On a January evening in 1525, in the Zurich rooms of Felix Manz, one of the city's most promising Hebrew scholars, a remarkable event took place. An upper-class theology student named Conrad Grebel turned to a rough-hewn priest from the Tyrol, George Cajacob, and baptized him. Then, along with the other men gathered in the room (on this occasion there seem to have been no women present), Grebel received baptism from Cajacob. 'In the high fear of God' and with a deep bond of 'togetherness', the brothers then solemnly committed themselves to the Lord and to each other, and they emerged 'to teach and keep the faith'. With this event, the first believer's baptism since the church's early centuries, the Anabaptist movement began, and with it the nonconformist tradition within Protestantism.

What had compelled these men to take this extraordinary action? II was not simply their growing theological antipathy to infant baptism. More fundamentally, they were motivated by a desire for a more far-reaching reformation of the church in Zurich than the city council would allow. In the early stages of the Zurich reformation, it had not appeared that this would be an insuperable problem. Ulrich Zwingli, the city's reformer from 1519 onwards, had successfully coped with conservative opposition by both disputation and negotiation, and the Anabaptists-to-be were among his most committed supporters. They had been drawn to his message of faith and the centrality of the word and work of Christ. They had been stirred when he announced that 'to be a Christian is not to talk about Christ, but to walk as He walked.' They had been intrigued by his iconoclastic speculations, such as that 'it would be much better that children should have their. . . baptism when they reach an appropriate age'. With him they had studied the Bible in small house-fellowship-like 'schools'; and when he on Ash Wednesday 1522 had eaten 'forbidden fruit' (pork sausages) they had joined with him.

But by 1523 tensions were evident which two years later would lead to a parting of the ways. The City Councillors, sensing that changes had been taking place too fast for comfort, began to balk at new measures of reformation, such as the granting of the cup to the laity in the mass. Zwingli was inclined to hide his exasperation and to wait for the authorities to change their minds, but his radical disciples were less patient. At slake was an issue which they were gradually coming to see was fundamental. Whose decision should govern the life and policy of the church? The City Councillors or the Spirit of God speaking through the Bible? Zwingli's reluctant preference was for the former, so that religious change might take place responsibly and uniformly. For, according to customary medieval assumptions which Zwingli accepted, the religious unity of a territory was the guarantee of its civic welfare.

Those who felt that religious decisions should be taken by groups of earnest believers interpreting the Bible on their own, on the other hand, were entering uncharted territory. A new vision of the church was emerging among the Anabaptists-lo-be, tentatively, amid debate and deep inner searching. It would be a church, not of the multitudes, but of the 'few .. . believing and walking aright' on a path of social nonconformity; a church uncoupled from the state's coercion, and avoiding all participation in violence; a church of those who had chosen to be disciples and who would follow their Master into 'anguish and affliction'. In such a church there would be no place for what appeared to them to be the coerciveness of infant baptism.

Persecution and growth

Conrad Grebel had sensed that 'Christ must still suffer more in his members'. Shortly the movement of which he was a part discovered the reality of his premonition. A few hours before the first baptisms in January 1525, the Zurich City Council had forbidden the radicals to meet. From the very start therefore, their meetings were acts of civil disobedience.

As the Anabaptists began with missionary fervour to reach out into the surrounding areas - preaching, baptizing and forming congregations-they continued to encounter severe opposition from the civil authorities. When it was seen that imprisonment and banishment were ineffective in stemming the spread of Anabaptism, governments resorted to execution. In May 1525 the first Anabaptist was executed - by burning - by Catholic authorities in Schwyz. The first Anabaptist to be executed by Protestants was the Hebraist Felix Manz, in whose rooms that first baptism had happened. In early 1527 he was drowned in Zurich's Limmat River, protesting that those who executed him were 'destroying the very essence of Christianity'. Despite the severity of the repression and the fact that by 1529 most of the early Anabaptist leaders had died, in the early 1530s Zwingli's successor Bullinger was writing that 'people are running after them as if they were the living saints'.

By this time the movement was not confined to Switzerland. This was not solely because the Swiss Brethren had fanned out with their message into South Germany and the Tyrol and were soon to reach Moravia. At the same time, in response to similar circumstances, other groups of Anabaptists were springing into existence. Some of these, such as the South German congregations associated with the ex-Benedictine prior Michael Sattler and the theologian Balthasar Hubmaier, quickly established relationships of varying degrees of closeness with the Swiss Brethren. But others, in central Germany and the Netherlands, were too far afield to have had any connection whatsoever with the Swiss, and had apparently sprung up spontaneously.

This is not surprising, for the conditions which produced Anabaptism were common in many parts of Europe. Religious expectancy and restlessness were superimposed on a sense of economic grievance; in South Germany Anabaptism spread in the wake of the suppression of the Peasants' Revolt. In many places Anabaptism reflected disenchantment with the fruits of the official Reformation. According to one believer from Bern, among the Reformers, despite their doctrinal changes, 'true repentance and Christian love were not in evidence'.

Anabaptism also spread as a result of the tireless activity of preachers. The major Reformers still accepted Jesus' 'Great Commission' to preach the gospel to the whole world. But since they continued to accept without question the medieval idea that church and society were one and the same, they were reluctant to apply the Commission to their own situations. The Anabaptists, on the other hand, had no such reservations. Their deep missionary consciousness is evident in their court hearings; there is no text that they quoted more often than the Great Commission. Like the apostles, they felt themselves called to unauthorized preaching. Some of this was tumultuous, and much of it, especially in the early years, was quite uncoordinated. Indeed, the earliest Anabaptist missionaries were often 'sent' primarily by the civil authorities who had banished them. But soon the preachers began to co-ordinate their activities. In Augsburg in 1527, a 'martyr synod' (most of the preachers present were soon executed) met to divide South Germany among the missioners. And by the early 1530s the Hutterite communities in Moravia were carefully planning the sending of missionary teams into various parts of Europe.

A violent aberration

The expected second coming of Jesus was yet another spur to the spread of Anabaptism. In the early sixteenth century many people sensed that they were living in the last days. Martin Luther, for example, hurriedly translated the book of Daniel 'so that everyone might read and comprehend it before the end of the world'. Anabaptists often shared this vivid expectancy, and - especially since they were experiencing severe persecution - it added an immediacy to their preaching which was attractive to many. Some Anabaptists made calculations about the end of the world, and a few of these were convinced that when Jesus returned his otherwise non-violent disciples would be justified in taking up arms against the unrighteous.

In the Westphalian episcopal city of Münster, one such group of Anabaptists forcibly seized power in 1534. As the nonresident bishop massed troops and besieged the city, the inhabitants-believing that the millennium had come -defended themselves with arms. They began to behave in a way that was extraordinary for the Anabaptist movement at large. The believers received direct revelations; they linked the church with the state; they viewed the Old Testament as normative for ethics, justifying polygamy. When Münster fell in 1535 amid starvation and slaughter, speculation about the last days fell into disrepute among those parts of the Anabaptist movement that had earlier engaged in it.

To many Protestant and Catholic contemporaries, the debacle of Münster came - to the exclusion of everything else -to express the essence of Anabaptism. They therefore felt justified in intensifying (he persecution of Anabaptists wherever they could ferret them out. Anabaptism had, of course, been illegal all along. Local proscriptions had been generalized bythe 1529 Diet of Speyer, at which the Evangelicals (now for the first time called 'Protestants') and Catholics agreed on one thing - that those who baptized believers or were 're-baptized' should be subject to the death penalty. Anabaptist, or 're-baptizer', is thus a term coined by their enemies, to sanction persecution under an ancient imperial law condemning the Donatists; the Anabaptists preferred to be called 'brothers and sisters'.

Throughout the sixteenth century persecution thus continued to be severe. Informers were planted in Anabaptist meetings; a special imperial police force ('Baptist-hunters') was recruited to pursue the heretics; and inquisitors were expressly trained to cow them back to orthodoxy. Inquisitors were assisted by torture-'severe examination', as it was euphemistically called. There were thousands of executions, as many as 2,500 in the Netherlands alone. Martyrdom thus became a theme of the Anabaptist movement, celebrated in hymns and recounted at length in the massive martyrology which for centuries has given the descendants of the Anabaptists their self-identity, Martyrs' Mirror.

Münster was a disaster for the Anabaptist movement, but good came out of it. For it led to the conversion of a Frisian priest, Menno Simons, who identified himself with the harassed Anabaptists and who determined to lead them back on to the path of non-violent discipleship which had predominated in the movement. This was a costly decision. From 1536 until his death in 1561. Menno was on the run, shepherding scattered flocks from Holland into Germany, preaching by night, and writing tracts which he printed on the rudimentary press which he lugged on his travels. With a touch of bitterness he contrasted his lot with that of the preachers of the now-established Protestant churches:

'I with my poor, weak wife and children have for years endured excessive anxiety, oppression, affliction, and persecution . . . Yes, when the preachers repose on easy beds and soft pillows, we generally have to hide ourselves in out-of-the-way corners . . . We have to be on our guard when a dog barks for fear the arresting officer has arrived ... In short, while they are gloriously rewarded for their services with large incomes and good times, our recompense and portion be but fire, sword and death.'

Thanks in significant measure to Menno's courageous pastoring and resolute pacifist commitment, an Anabaptist movement survived in Northern Europe. For good reason it, like many of the descendants of the brethren in Switzerland and South Germany, came to be known as 'Mennonite'.

Community of goods.

In Moravia, however, local manifestation of the Anabaptist movement came to be known as 'Hutterite', after an early leader, Jakob Hutter (burned in 1536). The Hutterites were distinguished from the Swiss Brethren and from the North-European Mennonites by their insistence on community of goods. Since Christians held spiritual things in common, one Hutterite reasoned, so they ought also to have communion in material things 'that as Paul says . . . there may be equality'. Only by relinquishing private possessions and entering a community {Bruderhof} could they truly express their love for God and their fellow Christians.

Although Hutterite Anabaptists did indeed give up private properly, in the course of the sixteenth century their communities in Moravia and Hungary became wealthy and large - at one point they apparently had up to 30,000 members. Each Bruderhof was superbly organized. As one brother testified, 'it is like a beehive where all the busy bees work together to a common end, the one doing this, the other that, not for their own need but for the good of all', the brothers developed handcrafts and light industry to a high level; their education was so excellent that local nobles sent their children to the communities for schooling; and the skill of Hutterite physicians made them in demand at the imperial court.

-The Hutterites were resolute . nonconformists (throughout the sixteenth century, for example, the Bruderhofs refused to pay war taxes). This and their manifest prosperity soon excited the envy and hostility of their neighbours. In 1595 the first of many blows fell, bringing their Golden Period to an end amid severe persecution. After waves of confiscation and repression, a few Hutterites, their 'beehives' broken up, survived by migrating to the Ukraine.

The Anabaptist movement was thus diverse. Indeed, a movement that was decentralized and persecuted, that extended from Holland to Hungary, and that contained a high proportion of 'movement-type' personalities, was bound to produce a variety of emphases. But despite these diversities, many of which worked their way out of the movement within its first decade, the number of uniformities that appear is striking. There was a bedrock of vision that set the Radicals off from the other Reformers and that made Anabaptism a distinctive Christian tradition of enduring significance.

On many points, to be sure, the Anabaptists were in agreement with the Reformers. The main contours of their theology were orthodox, and they were deeply influenced by Luther's writings. Some of them were personal friends of Zwingli and Bucer. Yet their emphases were distinctive, so perversely so (it seemed to Reformers and Catholics alike) that the Anabaptists must be banished or executed.

To some extent, the distinctiveness of the Anabaptists' vision resulted from their way of 'doing theology'. When people are being persecuted and oppressed, they tend to have a different perspective on God, the world, and the Bible from those who have positions of power in state-supported universities or churches. The Anabaptists' circumstances of writing also determined the literary forms that their theological writing could take. Lacking safety, leisure and libraries, they naturally did not write systematic theologies or learned commentaries; they (like the early Christians, writing in a similar setting) wrote letters, narratives and controversial pieces.

Most Anabaptists, of course, could not have written academic theology if they had tried. Only one of the early Anabaptists, Bahhasar Hubmaier, had a doctorate in theology, and he was burned in 1528. Thanks to persecution, by the 1530s Anabaptist theology was being written almost entirely by laymen. Some of it, written by the civil engineer Pilgram Marpeck, was perceptive and original. But the striking thing about Anabaptist theology is not the brilliance of the individual writers; it is rather, as letters and court records testify, the deep knowledge many Anabaptists had of the Bible. In court hearings Anabaptist women (as in most renewal movements, women were especially active among the early Anabaptists) could confound their inquisitors with a superb command of the texts. As one exasperated inquisitor blurted out, 'Why do you trouble yourself with Scripture? Attend to your sewing!' Another priest exclaimed in dumbfounded admiration, 'You Anabaptists are certainly fine fellows to understand the holy Scriptures; for before you are rebaptized, you can't tell A from B, but as soon as you are baptized, you can read and write!'

Brothers and sisters

What then were the emphases which gave these lay theologians their distinctiveness, and which Reformers and Romanists alike found it impossible to tolerate? I have already mentioned the first - the Anabaptists' insistence that since faith is God's gift, religious compulsion is an offence against him. The early Luther (1522) had stated that he would 'constrain no man by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion'. Although Luther soon changed his mind, the Anabaptists persisted with this insight. 'Christ's people,' one of them said, 'are a free, unforced, and uncompelled people, who receive Christ with desire and a willing heart.'

This logic led them, in advance of their contemporaries, to espouse religious toleration. 'A Turk or a heretic,' Hubmaier pleaded, 'cannot be persuaded by us either with the sword or with fire, but only with patience and prayer.' This logic also led them to reject infant baptism, which appeared to them to be an act of adult compulsion committed on an unconsenting infant. And the consequence of compulsion, they came to recognize, was a society which, though superficially Christian, was largely made up of slightly Christianized pagans. That the church was established, and a region's religion was determined by its prince, simply compounded the problem.

The voluntarist Anabaptists were thus attacking the form of the 'Christian' social order which had dominated Europe ever since Constantine had legalized Christianity and Theodosius I had made it compulsory. Unlike the Reformers, the Anabaptists not only wanted to restore biblical norms in doctrine; they wanted as well to restore the sociology, the ethics and the missionary dynamic of the early Christians - even if it meant powerlessness and suffering.

A second Anabaptist emphasis followed logically from the first: the church is a family of believers. Basic to the composition of the Believers' Church is conversion. One enters it by rebirth (about which the Anabaptists talked and wrote at length) rather than by birth. And since it was a product of 'regeneration which is performed by the Spirit of God', this new, non-genetic family was the most important social unit to which anyone could belong. In the Middle Ages, priests had expressed their solidarity by calling one another 'brothers': so likewise spoke the pastors in the state churches of the Reformation. But all members of Anabaptist congregations called each other 'sisters and brothers'. They were conscious that they were all members of a priesthood of believers, not only in status but in function. They did, to be sure, have leaders, whom they called 'shepherds' or 'servants of the Word'. But these leaders must be servants like themselves, whose calling it was to 'take care of the body of Christ, that it may be built up and developed'.

This corporate, family consciousness shaped every area of Anabaptist life. For example, it gave a special character to their worship. In their meetings, every member was important. Unlike the other Reformers, the Anabaptists were convinced that God had never withdrawn the gifts of the Holy Spirit from the church. As a Swiss brother wrote in the 1530s, 'when some one comes to church and constantly hears only one person speaking, and all the listeners are silent, neither speaking nor prophesying, who can regard the same to be a spiritual congregation, or confess according to 1 Corinthians 14 that God is dwelling and operating in them?' So in an Anabaptist meeting, speaker would follow speaker, corroborating an earlier message or adding new insights as the Spirit gave lead. Other members would participate in the prayers, in transacting congregational business, and in sharing with the needy from the common fund. These meetings, which because of persecution were often held at night in forests or homes, could get lengthy. Near Strasbourg a congregation appointed a member to circulate throughout the meeting carrying a lantern, jostling anyone who had dozed off and whispering, 'Wake up, brother!'

For the Anabaptists, this self-giving within the body always had economic consequences. Among the Hutterites it led, as we have seen, to total community of goods. Like the other Anabaptists, the Hutterites were acutely conscious of the division that could be caused in congregations by a disparity of wealth. Their solution was equality. 'In brief,' Ulrich Stadler observed, 'one, common builds the Lord's house and is pure; but mine, thine, his, own divides the Lord's house and is impure.' The other Anabaptist traditions, on the other hand, sought to build up the common life by a vigorous programme of mutual aid. Many congregations had common purses, to which members could voluntarily contribute according to their ability and from which other members could draw in time of need. There was also apparently much informal sharing. Whatever the method, the Anabaptists were convinced that economic sharing was an evidence that a loving God was at work among his people.

A final indication of the importance that the Anabaptists accorded to the integrity of the corporate life is indicated by their practice of church discipline. The heart of this lay in what they called 'the rule of Christ', which committed each member to deal with sin or difficult relationships on a one-to-one basis. If neither that nor a larger deputation led to reconciliation, the matter would be brought, not to the minister, but to the congregation. If the body found that one party had sinned, it would exercise the ban ('the power of fraternal punishment'). The Anabaptists insisted that they did this 'with a sorrowing heart', for redemptive purposes. 'We do not want to amputate,' Menno claimed, 'but rather to heal; not to discard, but to win back.'

Following after

The Anabaptists' third distinctive emphasis was discipleship, which they called Nachfolge ('following after'). A Christian, according to Menno, was a person who 'willingly walks in the footsteps of Christ'. Through repentance he has received God's pardon, which will inevitably be 'in evidence by newness of life in Christ'. The disciple must thus be experiencing both internal and external transformation; and his inward renewal must be leading to a change oflifestyle-to 'amendment of life' according to the model and teaching of Jesus. Indeed, asHans Denck expressed it in the most characteristic sentence ever penned by an Anabaptist, 'No one can truly know Christ unless he follows him in life.'

Following Jesus was in part a matter of imitating him. The Anabaptists, for obvious reasons, placed a strong emphasis on the Gospel narratives. They were convinced that 'the plain and simple will of God is that we hold before our eyes his dear Son, Jesus Christ, and follow his life and teaching' (Hubmaier). Sometimes they called this imitation 'conformity to Christ', which they almost always linked to suffering. From prison one Anabaptist conveyed to his fellow believers what he had discerned the Lord to be saying to the church: 'If I the Lord and Master am poor, it is evident that my servants are poor, and that my disciples do not seek or desire riches ... He that would follow me, must follow me in the poverty in which I walk before him.'

To imitation the Anabaptists added obedience. They found it unthinkable that Jesus' commandments, difficult though they seemed to put into practice, should apply only to attitudes and not to actions. 'Why should God make known his will,' Michael Sattler reasoned, 'if he would not wish that a person do it... Christ makes known to us the true obedience by which alone the Father is satisfied.' Indeed, obedience is necessary to make sense of belief in the body of Christ. For it is unthinkable that there should be ethical dis-coordination in the body. 'As Christ our head is minded, so also must be minded the members of the body of Christ through him, so that there be no division in the body.'

Obedience to Jesus as the Anabaptists conceived it, however, was costly. Since he had not preached 'easy and sweet things', he was leading them into behaviour that was unconventional and that contemporaries could construe as being subversive. Conflict with the authorities followed. On the issue of the swearing of oaths, for example, the approach of most Anabaptists was clear. As Menno put it, 'if you fear the Lord and are asked to swear, continue in the Lord's Word which has forbidden you so plainly to swear, and let your yea and nay be your oath as was commanded, whether life or death be your lot.' Jesus had given this teaching, the Anabaptists were convinced, because he wanted his disciples without constraint to tell the truth all of the time; for them there must be no gradation between levels of honesty. The Anabaptists' Catholic and Protestant critics feared, however, that by refusing the oath the Anabaptists were not only rejecting the legal system; they were also undercutting the social order by avoiding the compulsory oaths of loyalty which most territorial princes annually required of their subjects. If the Anabaptists' ideas of obedience were to spread, what prince or legal system would be secure?


It was probably in the area of warfare that Anabaptist ideas of obedience to Jesus seemed most threatening. In the mid-sixteenth century, Protestants and Catholics alike were terrified by the seemingly inexorable military advance of the Turks, who were besieging Vienna and seemed determined to snuff out Christian civilization in Europe. Although a few early Anabaptists held Just War or holy war positions, the majority - even in the face of the Turk - were pacifists. As the martyr Felix Manz put it, 'The true love of Christ shall scatter the enemy; so that he who would be an heir with Christ is taught that he must be merciful, as the Father in heaven is merciful.' The Anabaptists' forlhrightness in this area could occasionally chill their hearers. Shortly before his burning in 1527, the pacifist Michael Saltier responded to the inevitable question, 'What about the Turks?' with the riposte: 'If waging war were proper, I would rather take the field against the so-called Christians who persecute, take captive, and kill true Christians, than against the Turks.'

Language of this sort was inflammatory; some Anabaptists would not have approved of it. Nevertheless, virtually all Anabaptists had an altitude to political power which deviated from the sixteenth-century norm. They often quoted the apostle Paul to emphasize obedience to the civil authorities, but they always added a significant - and they felt biblical -proviso, 'when not contrary to the Word of God'. They also tended to be less elaborately deferential to their rulers than were most of their contemporaries. In one hearing, for example, although the City Recorder verbally genuflected to the judges as 'provident, honourable and wise lords', the Anabaptist in the dock repeatedly addressed them simply as 'ye servants of God'.

Many Anabaptists, both because of their conscience against taking life and because of the persecution which they were experiencing, concluded that it was not possible for a faithful Christian to participate in government. There cannot be, these Anabaptists felt, any overlapping between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. 'The world uses the sword; Christians use only spiritual weapons.' Other Anabaptists were more cautious, contending that 'it is difficult fora Christian to be a temporal ruler'. It was difficult because of Jesus' commandments, to which even rulers who would be Christian were subject. So it was possible for Christians to participate in government, one Anabaptist commented, if they 'take upon themselves the cross, and give up force and splendour'.

For most sixteenth-century rulers and churchmen, persecution was the natural expression of their fears of subversion. The Anabaptists did not enjoy this. 'It is not convenient,' one of them slated plaintively, 'to be burnt.' Indeed, many of them devised ingenious means of avoiding arrest; there are some marvellous Anabaptist escape stories! But there are also stories -hundreds of stories, told in loving detail -of suffering, consciously chosen and courageously faced. One of the most famous of these is that of the Dutchman Dirk Willems, who in 1569 by scrambling across thin ice had successfully escaped from the thiefcatcher who was pursuing him. When he got to the other side, however, he saw that his pursuer had broken through the ice and was desperately pleading for help. Dirk turned around and pulled him to safety, whereupon the thiefcatcher's superior, standing safely on the other bank, shouted across to the dripping thiefcatcher and, 'very sternly compelling him to consider his oath', forced him to arrest the man who had just saved his life. This time Dirk did not run. Shortly thereafter, after torture, by means of a 'lingering fire'. Dirk was executed.

The suffering of Dirk and his many brothers and sisters was intense, but within the framework of Anabaptist theology it made sense. It had always been the case, the Anabaptists were convinced, 'that those who would live godly in Christ Jesus have had to suffer persecution'. Repeatedly they reminded themselves that Jesus had assured his disciples, 'The servant is not greater than his Master. They have persecuted me; so will they persecute you.' The Anabaptists were certain that this promise, which the early Christians had found to be precious, had not ceased to be valid. Indeed, suffering seemed to them a sign that the church was being faithful to the One who had called them to take up their crosses and to follow him. From their perspective, there could be no true church that was not a 'church under the Cross'.

Alternative forms of society

Constantly under pressure as they were, the Anabaptists were tempted to become cankered and contrary. There was indeed some bitterness and negativism among them. But among them too - even amid persecution - there was a confidence, expectation and joy rooted in their experience of God at work among them. They had the strange confidence that through their missionary activities God could renew European society. As Menno put it, 'We preach, as much as is possible, both by night and by day, in houses and in fields, before lords and princes, through mouth and pen, with possessions and blood, with life and death. For we feel his living fruit and moving power in our hearts, as may be seen in many places by the loving patience and willing sacrifices of our faithful brethren. We could wish that we might save all mankind from the chains of their sins . . .'

But converted men and women could never exist on their own. Central to the Anabaptist social strategy was therefore the church. They knew that it was useless to renew society by seizing the reins of power, legislating laws that were as righteous as possible, and coercing those who were recalcitrant. This strategy, they felt, had been tried many times throughout the history ofConstantinian Christendom, and had failed because it was superficial. It did not lead to true faithfulness to Christ's teaching. For true righteousness could not be compelled; it could come about only as men and women discovered the meaning of repentance and new birth, in the kingdom of God.

It was not that Jesus' teachings were inapplicable to an entire society. According to Ulrich Stadler, Christ's commandments 'should constitute the polity of the whole world'. But the Anabaptists recognized that only those who had been reborn, and who were being sustained by the life of a family of faith, could obey these teachings. Hence their strategy. Let those who have become new creatures in Christ simply begin living in a new way now, in their relationships with each other. Let those men and women create churches of brothers and sisters, communities of faith, alternative forms of society in which the qualities which one day will characterize the kingdom of God will be prophetically present. In their practical, everyday living, let them realize the sharing of possessions, the love of brother/sister and enemy, and the openness and truthfulness of relationships which God intends for all his children.

The Anabaptists, it is thus clear, had a strong sense that the kingdom of God was among them. 'Christ, the Prince ofPe.ace, has prepared and won for himself a Kingdom that is a Church,' exulted the Hutterite, Peter Riedemann. But the kingdom which had already come in their communal experience was for most people still in the future. Until God's rule was universal and uncontested, therefore, the Anabaptist congregations and communities must serve as signs, dramatizations, displays of what God intends for society.

The Anabaptists thus viewed each of their congregations simultaneously as a society for mission and an agency for social change. As their love for the Lord and each other grew, as their common life was transformed, they believed that the Holy Spirit would use Christ's life among them to invite others voluntarily to enter 'the Kingdom of Peace'.

In the course of time, the Anabaptist groupings lost this vision and vitality. Some lost it through toleration. The last execution in the northern Netherlands was in 1574. Soon thereafter the'Baptism-minded' (as they came to call themselves) were finding a role in Dutch society as a respected, quasi-nonconformist subgroup whose members were especially prominent in medicine and the cloth trade. In other parts of Europe persecution lasted longer, and in time it led to exhaustion, legalism and withdrawal. For some of the Anabaptists' Mennonite descendants, William Penn in the late seventeenth century provided a haven in Pennsylvania. A century later Catherine the Great offered others of them toleration if they would introduce their farming methods into southern Russia. Migration and persecution, which had been the lot of the Anabaptists from the outset, have been experienced - somewhere in the world -by every subsequent generation of Mennonites.

In the 1980s, the spiritual descendants of the Anabaptists continue to exist; scattered across every continent, there are now some 670,000, slightly under half of whom live in Canada and the United States. Many of the surviving Anabaptist groups have recently experienced a renewing of their spirituality and vision, and are increasingly active in mission, service and inter-confessional dialogue. Some contemporaries, echoing the sixteenth-century Reformers, continue to dismiss the modern-day Anabaptists as ascetics who are 'superstitiously caught up in the small points'. Others, however, are more appreciative. Sensing themselves to be in a world that Christians can no longer control, they are finding in the Anabaptist tradition both theological insights and a living past.