The Anabaptists, Evangelism, and Missions

500th Anniversary of the ReformationThe year 2017 marks the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. As such, we are joining in the celebration with a series of articles throughout the year that will address the Reformation from the perspective of cross-cultural missions.

A missions-minded, New Testament Christian must be forever grateful to God for the Reformation. Luther, guided only by the Word of God, felt his way through the virtually impenetrable forest of encrusted religious tradition and human arrogance. Calvin provided the touch of the systematician in theological matters. Hundreds of others made contributions also, and for every one, we must be grateful. They did what they did with the sword of Rome—like that of Damocles—hanging above their necks.

The Anabaptist Influence

But those for whom we should be the most grateful and whose lives and actions we should imitate are the hated and severely persecuted Anabaptists. They elected to stand in solidarity with Luther on sola scriptura and sola fide but openly questioned Luther’s inconsistency. Why, they insisted, appeal to the Bible as the final authority and then baptize infants, especially since salvation is by faith alone? Further, the Anabaptists also took seriously the missions mandate of Scripture.

While Calvin sent only four missionaries, consistent with his doctrine of election, Luther was a bit more ambiguous. There are a few passages of Luther that appear to embrace the missions mandate, while, generally speaking, K.S. Latourette is right when he said:

Thus Luther and Melanchthon both believed that the end of the world was so imminent that no time remained to spread the gospel throughout the world. The New Testament command to “preach the gospel to every creature” Luther held had been binding only upon the original apostles, and he maintained that the proclamation of the Christian message throughout the earth as a preliminary prophesied by the New Testament to the end of the age had long before been accomplished. [1]

Wolfgang Ulimann

Consider only three cases that illustrate the degree to which the Anabaptists of the Radical Reformation embraced the mission directive of Scripture and demonstrated the degree to which they endorsed and practiced sola scriptura. Less than one month after the birth of Anabaptism, Conrad Grebel preached the gospel to a group gathered at the Rhine River where a Catholic priest named Wolfgang Ulimann listened.

Having arrived at New Testament truth from his own study, Ulimann confessed Christ and asked for baptism. When the brethren brought out the pail, Ulimann corrected their mistake, insisting on immersion in the Rhine. He and others confessed Christ and were baptized. Only a short while later, Ulimann joined Grebel in preaching at St. Gall where they broke the ice and baptized nearly two hundred in the Sitter River.

Wilhelm Reublen, a prominent but secretive Anabaptist, is one about whom we know little. About all that we know is that he was an effective personal evangelist, figuring significantly in the experiences of numerous converts to Christ and Anabaptism. Among those was Balthasar Hubmaier.

Balthasar Hubmaier

Hubmaier became the pastor/theologian/evangelist par excellence for the early Anabaptists. The only Anabaptist to hold a PhD, he moved under threat of death from Waldshut to Zurich to Nikolsburg in Moravia. There he served as an Anabaptist pastor for only two years before his martyrdom. In those two years, he baptized six thousand new converts, according to William R. Estep.[2]

Every year we learn more about the extent of the program of missions and evangelism of the persecuted Anabaptists. They did not grow bitter under persecution, but they viewed persecution as a vehicle for transmitting the gospel. And as they ran, they witnessed.

I would not be comfortable with some who are identified with Anabaptism. But this did not change the fact of what Newman noted when he spoke of some as “the solidly biblical Anabaptist.” The superlative emphasis that these saints gave to the Great Commission must never be relegated to the dustbin of history. The need today is to invoke their name, their theology, and their practices until Jesus comes.

Paige Patterson serves as the president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

[1]Kenneth S. Latourette, History of the Expansion of Christianity, vol. 3, Three Centuries of Advance: 1500 A.D. to 1800 A.D. (Manhattan: Harper & Brothers, 1939), 25.

[2]William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 19.