new Mennonite Life logo    September 2006     vol. 61 no. 3     Back to Table of Contents

Historical Background of the Condemnations of Anabaptists in the Lutheran Confessional Writings

by Whitney Furmanski

Whitney Furmanski received an MA from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.


Representatives from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Mennonite Church USA (MCUSA) met for ecumenical conversations between February 2002 and March 2004. These conversations began to address the issue of the condemnations of Anabaptists, the theological tradition from which Mennonites claim descent, contained in the Lutheran confessions. The ELCA team concluded in a proposed "Declaration of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to the Churches of the Anabaptist Tradition" that "most of these condemnations are in fact based upon erroneous judgments about what sixteenth-century Anabaptists believed and practiced"(1) and are not valid in application to the Mennonite Church USA.

The ELCA team came to the right decision for the wrong reason. The problem with the statement is that it does not take into consideration the vast diversity of those who were called Anabaptists in the sixteenth century. Sixteenth-century Lutherans typically used the term Anabaptist to indicate all those groups whom they might also have called religious fanatics, enthusiasts, or revolutionaries. The assortment of Christians whom Lutherans included under this label was by no means a unified theological movement.

Naturally, modern Mennonites do not claim to be the theological heirs of every group that was ever called Anabaptist. Rather, when Mennonites speak of their origins in the sixteenth century, they identify strongly with certain Anabaptists of that period and not at all with others. If the condemnations and accompanying accusations in the Lutheran confessional documents were meant to describe only the sixteenth-century Anabaptists with whom modern Mennonites identify, the theological ancestors of the Mennonite Church USA, many of them would in fact be erroneous judgments as the proposed ELCA statement declared. But the Lutherans who wrote those condemnations were referring not just to the theological ancestors of the Mennonites but to all the groups they believed to be more radical than their own when they used the term Anabaptist. Because so many different and even incongruous groups were thrust into that category, most of the condemnations in the Lutheran confessional documents may accurately describe at least one of the groups that were called Anabaptist. This knowledge is not limited to professional scholars; it is available to anyone who has read a history of the Radical Reformation, and also to many Lutheran laypersons who have learned from sermons and adult church classes how such events as the Peasants' Revolt altered Luther's theology.

Thus it is neither correct nor helpful to say that most of the condemnations of Anabaptists in the Lutheran confessional writings are based on erroneous judgments about sixteenth-century Anabaptists. This statement will lead many Lutheran and Mennonite theologians and laypersons to read the ELCA's proposed declaration as dismissive of history and therefore less credible. It would have been both more accurate and more conducive to the ecumenical process for the statement to say instead that most of the condemnations do not describe the faith and practice of the particular sixteenth-century Anabaptists from whom modern Mennonites claim descent, the sixteenth-century groups who, in retrospect, can be considered part of the Mennonite tradition.

Lutheran Writings Against Anabaptists

Sixteenth-century Lutherans, including Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon, failed to distinguish the theological ancestors of the Mennonites from the other groups more radical than their own; rather, they used the term Anabaptist to describe them collectively, and then attributed characteristics of parts of this artificial category to the whole. The negative judgments that Luther and Melanchthon made outside the confessional documents are essential to Lutheran-Mennonite dialogue because they demonstrate how Luther and Melanchthon confused the Mennonites' ancestors with other groups, and later incorporated this confusion into the confessional documents. Their unsympathetic portrayals stem partly from the fact that they, like all outsiders, lacked information about the various groups, and partly from their desire to distance themselves from what they believed were the more dangerous forms of the Reformation.(2)

The first reason for the Lutherans' negative judgments of Anabaptists, their lack of accurate information on sixteenth-century Anabaptist theology, resulted from the fact that Anabaptists did not write or speak their beliefs as publicly as the Lutherans did. This was partly because Anabaptists tended to downplay the importance of right doctrine in favor of right practice. The simplest possible interpretation of scripture was to be preferred;(3) therefore producing a systematic theology was not one of their priorities. In addition, most Anabaptists were working people, without theological training, and although they understood their own faith, they lacked the literary skill to expound it in the style of professional theologians. Most of their leaders who were educated and could have become theologians were instead made either martyrs or lifelong refugees.(4)

Finally, it was difficult for Anabaptists to proclaim their faith in any public forum because, beginning in the 1520s, European governments outlawed Anabaptism. In some regions, even listening to Anabaptist preaching was a crime, so Anabaptists could never publish writings, hold disputations, or give sermons in public without risking getting caught, jailed, and often tortured or executed. Instead, sixteenth-century Anabaptists usually communicated their beliefs orally and in secret,(5) which means that their teachings were not available to the Lutherans. Today it is necessary for historians to examine dozens of debate transcripts, court records, letters, and other writings from the sixteenth century to distinguish one school of Anabaptist thought from another and get a general sense of what the groups believed.(6)

Luther regretted that he did not know enough about Anabaptist doctrine to properly refute it. In 1528, when most of the early Anabaptist leaders from Switzerland and Germany were dead, he was still trying to bait the Anabaptists, hoping that his writings against them would anger them enough to respond, so that he could learn of their doctrine.(7) Apparently he did not understand that their situation made it impossible for them to articulate their beliefs in written form. Instead he suspected that the reason why they were trying to hide their beliefs was because they were seditious and sent by the devil. The fact that they snuck around and kept their beliefs hidden was proof enough for Luther that they were "the devil's messengers and teachers," even if their teaching had been irreproachable.(8)

A second reason that the Lutheran reformers did not distinguish among the groups they called Anabaptist was that the Lutherans cared more about discrediting the Anabaptists and demonstrating that Lutherans were not like them than about understanding the Anabaptists. Luther, for example, perceived Anabaptism as a threat to his own reformation. He was constantly fighting to defend and define his movement on two fronts: not only against the church at Rome, but also against the Protestants outside the state churches who wanted to take his ideas to extremes.(9) He called this latter group the Schwärmer, meaning the swarmers, the enthusiasts or fanatics.

The first Schwärmer were the Zwickau Prophets, who taught that God spoke to people directly through visions, rather than through the church or through Scripture. In contrast to both Lutherans and Anabaptists, they believed that baptism at any age was unnecessary. In early 1522, they traveled to Wittenberg, where Luther met with each of the three prophets before dismissing them as demonically inspired.(10)

Around the same time, Andreas Karlstadt, who had been a professor at Wittenberg and a follower of Luther, developed a more radical theology and was classified by Luther as one of the Schwärmer. The later Karlstadt had much in common with some of the Anabaptists who are now considered Mennonite forebears:(11) he believed that grace would enable believers to turn away from sin and lead a life of obedience to and imitation of Christ,(12) rejected the swearing of oaths, understood the Lord's Supper as a memorial,(13) and envisioned the church as a separate community of the reborn that did not include all members of society.(14)

Then came the Peasants' Revolt of 1524 and 1525, spurred on by the preaching of Thomas Müntzer, who had also been a Lutheran previously. To Luther's dismay, the peasants claimed to be inspired by Luther and his talk about Christian freedom, and sent him a confession of their faith, arguing that they found support for their rebellion in Scripture.(15) Horrified, Luther rejected both their violence and their confession and concluded that they had been inspired by the devil to overthrow civil government and destroy the Word of God.(16)

Ten years later, the militant Anabaptist takeover of Münster was easily associated in Lutheran minds with the Peasants' Revolt: both drew support mainly from the lower classes, both incorporated millenarian and anti-establishment teachings, both were stirred up by fiery radical preachers, and both were crushed violently by the elite.(17) Most disturbingly, both had remote but real connections to Lutheranism in the personal histories of their inspirational figures, Thomas Müntzer and Melchior Hoffman. These two revolts terrified Luther, who wanted nothing to do with revolutionary violence. After each revolt, the reputation of these most radical, most dangerous groups spread to all Anabaptists. Many ordinary Germans suspected all Anabaptist groups, no matter how peaceful, of plotting similar violent uprisings.(18) Luther personally came to fear and distrust all who encouraged reforms more radical than his, and to associate Anabaptists with the Schwärmer.

In spite of his confident writings against them, Luther was worried by the popularity of the Schwärmer and their attacks against him.(19) He feared their power to incite people to violence and wrote that the devil's intention in sending the Anabaptists to sneak around spreading dissatisfaction with the officially ordained parish pastors was "to create rebellion and murder (even if for a while he carries on peacefully)."(20) This fear of heterodoxy leading inevitably to violence is a likely reason why Luther was so ready to lump the Anabaptists in with the Schwärmer even when writing about their theology.

Although he mentioned Anabaptists many times in letters and sermons, he took their teachings for his chief subject in only one tract, Von der Widertauffe or "Concerning Rebaptism,"(21) written in 1528. Luther had not yet settled on the death penalty as the appropriate response to Anabaptists,(22) and he focuses on helping his audience of pastors prepare theological arguments against them. Thus he devotes much more time here than in any other work to defending infant baptism against what he has heard are the Anabaptist criticisms against it. At the same time he freely admits that he does not know enough about what the Anabaptists really teach to develop a thorough refutation.(23)

In this tract that was intended to attack the Anabaptists, Luther sometimes seems to be describing the groups he knew as the Schwärmer more accurately than any group of Mennonite precursors. He calls the Anabaptists by the same epithet, Schwärmer,(24) and his arguments suggest that he had the Schwärmer in mind. For example, one of his main complaints is that Anabaptists are overly subjective because they treat baptism as though it were based on human emotion and experience rather than on the scriptural commands of God.(25) This accusation is a surprising choice if Luther is referring to the Mennonites' forebears, because they were known for taking Scripture literally,(26) especially when it came to the commands of God about how people were to behave. In fact, they commonly complained that Luther twisted the simple words of scripture to mean whatever he wanted.

Luther's strong biblicist attitude in this tract and his emphasis on the commands of God seem out of place as a reaction against any Anabaptists with whom modern Mennonites identify, but seem more appropriate if they were aimed at the radicals with whom he had more experience. By 1528, when Von der Widertauffe was written, Karlstadt had begun to preach that baptism did not convey grace to its recipients,(27) although he did not abandon infant baptism, and, in an interview with Luther, Nicholas Storch of Zwickau had laughed at the idea that water could have any spiritual effect on a person.(28)

Luther also accused the Anabaptists of teaching that Christians must leave their families and property behind to become wandering preachers, reject society, and "go to heaven altogether alone."(29) Yet most Anabaptists, especially those with whom modern Mennonites identify, did not willingly give up the things and people they loved most. Although they expected to be deprived of their earthly treasures in imitation of Christ's suffering at the hands of the worldly powers, most conducted their worship, teaching, and evangelism in secret to avoid losing them. When they were caught, however, they were often exiled from their home cities and forced to abandon their property. Perhaps Luther was thinking of this pattern of forced deprivation when he made his claim that Anabaptists required themselves to give up their property. Alternatively, he could have been thinking of some of the Schwärmer, like Karlstadt, and Nicholas Storch of the Zwickau Prophets, who did give up a settled life to become wandering preachers.(30) Perhaps he confused their voluntary renunciation of a permanent home and property with many Anabaptists' involuntary loss of their homes and property.

Philip Melanchthon was one of Luther's most trusted colleagues, and the primary author of the Augsburg Confession, the most authoritative of the sixteenth-century Lutheran confessional documents, which contains several condemnations of Anabaptists. Two years before the Augsburg Confession, he wrote a pamphlet called "Against the Anabaptists," in which his purpose was to warn unsuspecting Christians against falling prey to the diabolical arguments of the Anabaptists.(31) He was alarmed at what he had heard of the Anabaptist insistence on mandatory rejection of private property in favor of a community of goods, their refusal to obey any civil authority, and their rejection of the death penalty as a legitimate power of the state.(32) Like Luther, he feared the Anabaptists would start another Peasants' Revolt, although they pretended to be meek and peaceful to fool the civil authorities.(33)

In 1535, Melanchthon helped to interrogate several Anabaptist prisoners. One of his aims was to see whether these Thuringian Anabaptists agreed with the practices of the Anabaptists at Münster, who had been defeated only about six months earlier. This shows that he was concerned that Anabaptism in central Germany would lead in the direction of a similar violent revolution. The prisoners' testimonies helped Melanchthon learn more about Anabaptists than he had known previously, although it appears that he still came away with an impression of the central tenets of Anabaptism that was less than completely accurate. In a declaration issued the next year by the elector of Saxony and authored by Melanchthon, the most characteristic beliefs of Anabaptists were listed as the rejection of government office, the refusal to serve any human master, the rejection of oaths, enforced community of goods, the desertion of non-Anabaptist spouses, and a false understanding of original sin and baptism.(34) While some of these beliefs were actually held by many Anabaptists, especially that Christians should not hold government office or swear certain kinds of oaths, the complete list portrays them as rebellious subjects and is probably not how the prisoners would have described their own faith. The reason for this mischaracterization may have been that Melanchthon only asked questions that were aimed at getting to the bottom of rumors he had heard, or questions about their views on government and society, instead of asking the Anabaptists to explain their faith in their own words.

The writings of Luther and Melanchthon about the Anabaptists reveal that neither author understood Anabaptist beliefs or the distinctions among Anabaptist groups well enough to explain these matters, much less to pass judgment on them. They failed to understand Anabaptism because they lacked information on the movement and because their suspicion that radical reform would lead to the overthrow of society predisposed them to despise it.

Condemnations of Anabaptists in the Lutheran Confessional Writings

The Augsburg Confession was written by Melanchthon to be read before the emperor, in order to demonstrate that the Lutheran movement should be tolerated because it was in keeping with the apostolic tradition. A few months earlier, the Roman Catholic theologian Johann Eck had attacked Luther and Melanchthon in his 404 Articles by listing their beliefs mingled indiscriminately with the beliefs of other non-Roman theologians.(35) Eck included statements that he himself attributed to reformers like Zwingli, Oecolampadius, Bucer, Karlstadt, and others with whom Luther and Melanchthon did not always agree, not to mention Balthasar Hubmaier, Hans Denck, and unnamed "Anabaptists."(36) This failure to distinguish between Lutherans and other kinds of reformers implies that all Christians not allied with Rome exhibit the same brand of theological error and seditious radicalism, the only difference among them being the degree to which they have sunk in it.

The Augsburg Confession was Melanchthon's chance to strike back against these accusations and defend Lutheranism as a peaceful and orthodox movement. He needed to distinguish the Lutheran movement from the more radical movements that had produced the Peasants' Revolt, anti-government preaching, and other dangerous trends carefully spelled out in the 404 Articles. This is why Melanchthon went out of his way to differentiate between the teachings of Lutherans and the alleged teachings of Anabaptists.

Some of the non-catholic beliefs that Melanchthon attributes to Anabaptists in the Augsburg Confession are very similar to the non-catholic beliefs that Eck associates with Luther and Melanchthon. The errors that Eck reports include the belief that "infants should not be baptized;"(37) the Augsburg Confession counters by rejecting "the Anabaptists who teach that the baptism of children is not right."(38) Eck lists the beliefs that "Christians are free [and] exempt from the laws of all people,"(39) that "Christians are not allowed to swear an oath for any reason,"(40) and that "holding all things in common is commanded in the New Testament."(41) The Augsburg Confession asserts the contrary, that "laws… are created and instituted by God and that Christians may without sin… take required oaths [and] possess property," and condemns the Anabaptists who teach that these things are forbidden to Christians.(42) Eck lists the belief that "the damned will have a second chance to be saved;"(43) the Augsburg Confession rejects the Anabaptists who teach that "condemned human beings will not suffer eternal torture and torment."(44)

The role of the Anabaptists in the Augsburg Confession is mainly to represent false beliefs so that the Lutherans can refute them, to exemplify what Lutherans do not believe, so that the Lutherans can defend themselves against accusations like Eck's. This is demonstrated not only by the above evidence for the motivations that drove Melanchthon to write the Augsburg Confession, but also by the fact that the Augsburg Confession discusses Anabaptist ideas only insofar as they are the opposites of Lutheran ideas. No attempt is made to distinguish among different groups of Anabaptists, or to provide a summary of Anabaptist theology before refuting it. These condemnations were meant to change the way the emperor, princes, and Roman churchmen thought about Lutherans, not to change the way they thought about Anabaptists.

The Formula of Concord was written in the 1570s, after Luther and Melanchthon had died. At the end of the document the authors turned their attention away from the issues dividing Lutherans among themselves to distance themselves from "the errors of such heretical groups and sects" as the Anabaptists. They noted that Anabaptists and other groups had frequently made great progress in regions where Lutheran pastors were not available or able to proclaim the gospel rightly, so that the simple people had leapt at the first new movement to appear calling itself the gospel.(45) A wide variety of teachings had gained popularity this way, and as a result, the Lutherans' opponents were claiming that no two Lutheran preachers could agree, although all claimed to preach the gospel.(46) To prove their opponents wrong, the authors of the Formula of Concord now listed "the erroneous articles of the Anabaptists" and other groups who had never been part of the Lutheran movement and had never been united under the Augsburg Confession, so that no one would mistake or intentionally confuse Anabaptism and other such movements for the true gospel as proclaimed by the Lutherans.

As the most recent editors of the Book of Concord point out,(47) the authors of the Epitome of the Formula of Concord(48) grouped the errors of the Anabaptists into three categories, corresponding to the three estates in medieval society: the church, the government, and the domestic sphere. The errors were grouped according to the estate whose established authority they contradicted; the reason for this was to demonstrate that Anabaptists, unlike Lutherans, were a threat to all three estates, and thus to the whole of European society.

Beliefs of Sixteenth-Century Anabaptists

Although sixteenth-century Lutherans did not distinguish among the various groups of Anabaptists in the confessional writings, it is important for modern Lutherans and Mennonites to distinguish among them in order to know whether the condemnations in the confessions are referring to the theological ancestors of American Mennonites. This section will present two sample issues over which the Lutherans condemned the Anabaptists, allowing the sixteenth-century Mennonite ancestors to speak for themselves on each issue through primary sources.

First, the Lutheran reformers believed that all people were born in sin, that is, without the ability to fear and trust God rightly. They saw the denial of original sin in children as an insult to Christ, because it meant that Christ could do nothing for children.(49) Therefore they found it intolerable when they heard that Anabaptists taught "that children who are not baptized are not sinners in God's sight but instead are righteous and innocent"(50) and "that the children of Christians, because they are born to Christian and believing parents, are holy without and before baptism."(51) What did the theological ancestors of the Mennonites actually believe about original sin?

Menno Simons and Dirk Philips taught that original sin existed but that it was not counted against children.(52) All people were "born of unclean seed" as a result of the fall of Adam, and all are helped and forgiven through the blood of Christ when they believe the promises of God, according to Menno.(53) But to children, who cannot believe the promises of God, "sin is for Jesus's sake not imputed."(54) Children are included in God's promise of eternal life simply by grace,(55) so that all children who die before they reach the age of understanding are saved through the death of Christ, regardless of whether their parents were Christians.(56)

Melchior Rink, the central German Anabaptist leader, also believed that infants were born with original sin, but that it had no power to condemn an infant until he learned right from wrong and sinned knowingly.(57) This was because Rink understood original sin as an innate desire to sin that could lead people into actions which would condemn them,(58) while his Lutheran contemporaries believed original sin was a state of failing to rightly love and trust God, in which people were condemned regardless of their actions. According to Rink's interpretation, then, original sin could not condemn an infant until he was old enough to commit a sinful act knowingly.

Pilgram Marpeck seems to have believed that original sin existed and was inherited by all people from Adam and Eve, but that it was not inherited or received immediately at birth. Rather "original sin is inherited only when there is knowledge of good and evil," that is, at the moment when a person became able to distinguish between good and evil and chose evil. Only then "is God's reckoning forthcoming."(59) But before children are old enough to be capable of distinguishing good from evil, no inherited sin will be counted against them.(60) Balthasar Hubmaier, in contrast, admits that all people deserve death and condemnation, that it would not be unjust for God to condemn unbaptized infants, and that he does not know their fate, but he is certain that baptizing infants will do nothing to help them before they have come to faith.(61)

It is possible that the authors of the Lutheran confessional documents could have misunderstood statements like Rink's and Marpeck's, and thought that because they said that young children were not held accountable for sin until they chose to sin willingly, they meant that all people were born sinless and with the capacity to remain sinless throughout life. This seems to be the reason why the Lutherans were so scandalized by the idea that original sin might not be ascribed to everyone. The Augsburg Confession rejects all those "who do not regard original sin as sin…, thus insulting the suffering and merit of Christ."(62) What is condemned here is the idea that humans are able to remain sinless by their own power, because to claim that ability would be to claim that Christ's work is unnecessary, to insult the unique work of Christ and the effect it has on Christians.

Yet the Anabaptist ancestors of the Mennonites did not mean to claim that people have the power to remain sinless or that Christ's work is unnecessary. In the same document in which he asserts that original sin does not condemn infants, Pilgram Marpeck also says that original sin "is the inheritance of all men"(63) and that, "as Adam and Eve first inherited sin in the knowledge of good and evil, so do all their progeny,"(64) demonstrating that he believes that no one is able to remain sinless. This is why salvation is only possible through faith in Christ, because Christ alone "leaves the evil and does the good."(65) Menno Simons is even more explicit about the reality of original sin and the necessity of Christ's work: in response to his opponents' argument that infant baptism is necessary to wash away original sin, Menno writes that he also believes that all people are born unclean and "children of death and hell." But the only way for people to be purified from this contamination of original sin is through the death of Christ, Christ's unique work, not through water baptism. In fact, this is the very reason why infants need not be baptized, for if water baptism removed original sin, "then the sweet smelling sacrifice [of Christ's death] which is eternally valid would have been in vain and without power… but ah, no, the Scriptures speak of but one means, Christ and his merits, death and blood."(66) Here Menno is very clear that he does not wish to insult Christ's suffering and merit, but to exalt it higher than the infant baptizers do.

The Zwickau Prophets, on the other hand, completely denied the doctrine of original sin in children or adults. Because their leader Nicholas Storch believed that baptism did nothing for infants, he concluded that infants had no sin. He taught that if a child should die unbaptized its eternal fate would be determined by the faith of its father, because believing fathers always produced holy offspring.(67) In this scheme, Christ's sacrifice can in fact do nothing for infants, because their fate is determined by the choices of their fathers. It is possible that the Lutheran authors of the Formula of Concord were remembering rumors of the Zwickau Prophets or similar groups when they condemned the Anabaptists for teaching that the children of Christians were holy without need for baptism.

Second, the Lutherans believed that Christians remain sinners after baptism and throughout life, although they are regarded as righteous through faith,(68) and that sinners may receive forgiveness after baptism every time they repent.(69) They "[condemned] both the Anabaptists, who deny that those who have once been justified can lose the Holy Spirit, and also those who contend that some may attain such perfection in this life that they cannot sin."(70)

The Mennonites' ancestors did not believe that a truly Christian church had to be free of sinners, because they believed that Christians remained sinners throughout their earthly lives. Hubmaier had been accused of the same heresy by Zwingli and denied it, saying that "before and after [baptism], we are poor and miserable sinners, and if we were to say that we did not sin, then we would lie and the truth would not be in us."(71) Menno Simons wrote that "true believers are often overcome by sin" and that neither baptism nor faith completely cleanses Christians of their inherently sinful nature.(72) Ideally, believers should be able to avoid such gross and obvious sins as adultery, hatred, drunkenness, and gambling, but even this will be a lifelong struggle, for "true Christians… do not cease to fight against their flesh."(73) Dirk Philips points out that Christ instructed believers to pray for the forgiveness of their own sins in the Lord's Prayer, which indicates that Christ expected believers to have sins to be forgiven.(74)

Moreover, the practice of discipline within the organized Anabaptist churches demonstrates that members and leaders believed that Christians within their churches still sinned. The practice of the ban was instituted in the Schleitheim Confession because it was assumed that Christians who had received voluntary adult baptism would "slip sometimes and fall into error or sin."(75) Even pastors were not considered exempt from slipping into sin and requiring discipline.(76) Hans Denck wrote that baptism should take place only once, even if the baptismal promises are "sometimes transgressed and recommitment is needed,"(77) indicating that he believed a baptized Christian could err and be forgiven multiple times. Menno also understood that the ban was necessary so that "the wicked, by a proper admonition and expulsion performed by the pious, may… sincerely repent before God and the church,"(78) which assumes that the wicked were members of the church prior to this expulsion. With this understanding that Christians remained sinful after conversion, the Anabaptists with whom the Mennonites identify could not have taught that a true church had to be free of sinners, or they would not have believed that their own churches were true churches.

However, some sixteenth-century groups whom the Lutherans called Anabaptists had a different interpretation of the church being free of sinners. For example, a miracle worker from central Germany known only as The Prophet taught not that Christians would become sinless after their conversion but rather that nothing they did would count as sin.(79) It is recorded that Luther received a report about The Prophet and used the report to make general claims about all Anabaptists,(80) and this could easily have caused other Lutherans to believe that all Anabaptists were libertines like The Prophet, teaching that they were sinless in the sight of God no matter what they did.

In conclusion, these two condemnations of Anabaptists from the Lutheran confessional writings, among others, are not accurate statements about the particular sixteenth-century Anabaptists with whom modern Mennonites identify, but they may be accurate statements about other sixteenth-century groups whom the Lutherans called Anabaptists.

Next Steps

This matter is an example of how important an accurate understanding and restatement of church history is for successful ecumenical dialogue. The historical inaccuracy of the statement with which the ELCA dialogue team has closed its first round of conversations with the MCUSA will limit the credibility of this statement in the future, not only among scholars, but also among the many ordinary church members who know enough Reformation history to recognize that much information has been left out. I would recommend that the ELCA team rephrase its Declaration to the Churches of the Anabaptist Tradition to acknowledge the distinction between those sixteenth-century Anabaptists with whom modern Mennonites identify and those with whom they do not, before asserting which condemnations are true statements about each group.

In addition, the ELCA should take steps to make the contents of its proposed declaration better known. The ELCA may repudiate most of the condemnations of Anabaptists in the Lutheran confessional writings, but because this repudiation would be expressed in a document external to the Book of Concord, Lutherans who are unaware of the Lutheran-Mennonite ecumenical conversations would still read the condemnations without realizing that they are officially null and void. In addition, Lutherans may incorrectly assume that the accusations of perfectionism, disbelief in original sin, and other errors are accurate descriptions of what modern Mennonites believe. The Book of Concord should contain some indication of the ELCA's new understanding of the condemnations, and of the fact that not all of the condemnations describe the modern Mennonite churches. I recommend that the ELCA place several footnotes in its next edition of the Book of Concord, noting when the accusations in the text are inaccurate and clarifying the status of the relationship between the ELCA and the churches of the Anabaptist tradition. This was not suggested in the recent Mennonite-Lutheran dialogue, but it would help to make the results of that dialogue more widely known among Lutherans.


1. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and Mennonite Church USA, "Right Remembering in Anabaptist-Lutheran Relations," April 2004, available from, Internet, accessed March 10, 2005.

2. John S.Oyer, Lutheran Reformers Against Anabaptists: Luther, Melanchthon, and Menius and the Anabaptists of Central Germany (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1964), 118.

3. Ibid., 212.

4. John D. Roth, "A Historical and Theological Context for Mennonite-Lutheran Dialogue," Mennonite Quarterly Review (July 2002): 270.

5. Thomas N. Finger, A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 12.

6. Roth, "A Historical and Theological Context," 269.

7. Martin Luther, "Letter to Spalatin, February 5, 1528," cited in Oyer, Lutheran Reformers Against Anabaptists, 118 note 4.

8. Martin Luther, "Infiltrating and Clandestine Preachers" in Luther's Works, ed. and trans. by Conrad Bergendorff (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1958), vol. 40, 384.

9. Roth, "A Historical and Theological Context," 266-267.

10. Oyer, Lutheran Reformers Against Anabaptists, 15-16.

11. Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, 43-44.

12. Ibid., 26; Dyck, Introduction to Mennonite History, 23.

13. Dyck, Introduction to Mennonite History, 23.

14. Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, 27.

15. Martin Marty, Martin Luther (New York: Viking/Penguin, 2004), 96.

16. Ibid., 96.

17. Christine Johnson, "The Radical Reformation," Lecture given at Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, on February 11, 2002.

18. Ibid.

19. Oyer, Lutheran Reformers Against Anabaptists, 28-30.

20. Luther, "Infiltrating and Clandestine Preachers," 385.

21. Luther, "Concerning Rebaptism" in Luther's Works, vol. 40, 229-262.

22. Ibid., 230.

23. Ibid., 230, 261.

24. Martin Luther, "Von der Widertauffe" in D. Martin Luther's Werke, ed. by Knaake et al., vol. 26, 144-174: line 22 on page 148 reads: "Darumb ist solcher widder teuffer und schwermer rede nichts, wenn sie sagen…"

25. Luther, "Concerning Rebaptism," 239-253.

26. George Hunston Williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962), 826.

27. Oyer, Lutheran Reformers Against Anabaptists, 24.

28. Ibid., 16.

29. Luther, "Concerning Rebaptism," 235, 250; Luther, "Lectures on Genesis," 326.

30. Martin Luther, "Against the Heavenly Prophets" in Luther's Works, vol. 40, 81; Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, 12.

31. Philip Melanchthon, "Against the Anabaptists" in Melanchthon: Selected Writings, trans. by Charles Leander Hill (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1962), 103-122.

32. Ibid., 122.

33. Oyer, Lutheran Reformers Against Anabaptists, 155.

34. Ibid., 169.

35. David G. Truemper, "The Role and Authority of the Lutheran Confessional Writings: Do Lutherans Really Condemn the Anabaptists?" Mennonite Quarterly Review (July 2002): 308-309; Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, "Editors' Introduction to the Augsburg Confession" in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2000), 28.

36. John Eck, "Four Hundred Four Articles for the Imperial Diet at Augsburg," trans. by Robert Rosin, in Sources and Contexts of the Book of Concord (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 42-81.

37. Eck, "Four Hundred Four Articles," 59.

38. Article 9 of the Augsburg Confession in The Book of Concord, German text, 42.

39. Eck, "Four Hundred Four Articles," 73.

40. Ibid., 79.

41. Ibid., 80.

42. Article 16 of the Augsburg Confession in The Book of Concord, German text, 48.

43. Eck, "Four Hundred Four Articles," 80.

44. Article 17 of the Augsburg Confession in The Book of Concord, German text, 50.

45. Article 12 of the Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, in The Book of Concord, 656-657.

46. Ibid., 656.

47. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, annotation to Article 12 of the Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, in The Book of Concord, 657, n. 331.

48. The Epitome of the Formula of Concord is a shorter summary of the original Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration. Both versions are among the Lutheran confessional documents.

49. Article 2 of the Augsburg Confession in The Book of Concord, 38-39.

50. Article 12 of the Formula of Concord, Epitome, in The Book of Concord, 520.

51. Ibid., 521.

52. William Echard Keeney, The Development of Dutch Anabaptist Thought and Practice from 1539 to 1564 (Nieuwkoop, The Netherlands: B. De Graff, 1968), 68.

53. Menno Simons, "Foundation of Christian Doctrine" in The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, trans. by Leonard Verduin, ed. by J.C. Wenger (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1956), 130.

54. Ibid., 131.

55. Menno Simons, "Christian Baptism" in The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, 240-241.

56. Keeney, Dutch Anabaptist Thought and Practice, 81; Menno Simons, "Reply to Gellius Faber" in The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, 707.

57. Oyer, Lutheran Reformers Against Anabaptists, 80.

58. Ibid., 80.

59. Pilgram Marpeck, "The Admonition of 1542" in The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck by William Klassen and Walter Klassen (Kitchener, Ontario: Herald Press, 1978), 206-207.

60. Ibid., 246.

61. Balthasar Hubmaier, "On the Christian Baptism of Believers" in Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, ed. and trans. by H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), 139-141.

62. Article 2 of the Augsburg Confession, German text, in The Book of Concord, 38.

63. Marpeck, "The Admonition of 1542," 206.

64. Ibid., 246.

65. Ibid., 207.

66. Menno Simons, "Foundation of Christian Doctrine," 130.

67. Oyer, Lutheran Reformers Against Anabaptists, 11.

68. Article 3 of the Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, in The Book of Concord, 562-563.

69. Article 12 of the Augsburg Confession in The Book of Concord, 44-45.

70. Ibid., Latin text, 45.

71. Hubmaier, "On the Christian Baptism of Believers," 98.

72. Menno Simons, "Christian Baptism," 245.

73. Menno Simons, "Brief and Clear Confession" in The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, 447.

74. Keeney, Dutch Anabaptist Thought and Practice, 119.

75. Article 2 in "The Schleitheim Confession," available from; Internet; accessed March 8, 2006.

76. Article 5 in "The Schleitheim Confession."

77. Hans Denck, "Concerning True Love" in Early Anabaptist Spirituality: Selected Writings, trans. and ed. by Daniel Liechty (New York: Paulist Press, 1994), 117.

78. Menno Simons, "Reply to Gellius Faber," 724.

79. Oyer, Lutheran Reformers Against Anabaptists, 84.

80. Ibid., 226.