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A History of the Reformation (Vol. 2 of 2)

The Anabaptist and the Socinian movements require


Anabaptist and the Socinian movements require, however, a more detailed description.



The old monotonous mode of describing Anabaptism has almost entirely disappeared with the modern careful examination of sources. It is no longer possible to sum up the movement in four stages, beginning with the Zwickau prophets and ending with the catastrophe in Muenster, or to explain its origin by calling it the radical side of the Reformation movement.[603] It is acknowledged by careful students to have been a very complicated affair, to have had roots buried in the previous centuries, and to have had men among its leaders who were distinguished Humanists. It is now known that it spread over Europe with great rapidity, and attracted to itself an enormously larger number of adherents than had been imagined.

It is impossible within the limits of one brief chapter to state and criticise the various theories of the origin and roots of the movement which modern investigation has suggested. All that can be done is to set down succinctly the conclusions reached after a tolerably wide examination of the sources--admitting at the same time that more information must be obtained ere the history of the movement advances beyond the controversial stage.

It is neither

safe nor easy to make abrupt general statements about the causes or character of great popular movements. The elements which combine to bring them into being and keep them in existence are commonly as innumerable as the hues which blend in the colour of a mountain side. Anabaptism was such a complicated movement that it presents peculiar difficulties. As has been said, it had a distinct relation to two different streams of mediaeval life, the one social and the other religious--the revolts of peasants and artisans, and the successions of the _Brethren_.

From the third quarter of the fifteenth century social uprisings had taken place almost every decade, all of them more or less impregnated with crude religious beliefs. They were part of the intellectual and moral atmosphere that the "common man," whether in town or country district, continuously breathed, and their power over him must not be lost sight of. The Reformation movement quickened and strengthened these influences simply because it set all things in motion. It is not possible, therefore, to draw a rigid line of separation between some sides of the Anabaptist movement and the social revolt; and hence it is that there is at least a grain of truth in the conception that the Anabaptists were the revolutionaries of the times of the Reformation.

On the other hand, there are good reasons for asserting that the distinctively religious side of Anabaptism had little to do with the anarchic outbreaks. It comes in direct succession from those communities of pious Christians who, on the testimony of their enemies, lived quiet God-fearing lives, and believed all the articles in the Apostles' Creed; but who were strongly anti-clerical. They lived unobtrusively, and rarely appear in history save when the chronicle of some town makes casual mention of their existence, or when an Inquisitor ferreted them out and records their so-called heresies. Their objections to the constitution and ceremonies of the mediaeval Church were exactly those of the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century; and if we do not find a universal repudiation of infant baptism, there are traces that some did not approve of it. They insisted that the service ought to be in the vulgar tongue; they objected to all the Church festivals; to all blessing of buildings, crosses, and candles; they alleged that Christ did not give His Apostles stoles or chasubles; they scoffed at excommunications, Indulgences, and dispensations; they declared that there was no regenerative efficacy in infant baptism; and they were keenly alive to all the injunctions of Christian charity--it was better, they said, to clothe the poor than to expend money on costly vestments or to adorn the walls of Churches, and they kept up schools and hospitals for lepers. They met in each other's houses for public worship, which took the form of reading and commenting upon the Holy Scriptures.[604]

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