Socially and intellectually less “respectable” than the established Lutheran and Anglican churches or the sober Calvinists was a range of radical sects, the left wing of the Protestant revolution. In the sixteenth century most of these were known as Anabaptists (from the Greek for “baptizing again”).
Some of Zwingli’s followers had come to hold that the Catholic sacrament of baptism of infants had no validity, since the infant was too young to “believe” or “understand.” At first, the Anabaptists baptized members again when the believer voluntarily joined the company of the elect. Later generations were never baptized until they came of age, so the prefix ana- was dropped, leading to the Baptists of modern times.
The Anabaptists split under the pressure of persecution and as a result of the spread of private reading and interpretation of the Bible. Some observers saw the increasing number of Protestant sects as the inevitable result of the Protestant practice of seeking in the Bible for an authority they refused to find in the dogmas of Catholic authority. The Bible contains an extraordinary variety of religious experience, from rigorous ritual to intense emotional commitment and mystical surrender. Many of the leaders of these new sects were uneducated people with grievances against the established order who were seeking to bring heaven to earth immediately.
In 1534-1535 a group of Anabaptists led by John Bockelson of Leiden, a Dutch tailor, took control of the city of Munster in northwest Germans’, expelled its prince-bishop, and tried to set up a biblical utopia. The Anabaptists pushed the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith to its logical extreme in anarchism, or, in theological language, antinomianism (from the Greek “against law”): Each person was to find God’s universal law within the private conscience, not in written law and tradition. They did not believe in class distinctions or in the customary forms of private property. The established order—an alliance between the Catholic bishop of Mv81nster and the Lutheran landgrave of Hesse—put them down by force; their leaders were executed, and the troops hunted the members of the sect down to the last man and woman.
The great majority of Anabaptists were far removed from the fanaticism of Munster. Many sought to bring the Christian life to earth in quieter and more constructive ways. They established communities in accordance with their beliefs about how the primitive Christians had lived—in brotherhood, working, sharing, and praying together. This sober majority of Anabaptists also met violent persecution in the sixteenth century but survived, thanks to the discipline and submissiveness insisted upon by their gifted leader, Menno Simons (c. 1496-1561), a Dutch ex-priest whose followers became Mennonites.
Two other radical strains in Protestantism were the mystical and the Unitarian. The first was exemplified by Caspar von Schwenkfeld (1489-1561), a former Teutonic Knight and convert to Lutheranism who believed that the true church was to be found solely in the inner spirit of the individual. His stress on the spiritual and the mystical and his antagonism toward formalistic religion contributed later to the development of German pietism in reaction against the established Lutheran church.
Unitarianism is usually identified with rejection of the Trinity as an irrational concept, and the view that Christ was simply an inspired human being. But sixteenth-century Unitarianism was much more mystical in outlook. Its most famous advocate, the Spanish physician Michael Servetus (1511-1553), believed that Christ was the son of God, yet at the same time he denied the existence of the Trinity and its doctrine that father and son were coeternal.
Thereby Servetus hoped that it would be possible to reconcile the Jewish and Muslim traditions of Spain with the Christian. His teachings and the uncompromising way he presented them greatly alarmed many Protestants and Catholics. Servetus was prosecuted for heresy by Calvin himself, and burned at the stake in 1553.