16th-century Radical Reformation celebrated at Southwestern Seminary

FORT WORTH—Much like evangelical believers everywhere, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary recognizes a great debt to the Reformation. Unlike some Southern Baptist churches and seminaries, SWBTS prefers to celebrate Radical Reformation Day on Jan. 21 instead of highlighting Reformation Day on Oct. 31.

The former event calls attention to the first Anabaptist baptism performed in the home of Felix Manz on Jan. 21, 1525, when George Blaurock asked his good friend Conrad Grebel to “baptize him with the true Christian baptism upon his faith and knowledge,” according to Southwestern professor William Estep, author of “The Anabaptist Story.”

“It was that day the Free Church took flight,” explained SWBTS President Paige Patterson when he launched the celebration in 2010, noting that all of the newly baptized men were martyred within five years.

The latter observance preferred by Lutheran and Reformed groups honors Martin Luther’s protest on Oct. 31, 1517, against clerical abuses by the Catholic Church. He nailed his letter which came to be known as “The Ninety-Five Theses” to the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church which housed a large collection of holy relics said to provide the viewer relief from punishment in purgatory for the right price.

Though appreciative of the significance of Martin Luther’s stance, Patterson told the TEXAN, “Baptists are indebted more to the radical reformers than to the magisterial reformers. Like the former, we insist on real conversion before baptism, do not baptize infants, advocate a free church in a free state, and place evangelism at the heart of all that we do,” he explained.

“Magisterial reformers often persecuted the Anabaptists—even to the death just as did the Catholics. So why honor the people who persecuted and misrepresented you and leave unrecognized the ones you are most like?” he asked. “Since that made no sense, we established Radical Reformation Day on the chapel day closest to the first baptisms in Zurich. That way we honor those who paid with their blood to defend a robust form of real New Testament Christianity.”

Recalling that the Reformation in Zurich, Switzerland, was instigated with the eating of sausages in defiance of church law concerning Lent, Patterson inaugurated the school’s first celebration of Radical Reformation Day on Jan. 21, 2010, by offering deer sausage and biscuits for the evening meal on campus.

The chapel message set the stage for the annual observance as Patterson made a case for “The Connection of Continental Anabaptism and Contemporary Baptists,” arguing a “theological and spiritual kinship” between English and American Baptists with 16th-century Anabaptists.”

Patterson said Anabaptists paid the price to go against the culture of Rome and go against the culture of even the magisterial reformers and say, “’We must obey the Holy Spirit of God.’”

“In the 16th-century Reformation, there is one and only one group that had the theological fidelity to follow the Great Commission in its entirety, and that was the Anabaptists,” added Emir Caner, former dean of the College at Southwestern and current president of Truett-McConnell College in Georgia.

Both Patterson and Caner will speak again at this year’s Anabaptists & Contemporary Baptists Conference, Jan. 30-31, joining other keynote speakers Rick Warren of Saddleback Church of Lake Forest, Calif., Reformation and Anabaptist expert Abraham Friesen of Santa Barbara, Calif., and SWBTS systematic theology professor Malcolm Yarnell. (See related article on page 1.)

“My plea is for contemporary Baptists to recognize indebtedness to all orthodox Christians, but to reject any form of ecumenism that compromises the witness of either the evangelical Anabaptists or the early English and American Baptists,” Patterson argued in his inaugural paper, originally presented to the Evangelical Theological Society.

This year’s conference will go from 3:30-9 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 30, resuming at 8:45 a.m. on Jan. 31 and concluding that afternoon as Patterson addresses the legacy of Anabaptists.

A more in-depth experience relating Anabaptist history is planned for May 14-24 as Southwestern hosts an overseas tour of historic sites led by Yarnell and Patterson. Also being offered is a class on Women of the Radical Reformation led by Dorothy Patterson, professor of theology in women’s studies and Candi Finch, assistant professor of theology in women’s studies.

“In the 16th century, the group known as the Anabaptists (literally rebaptizers) believed their ultimate loyalty was to God and what he had revealed in Scripture. They were viewed as a danger to society because at the time the church and state were inseparable, and a person belonged to both by reason of infant baptism,” Finch explained. “Since Anabaptists rejected the idea of infant baptism and taught that people should be baptized after they became believers, they threatened the very structure of society, and both Catholics and Protestants persecuted Anabaptists.”

She acknowledged that little is known about Anabaptist women during this time, although over one-third of recorded Anabaptist martyrs were women. “In fact, much of what is known has come to us through court testimonies and letters and hymns composed by them while imprisoned,” she said. “The ‘Martyrs’ Mirror’ is the source of many of these women’s testimonies as it records the trials of Anabaptist martyrs from 1524 to 1660.”

Looking ahead to the instruction she and Patterson will provide on the tour, Finch said, “Anabaptist women showed maturity of their faith during trials and a deep understanding of Scripture and they displayed remarkable courage and a steely resolve not to abandon their faith, knowing that a conversion to Anabaptism almost guaranteed a death by execution.”

Pastor Steve Swofford of First Baptist Church of Rockwall recalled the impact of participating in an earlier Southwestern tour in Europe. “Who we are as Baptists and the price that others have paid to help bring that about should never be forgotten,” he said.

Although Swofford learned about Baptist roots while completing his master of divinity degree at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, when the opportunity arose to travel with faculty members to the actual sites he had studied, he was on board.

“Hearing those stories in the places where they actually took place drives them deep into your heart and mind—which is where they ought to be,” Swofford told the TEXAN. “These two professors make history come alive and you will return home with a renewed appreciation and passion about our past and how you should approach your present,” he said, referring to Patterson and Yarnell, both of whom will be teaching the group traveling to Europe for the study of the radical reformers.

Departing Dallas-Fort Worth on May 14, the Anabaptist Study Tour features sites in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Czech Republic and England.

“The Anabaptists were those individuals who stood for the Free Church tradition and dissented from the established church baptism,” explained Madison Grace, editorial assistant for Southwestern’s Journal of Theology. “The roots of these people, from which most modern evangelical movements trace their heritage, are found in these countries.”

Stops will give attention to Martin Luther, John Huss, Jerome Savonarola, John Wycliffe, Peter Waldo, Pilgram Marpeck, and Ulrich Zwingli. After Worms, Strasbourg, and Basel, a visit to Bern will recall efforts to exterminate Anabaptists, viewing the Martyrs’ Mirror listing 40 such executions.

Additional stops include the Emmental Valley, Lucerne, Schwyz, Zollikon, and eventually Zurich, the cradle of Swiss-South German Anabaptism.

Outside of Zurich, the tour takes in Balthasar Hubmaier’s church site in Waldshut, the site where the first Anabaptist confession was made in Schaffhausen, and the resort town of Konstanz bordering Germany and Switzerland where the Reformation got underway in 1415 with the execution of John Huss. The group also travels to Vienna and Prague to see significant sites related to the lives of Hubmaier and Huss before returning to the U.S. on May 24.

Yarnell expects the tour to be restorative and inspirational for pastors and other church leaders, in addition to students seeking academic credit. “They will be able to experience more deeply things they may remember from a lecture or book, or perhaps events and people they have forgotten or never even known.”

While many pastors and laymen dream of going to Israel in order to walk in the steps of Jesus, Yarnell said the tours of historic Baptist sites are equally valuable.

“We don’t worship a place,” he reminded. “We worship a God who inhabits every place.” He said much can be learned of the context by experiencing the culture of “those who walked before us—especially where they had to pay a price,” referring to the Anabaptist martyrs “that were burned at the stake for doctrines we take for granted.”

Bob Pearle, pastor of Birchman Baptist Church in Fort Worth, expects the upcoming Anabaptist Tour to be helpful to the present day Baptist pastors because it gives them a fuller sense of history. Having participated in an earlier historic tour, Pearle said, “Too often we lose touch with the past, thinking those ways and ideas are no longer relevant to modern society. The tour helps a pastor realize that he is enjoying the benefits of the sacrifices of our forefathers,” he added.

“It also reminds us that we are to be the gatekeepers of the truth that our forefathers died for,” Pearle said. “We should never abandon that truth on the altar of inclusion.”

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