the door into it was baptism. Jakob de Keersgieter, burned at the stake at Brugge in Belgium wrote:
Baptism must be received upon faith for a burial of sin, a washing of regeneration, a covenant of the Christian life, and a putting on of the body of Christ. It is an ingrafting into the true olive tree and vine of Christ, an entrance into the spiritual ark of Noah, which belongs to Christ.21
After baptism the Anabaptists found themselves within the body of Christ, breaking bread together and sharing their material things. Whoever took part in the life of the body showed himself to be a member of it, but beyond this, "church membership," in the beginning, did not exist.
Thousands of converts were baptized into the Anabaptist movement at meetings among people they never saw again. The believers (above all, the servants and messengers) moved about continually, and congregations that numbered several hundred people at one meeting might well number fifty or less in the next -- and vice versa. Only in Moravia, at the beginning, did congregations become stable units. There they lived on the Bruderhöfe (communal dwelling places, usually in rented houses in town) but their teaching on baptism remained the same. Messengers from the Bruderhöfe still baptized converts spontaneously wherever they traveled, and only those who decided to move to Moravia actually became part of the settled congregations there.
Grown into each other through baptism into the body of Christ, the Anabaptists called one another Bundesgenossen (companions of the covenant). To this teaching, Martin Luther and the translators of the first Dutch (Biestkens) Bible made a contribution. They translated 1 Peter 3:20-21 like this: "A few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also -- not the removal of dirt from the body but the covenant of a good conscience with God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ."
Baptism as a covenant brought the Anabaptists into a Bundesvereinigung (covenant society) that led them to say like Jakob Kautz and Wilhelm Reublin in a letter to the town council of Strasbourg in 1529:
When the merciful God called us by his grace to marvelous light, we did not reject the heavenly message but made a covenant with God in our hearts to serve him in holiness all our days. . . . Then we reported our purpose to the companions of the covenant.
Pilgram Marpeck, an Austrian mining engineer who became a servant of the Word in southern Germany wrote a book which he addressed to the "Christian Bundesvereinigung (covenant society) of all true believers."
Menno Simons addressed his first Anabaptist writing to "all true covenant companions scattered abroad."
Unconditional commitment to Christ the head results in unconditional loyalty from the members of his body.
Individually loyal to Christ the head, the Anabaptists found themselves loyal one to another in the body of Christ. Apart from that they knew no loyalty.
In a letter to me, a friend once mentioned "the Anabaptist emphasis on corporate discipleship" as the "centrepiece of our great heritage." He was partially correct. The Anabaptists spoke of corporate discipleship, but they emphasized Christ. Christ was the centrepiece.
The Anabaptists were loyal only to Christ, and out of that naturally grew corporate discipleship and loyalty one to another.
The Anabaptists did not write about loyalty to the church, loyalty to the brotherhood, or loyalty to God-ordained leaders. They did not make two commitments, one to the head and one to the body. Their unconditional commitment to Christ made all other commitments conditional.
The oneness, the love and the community that resulted from the Anabaptists' commitment to the Word of Christ (the Gospels), to the Spirit of Christ (conviction), and to the body of Christ wherever it followed Christ the head, made their enemies suspicious. The Catholics and Protestants began to suspect that the Anabaptists had sworn themselves to one another with some secret and terrible oath. But when questioned about this, Ambrosius Spittelmayr said:
I know of no other commitment we make to one another than the covenant we make in baptism. . . . We bind ourselves to God and become one with him in love, in spirit, in faith, and in baptism. At the same time God binds himself to us and promises to stay with us through our times of anxiety.22
Married to Christ
Loyal to Christ, the Anabaptists spoke of being "married" to him." At baptism they committed themselves not to a denomination but to Christ -- like a bride commits herself to the groom. Wherever their fellow believers followed Christ, they were committed to supporting them. Wherever they did not, they were committed to oppose them.
Hans Betz wrote:
Faith comes from hearing Christian preaching, then when a person believes, he must be baptized. Baptism in Christ is the covenant of a good conscience. . . . the promise to live from this point onward in the will of God. We make a promise to God in baptism that we are bound to keep. Like a wife is subject to her husband here on the earth, so we become subject to Christ when we marry him in baptism.23
The "rose red blood of Christ" was unspeakably precious to the Anabaptists. It released them from the debt of sin that they could not possibly have paid. But logic told them that Christ who bought their debt had the right of claiming them as his bond servants. This commitment to Christ led them . . .
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