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The First Pre-Baptists
The first Baptists were not Baptists but Anabaptists. Some Baptist historians disagree because the first Baptist in the modern era was John Smyth, who was baptized in 1609. [I have to add in the modern era because a small group of Baptists believe that Baptists originated with John the Baptist.] But he learned about believer’s baptism—baptism after becoming a Christian—from a group of Anabaptists. But how did the Anabaptists come to the conclusion that people should be baptized after belief in Jesus and not as infants? It came about in the 1500s.
The 1500s was a time when many Catholics broke from the Catholic Church and formed new Christian groups. Led by such men as Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and Henry VIII, these new movements took on different guises as the leaders and subsequent followers developed different ideas of what it meant to be Christian.
Ulrich Zwingli was the head priest in Zurich, Switzerland, and he presided over a city trying to figure out what it meant to be non-Catholic Christian. He had broken with the Catholic Church over issues such as the proper understanding of the bread and wine during the Lord’s Supper and confession to priests. But he did use some practices found in the Catholic Church because he didn’t think them wrong, such as using giving sermons, and baptizing infants.
Zwingli believed in the responsibility of people to read the Bible, and even had a hand in translating the Bible into the local dialect. He led Bible studies with some of the priests under him, and encouraged them to gather together for Bible studies. And while doing so, some of the priests came to the conclusion that baptizing infants was wrong. Instead, these priests believed that the Bible stated that one should believe in Jesus and then be baptized.
The priests debated this among themselves, and eventually they decided to move on their convictions. On the night of January 21, 1525, George Blaurock, Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and others gathered together and the matter of baptism became paramount in their discussion. Then they decided to act: “After the prayer, George Cajacob [also known as Blaurock] 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.”
This first baptism was performed by pouring water from a pitcher on the head of a person, known as affusion. The idea of immersing one under water during baptism did not develop for another 100 years.
Within three months, Grebel and others had baptized over 500 people. They were given the name “Anabaptists” by none other than Ulrich Zwingli, their old boss. When Zwingli learned that a number of people who had been baptized as infants in the Catholic Church were now making a break from not only the Catholic Church but his movement and were being baptized a second time, he considered them re-baptizers, or using the Greek word for “re” which is “ana,” he called them Anabaptists.
He was so angry at them that he led the Zurich council in declaring that anyone who became rebaptized would be put to death. The first Anabaptist martyr was Felix Manz, who had been at that first meeting in January of 1525; he was executed two years later in January of 1527. The method of execution? Drowning.
©2009 Mark Nickens
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©Mark Nickens 2009
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