Sabbatarian Anabaptists?

The major Reformers intended that all their beliefs be based on Scripture, and the Anabaptists extended their work. But how did they relate to the biblical Sabbath?

Richard Muller, Th, D., is a pastor in the West Danish Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. In his spare time he is studying the primary sources of Swiss, German, and Dutch Anabaptists on baptism.

Richard Muller's series on the Anabaptists has pointed out that their movement arose as an extension of the Reformation. On some issues—such as the nature of the church and the validity of infant baptism— the Anabaptists differed with the major Reformers (see our September and November issues, respectively). When they differed, they did so because they believed that, regarding the issues invoked, the Reformers did not have a scriptural basis for their belief and practice. This article, which concludes the series, presents evidence that some of the Anabaptists also sought reformation as to the day of worship.—Editors.


As Seventh-day Adventists we are especially interested in the day of rest. While the biblical evidence is of primary importance to us, we also want to know how, through out history, others have viewed the Sabbath. What did the Reformers, and particularly the Anabaptists, believe? In this article we will very briefly sketch the biblical background, present a few highlights from the history of the Sabbath/Sunday controversy, and look at a little of the evidence from the Anabaptists.

The biblical background

The biblical evidence as to which day is the Sabbath, the day for rest and worship, begins with the Creation account. God rested on the seventh day (Gen. 2:2, 3)—not because He was tired, but because He intended the Sabbath to meet man's needs. The Sabbath of Creation was a gift to man.

The fourth of the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:8-11) even more clearly singles out the seventh day as the Sabbath, the day of worship and physical rest. (According to Lutheran calculation, it is the third commandment that enjoins the day of rest. Here they have followed the Roman Catholic numbering of the Ten Commandments).

The prophets too speak highly about the Sabbath. For instance, Ezekiel says that the Sabbath is a sign of God's people, specifically identifying God as the one who sanctifies His people (Eze. 20:12). And according to Isaiah 66:23, the Sabbath is a sign of the hope that God will create a new heaven and a new earth (where worship will still take place on the Sabbath).

But all this belongs to the Old Testament. Didn't Christ abolish the law? In the whole of the New Testament we do not find that Christ did so. Nor do we find that Christ put away the Sabbath. He did work miracles on the Sabbath (see, for example, Luke 4:16- 21, 31-37; Matt. 12:9-21; Luke 13:10- 17; John 5:1-18; 9:1-41). But nowhere does Scripture say that we cannot do good on the Sabbath. By His Sabbath miracles, Jesus was indicating that the Sabbath was to be freed from all the traditional laws that surrounded it. The hundreds of rabbinical Sabbath laws had made it a burden rather than a joy. Jesus did not abolish the Sabbath, but returned to it its original meaning.

Nor do Paul's writings support a change in the day of worship. Some have concluded that Paul's Epistles indicate that the law has been abolished, but a careful reading reveals that he simply wrote against trying to use the law as a means of winning one's own salvation. According to Paul, salvation cannot be earned, but is a free gift of God. In fact, Paul wrote that the law is not abolished by faith (Rom. 3:31), and that it is holy, just, and good (Rom. 7:12).

No scriptural text—Old or New Testament—abolishes the seventh-day Sabbath. 1

Changing from Sabbath to Sunday

When we leave the boundaries of the inspired Bible and move into the time of the early church and on, we enter the realm of tradition, of the opinions of people. What we learn from this time helps us understand current practices, but ultimately these ideas are not binding for Christians.

We find that the first reference suggesting that the Sabbath was abolished was made around A.D. 135. This earliest statement and those that immediately followed reveal a strong anti-Jewish feeling. Anti-Judaism, pagan sun worship, allegorical interpretation of Scripture, Gnostic heresies, and Greek philosophies all had their share in bringing about the abandonment of the fourth commandment. Slowly the day of the sun, the first day of the week, replaced the Sabbath. 2

Constantine the Great undertook the most decisive and lasting step in the change when he, for religious and political reasons, declared the day of the sun as the national feast day. Soon most Christians had transferred all religious duties and privileges from Saturday, the biblical Sabbath, to Sunday.

During the Middle Ages Sunday was increasingly regarded as the Christian Sabbath. With the help of the state, the church formulated a great number of laws to protect Sunday sacredness. This was the situation at the time of the Reformation. Unfortunately, the great Reformers such as Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli did not feel it necessary to reestablish the biblical day of rest. As they had in a number of other areas, here also they continued to follow the traditions of the church.

The Roman Catholics were ever ready to charge the Protestants with not being consistent with their great Reformation principle soia scriptura—Scripture alone. Johann Eck, one of Martin Luther's fiercest opponents, pointed out that in the whole of Scripture, one cannot find any change of the day of rest. The Bible speaks only about Sabbathkeeping. In effect he said, If you Protestants are not honoring Saturday as the Sabbath, then you are following our tradition and you are untrue to your own principles.

The Reformers could not say much in answer to this criticism. Their appeal to Scripture did not comport well with their setting aside the creation Sabbath, embedded as it is in the midst of the holy Ten Commandments. 3

What about the Anabaptists? Did they not want to reform the church on the grounds of the Bible alone? How then did they relate to this change in the biblical Sabbath?

In many matters the Anabaptists were not afraid to swim against the stream. As we saw with their concept of the church and baptism, they returned to the scriptural practice rather than following the traditional approach regardless of what the majority around them were doing.

Unfortunately, like the Reformers, the Anabaptists were not always consistent in their reasoning. Some concluded that one should keep Sunday strictly, accepting Sunday as the Sabbath. Others accepted Luther's position that there were no longer any holy days, that all days were equal. They maintained that Sunday should be observed only because of tradition and for the sake of church order. But there were some Anabaptist groups who were not willing to compromise in this respect, and who re-instituted God's venerable Sabbath as the day of rest and worship. 4

Reforming the day of rest

Unfortunately, not enough research has been done to reveal to what extent the Anabaptists kept the biblical Sabbath. We know that some groups in Moravia and Silesia did so. But the primary sources, the books and tracts that the Sabbath-keeping Anabaptists themselves wrote, have been lost. This is not surprising, since those in authority systematically destroyed the written works of the groups they regarded as heretical. Consequently, we have to rely on information that the opponents of the biblical Sabbath have left for us.

We have a few sources that were written in an attempt to refute the Anabaptists' position on the Sabbath. Because these writings clearly reveal a polemical spirit, it is difficult to know whether they painted an accurate picture of the Anabaptists, and yet until some one finds the original works of the Sabbath-keeping Anabaptists, we can learn about them only from these sources.

The best known Sabbatarian Ana baptist leaders were Oswald Glait and Andreas Fischer, two scholars and theologians who had been priests before they joined the Anabaptist movement. Their positions reveal a comprehensive knowledge of Scripture—their only guide— and also of the Sabbath. The following is a summary of Fischer's understanding of the Sabbath as his opponent Valentine Crautwald presented it.

"1. The Ten Commandments of God are ten covenant words in which the external Sabbath is instituted and included. Where the Sabbath is not kept, one trespasses the commandments of God and there remain only eight (sic) covenant words.

"2. Moses, the prophets, including the apostles, who are teachers in the New Testament, all teach the Ten Commandments to which also the Sabbath belongs; therefore, one should keep it.

"3. In the New Testament it is commanded that the Ten Command ments are .to. be kept; therefore also the Sabbath.

"4. Christ works the commandments of God, which is the will of His Father, into believing hearts. He makes known His work, law, and commandment, to which belongs also the Sabbath of Moses, which one should keep.

"5. The Sabbath [commandment] is one of the big commandments; there fore, one should keep it.

"6. Through faith we establish the law, Romans 3; therefore also the Sabbath.

"7. The first and oldest fathers [patriarchs] have kept the commandments of God, before Moses. Therefore, they had also to keep the external Sabbath, otherwise they would not have kept the Ten Commandments of God. . . . For this reason one should keep the Sabbath visibly [eusserlich] in Christendom according to the law.

"8. James declares, 'If someone says he keeps the whole law but fails in one point he has become guilty of breaking all of it; he has become a transgressor of the law.' Pray tell, can or may the Sabbath be an exception?

"9. Paul repeats the law, but the law includes the Sabbath, which is generally understood; and when the other apostles refer to one or two of the commandments they refer to the tables, the covenant of God.

"10. Paul and the apostles held meetings on the Sabbath.

"11. The Scriptures speak so often about the Sabbath; if I would have as many texts and passages about Sunday as there are about Sabbath, I would keep Sunday instead of Sabbath.

"12. We believe with the Jews that there is but one God [Deut. 6:45], and salvation has come to us from them, and yet we are not Jews, why should we not keep the Sabbath with them?

"13. Christ, the apostles, and all early fathers [of the church] have kept holy the Sabbath day.

"14. Pope Victor and Emperor Constantine are the first ones who ordered that Sunday should be kept; it is also issued in the Decretal; but God instituted and ordered the [keeping of the] Sabbath.

"15. All assemblies of Christians were held on Sabbath for many years after Christ's time.

"16. The commandments of God stand and remain forever, Ecclesiastes 12; Baruch 4. Even if all letters would burn up, as the Jews lost the tables long ago, the Ten Commandments remain until the end of the world, because they are the everlasting commandments." 5

(We do not consider all of Fischer's arguments valid. Number 14, for example, is not a true historical statement, and number 16 appeals to Baruch, a book that does not belong to the Protestant canon of Scriptures, but in those days was included in the Bible.)

As Seventh-day Adventists, we appreciate these spiritual forebears. They are a part of the people from all the ages who have wanted to be true to God's Word and who have honored His holy Sabbath.

But although we are interested in establishing our links with the past, our primary reason for keeping the seventh day as the Sabbath is that it is scriptural. The Bible speaks only of that day as the day of rest and worship. We feel bound to the Word, including the Ten Commandments. We feel bound to honor the day that, since the creation of the world, God has set aside.

"Here is the patience of the saints: here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus" (Rev. 14:12).

1 The new book by Samuele Bacchiocchi,
Divine Rest for Human Restlessness (Rome: Pontifical
Gregorian University, 1980), gives a good
discussion of the biblical period. It also does
especially well at exploring the true meaning and
theology of the Sabbath for modern man.

2 See the recent doctoral dissertation by
Samuele Bacchiocchi, From Sabbath to Sunday
(Rome: Pontifical Gregorian University, 1977),
which gives a very detailed and scholarly treatment
of the early history of the Sabbath/Sunday conflict.

3 Ibid., pp. 74-132. Here there is a very good
discussion on the New Testament's "Sunday

4 For a more detailed discussion of the history of
the Sabbath and Sunday, especially at the time of
the Reformation, see my doctoral dissertation,
Adventisten—Sabbat—Reformation: Geht das Ruhetagsverstdndnis
der Adventisten bis zur Zeit der
Reformation zuriick? Eine theologiegeschichtliche
Untersuchung (Lund: 1979). Published as number
38 of the series Studia Theologica Lundensia. See
also Kenneth A. Strand, ed., The Sabbath in
Scripture and History (Washington, D.C.: Review
and Herald Pub. Assn., 1982).

5 These 16 points are taken from the English
translation provided by Gerhard Hasel in
"Sabbatarian Anabaptists of the Sixteenth Century: Part
II," Andrews University Seminary Studies 6 (January
1968): 23-27. The original text and an extensive
discussion on the Sabbathkeeping Anabaptists can
be found in Adventisten—Sabbat—Reformation, pp.

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Richard Muller, Th, D., is a pastor in the West Danish Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. In his spare time he is studying the primary sources of Swiss, German, and Dutch Anabaptists on baptism.

January 1987

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