When Was Zwingli an Anabaptist? Updated

ZwingliRobert G. Torbet, A History of the Baptists (Philadelphia: The Judson Press, 1950), 35 contains this striking subordinate clause, “…when Zwingli became reluctant to continue his Anabaptist teaching…”

I’ve read this claim before and I’ve heard it repeated. I’ve never seen any evidence for it, however. As I’m about to begin the Reformation section of the “Medieval-Reformation” course I thought it would useful to ask readers if they have any leads. To which Zwingli texts or to what evidence would one point to substantiate the claim that, at some point, Zwingli was an Anabaptist?

Update 26 Mar 2009

Thanks to John Fesko, who has a massive book coming out on baptism, for sending this quotation from 1523:

This manner of instruction I should like to see adopted again in our own day, namely that inasmuch as children are baptized so early, we undertake to instruct them when they reach that degree of understanding at which they are capable of hearing the word of God. Otherwise they might be at a great disadvantage which could be harmful to them, should they not be well instructed in the word of God right after baptism, as the young were instructed in times past, before baptism (Zwingli, Writings, ed. E. J. Furcha (Allison Park: Pickwick, 1984)1.100-01).

The context for this quotation, as John notes. was that (quoting from John’s forthcoming book), “Zwingli acknowledged that in the early church infants were baptized but that the practice was not as widespread as it was in his own day. Nevertheless, without citation, Zwingli argued that children were first catechized and then later baptized.”

This is very helpful and explains a bit of the formal ground for the appeal but the case remains circumstantial: he spent time with Anabaptists and he expressed doubts based on his understanding of patristic practice. Neither of these lines of evidence make Zwingli an Anabaptist before he was a paedobaptist.

UPDATE 1 April, 2009

This is no April Fools joke. Thanks to WSC student Matthew Seufert for pointing me (in a term paper) to Zwingli’s 1525 treatise, von der Taufe (Concerning Baptism…). The German text is in the Corpus Reformatorum (Zwinglis Werke, vol 4). The English translation is in the Library of Christian Classics volume Zwingli and Bullinger. Zwingli wrote:

For some time I myself was deceived by the error [of the Anabaptists] and I thought it better not to baptize children until they came to years of discretion. But I was not so dogmatically of this opinion as to take the course of many today, who although they are far too young and inexperienced in the matter argue and assert rashly that infant baptism derives from the papacy or the devil or something equally non-sensical (139).

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  1. I looked up my Baptist History notes and am going to guess that the claims are badly worded, probably based on a misunderstanding of Zwingli’s relationship as teacher to the early (Swiss) Anabaptists, Grebel, Manz, and Blaurock. They split primarily over baptism. Given that Zwingli was already staunchly opposed to their views shortly before their deaths (which were shortly after they became Anabaptists), I don’t think one can actually say that Zwingli himself was an Anabaptist.

    But I haven’t got a primary source against which to test my hypothesis… It’s just that the time involved seems all wrong.

    Maybe overzealous Baptist historians wanting to claim even a little bit of Zwingli?

    • Hi Jennifer,

      As always I appreciate your comments.

      This is my guess. Yes, he seems to have associated with and perhaps taught Grebel et al but calling him an AB on that basis is a little bit like calling Calvin a unitarian on the basis of correspondence with Servetus. if a fellow goes to a bible study with ABs does that make him an AB?

      Associations and relationships and lines in the early days of the Reformation were fluid.

  2. yes, with lots of fluid (knee-deep, at least) in the case of the Anabaptists!

    It seems ( I would hope! ) that a scholar, rabidly baptistic or not, ought to have sufficient integrity not to make a claim of Zwingli being Anabaptist without something more than historical evidence of his teaching those who ultimately became Anabaptists. That’s just shoddy scholarship, at best, and would be nothing short of willing deception (or willing self-deception) at worst…

    • Thanks.

      Note that this is from an Anabaptist publication. This para is telling:

      “How Zwingli’s relation to Anabaptism should be understood depends largely on one’s prior theological commitment. Grebel spoke for all the Anabaptists with the claim that “Zwingli led us into this” and only backed away from his own vision later be cause of fear. This claim is objectively confirmed in that Zwingli did conceive of the church as a visible, suffering minority between 1520 and 1522, a position which Anabaptism retained while he abandoned it. On the other hand, Zwingli saw an unbroken continuity in his own total work, and applied to the Anabaptists the harsh words of I John, “They went out from among us, but they were not of us. “Where between these two claims the truth lies will probably depend on the significance attributed to the “turning point” in mid-December 1523, when Zwingli took a position which he had said a week earlier would make him ‘guilty of lying before the Word of God.'”

      1. All the Reformed saw themselves as “God’s little flock.” The Reformed in the lowlands described themselves as “churches under the cross.” The idea that ABs cornered the market on this self-identification is unhistorical.

      2. Even the AB scholars can’t point to anything more than the fact that Zwingli was part of a sodality of humanist scholars, some of whom radicalized and adopted AB doctrines. The objective evidence, as the article notes, is that Zwingli reacted against the AB view of baptism very early.

      The sole piece of evidence is Grebel’s claim that “Zwingli led us into this.” That may be, but that doesn’t mean that Zwingli ever actually held, embraced, or adopted the Anabaptist view of baptism. Grebel may well have believed that he was following where Zwingli led him, but that isn’t really evidence that Zwingli was an AB before he wasn’t, is it?

  3. Timothy George (a Southern Baptist) in “Theology of the Reformers” says that he was never truly a Baptist or Anabaptist, but that he did have theological struggle over the doctrine of baptism.

    • It’s precisely that kind of unsupported statement that causes rumors to grow, and it’s unfortunate that George would make such a statement without backing it up. Is there any evidence that Zwingli actually had a serious struggle on the issue such that he might have come down on the baptistic side?

  4. Zwingli’s views may have contributed to the thought’s and views of the Anabaptist movement, but he was no means a Baptist. In something I read or a church history course lecture series I attended, I remember that Zwingli thought that drowning was the appropriate means of death for Anabaptist heretics. I thought that was apropos for Zwingli. I’m going to have to go back and find out where that bit of information came from.

    So, if he ever had a struggle with baptism, it did not last long.

  5. Scott,

    It appears to have been an oral tradition among the early Swiss Anabaptists that Zwingli, Grebel and Manz agreed, at some early point, that the baptism of infants was “no baptism at all.” Daniel Liechty’s Early Anabaptist Spirituality, p. 2, cites an Anabaptist account containing this oral tradition. Of course, such a rumor in the early Anabaptist community is self-justifying and this may be its origin in the community.

    John Mark Hicks (Ph.D. Westminster Seminary graduate)

  6. Dr. Clark,

    Concerning Zwingli’s early views on Baptism see W. P. Stevens, The Theology of Huldrych Zwingli, chapter 10, for Zwingli’s views on baptism. He writes, “The fact that Zwingli did not stop the baptism of infants suggests either that he did not regard the matter as fundamentally important or that he did not regard the time as opportune for such a change. In view of what happened later the former seems more likely.” (p. 195)

    Zwingli was NEVER an anabaptist even if he did deny infant baptism for a short time, which is unlikely. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the anabaptists wanted radical change, whereas Zwingli deemed it better for reformation to happen slowly and methodically. Second, their view of the church was always fundamentally different. It was Zwingli’s view of the Church vs. the anabaptist view of the church which was the central issue in the baptism debate. The anabaptists viewed the church as a voluntary society; whereas, Zwingli viewed the church as a society called by God out of the world. Memebership of the church, according to Zwingli had more to do with the election of God, who also included infants in that election, than it did with a personal choice to be a part of the congregation. These two reasons are proof enough that Zwingli was never an Anabaptist, even if he did waiver at one point on the issue of baptism.

  7. Exciting news about the Fesko book. Does he deal with paedobaptism in the early church? When is it due for release? I’m loving his work on justification.

  8. See the latest update. There is some support in the primary sources for the notion that Zwingli (briefly) embraced the Anabaptist view of baptism.

  9. I wish there were more information available on both the duration of this “For some time,” the actual time of his life when this was, and the extent of his not “so dogmatic” belief on the issue. I’m reminded that Melanchthon also was (though perhaps not convinced) at least thoroughly confused about infant baptism during the Zwickau Prophets affair, and thought that only Luther would know the right answer.

    In the end, I suppose it is not of great import, but I’m curious nonetheless.

  10. This page has quotes from Zwingli on baptism:


    The context of the update quote above, and the information on this page suggest Zwingli never was an Anabaptist proper, but shared what he called one error, he he came away from it in a reaction against the Anabaptists. In other words, he shared an error with the Anabaptists, but he came to it independently and was never in alliance with Anabaptists as a group.

    That quote in the update above really needs to be read in context. It is actually quite confusing even in context, and inserting ‘of the Anabaptists’ in brackets is somewhat misleading because Zwingli is talking about an error in a way that doesn’t connect him to the Anabaptists themselves necessarily.

    • DT,

      In context, he’s in the midst of refuting the ABs. That’s the context. The point he’s making is that he once agreed with them but now does no longer. I didn’t say that he was an AB but this does seem to be prima facie evidence that, at one point, he held the AB view of Baptism until he changed his mind.

  11. I attended a Southern Baptist school for my undergrad. (Hannibal LaGrange College) And if there was one thing I learned it was that Zwingli was not an Anabaptist. In Baptist History class, our professor would be screaming “Zwingli was not an Anabaptist!” because so many students would get it wrong on the test. Every year, like clockwork he would be yelling this out, shaking his arms in disbelief, that yet another student lumped Zwingli in with the Anabaptists.

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