Alongside the mainline Protestant movements in Europe, there emerged several groups which wanted even more radical reform of the Church which went far beyond what was envisaged by the mainline Protestant Churches. These movements are generally called “Radical Reformation,” “Left-Wing of the Reformation” “Non-Conformists” etc. It developed into three major groups: (1) radical revolutionaries, fanatics and enthusiasts; (2) Anabaptists (re-baptizers); (3) and spiritualists and mystics. They were persecuted throughout Europe, both by Protestants and Catholics. Thomas Müntzer, Andreas Karlstadt, Balthasar Hubmaier, Conrad Grebel, Melchior Hoffmann, Menno Simons, Sebastian Franck, Jacob Boehme, Jan Matthys etc. are some of them. The Radical Reformation was a tremendous movement of spiritual and ecclesial renewal which stood on the margins of Catholicism and Protestantism. However, this movement was neither marginal nor peripheral in its basic drives and spiritual vitalities. Someone has called it the “reformation of the Reformation.” It offered a thoroughgoing critique of both the Churches for centuries and still continues to do so in some of its variants.
Menno Simons was the most outstanding leader of the Anabaptist movement. He was born in 1496 as son of a dairy farmer in Holland. Ordained priest in 1524, he was parish priest in various places in Dutch Friesland till he renounced his connections with the Catholic Church in 1536 and joined the Anabaptist movement. He was already critical of the Church, especially, the doctrine of transubstantiation and the practice of infant Baptism, which the Anabaptists generally rejected, supporting adult Baptism or believers’ Baptism. But the final break with the Church came in the wake of the violent Anabaptist uprising in the German city of Münster, where they tried to establish a “Kingdom of the Saints” under the leadership of Jan Matthys and Jan Leiden. The city was now called “The New Jerusalem” and practices like adult Baptism and Polygamy were introduced. But it was equally violently suppressed by the city authorities by enforcing a siege of the city. The leaders were brutally executed in the marketplace of Münster. Their bodies were exhibited in cages, which hung from the steeple of St Lambert’s Church, which hang there still. After this, Menno Simons broke with the Catholic Church and accepted the teachings of the Anabaptists and was re-baptized and re-ordained. He spent the rest of his life in shepherding and reorganising the Anabaptist communities in the Netherlands and neighbouring territories. During most of these years he lived the life of a hunted heretic, and one wonders how he was able to die a natural death at the age of sixty-six. From the beginning of his career, Menno knew that there was no way for the true Christian to avoid the cross. “If the Head had to suffer such torture, anguish, misery, and pain, how shall his servants, children and members expect peace and freedom as to their flesh?” Menno never had the leisure to produce learned tomes or to develop a systematic theology. Yet he wrote approximately twenty-five books and tracts in addition to numerous letters, meditations and hymns.
One common feature of the Radical Reformation was a decided emphasis on the interior process of salvation. For all Radical Reformers, true Christianity was ipso facto personal, experiential and individual. Baptism was only a climax of the conversion, resulting from repentance and personal experience of Christ. That was the reason why they advocated adult Baptism. A second characteristic of the Radical Reformation was the infallibility of the Word of God. The primary role of the Bible in the process of conversion is crucial. The entire programme of reform was based on an urgent appeal to the authority of the Bible. One was not to trust in ancient tradition, papal decrees, imperial mandates, or the “wisdom and glosses of the learned ones” but only in “God’s infallible Word.” The danger was that many of the Anabaptists resorted to a simplistic literalism of the Bible with dangerous consequences. The Anabaptists believed in the purity of the Church and followed a strict moral code. Suffering and pacifism were other important aspects of their teaching. They believed that in this they were following Jesus literally. They also pleaded for religious toleration, a principle that became foundational for western society. Some of the important reform movements in modern society were spearheaded by Christians who followed the spirit of Radical Reformation, for example, the movement for the abolition of slavery by the Quakers.
(Professor of Church History at Oriens Theological College, Shillong)