In 1660 AD, Thieleman J van Bright, a deacon of the Mennonite church in Holland, published the result of his exhaustive historical research of the beliefs and the persecutions of faithful Christians from the time of Christ up to the date of publication. This book, the Martyrs Mirror, runs to more than 1100 pages and consists mostly of quotations from official records and the writings of the martyrs themselves. This is the best record of our Anabaptist heritage.
In the early years, the persecutors were the pagan Roman authorities. When the Roman Catholic Church became the state church of the Roman Empire it spared no effort to root out and destroy the true believers.
I realize that it is a bold statement to say that the true believers were the Anabaptists and not the members of the Roman Catholic Church. Consider then some of the points of difference. The Roman Catholic Church taught that all people in the Empire must be compelled to be members of the state church. The Anabaptists taught that church membership must be preceded by faith and that the New Testament does not permit force or coercion in matters of faith. The Roman Catholic Church taught that those who did not bow to her authority must be turned over to the civil authority to be tortured until they recanted, and put to death if they did not recant. The Anabaptists taught the way of peace and love and turning the other cheek, refusing to take up weapons to defend themselves.
The Roman Catholic church defended its zeal in persecuting the Anabaptists by labelling them as Manicheans, or dualists. There were Manicheans in many places, people who believed that there were two spiritual forces in the world, of equal power. They identified the Creator God of the Old Testament as the evil god and taught that the good god of the New Testament was someone different. It should be obvious that such people did not base these beliefs on an actual reading to the Holy Scriptures. They were mixing the teachings of Zoroaster with a superficial understanding of Christianity.
The Roman Catholic Church endeavoured to destroy all the records of the persecuted churches so that only the Catholic version of their history would ever be known. Yet enough has survived to show that these persecuted believers were faithful students of the Bible and added nothing to the teachings of the Word of God.
I don’t believe that it is in any way a stretch to say that the real point of contention was that Anabaptists taught that the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world are different and separate. Civil government is necessary and ordained of God. Christians should be subject to every ordinance of the civil authority, except when there is a conflict with their faith. But it is not for Christians to participate in the civil government with its necessary use of force and coercion to maintain order in society.
This struck at the very root of the existence of the Roman Catholic Church as an institution working hand in hand with secular authorities, at times exercising authority of emperors and kings and using the sword of the secular authority to eradicate all dissent from the authority of the church.
This union of Emperor and Pope was routinely denounced by the Anabaptists for being contrary to Scripture. Small wonder the popes seized upon dualism as a handy accusation to use against their opponents.
The Reformed and Lutheran churches, being state churches at the beginning, found themselves compelled to use the same tactics against the Anabaptists. All these churches admitted freely that the Anabaptists led much more pious and holy lives than their own members. Luther once admitted that Lutherans were “well nigh heathen under the name of Christian.” The mere existence of the Anabaptists was a constant reproach to them, and a powerful attraction to the sincere seekers after true Christian faith who were dismayed at the spiritual and moral state of members of the state churches.
There are sincere Christians in our day who believe that Christians must engage in politics in order to set things right in our society. Look around, how much have Christians in public office been able to do to stem the flood of anti-Christian propaganda and lawmaking?
Our society will never be turned around by top down political manoeuvring, no matter how well intentioned. The only hope for our society is a genuine work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts and minds of individuals. What is needed are individuals who are fully surrendered to the will of God, cost what it may, and who have no earthly ambitions whatsoever.