The Radical Reformers and the English Reformation

Major Concerns and Figures of the Radical Reformers and of the English Reformation

Based on: Justo L. González The Story of Christianity Vol. 2

Harper Collins ©1985, &

Alister E. McGrath Reformation Thought: An Introduction,

Blackwell Publishing © 1999

The Radical Reformation

In modern vernacular the term radical is often used to describe something or someone that is very extreme, unorthodox, or even lunatic-fringed.  Merriam-Webster defines the term as relating to, or proceeding from a root.[1]  In a sense, both meanings might be used to describe the Radical Reformation.  It was a movement that tried to move Christianity back to its origins, but it was also viewed by its opponents as an extreme ideology that swung far from orthodox thinking and whose followers were thought to be beyond the fringes of Christianity.  It is called the Radical Reformation because it claimed to be an effort that moved Christianity closer to its origins, or roots.

Traces of Radical-Reformation thought began emerging in Germany and other areas of Europe shortly after Luther’s reforming concepts appeared on the scene.  However, it is a movement that is most remembered as having emanated out of the Protestant Reformation in Zurich, Switzerland.  That movement was primarily led by Ulrich Zwingli, a humanist scholar who excelled at Greek.  He became a Roman Catholic priest in 1518, and as a result of his study of the New Testament, reached the conclusion that the Roman Catholic Church was not in attendance with proper Christianity.  His revelations occurred at about the same time that Martin Luther’s reforming insights were being spread throughout Germany.

With some exceptions, many of Zwingli’s reforming views were similar to Luther’s.  For example, they were both magisterial reformers; meaning that they did not discourage the Church’s alliance with civil authority.  They saw both entities as having powers within the other’s domains.  Zwingli’s preaching had gained the favor of his local governing council, and he had welcomed their support in bringing reform to Zurich.

There were some young scholars who followed Zwingli’s teachings and supported many of his reforming ideas.  Foremost were Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and George Blaurock.  When Zwingli desired to work with Zurich’s governing council and bring a more gradual reform to the city, these scholars began to separate themselves from Zwingli.  Grebel, Manz, and Blaurock, and their followers, who would call themselves The Brethren, were not in disagreement with Zwingli’s notions of reform.  However, they believed that magisterial reform was not only unwarranted, but wrong.  They were convinced that Scripture does not allow the Church’s authority to be intermingled with the State’s in any fashion.  Although they were not the first to object to the Church’s alliance with civil authority, they certainly were the first to make a lasting impact on the theological landscape with these opinions.

The idea of a separation of Church and State, especially in the United States, does not seem radical in any sense of the word.  However, the political climate in Europe during the period of the Reformation nurtured a completely different worldview.  For centuries the Church and State had acted as one.  Being a member of the State could not occur without also being a member of the Church.  This “dual-citizenship” was recognized at baptism – nearly always performed shortly after birth.  The concept of Church/State combined citizenship collided with another major concern of The Radical Reformers: infant baptism.

The Radical Reformers believed that pure Christianity only allowed baptism for believers who confessed their faith.  They also believed that the Church should be a community of people who chose to belong to it.  Because they rejected pedobaptism and saw the Church as separate from the State, they withheld their children from the rite that would make them citizens of the State.  Their stance on “believer-baptism” made the Radical Reformers antagonists of the church and enemies of the State.

Another significant concern of the Radical Reformation movement was their view on the Church.  While the magisterial reformers saw the Church as needing reform, the Radical Reformer believed that during the Middle Ages the Church “had simply ceased to exist.”[2]  Therefore, what did not exist could not be reformed, and so they sought to restore the Church.

Luther viewed the Church as including believers and unbelievers.  The Radical Reformer rejected this understanding, insisting that the Church could only be made up of regenerated persons.  Therefore, since the Church was filled only with the faithful, the issue of Church discipline became of uppermost concern for the Radical Reformer.  Unlike the Lutherans, Calvinists, and Catholics, the Radical Reformers did not use violent measures to insure discipline.  Looking not to the sword of the magistrate, but to the sword of the Spirit – The Word of God – for their direction, they developed a method called “the ban.”[3]  Based on the precepts of Matthew 18:15-20, the Radical Reformer first confronted the person in question.   If it became ultimately necessary, they would ban them from the fellowship – a far cry from burning their opposition at the stake (also a far cry from what most United Methodists actually insist upon in our own congregations).

The protagonists of the Radical Reformation were men who took to heart the Sermon on the Mount.  They were pacifists who proved their fidelity to Christ by often dying violently at the hands of other “Christians.”  Arguably, they may have misunderstood some New Testament hyperboles, but the full measure of devotion they gave makes it difficult for this writer to lay any fault at their feet.  I am a better person for having been introduced to them.

The English Reformation

While the study of the Radical Reformation left this student challenged and inspired, a study of the English Reformation only threatened to depress and repulse.  Unlike the German and Swiss Reformations that began over sincere disagreements with the theology and practices of the Roman Catholic Church, the English Reformation began with selfish and political interests in mind.

In an effort to keep an alliance with Spain, King Henry VII espoused his son, Arthur, to the daughter of the King of Spain, Catherine of Aragon.  When Arthur died prematurely, Catherine was given to Arthur’s younger brother, Henry VIII, who would become King of England.  The marriage was purely political, and when it produced no male heirs, Henry VIII grew concerned.   He did not wish to leave England under female leadership.  Furthermore, he was smitten by the dark eyes of Anne of Boleyn; whom he desired over Catherine.  So, Henry VIII sought an annulment from the Pope, who was then placed in an unfortunate position.  He was aware of England’s growing disappointment with the papacy, and so he wanted to remain in their good favor.  However, the Vatican had been overrun by the Spanish, and he did not want to estrange himself from the King of Spain.  Unable to find a good resolution, the Pope did nothing.

Henry VIII grew impatient.  At the advice of Thomas Cranmer he sought out scholars in England in an effort to find an alternative.  These scholars – likely influenced by politics more than ecclesiastical conviction – annulled Henry’s marriage.  Eventually England’s Parliament pronounced Henry VIII the “supreme head of the Church of England;” thus establishing The Church of England.  England broke free from Rome, and in a sense, England became Protestant.  Ironically, Henry VIII had once been declared by the Pope as “defender of the [Roman Catholic Church] faith,”[4] and had earlier been fond of burning reformers at the stake.  However, his personal and political expediency now dictated a different set of convictions.

Henry VIII was able to get an annulment through his newly-found church.  Catherine, and their daughter, Mary, fled for Spain, and Henry was finally able to marry his soul mate, Anne.   Anne would provide him with a daughter, Elizabeth.  As it would be, Henry VIII was later forced by the hand of conviction to execute Anne on charges of adultery.   But, he was able to rebound and find love again, eventually marrying four more times.  Finally he was able to produce a surviving male heir, Edward VI.

Edward VI became king after his father in 1547.  He ruled for six years, and with Cranmer’s influence, England became more distanced from their Catholic heritage.  When Edward VI died without an heir, Henry’s second daughter, Mary Tudor, became queen.  Mary, having spent time in Spain with her mother Catherine, was firmly Roman Catholic.  She brought Catholicism back to England and enforced its observance.  She repealed all previous Protestant laws, and a persecution of Protestants began.  Thomas Cranmer became one of her most famous casualties.

When Mary Tudor died in 1558, her half-sister Elizabeth became Queen.  Queen Elizabeth was as Protestant out of political persuasion as her half-sister Mary was Catholic.  She returned England to Protestantism, and the Reformers who had been fleeing from the Catholics turned in their steps to persecute their former pursuers.

Spain would make one final attempt in recovering England for the Pope through the Invincible Armada – a fleet of warships bound for England.  Sir Francis Drake, and a violent storm, turned back the Armada, and England to this day is separated from Rome.

To this point England’s Reformation could hardly be considered true reform.  The Church of England was in many ways a mirrored image of Roman Catholicism – only with the king as the pope.  It was not until the rise of some English Calvinists – the Puritans – that England began to experience some spiritual reform.   The Puritans are so named because they sought to purify the Church with a return to radical Biblical Christianity.  They began to oppose many of the Church of England’s traditions, and they insisted upon a pious lifestyle.  Some Puritans challenged the episcopacy and taught that Christ’s Church should be ruled by a local body of elders.  This is known as Presbyterian government.  It was not well received by the kings of England and persecution against the Puritans arose.  Out of the Puritan movement began the Baptists – who revived the idea of believer baptism – and eventually the Separatists – who longed for a division of Church and State.  Both of these movements would eventually have significant impact in the early formation of the United States.

This student’s study of the Reformation period has brought many new insights and presented personal challenges.  It has also been the source of constant contemplation, and has raised some serious questions.  With assignment space remaining, I would like to walk through some of those questions:

  • Is it proper to remain in a religious institution that does not govern itself according to the New Testament model (i.e. the episcopacy)?
  • Is it proper for our ordained elders to pledge allegiance to the doctrines of the United Methodist Church when Christ never required the same from His disciples?  What happens to those vows if the UM Church departs from scripture?
  • Why do we even require our elders to pledge allegiance to the UM Church?  Is that not simply an effort to preserve the institution?
  • Have we broken free from the Roman Catholic institution only to institutionalize ourselves again?
  • Why do we teach that baptism “is the sacrament of initiation and incorporation into the Body of Christ,” and that through baptism one is made a member of the universal Church, the UM denomination, and the local assembly[5] – when there is no explicit scriptural foundation for this belief?  By doing so are we not needlessly making people dual-citizens of spiritual and institutional entities just as the church of the Dark Ages did?  And, this serves God’s purposes how?
  • How does the UM Church differ from the Lions Club International?  Both institutions have monarchical forms of government; both perform community service; both enjoy tax exempt benefits, and both have believers as well as non-believers accomplishing their goals.
  • Finally – how can the “American Church” expect to spiritually flourish without the proven value of persecution?  Can we keep our ranks pure – 0r is that even important?

For this student these questions cannot remain rhetorical.  Their corresponding answers will be a great determining factor in the pilgrimage that this, God’s servant, plods along.

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[1] Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, © 2000 by Merriam-Webster, Inc, Version. 2.5.

[2] Alister E. McGrath Reformation Thought: An Introduction, Blackwell Publishing © 1999, pg. 204.

[3] Ibid, pg. 220.

[4] Justo L. González, This Story of Christianity Vol 2, Harper Collins © 1985, page 73.

[5] By Water & The Spirit: A United Methodist Understanding of Baptism, Discipleship Resources, © 1996, pg. 13.  See also this student’s response on baptism:



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