Contributions of the Anabaptists to the Separation of Church and State

Obviously one of the most important factors in the making of western civilization has been the Protestant Reformation. It has been Widely discussed by all sorts of critics. At the same time it has been misinterpreted by both Roman Catholics and Protestants.

An intriguing example of such misinterpretation is a leading article in The Readers Digest of September 1962, entitled “Can Protestantism be Saved?” In it the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, widely considered to be America’s most famous pastor, made the unfortunate claim, “Luther and the other great reformers hammered out the principles that…are the cornerstone of America’s greatness.” First among the four principles he listed that of the separation of church and state!

Clearing Up Some Misinterpretations

Did Luther and Calvin actually propose to separate the church from the state? And if so, would their proposal actually result in the process of which all Americans now feel proud? We know that in recent years all Christian beliefs and practices are being systematically removed from our public schools, with the result that juvenile delinquency has increased by leaps and bounds. Practically all textbooks on the college level which deal with world history begin with the rise of the human race from utter barbarism to a beautiful kind of civilization, a clear denial of the basis of the Christian faith. Well may we ask whether this, then, is to be thought of as the cornerstone of America’s greatness?

An important phase of the Reformation was the work done by English and Dutch Baptists in the field of politics. This work, however, is often misunderstood by even some of our greatest experts in Church History. Dean Harold Bender of Goshen College, in his article on the ..Anabaptists” in Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, makes the sweeping and unfortunate observation, “The distinctive Anabaptist tenets were:…separation of church and state.” As a matter of undeniable fact the Baptists during the seventeenth century by no means all accepted the principle of a real separation of church and state.

In my book entitled Christianity, Capitalism and Communism (1937), I have discussed the history of Anabaptist rule in Munster during the year 1535. During the academic year 1919–1920 it was my good fortune to spend three months in that city. At that time I concluded that the Anabaptist rulers of 1535 could hardly be regarded as favoring separation of church and state when they passed a city ordinance making Communism compulsory upon all citizens, under Jan Beukelszoon as “King of Zion” burned all books except the Bible, introduced polygamy, and killed numerous “heretics.”

Now it may be argued that there were also peaceful Anabaptists who lived very respectable lives and that the Mennonites in particular upheld the principle of the true separation of church and state. This, for example, is the contention of J. De Hoop Scheffer in his History of the Free Churchmen called the Brownists, Pilgrim Fathers and Baptists in the Dutch Republic 1581–1701. (Ithaca, N.Y.: 1922) He concludes with the striking statement, “I cannot close the history of their forefathers, the Mennonites, originating in Holland from Brownism, without pointing out one of their greatest merits. They, namely, have been the first in England to draw a deep line between Church and State, and consequently founded complete freedom of religion.”

This is little short of amazing. For on page 181 we read the 39th Proposition of the Confession of these Brownists, which declares, “The State cannot make but must take ecclesiastical laws.” We are likewise confronted with the words of Barrowe in his Brief Discovery (p. 91–92), “It is the duty of the magistrates to suppress and root out by their authority all false ministries, voluntary religious and counterfeited worship of God, to enforce all their subjects, whether ecclesiastical or civil, to do their duties to God and men.” Thereupon follow some astonishing remarks by Francis Johnson, another “champion of religious liberty” according to the author, “Princes may and ought, within their dominions, to abolish all false worship and all false ministries whatsoever, and to establish the true worship and ministry appointed by God in his Word, commanding and compelling their subjects to come unto and practice no other but this.”

A footnote in the same volume of De Hoop ScheHer (p. 183) quotes from Professor Masson’s article in Encyclopedia Brittanica on the “Baptists.” This author stated, “It was, in short, from their dingy little meeting house…that there flashed out, first in England, the absolute doctrine of Religious Liberty.” This was the meeting house used by Thomas Helwys and his follows in Amsterdam. These people, so we read on p. 181, “had not associated in vain with Mennonites, who, strongly feeling the difference between Christ’s empire and the earthly empires, between Church and State, pressed the point that the State should not concern itself with sects and heresies.”

But let us now see what these leaders in that meeting house actually claimed and practiced.

English Baptists in the Netherlands

While the majority of English Baptists in Amsterdam joined the Mennonites of that city, Helwys and his nine adherents were “shut out of their former place of meeting, the ‘Bakehouse,’ which remained the property of the majority, their opponents.” From March 1609 to the early autumn of 1611 they “assembled and partook of the Lord’s Supper every Sunday, probably in the house of one of their members.” Thomas Helwys claimed that on four paints he and his followers differed from the Mennonites. In the fourth section of his declaration we read, “That magis tracie, being an holy ordinance of God, debarreth not any from being of the Church of Christ.” My opinion is that the Mennonites accepted this position too. However, by 1611 there were “three congregations of English Mennonites in Amsterdam.” Their respective leaders were, according to Chr. Lawne’s Prophane Schism (p. 56), “Mr. Smyth, an Anabaptist of one sort, and Mr. Helwise of another, and Mr. Busher of another.” And these were not agreed on the question which interests us here. Plainly some of them argued for a complete separation of church and state. Illuminating is a confession of faith in the archives of the Dutch Baptist (Doopsgezinde) Church in Amsterdam, published by De Hoop Scheffer on pp. 219–230. It states in article 35 that the members of the local congregation do not want to hold any office in the civil government nor bear arms in its service. They also refuse to swear oaths. But they will pay taxes. From all this we should conclude, therefore, that some of the Anabaptists and Baptists, but not all of them, actually supported such a separation.1 I would suggest that henceforth those historians who refer to the subject use the term with great caution.

As for Thomas Helwys, the great prophet of religious liberty, we have ample evidence to show that he and his companions in that “dingy little meeting house in Amsterdam” were not nearly so eager to promote political and religious liberty as the Encyclopedia Brittanica intimates.

How little they championed true religious liberty can be gleaned from De Hoop Scheffer’s own book, p. 169, where he admits that Helwys and his companions “had never revoked the excommunication of John Smyth and his company.” On March 12, 1609, Helwys, William Pigott, Seamer, and Murton addressed a letter to John Smyth and his followers, wherein we read, “They are justlie for their sinnes cast from us, and should be looked upon as heathen and publicans…” (Ibid., p. 153). Because they did not commence their mode of baptism properly, did not ordain their elders according to the system used by Helwys, and thus did not form a lawful congregation, therefore they were merely “heathen” people. Such insignificant differences—for these they actually were between Helwys’ group and Smyth’s-induced the “champion of religious liberty” to denounce the others as “heathen and publicans.” And how seriously this was taken is demonstrated by the letter addressed in Latin to the Mennonite congregation in Amsterdam by Helwys and his followers. De Hoop Scheffer (p. 150) says that Helwys and his companions “considered it their duty to address a fraternal warning to the Mennonites, as soon as they learned that John Smyth for himself and his company, had requested to be admitted into fellowship.” The Mennonites as “Charissimi fratres” must be careful not to befriend the ousted heretics, for they are to be regarded as excluded from the communion of the saints.

Telling the Whole Story

As long as persecuted Protestants were suffering from unfair treatment on the part of their opponents, whether by Roman Catholics or other Protestants, they clamored for religious freedom. But as soon as they themselves obtained a certain measure of power and authority, they often ousted or persecuted their opponents, no matter how insignificant were the differences in their respective creeds. That Thomas Helwys did not always endorse a complete ·separation of church and state is evident from what he wrote in the dedication of one of his books to Lady Bowes on June 2, 1611. Here he made the astonishing statement concerning the two great Dutch cities which had done so much for the English exiles, “But when will these men according to this rule of Christ shake off the dust of their feet for a witness against Amsterdam and Leyden which cities (sic!) neither receive them nor the word they bring otherwise than they receive Turks and Jews and all sorts who come only to seek safety and profit.” Having failed to get along with his English friends in the Dutch republic, Helwys before the end of 1611 returned to England. After he left John Robinson, pastor of the Pilgrim Fathers, had this to say about him , “Neither is it likely, if he and the people with him at Amsterdam could have gone on comfortably, as they desired, that the unlawfulness of Right would ever have troubled him.” (De Hoop Scheffer, p. 174). Robinson and the majority of his members, by the way, refused to leave Holland on such grounds. It is unfortunate that so few American historians have ever seen fit to pursue their labors in the Netherlands, where they might become better acquainted with the practices of these alleged prophets of religious liberty.

Dr. William Elliot Griffis, in his preface to De Hoop Scheffer’s book, tells us correctly that the Pilgrim Fathers received far more credit for their work than did the Baptists. The former were Calvinists, and they differed in many ways from the latter. We have just noted what John Robinson at Leyden said about Helwys. Griffis reminds us of the fact that the Anabaptists were “the pariahs of history.” The day will come, he predicted, when “leaders like Hubmaier, Robert Browne, Menno Simons, William the Silent, Roger Williams and William Penn will win world’s honor.” But he should have taken pains to check some of these names used more carefully. Likewise he should be careful when claiming (p. 184) that the bold language used by Helwys in addressing King James I of England was the first used in that land containing the idea of religious liberty. Martin Luther in 1523 had used exactly the same kind of language! And many Englishmen before Helwys had spoken up with same kind of courage and wisdom.

1t is interesting to note that the article on the “Baptists” in Brittanica Junior Enyclopedia begins as follows, “The magistrate is not to meddle with religious or matters of conscience, nor to compel men to this or that form of religion,” said John Smyth to his little group of followers. We are then informed that this group fled to Amsterdam where they published their declaration of faith. In this manner the Baptist “denomination” was born which is today the largest Protestant group in the United States. The reader gleans the impression that the Baptists were the first to introduce the doctrine of religious liberty, taking away from the civil government the power to persecute religious sects. But in all honesty we shall have to take into consideration what Martin Luther by 1523 and what others also said. These deserve credit for their contributions.

This leads me to a confession. In my book I had mistakenly followed Prof. L. Knappert in saying that in the Netherlands “the history of the Anabaptists from 1530 to 1566 is almost identical with the history of the Reformation.” This is incorrect. There were thousands of Lutherans and Calvinists in the Netherlands during that period, and their contributions were far from inconsiderable. In Vol. I of Articles Synodaux (1563–1685) of the Walloon churches in the Netherlands, published in 1896 by Martinus Nijhoff, we read on p. 5, “But the origins of the Walloon churches were well antecedent to that date (i.e. 1563).” And again, “Protestantism established itself in the southern Low Countries since the first quarter of the sixteenth century.” Persecutions ordered by Charles V prevented them from founding numerous congregations there. Also the rulers grouped Anabaptists and Calvinists together, accusing the latter of actions similar to those perpetrated in Munster and the northern provinces in the Netherlands. These Walloons were Calvinists from what is today southern Belgium, and their influence on the history of the colonies in North America should be much more carefully studied than has been the case thus far. The same is true of their influence in the early days of the Dutch Republic, where they were later reinforced by immigrants from the Huguenot churches of France. In short we must always bear in mind that the climate conducive to a measure of political and religious liberty which characterized the Netherlands by the time the English Baptists and the Pilgrim Fathers came there was not produced solely by Anabaptists and Mennonites. Very early Lutherans and Calvinists were influential there as well. But this is not said in order to ignore the excellent labors also performed by some, and perhaps many, of the early Baptists.

The Errors of One-sidedness

Occasionally books appear which do not do justice to the actual facts of European history. An example of this is the work of the Rev. Leonard Verduin, whom we mentioned above with a fair measure of approbation. In 1964 he published a strange book entitled The Reformers and their Stepchildren. The term “stepchildren” was likely borrowed from Professor J, Lindeboom of the University of Groningen, who devoted a learned book to the so-called “Stepchildren of Christianity.” Both he and Verduin treat the Calvinists with a certain amount of scorn. That a liberal like Lindeboom should do this seems quite natural, but Verduin’s perfonnance is fantastic as well as unethical. He has maltreated his own people.

It was in the Dutch Republic that a number of highly influential Calvinists published the following statement in the constitution of that nation (the famous Union of Utrecht, 1579), “Every private citizen must remain free in his religion, and no one may be brought before the inquisitors to be examined as to his religious beliefs, in accordance with the terms of the Pacification of Ghent.” In my book Christianity and Politics (1960 edition) I have said that “this document of the year 1579 is one of the most powerful instruments in the history of modem civilization in helping establish the present conception of religious toleration.” (p. 227) It was William the Silent who took great pains as a leading Calvinist to protect the Mennonites in the Dutch Republic.

Verduin is completely mistaken in his interpretation of the First Amendment of our national Constitution. Not only did he fail to give proper credit to the work done by the leading Calvinists of the Dutch Republic, but he also failed to pay suitable homage to the outstanding Calvinists in the newly-founded United States of America. He claims that this amendment “is a Monroe Doctrine in which the soil of the New World is closed to sacralist plantings from the Old World.” (p. 61) However, all the experts know that this merely protected the whole body of American citizens from permitting a majority to institute a state church for the whole land. Already at that very time there were state churches in nine of the new states! Some had an Anglican (Episcopal) state church; others a Congregational state church. Verduin erroneously assumes that the First Amendment put an end to the whole idea of state churches. It did nothing of the sort. Nor does Verduin’s use of archaic terminology enable him to cover up his serious mistakes in the field of historiography. He should derive much comfort from the obvious fact that the majority of the justices of our Supreme Court in Washington also share this ignorance with him. They might well join him in a careful study of my remark in Christianity and Politics (p. 322), “In nine of the thirteen colonies the union of Church and State had been precariously maintained, but soon after the termination of the war a fundamental change was brought about.” It was the break with British customs that enabled the American statement to disestablish the unpopular custom of having a state church dictate its creeds and laws to the population as is still being done in Great Britain today. Even now only members of the Church of England may sit as members in the House of Lords! The average American citizen must rub his eyes and express amazement as he views this unfortunate result of innate stubbornness on the part of the British people. The Calvinists in Great Britain are as much displeased with this unpleasant situation as are the Baptists!

As for the Anabaptists, I stated in my book (p. 185) that they have “been mentioned only casually thus far in our survey, because their political views were impractical and for the most part quickly disappeared.” Moreover: “there were so many views held among the Anabaptists that it is impossible to say what were their opinions, except that the most important denied the advisability of having any civil government at all.” Another of their weaknesses was their tendency to permit young preachers without any suitable training to lead congregations. We can witness a similar procedure in our nation today.

Verduin makes it appear as if the orthodox Calvinists were guilty of undue rigidity in trying to safeguard the congregations against chaotic management on the part of improperly trained pastors. He admits (p. 156 of his book) that the Anabaptists “had their own leaders, men whom they called ‘elders;’ but they did not recognize any wide discontinuity that separates the lay-man from the cleric.” He mentions the custom of baptizing persons “in unhallowed precincts and by the hands of laymen.” The Anabaptists “were not interested in any continuity with the Church of the past; for them that church was a ‘fallen’ creature.” They did not want to reform a “fallen Church” but to start a Restitution.

Verduin’s sympathies are clearly with these “Stepchildren” and opposed to the positions of Dr. Abraham Kuyper whom he castigates for having praised Emperor Constantine in setting up a state church. (p. 61) He clearly disapproves of Kuyper’s statement, “When the first contest eventuated in this that the emperor bowed to Jesus, then….the kingship of Christ began to be triumphant in society.” Kuyper naturally rejoiced in this triumph on the part of the Christian church, but he did not rejoice in the idea of a state church set up by Constantine. The church movement led by Kuyper himself is one of the “younger churches” which Verduin characterizes as having “no Constantinian tradition” and wherein “separation of Church and State is taken for granted.” Is one then justified in implying that Kuyper and his followers wanted to set up a kind of state church of their own, simply because they agreed with Calvin in praising what Constantine did in his capacity as Pontifex Maximus of the Roman Empire? What does Verduin think Constantine could and should have done with that old office as nigh priest” in Rome which he inherited from those who had gone before him? Kuyper was a brilliant historian, well acquainted with the development of political institutions in the ancient world.

It is against the writing of history in this vein that we would protest. It fails to do justice to the facts which cannot be controverted.

To be sure, the Anabaptists and Baptists made their contributions to political and religious liberty and thus also to the separation of church and state. For this we do them honor. But we refuse to say, as so many say today, that we owe our liberties to them and to them alone. There were many others, including Lutherans and numerous Calvinists who at the same time and often much earlier, made similar pleas. And one would suppose that historians, claiming to set before the readers the facts, would also recognize these contributions. Failure to do so is to open one to the criticism of being partial, biased and dishonest with the facts in the case.

1. By way of contrast the Belgic Confession, a creedal statement of the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church, stated in its original form of article 38 that the civil government not only has the power to kill heretics but should use this whenever it deems such action necessary. The leaders in the Christian Reformed Church once entrusted my old friend, the Rev. Leonard Verduin, with the task of helping to revise this article. He presented an illuminating essay in the book published in my honor, entitled, The Dawn of Modern Civilization. He knows very well and recognizes that Calvinists during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did not believe in the separation of church and state. Perhaps the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale and his colleagues in the Reformed Church will also discover this truth at last.

Dr. Albert Hyma, professor of the Department of History of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan from 1924 to 1962 and thereafter occupying a similar position at Aquinas College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, is widely known because of the many scholarly and valuable contributions which he ha.s made in his field through articles and books which he has authored. We are pleased to present his careful judgment on the question of the degree to which the Anabaptists should be credited for advancing the separation of church and state.