The Anabaptists and their Stepchildren – by F.N. Lee

Baptist Professors on the origin and development of the (Ana)Baptists

The American Rev. Dr. Robert G. Torbet was Professor of Church History at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary (from 1934-51). In 1950, he made some very important statements in his book A History of the Baptists.

According to Torbet,412 Prof. Dr. “Walter Rauschenbusch, of [Colgate] Rochester Baptist Theological Seminary” in New York State, exhibited a “willingness to identify Baptists with the socially radical Anabaptists.” Similarly, even Rev. Prof. Henry C. Vedder, the well-known Baptist and Church Historian at Crozer Theological Seminary from 1894 to 1927, noted the Anabaptists’ “aversion to oath-taking and holding public office.”

Torbet affirmed the view of “Ernest A. Payne, British Baptist church historian, that the Anabaptists were in all likelihood an influence in England which affected…Baptist development. Thus we are obliged to consider the influence of Anabaptist spiritualism upon early Baptists.”

Wrote Payne in the Baptist Quarterly: “Baptists cannot be separated from…other…groups of the sixteenth century.” For there is indeed a “relationship between the early English Baptists and the Continental Anabaptists…. The Mennonite influence was responsible in part for the first Baptist witness.”

Torbet himself admitted that “the false claims made by Thomas Muenzer (1490-1525), a socialist and leader in the Peasants’ War of 1525, and the horrors of the Muenster Rebellion ten years later under…Melchior Hofmann and Jan Matthys, combined to bring the Anabaptists into complete disrepute…. The extravagant cruelty and wanton destruction of the visionaries who sought to establish the millenial kingdom in Muenster, made an indelible impression…. The fanatics of Muenster were a potential menace to law and order” — and “taught resistance, against government, by the sword….

“Anabaptist teaching was to be found in England quite early in the sixteenth century. Large numbers of this sect came in 1528…until 1573, when…some fifty thousand were in the country…. The earlier Anabaptist refugees were disciples of Melchior Hofmann’s fanatical teaching…. In 1530…Archbishop Warham at the command of Henry VIII condemned an Anabaptist book…. In 1549, during the reign of Henry’s son Edward VI, Bishop Latimer’s sermons contained warnings against this ‘sect of hereticks.’ He accused them of being anarchistic.”

With commendable candour, the Baptist Torbet then went on to provide further alarming details: “English Anabaptists known as the ‘Family of Love’…were present in the country during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, who came to the throne in 1558. This sect had its origin on the continent with Henry Nicholas (Niklaes), a native of Muenster, who migrated to Amsterdam in 1530…. [In 1546,] he wrote a little book still to be found in the Mennonite library at Amsterdam, entitled Of the Spiritual Land of Promise…..

“In this work he advocated and defended ‘spiritual marriage,’ somewhat akin to Mormon teaching…. On the continent, ‘naked-runners,’ as they were called, appeared in many cities. These ‘naked-runners,’ who reputedly were Anabaptist fanatics, seem to have been Nicholas’ disciples. The sect, as transplanted to England, was known as ‘Familists’ — and gained an unsavory reputation for immorality….

“Christopher Vitell, a Southwark joiner…, translated many of Nicholas’ writings from the Dutch into English…. Bax, an able historian of the Anabaptist movement, admits…the historical connection between the ‘Family of Love’ and Anabaptists generally.”

Fifty years later, concluded Torbet, the exiled English (Ana)Baptist “Smyth’s congregation of some eighty persons seems to have had a separate existence [from Robinson’s “Pilgrim Father” Congregationalists] in Amsterdam….. He [John Smyth] felt that a minister should not preach with any manuscript before him; not even a translation of the Scriptures…. Smyth finished a tract against infant baptism, The Character of the Beast [‘666’], on March 24th 1609…. Smyth, undoubtedly under the influence of the Waterlander Mennonites, became an Anabaptist….

“He baptized himself…. Since they worshiped in a block of buildings belonging to a Mennonite merchant…., Smyth came increasingly under Mennonite influence.” After Smyth’s death in Amsterdam in 1610, his colleague and successor Thomas Helwys issued a Declaration of Faith, denying that baptism “appertaineth to infants.” Then, with his flock, he returned to England — to establish its first Baptist Church in 1611.


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