Anabaptism emerged during the Protestant Reformation. It is claimed that the movement began in Germany in 1521. They had been inspired by the teachings of Martin Luther and publication of the Bible in German. Now able to read the Bible in their own language, they began to question the teachings of the Catholic Church. One of the movement's leaders, Balthasar Hubmaier, pointed out: “In all disputes concerning faith and religion, the scriptures alone, proceeding from the mouth of God, ought to be our level and rule.” (1)

The Anabaptists argued that Jesus taught that man should act in a non-violent way. They quoted him as saying: "Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.” (Luke 6.27) "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons of God." (Matthew 5.9) “Do not use force against an evil man.. But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5.39) “Do not resist evil with evil.” (Luke 6.37) “He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26.52)


The Anabaptists were the among the first to point out the lack of explicit biblical support for infant baptism. They repudiated their own baptism as infants. They considered the public confession of sin and faith, sealed by adult baptism, to be the only proper baptism. They agreed with Huldrych Zwingli that infants are not punishable for sin until they become aware of good and evil and can exercise their own free will, repent, and accept baptism. (2)

Anabaptists believed that "they were the true elect of God who did not require any external authority". (3) They therefore advocated separation of church and state. Anabaptists advocated complete freedom of belief and denied that the state had a right to punish or execute anyone for religious beliefs or teachings. This was a revolutionary notion in the 16th century and every government in Europe saw them as a potential threat to both religious and political power.

Woodcut of an heretic being tortured on the rack in the Tower of London.
Maria van Beckum, about to be burnt at the stake (1544)

Jasper Ridley has pointed out: "The Anabaptists not only objected to infant baptism, but also denied the divinity of Christ or said that he was not born to the Virgin Mary. They advocated a primitive form of Communism, denouncing private property and urging that all goods should be owned by the people in common." (4) Anabaptists believed all people were equal and kept their hats on before magistrates and superior officials and their pacifism made them reject military service. (5)

Martin Luther and the Anabaptists

In 1527 a gathering of Anabaptists in Schleitheim published a statement of their beliefs. "The Anabaptists... proclaimed adult baptism and separation from the world, including everything popish, and from attendance at parish churches and taverns. It condemned the use of force, or going to law, or becoming a magistrate, or the taking of oaths." (6)

Martin Luther was completely opposed to the Anabaptists and denounced them as satanic agents and enemies of the Gospel. Luther was especially upset by Hubmaier's teaching that people should not swear oaths. "Since solemn vows were a vital part of the making and sustaining of all relationships - master and apprentice, lord and servant, mercenary general and paymaster, what Hubmaier's followers proposed was nothing less than a breakdown of society." (7) Luther argued that all Anabaptists should be "hanged as seditionists". (8)

Anabaptists in England

The Anabaptists were persecuted by Catholics and Protestants in Europe. One of its leaders, Balthasar Hubmaier was executed in Vienna in 1528. These ideas eventually spread to England. According to John Foxe, ten Dutch immigrants, Segor, Derycke, Symon, Runa, Derycke, Dominicke, Dauid, Cornelius, Elken and Milo, were burnt at the stake at Smithfield in 1535. (9) Another two anabaptists, a man and a woman, were executed in November 1538. Henry VIII ordered all anabaptists "to leave the realm". (10) Some stayed and three more were burnt at the stake in 1539.

Woodcut of an heretic being tortured on the rack in the Tower of London.
Anneken Hendriks, an Anabaptist, being burned alive (1575)

Joan Bocher was also known as Joan Knell and Joan of Kent began advocating anabaptist ideas in the Canterbury area. Bocher was arrested but was released on the orders of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. Her biographer, Andrew Hope has argued that "she became convinced of the theory of Christ's celestial flesh - that Christ did not derive his physical body from his mother but that it was a divine distillation". Such views were unusual in England at the time and hat she picked them up from the influx of refugees early in the reign of Edward VI. (11)

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After the execution of her friend Anne Askew on 16th July 1546, Boucher began distributing pamphlets. Bishop Stephen Gardiner gave a sermon warning that the anabaptists were seeking "to overthrow this royal power and get rid of kings". (12) Bocher was arrested and brought to trial before Bishop Nicholas Ridley and found guilty of heresy. Boucher's views upset both Catholics and Protestants. John Rogers, who had been involved in the publishing of English Bible that had been translated by William Tyndale, was brought in to persuade her to recant. After failing in his mission he declared that she should be burnt at the stake.

Execution of Joan Boucher

John Foxe, who had been active in opposing the burning of heretics during the reign of Henry VIII was very distressed that Joan Bocher was now to be burned under the Protestant government of Edward VI. Although he disagreed with her views he thought that the life of "this wretched woman" should be spared and suggested that a better way of dealing with the problem was to imprison her so that she could not propagate her beliefs. Rogers insisted that she must die. Foxe replied she should not be burned: "at least let another kind of death be chosen, answering better to the mildness of the Gospel." Rogers insisted that burning alive was gentler than many other forms of death. Foxe took Rogers' hand and said: "Well, maybe the day will come when you yourself will have your hands full of the same gentle burning." (13) Foxe was right as Queen Mary ordered John Rogers to be burnt at the stake five years later. (14)

It has been claimed by Christian Neff that the 12-year-old King Edward at first refused to sign the death warrant. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer insisted that "she should be punished with death for her heresy according to the law of Moses".He is said to have told Cranmer with tears, "Cranmer, I will sign the verdict at your risk and responsibility before God’s judgment throne." Cranmer was deeply impressed, and he tried once more to induce her to recant but she still refused. (15)

Joan Bocher was burnt at Smithfield on 2nd May 1550. "She died still upbraiding those attempting to convert her, and maintaining that just as in time they had come to her views on the sacrament of the altar, so they would see she had been right about the person of Christ. She also asserted that there were a thousand Anabaptists living in the diocese of London." (16) As a result of the Bocher case, a commission was formed in January 1551 to deal with Anabaptism and other religious groups considered to be promoting heresy.

George van Parris

One of the first people to be arrested in the war against Anabaptism was George van Parris, who had established his own church in London in 1550 based on the teachings of Arius. The historian, Jasper Ridley, has pointed out: "Van Parris held opinions which his opponents called 'Arian' because, like the African theologian Arius in the fourth century AD, he did not believe that Jesus was God. He was quite unlearned, knowing nothing about theology, but was a gentle man who had led a blameless life. (17) It is believed that this was an extremely small group made up of recent immigrants.

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, Miles Coverdale and Nicholas Ridley were the judges at the trial of Parris. As he knew no English, Coverdale acted as interpreter. He was examined on his views, and most especially the belief that "God the Father is only God, and that Christ is not very God". His refusal to recant sealed his fate, and he was condemned for Arianism on 7th April. Parris was burnt alive on 25th April 1551. (18)

Queen Elizabeth and the Anabaptists

During the reign of Queen Mary, that lasted for forty-five months, 283 Protestants - 227 men and 56 women - were burned alive. This was twice the number that had been burned in the previous 150 years. (19) Queen Elizabeth made it clear that she would be more tolerant towards those who held different religious beliefs and for the first seventeen years of her reign she did not execute anyone for heresy.

However, in 1575 a congregation of Anabaptists was discovered in Aldgate. Although they were of Dutch nationality they were tried before Edwin Sandys, the bishop of London in St Paul's Cathedral for heresy and blasphemy. Some of them recanted and were allowed to go free after parading the streets with lighted faggots in their hands. Fifteen of them were deported and five were condemned to death by burning. (20)

Only their two leaders, John Weelmaker and Henry Toorwoort, were actually burnt at the stake at Smithfield. The Tudor historian, John Stow, says they died "with great horror, crying and roaring". James Mackintosh, the 19th century historian, commented: "This murder, as far as the multitude thought of it, met with their applause. It was considered by others as the ordinary course. But the first blood spilt by Elizabeth for religion forms in the eye of posterity a dark spot upon a government hitherto distinguished, beyond that of any other European community, by a religious administration, which, if not unstained, was at least bloodless." (21)

Primary Sources

(1) Jasper Ridley, Bloody Mary's Martyrs (2002)

The Anabaptists not only objected to infant baptism, but also denied the divinity of Christ or said that he was not born to the Virgin Mary. They advocated a primitive form of Communism, denouncing private property and urging that all goods should be owned by the people in common.

(2) John F. Harrison, The Common People (1984)

The Anabaptists... were people who kept their hats on before magistrates and superior officials, refused to swear oaths, whose pacifism made them reject military service, and who were familiar with the gaols of every country in the land.

(3) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012)

From Germany arrived the first Anabaptists; they believed that infant baptism is not New Testament baptism, and that they were the true elect of God who did not require any external authority. All goods (including wives) should be held in common, in preparation for an imminent Second Coming. In a proclamation of November 1538, they were ordered by the king to leave the realm; those who remained were persecuted and burned.

Student Activities

Mary Tudor and Heretics (Answer Commentary)

Joan Bocher - Anabaptist (Answer Commentary)

Anne Askew – Burnt at the Stake (Answer Commentary)

Elizabeth Barton and Henry VIII (Answer Commentary)

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Robert Aske (Answer Commentary)

Dissolution of the Monasteries (Answer Commentary)

Was Henry VIII's son, Henry FitzRoy, murdered?

Henry VIII: Catherine of Aragon or Anne Boleyn?

Pilgrimage of Grace (Answer Commentary)

The Marriage of Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon (Answer Commentary)

Henry VII: A Wise or Wicked Ruler? (Answer Commentary)

Anne Boleyn - Religious Reformer (Answer Commentary)

Did Anne Boleyn have six fingers on her right hand? A Study in Catholic Propaganda (Answer Commentary)

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Poverty in Tudor England (Answer Commentary)

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Henry VIII (Answer Commentary)

Francis Walsingham - Codes & Codebreaking (Answer Commentary)

Sir Thomas More: Saint or Sinner? (Answer Commentary)

Hans Holbein's Art and Religious Propaganda (Answer Commentary)

Hans Holbein and Henry VIII (Answer Commentary)

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(1) Henry Clay Vedder, Balthasar Hubmaier: The Leader of the Anabaptists (1905) page 59

(2) Encyclopedia Britannica (2015)

(3) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 133

(4) Jasper Ridley, Bloody Mary's Martyrs (2002) page 35

(5) John F. Harrison, The Common People (1984) page 201

(6) Owen Chadwick, The Reformation (1964) page 189

(7) Derek Wilson, Out of the Storm: The Life and Legacy of Martin Luther (2007) pages 217-218

(8) Hans J. Hillerbrand, Encyclopædia Britannica (2014)

(9) John Foxe, Book of Martyrs (1583) page 1073

(10) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 133

(11) Andrew Hope, Joan Boucher: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(12) Lacey Baldwin Smith, Treason in Tudor England (2006) page 62

(13) Jasper Ridley, Bloody Mary's Martyrs (2002) page 35

(14) David Daniell, John Rogers : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(15) Christian Neff, Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (1953-2015)

(16) Andrew Hope, Joan Boucher: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(17) Jasper Ridley, Bloody Mary's Martyrs (2002) page 37

(18) Andrew Pettegree, George van Parris : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(19) Jasper Ridley, Bloody Mary's Martyrs (2002) page 1

(20) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) pages 379-380

(21) James Mackintosh, The History of England (1830) page 170