It has become the custom amongst modern Baptist apologists to argue from history in order to establish a Baptist apostolic succession of believers’ immersion from the earliest Christian times similar to that boasted of by the Landmarkers and now even the Southern Baptists. There is indeed sporadic evidence of such a succession but only within Baptist churches who have, mostly since the Reformation, covenanted to practice such a succession where it previously did not exist.
Many Baptists look to the Swiss Widertœuffer, or Täufer movement of the 16th century as historical examples of those who practised so-called believers’ baptism only, but here they err greatly. No less than twelve or so different Swiss Täufer movements came into being whilst such as Zwingli and Bullinger in Zürich played leading roles in starting (Zwingli) and thoroughly grounding (Bullinger) the Reformation, just as the Hallers in Bern, (faced with various political, religious, military and undoubtable also Christian movements who wanted traditions regarding baptism altered), brought in the Reformation which they carried over into their Protectorate Geneva.
The initial and primary reason the Täufer gave for their new look at baptism was that they felt the clergy was too worldly to be entrusted with the rite of baptism. This was at a time when the Swiss Protestants were leading the world in Reformed theology! The dissidents thus withdrew their children from the baptism of the various churches principally because they felt the pastors had not the right sacramental qualifications to baptize others. Roman Catholic thinking still held sway in many a Protestant movement as it still does today.
However, these early Täufer came into being, not because they doubted the theology of baptism practised since the time of Christ but because they felt that only a ‘pure’ priest could perform the rite. If the ‘intention’ of the priest was invalid, they thought, so was the baptism, forgetting that baptism is a divine command and not a priestly ritual. Theirs was the theology of Trent. These Täufer, at their origin, still held to covenant baptism as practised throughout Christendom and throughout the ages. However, High Church as they were in believing that only a holy priest could perform a holy act making a child holy, they only gradually rallied around the rite of immersion. This they took over from fourth century Roman Catholicism and the teaching that only a complete submerging in water could wash away all sin. Thus they left the Biblical doctrine of baptism. Their new badge of immersion became the sign of their opposition to the church authorities of the day and historical Christianity.
Happily, We have early documents extant of the baptisms of these supposed Proto-Baptist pioneers such as Swiss Mantz, Blaurock, Schad, Bruggbach, Grebel and others1 which speak of the heads of households being baptised and subsequently their entire household, without anything whatsoever being required of those people but to follow in their parents’ or master’s footprints. They said with true New Testament spirit, ‘As for me and my house, we shall serve the Lord!’ Early Täufer such as Wolfgang Brandhuber even taught that as servants and their families were part of the believer’s household, they should share all their masters’ property and Christian rights.2 There is little connection here between the Zürich Täufer and modern Baptists apart from the desire by modern Baptists to find a footing in history to legitimise their stance.
Concerning the word ‘taufen’, it seems to have been a direct and late neologism for baptizein or baptize. Early 16th century usage shows this term was used for sprinkling or pouring. Even those who called themselves Täufer around 1525-27 were sprinklers and pourers and not immersers. Of the several thousand documents extant which testify to the practice of the Täufer in the first half of the 16th century, we find Grebel, Mantz, Hut, Hubmaier, Münzer, Römer, Spitelmeier etc. using many different forms of baptism which had nothing to do with immersion. Some candidates had a wet hand placed on their heads, others were baptised with three drops of water signifying the Trinity, others had a wet sign of the cross marked on their foreheads, others had a skillet of water poured over them. One Täufer let the water drop below the eyes, another above the eyes. Some of these early Baptist evangelists adopted and adapted various forms to suit the acceptability of the people to whom they ministered at the time and also to keep on the legal side of the town authorities. They, however, added tiny extras so as to show that the Baptists were going their own way.
It is quite certain that these early Baptists did not associate baptism with immersion but the water had a mere symbolic function to demonstrate what they called the ‘inner’ baptism of God’s grace. Thus a number of early Täufer dispensed with water baptism entirely as they had the inner baptism and thus no longer needed the outer sign. The custom of baptising amongst the Baptists developed so that the ‘outer’ baptism became more important as a badge to mark off the Baptists from others. Baptism thus became a denominational sign, not a Christian rite. Also, with the development of sacramental thinking and a love for the ceremonial, immersion gradually took over from sprinkling and pouring.3 Some of the more militant Baptists such as Hans Römer used their various modes of baptism as a standard or rallying mark for their extension of their Bauernkrieg and planned attack on the Reformation cities such as Erfurt. Endzeit (last days) enthusiasts also gradually adopted a more demonstrative different mode of Baptism to mark them off from the established churches whom they ruled were ‘Antichrist’ and the ‘Great Whore of Babylon’. Soon, the mark of baptism overtook doctrine and Christian moral living as that testimony or sign which separated them from the world. Sadly, a number of the Täufer dropped doctrine and Christian morals altogether and we find Hans Schmid, Fritz Striegel and Marx Meyer introducing the so called Inner Voice Baptists (Innere Stimme Täufer) who associated baptism with adulterous practices. This movement was outdone in perversity by the Christerie Baptists founded by Klaus Ludwig in Mühlhausen who claimed that true baptism was the common fleshly union of the brothers and sisters. In this way, they demonstrated their ‘freedom in Christ’. Present day Baptists, however, love to trace their spiritual ancestry back to those turbulent times instead of confessing that, if they were not so intent on finding historical proof for immersion, they would have nothing to do with such practices and beliefs as held by the various early Swiss rebels against orthodoxy and the Establishment of their time.
Little is known amongst most English-speaking writers about supposed Baptist roots in Switzerland because the ancient documents are in the Swiss-German language and in an old form of writing which appear to frighten off most non-Swiss enquirers. If one cannot get hold of original documents or copies of them, the Oncken Verlag has many anthologies in modern German and authors such as Weger, Krahn and Yoder have preserved many a record in English. The Mennonites have been very industrious in preserving records now available in English. If one, however, has a smattering of German and has spent a few holidays in Switzerland, one need not be afraid of tackling the originals, many of which are now printed in facsimile but also in modern print issuing from such publishers as the tvz or Theologischer Verlag Zürich. Most schools or colleges, however, have licenses to browse through online archives and copy digitalized documents which their staff, pupils or students may use. Happily there are a great number of freebies to be had online, too. Sadly, these sources are so little used. Only recently, I read of the struggles a present-day writer had in obtaining copies of sources for a biography. It had taken him ten years to gather the titles he had on his reading list concerning a certain Scottish Martyr. I found them all in the web during one afternoon, most at once, but I had to go to the local library in nearby Mülheim (in the same afternoon) to get two of them. Some of the books he mentioned, such as one by Iain Murray, are still in print. Resources for researchers today are immense. I would encourage my readers to lose no opportunity in researching Church History as rumours have it that the web will no longer be free and fees will soon soar sky-high. There is no time like the present!
- Muralt and Schmid (eds), Quellen zur Geschichte der Täufer in der Schweiz, Zürich, 1952. ↩
- See Wener Packull, Hutterite Beginnings, p. 60. ↩
- This is the view of Elsa Bernhofer-Pippert after consulting 400 early documents relating to the activities of the Täufer and 1,200 testimonies of early Baptists. See her Täuferische Denkweisen und Lebensformen in Spiegel Oberdeutscher Täuferverhöre, Reformationsgeschichtliche Studien und Texte. ↩