“What was the early Anabaptist view on pacifism and nonresistance?”
Historically, there have been groups of Christians who have restrained from violence in all its forms (cf. Mt. 5:38-42; Rom. 12:14-21). Perhaps most famously today as far as traditions advocating nonresistance and pacifism are the Mennonites. Of course, Mennonites have their origins in the initial Anabaptist movement of the 16th and 17th centuries. So, it seems natural to assume that the Anabaptists had strong nonresistant leanings as well.
The leaders of the first Anabaptist congregation in Zurich, Conrad Grebel and Felix Mantz were supporters of nonresistance as outlined in the Schleitheim Confession, as evidenced in Grebel’s letter to Thomas Muntzer in 1524. In the letter, Grebel wrote that “The Gospel and its adherents are not to be protected by the Sword, nor are they thus to protect themselves…” (Stayer 20). Grebel went on to write, “Neither do they use worldly Sword or war, since all killing has ceased with them” (Stayer 20). Further, Felix Mantz wrote just before his martyrdom in 1527 that “No Christian should be a government official, nor judge with the Sword, nor kill or punish anyone” (Stayer 21).
However, the earlier Anabaptists did not view pacifisms with the level of dogmatism one would expect until later, after the Schleitheim Confession. It is during this formational period, when Hubmaier was the Anabaptist’s prominent leader and Hans Hut their missionary, that nonresistance was not dogmatized, and at times was non-apparent.
On his missionary journeys, Hans Hut would preach that the return of the Lord was imminent, which would be followed by a judgment consisting of the righteous punishing the unrighteous. This belief led several Anabaptist villages to be involved in peasant uprisings. The departure of these later converts from the founders of the first Anabaptist congregations is no surprise since “Anabaptism was carried underground by exiled believers and wandering tradesmen” (Stayer 21). Indeed, “Grebel and Mantz had neither the inclination nor the means to become high priests in a new church after the manner of Luther or Calvin” (Stayer 21).
The “humble, rank-and-file” Anabaptists early in the movement were not dogmatic in their pacifism. While they strove for peace, they struggled to believe that any form of coercion from a government seeking order was “unchristian and damned” (Stayer 21). Though their reasoning was often inconsistent, they believed that Christians should be government officials, leaving these more ambiguous judgements for God alone to make. As a snapshot of Anabaptist thought in 1526, Anabaptists Junghans Waldshuter and Hans Brubach held that “no government could in Christian conscience kill either thieves or murderers, but should according to the words of Paul put them in prison until they change their ways” (Stayer 22). Thus, Waldshuter and Brubach “raised early protests against capital punishment” (Stayer 22). Notably, Nuremberg humanist school-master turned Anabaptist, Hans Denck famously penned, “To employ force and rule is not permitted to a Christian who wants to glory in his Lord. For the realm of our King exists only in the teaching and power of the spirit” (Stayer 23). This nonresistance led to a myriad of martyrs on the Anabaptist side.
The persecution successfully killed the movements intellectual leaders, and led to a silencing of Christian pacifist dialogue. Unfortunately, now it seems this pacifism is only seen in fringes. Perhaps it is time to rekindle this dialogue.
Stayer, James M. “The Earliest Anabaptists and the Separatist Pacifist Dilemma, Christian Pacifism and the Contemporary Anabaptist Vogue.” Brethren Life and Thought, vol. 10, no. 1, 1965, pp. 17-24.