The Radical Reformation and the Restoration of the Gospel
Stephen J. Fleming, “The Radical Reformation and the Restoration of the Gospel,” Religious Educator 7, no. 2 (2006): 65–77.
Stephen J. Fleming has a master’s degree in history from California State University, Stanislaus.
The Reformation not only is a major event in world history but also is generally considered one of the important events leading up to the Restoration. Elder M. Russell Ballard declared, “I believe these reformers were inspired to create a religious climate in which God could restore lost truths and priesthood authority.” We commonly hear such Reformers as Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Huss, and Wycliffe praised by the Brethren and lay members alike. However, the way many members of the Church often view the Reformation is commonly influenced by the larger American society with its historically Protestant worldview. Protestants naturally see their predecessors as heroes who resisted Catholic tyranny, but this Protestant view is a somewhat simplistic and even warped construction of the actual events. More importantly, the Protestant version often leaves out important parts of the story that I believe were essential to the creation of “a religious climate in which God could restore lost truths and priesthood authority.” This article summarizes the major events of the Reformation but focuses on the often-overlooked Radical Reformers, whom I believe anticipated the Restoration to a greater extent than the Protestant Reformers.
Catholicism had always struggled with corruption, but by the time of the Renaissance, the church’s problems seemed particularly acute. Renaissance Catholicism had corruption at all levels, but the Renaissance popes became the embodiment of Catholicism’s problems. At this time, the papacy had become very wealthy; and, in many ways, the Renaissance popes acted more like ruling princes than ecclesiastical leaders. Pope Leo X’s famous statement “God has given us the papacy—let us enjoy it” embodies the attitude. The Renaissance popes became preoccupied with running their papal states and funding extravagant projects. Some of these popes were also patrons of Renaissance artists, including Michelangelo and Raphael. To finance projects, the church became more and more dependent on fund-raising procedures, such as the sale of indulgences (buying out of purgatory) and simony (buying church offices). Furthermore, neglect of spirituality for worldly pursuits was rampant throughout Catholicism. Pluralism, or the practice of simultaneously holding several ecclesiastical offices, was common. In pluralism, the clergyman received compensation for various offices without having to attend to the related duties. Many felt that spirituality in the church had been overshadowed by worldly ambition.
In addition to increased corruption, the Renaissance also bred the new learning of humanism. The humanist desire was to learn wisdom from the classics. Many humanists were devout Christians—called Christian humanists—who focused their learning in a religious direction. Chief among the Christian humanists was Desiderius Erasmus, who made great efforts to translate early Christian writings, particularly the Bible. Erasmus wanted to get away from the philosophies of the day and return to those of the Gospels. Erasmus wrote, “I could wish that those frigid sophistries could either be quite cut out or at least were not the theologians’ only concern, and that Christ pure and simple might be planted deep into the minds of men; and this I think could best be brought about if . . . we drew our philosophy from the true sources.” Erasmus and many of his colleagues hurled criticism at the contemporary church with hope of reform. It has frequently been said that “Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched.”
It was Martin Luther who made the bold move of breaking with Catholicism. Luther began his protest by nailing his ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenberg Chapel in 1517, and the Reformation was under way. Luther criticized the abuses in the Catholic Church, particularly indulgences, simony, and pluralism. The recent invention of the printing press enabled Luther’s ideas to be disseminated throughout Germany. Soon, the pope excommunicated Luther, but Luther’s ideas continued to gain ground. Many German princes flocked to his cause. Luther began reforming the church in Wittenburg, doing away with the mass, cutting the sacraments from seven to two (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and doing away with celibacy in the clergy.
But for Luther, it was the doctrines of Catholicism even more than its abuses that he opposed. Luther opposed Catholicism’s go-betweens of saints, sacraments, priests, and popes and sought a direct relationship with God and Christ. Luther taught that faith in Christ was ultimately important and that man was, therefore, saved by grace and not by works. Furthermore, God was absolute and sovereign in the saving relationship. Luther soon denied man’s free will and advocated predestination.
Close to the same time, Ulrich Zwingli advocated reform of the Catholic Church in Zurich, Switzerland. Working closely with the Zurich city council, Zwingli introduced a number of changes similar to those of Luther. Attempts were made to unite the Zwinglian and Lutheran movements, but the two clashed over their interpretation of the Lord’s Supper. Both rejected the mass and the notion of the reenactment of the sacrifice of Christ’s body, but Luther maintained that the bread and wine still contained Christ’s real presence, whereas Zwingli argued that the presence was symbolic. The two denominations found their differences irreconcilable, and thus two Protestant traditions were formed. Zwingli was killed in battle in 1531; however, he started what became known as the Reformed tradition, which was furthered by the theologians Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bulinger, and, most well known, John Calvin.
With the Anglicans, the Lutheran and Reformed traditions are collectively known as the Magisterial Reformation. The common link between them is that all the denominations were strongly linked to the state. Luther received support from a number of German princes and Scandanavian kings. Zwingli always worked through the civil authorities in Zurich, and Calvin did the same in Geneva. The English Reformation was initiated by Henry VIII, who broke away from the Catholic Church and had Parliament declare him the head of the church in England. Thus, the Magisterial Reformation continued the practice of the state church and denied religious freedom to religious dissenters.
What is often left out of the conventional narrative is that the Magisterial Reformation was just one of many reformations in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Protestants were not the only ones who wanted to see the Catholic Church reformed. Many leading Catholics, particularly Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, worked hard to eradicate the abuses in the church. However, many popes resisted calling a council on the issue because the popes had often lost power to cardinals and bishops when councils were held. Pope Paul III, however, was determined to see reform and became a major force behind what is called the Catholic Reformation. Paul began by calling an investigation into the state of the church and found that abuses were common. With this information, Paul called the Council of Trent in 1545, which lasted several sessions until 1563. At Trent, Catholic leaders instituted a system for improving the clergy through better education, monitoring, and eliminating pluralism and simony. At the same time, Trent reaffirmed basic Catholic doctrines, including the authority of the pope and the legitimacy of the sacraments.
With the Catholics at Trent addressing clerical corruption but reasserting their doctrines, what ultimately divided the Catholic Reformation from the Magisterial Reformation were doctrines, not abuses. The divide concerned the nature of man’s role in his salvation. The Catholics adopted St. Thomas Aquinas’s view that salvation was a lifelong process, which came through righteous living and the church’s sacraments, and that man was not totally depraved but had the ability to choose good and affect his own salvation thereby. The Protestants, Luther and Calvin, adopted the Augustinian view that salvation came by faith through grace alone and that man, who was totally depraved and lacking in free will, played no part in his salvation.
I argue that the Magisterial Reformation made few improvements over Catholicism on essential doctrines, as the Catholic Thomist view appears closer to Mormonism than the Protestant Augustinian view. For example, here is Luther’s attempt to explain predestination: “This is the acme of faith, to believe that God who saves so few and condemns so many is merciful; that He is just who at His own pleasure has made us necessarily doomed to damnation, so that . . . He seems to delight in the tortures of the wretched and to be more deserving of hatred than of love. If by any effort of reason I could conceive how God, who shows so much anger and harshness, could be merciful and just, there would be no need of faith.” Calvin was an even stronger advocate of predestination and thus created a more complex and arcane theology. Although the Magisterial Reformers may have been sincere in their efforts to produce correct doctrine, in reality, much of that doctrine deviates markedly from the restored gospel.
It is important to note that Erasmus and many of the humanists did not join the reformers who parted with the Catholic Church. Erasmus found Luther’s denial of free will and advocacy of predestination doctrinally intolerable. Because of these differences, Erasmus told Luther, “Therefore I will put up with this church until I see a better one.” Many Reformers refused to join the Protestants, and I believe that Latter-day Saints can sympathize with their reluctance.
However, Erasmus and the humanists did have other choices besides Catholicism and the Magisterial Reformation. There were many contemporary alternatives to the Magisterial Reformation, and one that is often overlooked is the Radical Reformation, which rejected both Catholicism and the Magisterial Reformation. The Magisterial Reformation gained more power and adherents than the Radical Reformation; therefore, the sixteenth-century Reformation is often thought to be synonymous with the Magisterial Reformation. Yet the Radicals frequently taught doctrines closer to that of the Restored Gospel and made valiant sacrifices for their beliefs that, over time, greatly expanded religious freedom—all of which greatly facilitated the restoration of the Church.
Generally, the Radicals felt the Magisterial Reformers went only part way in reforming Christianity. In fact, many of the leaders of the Radical Reformation started out as followers of either Luther or Zwingli but split with the Magisterial Reformers when they felt that true reform had been compromised. The Radicals did not simply want to reform contemporary Christianity; they wanted a restitution of Christ’s Church as it was modeled in the New Testament. The Radical Reformers also generally rejected infant baptism, but the Radicals differed on the issue of how exactly to reform the church and what the church should do instead of infant baptism.
One major branch of the Radical Reformation was the Spiritualists. The Spiritualists taught that people needed to rely on the "inner word" of the Spirit to know God's will rather than rely solely on the Bible. Spiritualists were often individual preachers who seldom formed denominations. One exception was Caspar Schwenckfeld, the Silesian nobleman. Schwenckfeld taught the importance of relying on the inner word. He also taught that the true Church was not on the earth at that time and that people should wait piously until Christ once again called Apostles to lead His Church. He gathered a small following called the Schwenckfelders. In the Netherlands, Henry Nicaels formed a secretive and close-knit body based on Spiritualist principles called the "family of love."
The primary branch of the Radical Reformation was the Anabaptists, or rebaptizers. Anabaptists, as they were called by their detractors, referred to themselves as Brethren, Christians, or Saints. There were several Anabaptist groups, but what the various forms of Anabaptists had in common was the belief that infant baptism was null because only believers could be baptized; infants, therefore, did not qualify.
The first Anabaptists were part of Zwingli’s followers in Zurich. Under the leadership of such figures as Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and George Blaurock, some of Zwingli’s followers began calling themselves the Brethren in Christ. They challenged Zwingli on the issue of infant baptism. Zwingli himself had reservations about infant baptism before deciding that the practice was legitimate. Zwingli always worked through the Zurich Council to implement his reforms, and soon the Brethren in Christ, or Swiss Brethren, became intolerant of Zwingli’s compromises. As time passed, the Brethren became more convinced of the necessity of believers’ baptism and continued to debate Zwingli on the matter; but the town council decided in favor of Zwingli and denounced the Brethren. Still convinced, on January 21, 1525, a group of the Brethren gathered at Felix Manz’s house, where George Blaurock requested Conrad Grebel to baptize him. All present at the meeting were then baptized, and the first Anabaptist movement was officially under way. 
Zwingli and the Zurich Council moved quickly against the Anabaptists, exiling many and imprisoning Grebel, Manz, and Blaurock. Yet the Anabaptists heeded Christ’s great commission to teach all nations and baptize believers, and so the movement spread. With the spread of the movement came increased ire from the various authorities. The first Anabaptist to be executed was Eberli Bolt, who was burned at the stake by Catholic authorities in Schwyz, Switzerland. Soon rebaptism became a capital crime throughout most of Europe. Grebel and his friends were given life sentences but managed to escape. Grebel continued to preach in various towns in Switzerland until he died of the plague in the summer of 1526. Felix Manz was executed by drowning in 1527 by Protestants in Zurich. 
The Brethren struggled because of the constant execution of their leaders, but the movement continued to grow. Soon, Michael Sattler took over the movement and defined the Brethren’s religious practice. In 1527, Sattler was arrested and brought to trial by Catholic authorities in Rottenburg, where he ably defended himself against charges of heresy. Furious, the court tried to get him to recant through all manner of threats, including the sentence of execution, which read, “Michael Sattler shall be delivered to the executioner, who shall lead him to the place of execution, and cut out his tongue; then throw him upon a wagon, and there tear his body twice with red hot tongs; and after he has been brought without the gate, he shall be pinched five times in the same manner.  After undergoing this sentence, Sattler was burned at the stake. Sattler bore this execution with such patience and resolution that many in the area were deeply moved, and Anabaptism continued to grow.
Soon, Anabaptism emerged in the Netherlands under the millennialist preaching of Melchior Hoffman. Hoffman died in prison, and after a tumultuous existence, the leadership of the Dutch Anabaptists fell to Menno Simmons. Simmons became the leading theologian of the Anabaptists in western Europe, and although there were several Anabaptist groups in the region, his group, the Mennonites, became the dominate one. Because of the continual loss of leadership among the Swiss Brethren, the Swiss Anabaptists soon merged with the Mennonites.
Anabaptism was also successful in the southeastern German province of Moravia under the preaching of Balthazar Hubmaier. The Moravian barons were some of the most tolerant in Europe, and persecuted Radicals of all varieties poured in. Hubmaier was executed in Vienna in 1528, and the Anabaptist leadership in the area fell to Jacob Hutter, who was burned at the stake in 1536. His heroic conduct under torture inspired the movement to adopt his name as its own. The Hutterites practiced a community of goods, organizing themselves into what they called Bruderhofs, and they became known for their excellent conduct, their schools, and their physicians. Nevertheless, the Hutterites were continually driven between Moravia and Hungary and were often forced to live as vagabonds. 
There were many varieties of Anabaptists, but their belief in the necessity of believers’ baptism caused them to have many doctrinal similarities. The centerpiece of Anabaptist belief was the need for the restitution of the true Church as it existed in New Testament times. Thus, the Anabaptists’ intent was to follow the New Testament model of the Church and not to compromise, as they felt the Magisterial Reformers had. The most important practice was that of believers’ baptism, which meant that only believers joined the true Church instead of the entire population, as in Catholicism and the Magisterial Reformation. This practice separated the Anabaptists’ churches from the state. Likewise the Anabaptists advocated freedom of religion for all beliefs, claiming that the state ought not to play any role in such matters.
The Anabaptists had a different view of history than the other reformers. Catholics saw Christianity as being instituted by Christ and then growing and expanding under His leaders on the earth. Protestants believed that the Christian Church fell into apostasy when the popes took too much power to themselves several hundred years after Constantine. The Anabaptists saw apostasy as occurring much earlier and saw Constantine as a particular culprit. The Anabaptists denounced Constantine for uniting church and state, which led to mandatory infant baptism and forced conversions of heathens. With this mass influx of unbelievers, the church became corrupted. The Anabaptists saw themselves as the restitution of Christ’s true Church that anticipated the Lord’s imminent return. 
To be the true Church, the Anabaptists attempted to follow the pattern in the New Testament. Communalism was practiced by many, though it was only successfully maintained by the Hutterites. Anabaptists also refused to swear oaths, and many advocated withdrawal from society. Almost all were strictly pacifistic and refused to pay taxes to support the military. The Anabaptists also believed that the true Church must be strictly devout. A high level of piety was demanded, and those whose conduct was less than adequate were banned from the church so the true Church could maintain its purity.
Persecution and martyrdom became the hallmark of the Radical Reformation, particularly for the Anabaptists. Anabaptists were persecuted by both Catholics and Protestants. Zwingli and Luther alike despised the movements. Scholars do not know the number of Anabaptists that were killed during the sixteenth century, but it is likely that quite a number from the various movements were killed. It is estimated that 80 percent of Hutterite missionaries died as martyrs. In the words of Brad Gregory, “For the Anabaptists, executions were part of life—and confirmation of the very meaning of being Christian.” Anabaptist martyrs continually said that they were privileged to be counted worthy to suffer for Christ and considered persecution to be the cross that Christ had called His followers to bear. Catholics often subjected the Anabaptists to brutal treatment to force a recantation so they might save the “heretics’” souls, but it seldom worked. Here is how one Catholic authority described the behavior of Anabaptist martyrs:
They dance and jump in the fire, view the glistening sword with fearless hearts, speak and preach to the people with smiles on their faces; they sing psalms and other songs until their souls have departed, they die with joy, as if they were in happy company, they remain strong, assured, and steadfast . . . to the point of death. And if with all possible diligence the Catholics dare and endeavor to make them turn away from their errors . . . begging and desiring that they acknowledge their errors and recant, all this warning, begging, and imploring they regard as a fairy tale, laughing and ridiculing, and sooner than recant one article they would suffer another hundred deaths, [and] thus they remain so obstinate in their resolve that they also defy all pain and torment.
The Anabaptists claimed that God supported them during such torment. After undergoing torture, the Anabaptist Adriaen Jans wrote his wife, “Men hung me up by my hands so that I couldn’t touch the ground. Yes, my dear, I was very afraid, so that I could hardly stand it, when they made demands of me for the third time, and so I thought of the words of the Apostle when he says ‘The Lord will not let you be tempted above your ability,’ and they supported me.” Thus, the Anabaptists often went to their deaths with remarkable resolve. When the ropes burned off Michael Sattler’s wrists while he was being burned at the stake, he held up his hand to signal to his followers that the pain was tolerable. He did this after having his tongue cut out and flesh ripped from his body.
It is difficult for those living in our time to understand why the Anabaptists were persecuted with such malice. It helps to understand that Europe during the Reformation was a brutal era when punishments were severe. Also, the concept of religious toleration was foreign to almost everybody at that time. The general idea was that God expected magistrates to enforce proper worship; therefore, heresy was to be rooted out. Furthermore, those opposed to Anabaptism felt that the denial of infant baptism undermined the relationship between church and state that both Catholics and Magisterial Reformers advocated. With infant baptism, everyone was a member of the state church whether or not they chose to be. Many worried that the denial of infant baptism would undermine the entire social order. Zwingli wrote to a friend about the Anabaptists, saying, “The issue is not baptism but revolt, faction, and heresy.” Thus, Anabaptists were often accused of being subversive. The Anabaptist practices of refusing to swear oaths and of withdrawing from society to various degrees added to this the idea of subversion.
Furthermore, there were a number of movements connected to Anabaptists that were essentially subversive. In 1524, a peasants’ revolt broke out in Germany against the abuses of the local lords. The revolt was generally crushed, but several preachers who denied infant baptism were involved in the revolt. Most noteworthy was the fiery Thomas Münster, who in addition to denying infant baptism preached a militant apocalypticism that he felt the revolt would help usher in. Thus, many began to worry that the Anabaptists secretly wanted to overthrow the state despite their professed and practiced nonviolence.
Many felt these fears were confirmed when a group of particularly radical Anabaptists took over the city of Münster in 1534. Believing that Münster was to be the site of Christ’s Second Coming, a group of Anabaptists under the lead of the visionary John Matthijsz gained control of the Münster city council and deposed the local Catholic bishop. Anabaptism spread throughout the city. Soon, all those who had not accepted rebaptism were ordered out of the city in preparation for the Second Coming. Community of goods was instituted and, because rebaptized women outnumbered rebaptized men in Münster by about three to one, polygamy was introduced.
Soon, the deposed bishop raised a siege against Münster to try to get the city back. Matthijsz was killed in a sortie against the besiegers and was replaced by the even more fiery John of Leiden. After a year, the siege was closed, and conditions in Münster became severe. Finally, the city was betrayed, and the besieging army massacred most of the inhabitants. Three of the leaders were spared to be paraded throughout the area and in the hope of getting them to recant. Because the leaders were disillusioned that things had not gone according to plan, they insisted that they had committed no crime against God. Finally, the leaders were executed in Münster but were first tortured for an hour with hot pokers; the stench was so bad that it drove people away for miles. Then, their tongues were ripped out with hot pincers before they were mercifully stabbed in the heart. Their bodies were gibbeted in the town square, and replicas of the gibbets remain in Münster to this day.
The “Münster debacle” is a highly controversial event, with Catholics and Protestants seeing the Münsterites as hysterical fanatics. Anabaptists despise the event even more, feeling that the Münsterites brought persecution on all Anabaptists. I feel that Latter-day Saints can sympathize with the Münsterites’ desires for continuing revelation, for establishing the kingdom of God on earth, and for the Lord’s coming. Either way, the story of the Anabaptists of Münster, who had some striking similarities to the Latter-day Saints, demonstrates that the sixteenth century was not a good time for the Lord to restore His Church.
Münster was used as a reason to persecute all Anabaptists, and the various groups lived a difficult existence for centuries. As mentioned, most Anabaptist groups in northwestern Europe merged with the Mennonites, who slowly gained greater toleration as large groups of Mennonites migrated to Pennsylvania. The Hutterites continued to live a harried existence; they were brutalized by all sides during the Thirty Years’ War, and then they were driven to Hungary and Transylvania and from there into Russia in 1770. One hundred years later, the Hutterites began migrating to the Americas and settled in Canada, South America, and the northwestern United States.
Throughout their difficult existence, the Anabaptists continued to stubbornly worship separate from the state according to what they believed was the New Testament model. It is important to note that by 1830, these principles were not nearly as radical as they had been three hundred years earlier. By 1830, there was no state church in America, believers’ baptism was common (the Baptists were one of the nation’s largest religions), and primitivism became a major impulse behind many of America’s religions. The Anabaptist insistence on such principles and the willingness to die for them had slowly infused their ideas into the larger society.
Perhaps the Radicals’ greatest influence was in a number of religious groups that came after them and advocated similar principles. In Germany, the Dunkers, or German Baptists, arose in the early eighteenth century and followed many of the same practices the Anabaptists did. In the seventeenth century, England saw the rise of several groups that had many of the same beliefs as earlier Radicals. First, the Baptists under the lead of John Smyth began rebaptizing in the early seventeenth century. Half a century later, John Fox formed the Quakers on spiritualist principles of following the “inner light.” Importantly, both the Baptists and Quakers pushed hard for religious freedom and were severely persecuted. In America, both groups fought against religious intolerance. Roger Williams was banished to Rhode Island, and four Quakers were executed for preaching in Boston. Importantly, it was the Baptists of Rhode Island and the Quakers in Pennsylvania that began practicing religious tolerance. Pennsylvania, in particular, became a refuge of Radicals throughout Europe as Mennonites, Dunkers, and Schwenckfelders poured in. Thus, those of the Radical Reformation advocated and put into practice the principle of religious freedom long before the Enlightenment, the movement that often gets credit for the practice.
Thus, the Radicals did much to prepare the world for the Restoration by working for religious freedom and advocating true principles. In fact, early Mormon missionaries did remarkably well in areas where such Radicals were prominent. In 1539, an Anabaptist woman named Anneken Jans wrote a letter to her son just before she was executed. In her letter, Jans explained to her son why she was dying for her beliefs and the various principles she wished him to follow. Among the admonitions she included, “Where you hear of a poor, simple, cast-off little flock (Luke 12:32), which is despised and rejected by the world, join them; for where you hear of the cross, there is Christ.” Three hundred years later, several people with a Radical religious heritage did just that by joining the Latter-day Saints. Several Church leaders come from this heritage. Edwin Woolley, grandfather of President Spencer Woolley Kimball and President J. Reuben Clark Jr., had been a Quaker. So had the ancestors of President Heber J. Grant and his cousin, Anthony W. Ivins. J. Reuben Clark Jr.’s paternal grandfather had been a Dunker preacher. Further, President Gordon B. Hinckley’s Bitner ancestors were Mennonites.
The Radicals laid the groundwork for the Restoration in several significant ways. They refused to compromise with civil authorities in their quest for the restitution of the true Church, even to the point of death. Furthermore, they advocated and died for religious freedom at a time when such an idea was practically unheard of. Although Luther’s Reformation was truly a major event in creating “a religious climate in which God could restore lost truths and priesthood authority,” the Radical Reformation also played a major part. Thus, names such as Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, Michael Sattler, and Jacob Hutter, to name a few, ought to be included when the leading figures of the Reformation are praised.