Updated: Jun 22, 2021
Today in 1525 there was a public debate in Zurich, arranged by the city council, on whether it was permitted to baptise infants. Lead by the reformer Ulrich Zwingli it was opposed by a more radical group of reformers who would become known as the anabaptists, and many would be exiled and some would die for their beliefs.
It is eight years after Martin Luther had nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, sparking the Reformation. Switzerland was ripe for reformation at a time of emerging Swiss patriotism. A priest from Zurich called Ulrich Zwingli had emerged as the leader of the reformation in Switzerland. Being already secretly married to a widow, he was agitating for reform and the dispensation of the discipline of priestly celibacy, He was famous for his preaching and had already replaced the Catholic Mass with a new communion liturgy. However, his radical ideas had spread beyond the liturgy, the Zurich council had secularised the church properties, replacing the work of religious houses with new welfare programs for the poor. Zwingli had also been granted permission to establish a Latin school to retrain and re-educate the clergy.
However, Zwingli was soon outflanked by more radical reformers, represented by the Anabaptisits who were opposed to infant Baptism. So today in 1525, the Zurich City Council arranged a public debate. In reality there was more at stake than baptism, the radicals were convinced that Zwingli was making too many concessions to the Zürich council. They rejected the role of civil government and wanted the immediate establishment of ‘a congregation of the faithful’. There had been ‘back-channel’ meetings as the radical Zwingli had tried to contain the ultra-radicals but these meetings had broken down. During the previous summer, Zurich council had insisted on the obligation to baptise all newborn infants but the radical’s leader Conrad Grebel had opposed on the grounds that baptism symbolizes a believer's commitment to Christ, and therefore to be efficacious had to be consented to after the age of reason. More was at stake then theological correctness, in a time of high infant mortality it was believed that baptism was necessary for salvation. Todays public debate, decided in favour of Zwingli. Anyone refusing to have their children baptised was required to leave Zürich. The radicals ignored these measures and the following day performed the first recorded Anabaptist adult baptisms.
These debates would rumble on through the year, until November when the last public debate on the subject of baptism took place. There was no serious exchange of views as each side would not move from their positions and the debates degenerated into an uproar, each side shouting abuse at the other. On 7 March 1526 the Zurich Council released the notorious mandate that no one shall rebaptise another under the penalty of death. As adults in Zurich were being baptised in rivers. This was bitterly opposed by Zwingli and Zwingli agreed that Anabaptists should be drowned. Radicalism thrives under attack, however after this period of persecution and, from the Anabaptist perspective martyrdom, they were scattered across Europe, gathering mainly in Moravia, some in Poland, the Netherlands and the German city of Munster. Many eventually made their way to America to start their lives again. Meanwhile back in Switzerland, the Catholic Cantons made an alliance with Austria and a period of war began. John Calvin, emerged in Geneva which was Switzerland’s second largest city, as a leader and his theological influence and legacy soon outstripped that of Zwingli.