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The Emergence of Early Modern Religious Radicalism

By Marcus Wells - History Student @ St Peter's College, Oxford


Within 25 years of Martin Luther publishing his 95 Theses, marking the start of the Protestant Reformation, Protestantism had fragmented into multiple religious sects, including radical groups, such as the Anabaptists and Independents. Radical groups formed principally because the emerging Protestant groups failed to satisfy the confessional demands of some believers. There were multiple reasons for this, including inherent Scriptural contradictions, the development of religious toleration, the desire for freedom from secular control, and for a congregation-based organisation of faith. Overall, it is argued that this final factor, a ‘reformation from below’, was the key factor in the development of religious radicalism.

Anabaptism emerged in the 1520s because contradictions in the Scripture arguably rendered their schism from Protestant groups inevitable. The Anabaptists used Matthew 7.14 to argue that the path to salvation relied on conscious choice, and thus baptism could not occur during infancy when a conscious choice could not be made. As all baptisms occurring in the Bible were performed on adults, the Anabaptists thought this logical. However, other confessions, including Lutheranism and Calvinism, argued that baptism, as a sacrament, was a means to save all, or to mark out all for God, regardless of human agency, and thus was not contingent on the believer. Anabaptism thus emerged out of differing interpretations of Scriptural authority.

The development of religious toleration also facilitated the emergence of radicalism. Although radical groups were never tolerated officially in any settlements, coexistence often occurred in practice. After the fall of the short-lived Anabaptist state in Munster in 1535, Anabaptists concentrated in Northern Germany. Although adult baptism was illegal and severely punishable, groups became well-established from the 1540s, likely because they remained largely closed-off from society. By 1650, there were numerous small groups in the Netherlands and even France, despite the latter’s push towards a Catholic orthodoxy, and neither state officially tolerating radicals. Once the groups had developed a theological basis, such toleration, albeit de facto rather than genuine, was crucial in allowing these groups to survive.

The desire for faith free from secular control was crucial in the emergence of multiple radical groups. Radical groups emerged across Europe simply because each confession, as it developed, became too entwined with secular authority. As Zwingli’s Church in Zurich expanded, it became backed by local magistrates (initially including the city’s most powerful family, the Grebel) and guilds, and thus became unacceptable to spiritual individuals seeking a Church separated from secular authority. Anabaptism thus arose in the city’s Bible study groups as a reaction, opposing infant baptism, using images in ceremonies and, more crucially here, tithes. This last point demonstrates opposition to the Church behaving like a secular authority, in taxing its subjects.

Similarly, Frederick the Wise and the Saxon authorities soon backed Luther and his message, out of pride for the University of Wittenberg. They thus opposed early Protestant radicals in the early 1520s, being alarmed at the pace and ambition of calls for reform. In fact, Luther persuaded the authorities to ban the radical leader Karlstadt from preaching and publishing, and he was eventually exiled. This demonstrated Luther’s influence on secular authorities, precisely the sort of association that the radicals opposed. Finally, the emergence of Anabaptism in Europe in the 1520s and 1530s demonstrates radical opposition to secular authority. Their belief in community of goods and the absence of a central Church challenged two bases of secular authority: the rulership of the landowning elite and the Church’s upholding of authority from the pulpit. Additionally, the Anabaptists’ refusal to be magistrates, bear arms or participate in assemblies shows further aversion to the state. Additionally, the dislike of a single Church explains the emergence of multiple radical confessions in Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, England and elsewhere, with almost no cohesion. In sum, radicals across Europe formed their own confessions whenever a new branch of Protestantism became entwined with the state.

The desire for a faith based on individual congregations and their preachers was also important in attracting believers to the radical cause: a Reformation from below. None of the three main Protestant Churches (those of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin) offered much evangelical preaching after their early years, perhaps out of fear of inciting social and political unrest, such as the rebellion and anarchy that ensued during the Anabaptist takeover of Munster in 1534. Although the early Lutheran Church had multiple autonomous congregations in agreement with Luther, the need for uniformity against Catholic attempts at suppression, and the development of princely control over the Church (such as through the visitation system, introduced in Saxony in the late 1520s) forced a less community-driven and evangelical approach. Similarly, the intertwining of Zwingli’s Church with secular authority undermined his initial emphasis on the congregation, rather than hierarchy, as the crux of the faith.

Finally, Calvinism did not sufficiently involve the laity in Church government, whilst being closely linked with the state, not least in the Genevan theocracy. It, therefore, fell to radical groups to preserve the congregational and evangelical principles, based on individual charismatic preachers, such as Muntzer and Karlstadt, rather than a larger organisation. This is shown in Anabaptist beliefs: there was no distinction between clergy and laity, and no central organisation (the local congregation and preacher being the key unit). A study of the Church of England is instructive here, too. The Elizabethan Settlement combined a single national institution with an emphasis on congregational structures. Radical separatism was therefore minimal until the drive for greater uniformity under Archbishop Laud in the 1630s, as this was the point at which congregational structures were threatened: over 100 Puritan ministers, preaching at one end of the extremes within which the Church would allow, were ejected. Thus, England’s single congregational Church, established by Henry Jacob in 1616, had grown to eight by 1640. The desire for the congregational basis of faith, and an emphasis on individual evangelical preachers, was thus key in the emergence of the plethora of radical groups.

There were multiple reasons for the emergence of radicalism. Theological contradictions provided the basis for these divisions Toleration allowed the fragmented groups to develop side-by-side, cementing their differences. Both factors, however, only explain why radical groups could emerge, rather than why they did: the reason for this must lie in the attraction of radical doctrine. The ‘reformation from below’ and desires for freedom from secular control explain this, but only the ‘reformation from below’ explains the nature of the radical groups as incoherent and congregation-based, and the emergence of so many different groups. Popular desire for congregation-based worship is thus the key factor in explaining the causes and nature of religious radicalism in the sixteenth century.

Further reading:

1. U. Rublack (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the Protestant Reformation (2017)

2. P. Blickle, ‘Communal Reformation: Zwingli, Luther and the South of the Holy Roman Empire’ in The Cambridge History of Christianity, vol. 6, ed. R. Po-chia Hsia (2007)

3. M. Mullett, Radical Religious Movements in Early Modern Europe (1980)


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