Heinrich Bullinger (1504-75) and the Catabaptists:

An examination of Alleged Roots of Present Day Baptists

A brief look at the meaning of ‘Catabaptist’.

     Most Baptists nowadays look upon the Swiss Catabaptists or Anabaptists of the 1520s as being the forerunners of the British Baptists who are, in turn, seen as the founders of the American Baptist churches. This argument is far from compelling as the following study of Heinrich Bullinger’s discussions with the Swiss Catabaptists will show.

     The term Catabaptist is thought to have been coined by Gregory of Nazianzus in the fourth century to tease those Christians who insisted on a sacramental understanding of the amount of water necessary for baptism by calling them ‘submergers’ or ‘drowners’. Oecolampadius of Basle was the first of the Swiss Reformers to use the term and Zwingli took it over from him. Oecolampadius used the word in the derogatory sense of ‘drowners’ whereas Zwingli appears to have used it to mean Counter-baptisers or Anti-baptisers as in his 1527 work Widerlegung der Ränke der Täuferzerzerstörer (Against the Tricks of the Baptism-Destroyers). The word ‘wider’ in Swiss-German can mean ‘again’ or ‘against’, therefore Zwingli’s ‘widertouf’ is ambiguous. Historically speaking, Catabaptist was used before Anabaptist but the latter term has prevailed.1


First encounters with the Catabaptists

     Bullinger quickly entered into dialogue with the Catabaptists in his late teens when they first appeared on the Swiss scene. On January 16, 1525, he took part in the first major disputation between the Reformed churches and the Catabaptists at Zürich, including Manz, Grebel and Röubli.  Further disputations were held that year on March 17, March 20 and November 6-8 when Bullinger acted as secretary and clerk, taking down minutes of the debates. In 1525, he published his findings under the title Vergleichung der uralten Ketzereien und derjenigen unserer Zeit, whereby he compared the Counter-Reformation attacks of Rome and Anabaptists with ancient heresies. In the same year, his Von der Taufe und Kindertaufe (On Baptism and Infant Baptism) appeared against the Catabaptists. In January 1531 Bullinger took part in a disputation with the Catabaptists on the topic of money gained through investment and banking and published his findings. Three years later, he wrote his Von dem einen und ewigen Testament oder Bund Gottes, emphasising the one covenant of grace in the entire Bible against the Catabaptist teaching which rejected the Old Testament.

     One of the reasons why Bullinger felt he ought not to accept an invitation to the Marburg Disputation in 1529 was the threat to his new Bremgarten church posed by the Catabaptists. As soon as Bremgarten became Protestant, the Catabaptists began to press for the acceptance of their new rites and beliefs in the newly Reformed church. Bullinger debated openly with them in the congregation, chiefly because of their extreme views in matters of state affairs and trust in external forms for their faith. At these debates, the entire congregation was invited to air their views. In 1530 Catabaptist Hans Pfistermeyer of Aarau visited Bremgarten and drew crowds of well over 300 people to hear his preaching. Most of the crowd were merely curious and not Catabaptists themselves, but still, the fact that they showed interest and did not ignore Pfistermeyer was disturbing for Bullinger who wrote to Capito, telling him that he feared there would be a public uproar. This moved Bullinger to publish his Von dem unverschämten Frevel der Wiedertäufer (On the insolent Sacrilege of the Re-Baptisers).2


Catabaptists were not ‘Dippers’

     Most Catabaptists were not even ‘Dippers’ at this time, as early 16th century usage of this term reveals that ‘taufen’ was by sprinkling or pouring. Indeed, of the numerous 16th century documents testifying to the practice of the Täufer, 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, a number had a wet sign of the cross marked on their foreheads, and some had a skillet of water poured over them. One Catabaptist let the water drop below the eyes, another above the eyes. Some of these early Täufer 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 believed 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 (latter day) enthusiasts also gradually adopted a more demonstrative different mode of Baptism to mark them off from the established churches who 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 practises. 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’.


The Catabaptists/Anabaptists were most varied in their beliefs

     Bullinger reckoned that within less than a decade the Catabaptists had split up into no less than thirteen different movements, some of which went about well-armed and were extremely violent. In next to no time we see Catabaptist movements going by the names of Swiss, Sabbaths, Austerlitzers, Hoferists, Münsters, Hutterites, etc., treating one another as enemies of the truth. Balthazer Hubmaier, for instance, condemned Hans Hut for allegedly spreading sedition and political revolt and Hans Spittelmaier condemned the ‘schismatics’ from his young movement for refusing to carry weapons. He called them Stäbler or Staff-bearers in scorn. The Anabaptist sect of the sword bearers formed the Schwertler Baptists. Later Anabaptists looked on their Swiss fathers in the faith as ‘misanthropes’ and the Swiss Anabaptists looked upon the spiritual children they had fostered in other lands as ‘false brethren’.4 Zwingli, fearing that the Catabaptists were plotting to overthrow the Zürich administration by armed force, became their persecutor. He had pulled Bullinger into the violent controversies by asking him to take part in his debates with the Catabaptists in January 1525. At first the town hall was used but as interest was so great, the debates were continued in the Great Minster. This was the time of the Bauernkrieg or Peasants’ War in Germany and many Reformed men believed that this revolt against the establishment went hand in hand with Anabaptist tenets. A number of Reformed ministers, influenced primarily by Balthasar Hubmeier, who was influenced in turn by Thomas Münzer, went over to the Anabaptists. Amongst these, to Bullinger’s lasting sorrow, was his cousin and constant companion Michael Wüst who gave up his pastorate in 1525, as it was deemed a dishonest occupation by the Anabaptists, and became a weaver.


Bullinger’s argument’s against Catabaptist views on baptism

     In his writings on baptism, Bullinger argues that the rite is like its Old Testament type, circumcision, i.e. a sign of the righteousness which is by faith. The Old Testament sign pointed forward to the shedding of Christ’s blood which brought in the New Covenant in which Old Covenant saints such as Abraham had also trusted. Now the sign of Christianity is not the shedding of blood which wounds but the water of life which heals. Just as believers and their children were placed under the covenant promises of God in the Old Testament, so they are in the New. Baptism, like circumcision is a badge pointing to the righteousness which is of faith. It is thus a badge pointing to God’s grace and not back to what man has done. Bullinger believed that Anabaptist parents disowned their children and robbed them of their birthright by not baptising them. The Anabaptist retorted that we nowhere find infant baptisms in the Scriptures so Bullinger’s arguments were from silence. Bullinger replied that such distinctions as the Baptists draw were never practised in New Testament times. Besides, he pointed out, the Anabaptists rightly allow women to take part in the Lord’s Supper, though there is nothing in the Scriptures which expressly says that they ought. Nevertheless, Bullinger turned the Catabaptists’ argument around and showed them that they were the once arguing from silence as their kind of baptism has no Scriptural backing. The New Testament only knows household baptisms or the baptism of individuals such as Paul who had no family that we know of. Thus the Anabaptist argument for a baptism of those of a certain age of discretion only and as a mere individual demonstration of a personal step Christwards is contrary to pan-Biblical evidence. Bullinger also refutes the Anabaptist theory that after New Testament times, the early church knew no baptisms of believers and their children, backing his argument by quoting the Church Fathers. Bullinger also rejects the Anabaptist rationalist claim that God would not allow the baptism of infants as they did not realise what was going on. Parents, Bullinger believes, have a God-given duty to bring their children up in the ways of the Lord and not wait until they might come to know of them by their own initiative. Besides, did not God command Abraham to circumcise his offspring? Must we presume that those tiny children knew what was happening to them? Does anyone comprehend the mind of God? Finally, Bullinger attacks the Anabaptist proposition that baptism is solely a sign to show who truly believes from their hearts. The only such sign the Bible knows, says Bullinger, giving Romans 8:16 and II Corinthians 1:22, is the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.


Much work still to be done regarding Bullinger’s views on baptism

     However, in spite of the many hundreds of letters extant between Bullinger and the Catabaptists and on the subject of baptism there is still much to be done before the full scope of Bullinger’s understanding of the movement can be outlined. Heinold Fast, who has done tremendous work in this field,5 believes that nobody has influenced an understanding of the history of the Baptists more than Bullinger. However, he compares this influence to a flaming torch which could give more light, but also be used to kindle the flames of persecution. That Bullinger did not kindle such flames becomes apparent when studying his leadership in Zürich from 1531 until his death in 1575. During this period 40 Catabaptists were executed for their faith in Bern in spite of Haller’s and Bullinger’s protests but none were executed in Zürich.6 Indeed, Bullinger surprised all by helping the Catabaptists legally to maintain their citizens’ rights against discrimination. A number of debtors had, for instance, decided they could borrow from Catabaptists and need not pay them back as they were heretics!


The Catabaptists and the Holy Spirit

     This does not mean that Bullinger was friendly to the Catabaptist cause. It only means that he kept in dialogue with them and, at times, lent them a sympathetic ear. He saw the difference between theirs and the Reformed way of thinking in their view of the Holy Spirit. The Catabaptist subordinated, in his opinion, the Scriptures under their understanding of the Holy Spirit as being in them and as being the one who opened the Scriptures to them. Bullinger argued that we cannot begin with the a priori view that we have the Spirit and then arbitrarily understand the Scriptures in this subjective light. The Scriptures are Spirit-breathed and we can only know the working of the Spirit through the Word’s testimony concerning Him. Only then can we test our own lives to see if we are living spiritually.


Baptism God-centred not man-centred

     Bullinger also maintained that the Catabaptist view of baptism was un-Biblical as it was purely centred in the often very vague7 testimony of faith of the one to be re-baptised. Baptism, Bullinger argued, was the pictorial gospel of Christ’s salvation offered to those of His covenant. It was a display of God’s love to sinners and a means of calling the weary and heavy-laden to Him. In other words, the message of baptism was Christ’s call to sinners and not the believer’s reply after accepting the call. Baptism within the covenant promises of God includes the infant children of believers because God covenanted with those who said, “As for me and my house, we shall serve the Lord”. Besides, the Catabaptist idea that baptism is a testimony of election accomplished and not salvation offered, leaves the Catabaptists claiming that they know God’s elect, a fact which only God knows. He believed that if the subjectivism of the Catabaptists were placed above the objective testimony of the Scriptures, there would be no standard of truth. Bullinger told the Catabaptists that they misused and misinterpreted the New Testament because they had lost sight of the unity of Scripture and the progression of revelation. They had rejected the Old Testament and thus severed the gospel branches from their roots in history and revelation. In his earliest letters after his conversion, Bullinger emphasised that the Old Testament is equally God’s Word and we must view the New as a commentary on the Old. The Catabaptists retorted that the Old Testament was a by-gone dispensation and was a source of godly example at best but not a source of doctrine. They also rejected the Old Testament as being a part of God’s everlasting covenant of grace with His people. This is why they could see no connection between the Passover and circumcision with the Lord’s Supper and baptism.


The Catabaptist idea of holiness is unbiblical

     The idea that baptism was of no avail if the baptiser did not live up to Catabaptist standards moved Bullinger to argue that dissent was not the correct way to discipline worldly clergy and that the idea that baptism was only valid if the baptiser had a special spiritual standing before God smacked of Rome. The Catabaptists argued that sinners were not to be baptised but saints. Bullinger responded by teaching that all saints were sinners and the Catabaptist view of baptism for the pure only was against Scripture and common sense. The gospel call comes to those who need a physician, not to the already healthy. Furthermore, Catabaptist baptism re-introduced the old question of sins committed after baptism leaving, according to many Catabaptists, the sinner without salvation or providing a ground for a further baptism after further repentance. Bullinger avoided this confusion by teaching that baptism was God’s gift to us and not our gift to God and that the rite demonstrated Christ’s response to man’s sin not man’s response to Christ’s salvation. He thus rejected the Anabaptist claim that only believer’s in the Catabaptist way should be baptised as no one knows who the elect are and the Anabaptists presumed that they could discern God’s secret, electing will. For Bullinger, baptism was the enacted gospel for all who were under God’s covenant and it was God’s business to rule who was of the elect and who was not and not man’s. The Catabaptists accused Bullinger of confusing state with church but Bullinger argued that it was in the interest of common order that a democratic system was preserved. The powers that be are ordained of God. He pointed out that the Catabaptists held radically different views amongst themselves concerning taxation, government and church discipline and order and if they were all given a free rein, chaos would ensue. It was part of the Christian’s testimony to be leaven in the world and not merely in a dissenting body of ever-splitting, temporary like-minded separatists.


Kindness through alleged cruelty

     Bullinger regarded the Catabaptists as most unstable citizens, and showed apparent harshness towards them by having them banned from ecclesiastical, military, administrative and legal posts. Actually, this was a concession to the Catabaptists as they strongly renounced such positions themselves. Thus Bullinger made their withdrawal from public life legal. He told the Senate right from the start of his ministry that he was against religious persecution and that no Anabaptist or Roman Catholic should be punished for not presenting his children for baptism or not attending the Lord’s Supper himself. He was merely banned from holding a civic office, which, as far as the Catabaptist was concerned, he refused to hold anyway. Bullinger diplomatically disciplined the Catabaptists in the eyes of the magistrates but, in reality, allowed the Catabaptists to follow their consciences. He also refused to forbid the Catabaptists freedom of worship and it was not unusual at this time to find groups of Catabaptists gathered for worship in even remote country districts which numbered from two to three hundred. Bullinger was nevertheless convinced that the Catabaptists wished to establish a society of chaos and superstition, diametrically opposed to the rule of Scripture and Apostolic practice.

     One outcome of the Catabaptist debate was that Bullinger turned to foreign countries for help in resolving the problems and found allies in Strasburg, Geneva and London. He was particularly influenced on the question of baptism by Martin Bucer of Strasburg. Sadly, from Luther’s side, apart from a short respite, he received only adverse criticism as Luther now ranked the Swiss Reformed churches with the Catabaptists, seeing little, if any, difference. Paradoxically, this was because Luther held to a more sacramental and mystical view of the ordinances than did Bullinger, which was one of Bullinger’s main complaints against the Catabaptists.



  1. See Harder’s The Sources of Swiss Anabaptism, pp. 756-57 for a nigh exhaustive explanation of the term.
  2. Written in the summer of 1530 but not published until the following year.
  3. 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.
  4. See Packull, Werner O., Hutterite Beginnings, John Hopkins University Press, 1995.
  5. See, for instance, his Heinrich Bullinger und die Täufer and published by the Mennonite Historical Society in the Palatine (Pfalz, 1959).
  6. The four Catabaptists executed at Zürich were sentenced under Zwingli.
  7. Often candidates were immediately baptised on their answering such question as ‘Do you wish to live righteously?’ or ‘Do you wish to receive all God’s blessings`?’ in the affirmative.