Early Anabaptists and the Reformation of Worship

by Matthew Pinson

I thought some of the readers of fwbtheology.com who are interested in Baptist studies, worship, et cetera, would be fascinated by a secondary source I came across on the views of Menno Simons and the early Anabaptists on the reformation of worship in contradistinction to the views of Luther. It is from a book on Menno Simons, the founder of the Mennonites, written by the famous Mennonite scholar of the early twentieth century, John Horsch.

I like it because it confirms the view that the mainstream Anabaptists were Reformed in their ecclesiology. Before printing the quotation, let me provide a little context by quoting my introduction to my edited volume, Perspectives on Christian Worship:

“The Reformers responded to the received liturgy in a few basic ways. Lutherans and Anglicans, while moving away from much of the sacerdotalism of the medieval church, retained the basic form of the Western liturgy. Most Lutherans and Anglicans also held to much of the traditional ceremonial of the liturgy, including the use of images, clerical vestments, and liturgical objects such as candles and incense. However, even these churches would have large elements within them—arising from movements such as the Puritans in the Church of England and the Pietists in the Lutheran Church—that would strip away much of the ceremonial while retaining the basic verbal form and cadence of the traditional liturgy [1].

“However, the other two broad wings of the Reformation—the Reformed and Anabaptist movements—revolted strongly against the liturgical forms they inherited from the medieval church. One might say that the radical reformation of worship that occurred in the sixteenth century arose entirely from the Reformed wing of the Magisterial Reformation. The worship practice of the Anabaptists of the Radical Reformation was influenced by their early mentor Huldrych Zwingli, with whom they broke over questions such as believer’s baptism, liberty of conscience, and the separation of church and state [2].

“The Reformed churches on the continent took much of their worship theology from Calvin and Bucer on the one hand or Zwingli on the other. The Puritans of the Church of England were largely a product of low-church Anglicans whose Reformed commitments were strengthened when they were exiled during the reign of Mary in the sixteenth century. Among these were, for example, John Knox, the founder of what we now know as Presbyterians [3]. Many Puritans eventually left the Church of England in Separatist and Nonconformist movements in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These dissenters divided in the paedobaptist (Independents or Congregationalists) and anti-paedobaptist (Baptist) wings. However, all these groups flowed from the broader Calvinist-Zwinglian Reformed movement. Thus they carried with them the Reformed concerns about reforming the worship of the church, though of course some of these Reformers were more radical than others [4].

“As Horton Davies has shown in The Worship of the English Puritans, the basic difference between the Reformed movements on one hand and the Lutheran and Anglican movements on the other is the difference between the normative principle of worship and the regulative principle of worship. Davies argues that it is a ‘grave misunderstanding’ to think that ‘the liturgical reforms of Luther and Calvin agree only in their condemnation of the abuses of the later mediaeval Church’ or that ‘the differences in their respective conceptions of worship and in the essential genius of their Orders of service, reflect their contrasting temperaments’—Luther being conservative and Calvin being logical [5].

“Luther and Calvin agreed on key principles respecting the medieval liturgy. They both condemned late medieval teaching on the Mass as a sacrifice of Christ, as well as the notion that the Lord’s Supper should be celebrated only in one kind [6]. They both wanted to strike a blow at the whole sacerdotal or priestly system of the medieval church. So they believed the people should be involved in singing, for example. This demanded that the worship be in the language of the people, not in Latin. Both Luther and Calvin wanted to return preaching to a central place in Christian worship. They wanted the Word of God (its concepts—not just its public reading) to be at the center of every aspect of worship. Both Reformers wished to restore the worship of the ancient church. Thus, it can be said that Luther and Calvin agreed on what they saw as abuses of the medieval church [7].

“Despite their areas of agreement, Luther and Calvin differed in the following way: Luther believed that anything was permitted in worship as long as Scripture did not condemn it. Calvin believed that nothing was permitted in worship if Scripture did not commend it, by precept or example. The mainstream Anglican position as articulated by Thomas Cranmer in the Book of Common Prayer was more akin to Luther’s position, whereas the Puritans challenged this approach with one that was more in line with that of Calvin and the continental Reformed movement [8].

“The upshot of this is that the main streams of the Lutheran and Anglican movements retained the written liturgy and much of the ceremony of the historic Western liturgy—and this was reaffirmed in the liturgical renewal movements of the nineteenth century [9]. The Reformed and Free Church traditions jettisoned the received liturgical tradition, including ceremony, images, liturgical vestments and objects, prayer books, and so forth. The left wing of the Reformed movement (Anabaptists, Baptists, Congregationalists, and many Presbyterians) also eschewed any clerical dress (such as academic gowns that would distinguish clergy from laity), written prayers of any sort, and the liturgical recitation of creeds [10]. The essence of these Reformed and Free Church worship movements is captured by the title of Carlos M. N. Eire’s book War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin [11].

Now to the passage that caught my attention. The way this Mennonite scholar John Horsch articulates what people sometimes call the “regulative principle” (in worship, only do what Scripture commands) in contrast to Luther’s “normative principle” (in worship, do anything Scripture does not condemn) sounds like it comes out of a Reformed treatment of the same topics [12].

“The principle of the Anabaptists that as concerns ordinances, rites, worship and doctrine nothing must be maintained in the church which can not be established on Scripture authority, was originally taught by Luther and Zwingli, but abandoned when they decided upon a union of church and state. On the Wartburg Luther again advanced the Roman Catholic view: ‘What is not contrary to Scripture, is for Scripture, and Scripture is for it.’ He held that the old Roman Catholic cultus may be retained without Scripture authority, on the ground that it is not contrary to Scripture. The question what is to be considered contrary to Scripture he answered to the effect that only those things must be abandoned which are expressly forbidden in Scripture. And in his controversy with Carlstadt who cited the second commandment in support of his opinion that the pictures or ‘idols’ (as Luther himself speaks of them) should be removed from the churches, he defended the opinion that everything that is not prohibited in the New Testament Scriptures, although it be forbidden in the Old Testament, may be retained. He [Luther] says:

‘We have taught from St. Paul the Christian liberty, that all things should be free which God does not forbid with clear words in the New Testament. . . . Now tell me, where has He forbidden to elevate the host, or commanded it? Show me one little word concerning it and I shall yield. . . . If they can prove from the New Testament that the pictures should be removed [from the churches], we shall willingly follow them. . . . They introduce their own external order concerning which God has given neither a command nor a prohibition, as for instance that one should have no pictures, no churches [i. e. temples], altars, should not use the word Mass or sacrament, not elevate the host, not have priestly garments,’ etc.

“On this principle the old [liturgical] forms of worship and practice were largely retained. The leading reformers asserted that infant baptism and other practices are justifiable because they are not forbidden. Even exorcism, or the conjuration of Satan to depart from the infants previous to baptism, was retained as a custom that is not forbidden in Scripture — to the great offence of the Anabaptists. The form of exorcism used somewhat later among the Lutherans was: ‘I conjure thee, thou unclean spirit, to come out and depart from this servant of Jesus Christ.’ Menno Simons denounces repeatedly ‘the wretched exorcism’ and other unscriptural ceremonies connected with baptism, such as breathing upon the infant, giving him salt, anointing him with oil and saliva, etc.

“The principle that the Scriptures are the only inerrant source of religious truth, the only authority in matters of faith and practice—known as the formal principle of the Reformation—was the leading principle of the Anabaptists, while both Luther and Zwingli accepted it only in a modified form [what Horsch is saying here is that Zwingli was not reformed enough, as evidenced by his refusal to reform baptism, thus maintaining the practice of infant baptism]. The doctrine of the inner word as held by Hans Denck and a few other Anabaptists, was not shared by the great Anabaptist denominations, viz. the Swiss Brethren, Hutterites, and Mennonites. As for the Zwinglian reformers, they have frequently asserted that the Anabaptists insisted too much on following the letter of the Scriptures, ‘the dead letter.’ In reply to this argument one of the spokesmen of the Anabaptists in the discussion held in Bern, 1538, asked, ‘Is that which Christ has said the dead letter?’”

This is just one quotation that provides evidence that the Anabaptists and other Free Church adherents such as the Baptists held Reformed views on the sufficiency of Scripture for church practice, including Christian worship. Indeed, the Anabaptists and Baptists not only saw themselves as “Reformed according to the Scriptures”—they saw themselves as more Reformed than those who would later come to be known as “Reformed.”


[1] John Harper, The Forms and Orders of Western Liturgy from the Tenth to the Eighteenth Century: A Historical Introduction and Guide for Students and Musicians (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991), 155, 166-87; Ilion T. Jones, A Historical Approach to Evangelical Worship (Nashville: Abingdon, 1954), 130-40, 153.

[2] The best succinct treatment of sixteenth-century continental Anabaptism remains William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996). For a more in-depth study, cf. George Hunston Williams, The Radical Reformation, 3rd ed. (Kirksville, Mo.: Truman State UP, 2000).

[3] Dan G. Danner, Pilgrimage to Puritanism: History and Theology of the Marian Exiles at Geneva, 1555-1560 (New York: Peter Lang, 1999).

[4] Carlos M. N. Eire, War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986); Horton Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans. [1948]. (Reprint, Morgan, Penn.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1997).

[5] Davies, 13.

[6] Communion in one kind means only the priests, not the people, drink the wine.

[7] Davies, 13-15.

[8] Ibid., 48

[9] Jones, 156-61.

[10] A. G. Matthews, “The Puritans,” in Nathaniel Micklem, ed., Christian Worship: Studies in Its History and Meaning (Oxford: Clarendon, 1936), pp. 172-88. See also Davies, 46-48, 81-83, 98-114, 273-77.

[11] Carlos M. N. Eire, War Against the Idols.

[12] John Horsch, Menno Simons: His Life, Labors, and Teachings (Scottdale, Penn.: Mennonite Publishing House, 1916), 125-27.


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