The Recovery of Adult Baptism

Protestants and Catholics alike opposed and persecuted those who sought to restore the New Testament doctrine of adult baptism.

V. Norskov Olsen, Ph.D., Th.D., is president of Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California.


During the Middle Ages men and movements arose from time to time attempting to restore believers' baptism, which, along with many other elements of New Testament Christianity, was lost for the main body of the Christian church when the church entered the tunnel of what has been called the Dark Ages. New Testament baptism was first fully revived, as part of evangelical Christianity, when Christian history emerged into the open this side of the Middle Ages.

Continual opposition to adult baptism

The ancient church and the Christian emperors of the Roman Empire had pronounced rebaptism (meaning essentially believers' baptism) a civil crime punishable by death. The medieval papacy both in theory and in practice regarded heresy, including believers' baptism, as a grievous sin, deserving not merely excommunication but capital punishment. The Inquisition and decrees of medieval emperors had the same aim. The decree issued April 23, 1529, by Emperor Charles V against the Ana baptists demonstrates the attitude of both secular rulers and church leaders, whether Catholic or Protestant, toward the Anabaptists during the sixteenth century. This decree was addressed to all the rulers and administrators of the empire whatever their rank—even burgomasters, village mayors, and bailiffs—and for bade rebaptism on pain of death. The various statements of faith is sued during the sixteenth century likewise expressed condemnation of the Anabaptists.

All the Protestant Reformers agreed on infant baptism, but they differed in their theological justification for the rite. However, together they disputed the concept of the Roman Catholics. The latter maintained that baptism (by the very mechanics of the act itself) is an instrument, and not merely a sign, by which God confers His grace on the infant child.

Luther disagreed emphatically, saying that faith is most essential in order to benefit from baptism. In his Large Catechism of 1525 he writes, "Without faith baptism avails nothing."

Did Luther believe an infant had faith before the age of reason? In the early years of the Reformation, Luther justified infant baptism by the faith and prayers of the godfathers. However, he would not, as the Roman Catholics, accept the collective faith of the church as a basis for infant baptism. Luther later came to the view that infants believe. Of course he could not prove it, but apparently he did not feel it necessary to do so. In the Large Catechism of 1529 Luther does not emphasize the faith of the recipient, but rather places importance on God's Word and command, implying that through the Word something happens in the act of baptism.

Zwingli, the Reformer of Zurich, differed from Luther on the concept of the sacraments, and accordingly held a different theological view of infant baptism. He considered a sacrament as a sign, a ceremony, or a pledge that did not actually convey something, even by the help of the Word of God. For Zwingli baptism was a pledge of faith, but even more, baptism expressed the covenant relationship between God and His people, as circumcision did in the Old Testament. Zwingli saw in baptism a corporate significance that, as the act of reception into the church, became a visible sign for those present, telling them that this child had become a member of the covenant people of God.

Baptism as the sign of member ship among the covenant people appeared as a recurring theme in many of the confessions of the Reformed churches. For Calvin, infant baptism presupposed faith that was found in the parents. Since the parents be longed to the elect, their children likewise belonged to the covenant people.

In response to these positions, the Anabaptists asked: "With what right can a church in alliance with a city or a state compare itself with the theocracy of the Old Testament? How is it possible to ascertain that all the citizens are believers? Since the justification for infant baptism rests on believing parents, it seems of fundamental importance that this should be determined."


The rite of confirmation illustrates the weak theological base for infant baptism. In the early church, baptism was preceded by instruction and accompanied with the laying on of hands, through which the gift of the Holy Spirit was believed to be conferred. From the latter ceremony, always performed by the bishop, confirmation developed as a separate rite administered when the child reached maturity. The ceremony became accepted as one of the seven sacraments by the medieval church. Baptismal grace was said to be perfected through the sacrament of confirmation. Wycliffe, in Eng land, and Huss, in Bohemia, rejected the sacramental concept. The Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent confirmed it. How ever, the Protestant Reformers rejected not only the sacramental concept of confirmation but the rite as a whole, on the grounds that it had no Biblical foundation.

Yet Martin Bucer, the Reformer of Strasbourg, instituted a Protestant confirmation as a result of debates with the Anabaptists, who lived in the city in considerable numbers. The Anabaptists reasoned that infant baptism was not valid, for the baptized had not been instructed in the gospel nor had they made a public confession of faith (the two elements of New Testament baptism). In order to meet these arguments Bucer instituted Protestant confirmation, which spread from Strasbourg to other Protestant cities both in Germany and Switzerland. Thus Protestant confirmation was seen as a renewal of the baptismal vow and a personal confession of faith. Confirmation became a crutch to support infant baptism against the claim of the Anabaptists, who maintained that instruction and confession of faith belonged to the very act of baptism itself.

Anabaptism defined

he Protestant Reformers gave those who denied the validity of infant baptism and insisted on believers' baptism the name Wiedertaufer, a German word translated into English as "Anabaptists," or "rebaptizers." They received the label also in order that the imperial laws of capital punishment for re baptizers could be applied to them. Although the Anabaptists baptized those who joined their congregation, they did not consider themselves re baptizers, since infant baptism, they believed, was not a baptism at all in the light of the New Testament teaching. Accordingly, they named themselves Baptists. The Baptist movement at the time of the Reformation comprised many groups, the major ones being the Swiss Brethren, the Hutterites in Moravia, and the Mennonites in Holland. Their aim was to reform the church ac cording to the norm of Scriptures. Like Luther at Worms, they refused to let the question of survival affect their obedience to Scripture. The sober, evangelical leaders among the Anabaptists had much in common with the young Luther and Zwingli. However, after 1525, the Anabaptists dealt with a different Luther—one who had changed after submit ting the Reformation church to the protection and support of the civil authorities, and thereby compromising some of the basic tenets of evangelical Protestantism.

Zurich beginnings of Anabaptism

The story of the Anabaptist movement actually begins in connection with the reform efforts of Zwingli in Zurich. He began to preach Reformation doctrines in 1519 by emphasizing that only what Scripture teaches is law for the Christian. In 1522 some of his fol lowers asked him for the New Testament basis for infant baptism. For some time Zwingli wavered regarding the validity of infant baptism. Balthasar Hubmaier, an Anabaptist and former colleague of Zwingli, later reminded the Reformer about this and scolded him for having changed his mind.

What made Zwingli decide to retain infant baptism? The Anabaptists rose from the inner circle of his friends and associates—men such as Felix Manz and Conrad Grebel, as well as Hubmaier. The initial question on which they conflicted with Zwingli was not that of baptism, but that of a New Testament church. Manz and Grebel desired a church free from civil authorities, and when Zwingli sought to realize the Reformation through the authority of the city council, these men departed from him. Infant baptism and the state-church principle go hand in hand. When Zwingli said Yes to the latter, he also had to adhere to the former. From the concept of a voluntary membership of believing and confessing Christians free from the authority of magistrates, and from their strong belief in Biblical authority, these former associates of Zwingli were led to adult baptism.

Nearly two years passed from the time Grebel and Manz began to doubt the validity of infant baptism until they translated theory into practice. On January 21, 1525, Grebel baptized Georg Blaurock, most likely in Manz's house. Blaurock, in turn, baptized Grebel and others present. This was the birth not only of the Baptist movement but also of the free-church principle. Two years later Felix Manz suffered death by drowning, being the first Anabaptist martyr. The free-church principle became a significant part of the theology of the Baptist movement and had a marked influence on Christian thought, not least through the Mennonites in Holland and elsewhere.

Anabaptists did not enter the main part of Germany until the latter part of the 1520's, and Luther himself did not have personal contact with them as Zwingli had. Luther's written at tacks upon the Anabaptists are colored by the events caused by the extremism of the Zwickau Prophets and Thomas Muntzer. The great debacle of Munster, 1534-1535, was a religious and sociological revolt by Anabaptists who held extreme apocalyptic and eschatological views, and was by no means normative of Anabaptism.

Luther wanted, at one and the same time, a confessional church established on personal faith and a territorial church including all in a given region. He tried, as did the rest of the Reformers, to straddle the fence, and by so doing he sought to harmonize what the Anabaptists realized could not be united. It is interesting to note that in his great Catechism Luther's final argument for infant baptism was that it could not be displeasing to God because through the centuries so many saintly persons had been baptized as children. Here Luther relied upon tradition. Inevitably, it seemed that those who began to refute believers' baptism began to limit the authority of the Bible.

The piety of the Anabaptists and the extent of a movement

The Anabaptists sought first and foremost to exemplify Christ in their lives. Even opponents such as Zwingli and Bullinger testified to the fact that they seemed to have achieved sanctified lives.

The Anabaptist movement was to a large degree a spontaneous one that mushroomed here and there without initially having direct ties with other groups. On the other hand, when congregations were organized, persecution (as in the early church) spread its members far and wide, thus extending their sphere of influence. The rapid growth of the movement is indicated by the official action taken against them by local and imperial authorities, who revived the ancient Roman laws against heresy, making Anabaptism punishable by death.

A renowned Reformation scholar, Roland H. Bainton, gives an objective historical evaluation of the Anabaptist movement in the sixteenth century when he writes: "Anabaptism spread in Switzerland, down the Rhine Valley, and in the Nether lands. The documents now in process of publication reveal an amazing dissemination and indicate a real possibility that Anabaptism, if unimpeded by the sword of the magistrate, might have become the prevailing form of the church in Germany. However, the Great Commission did not succeed. Persecution turned the Anabaptists into the church of the remnant." —Quoted by Guy F. Hershberger, ed., The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision, p. 231.


For further reading about the Anabaptists, we suggest Pilgrim Aflame, by Myron S. Augsburger, the story of Michael Sattler, an early Anabaptist leader who was executed for his faith at Rottenburg in May, 1527. Written in the form of a historical novel, this book allows the reader to breathe and live the atmosphere of the times and to understand
better what made these often-misunderstood people so willing to suffer for truth as they saw it. The book is published by the Herald Press, Scottsdale, Pennsylvania 15683 (Kitchener, Ontario, Canada N2G 4M5), and costs $4.95 in hardback (Canada $5.45), or $2.25 in paper back (Canada, $2.45). —Editors.

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V. Norskov Olsen, Ph.D., Th.D., is president of Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California.

September 1978

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