Early Anabaptism as Social Movement, part 3: The Four Stages of Social Movements

This post is the third part of an essay looking at the early Anabaptist movement through the lens of social movement theory. See Part II in the series here, which looks at definitions of social movements.


Photo by Katerina Friesen, Sainte-Chapelle

The four generally recognized stages of a social movement are emergence, coalescence, bureaucratization, and decline.(1) Some social movements never evolve beyond the first two or three stages, and others continue in new forms if they are adapted into mainstream society. The model of four stages of social movements sheds light on elements of the Anabaptist movement, though it has limitations, since, as I have argued, the Anabaptist movement was not a social movement according to modern definitions.


The first stage of social movements, emergence, is seen as the time when consciousness of a problem or societal ill is just forming. Collective action has not yet grown out of the discontent that is felt by many people, and organized leadership has not yet emerged though “agitators” may be at work at the grassroots. I believe that both the Peasants’ Revolt and the Protestant Reformation were crucial in this first stage of emergence.

The Peasants’ Revolt (1524-1525) laid the groundwork for widespread social unrest, and raised issues of unjust rulers and the need for social reform. Snyder writes that many early Anabaptists, especially in South German regions, were closely involved with the peasant movement for social reform and shared many of their egalitarian ideals. Hubmaier, for example, started his evangelical reform teachings in Waldshut, which greatly supported the peasants. Snyder also cites other early Anabaptist leaders’ connection or collaboration with the peasants; these leaders included Reublin, Brötli, Krüsi, Grüningen, Hut and Rinck. He writes, “Many of the same religious, social and economic impulses that fueled the so-called Peasants’ War remained issues within the Anabaptist movement well after the peasant uprising had been suppressed. Many of the first Anabaptists were active in these protest movements ‘from below.’”(2)

Though the Peasants’ Revolt ultimately failed, its concerns and impulses lived on in the Anabaptist movement and its leaders. The authorities violently suppressed unrest, but the underlying emotions and grievances quelled by force in society often surface through other channels. The study of social movements has shown that the death of one radical movement for change often sparks the birth of another. Sociologist Francesca Polleta writes, “Emotion-laden symbolic capital reverberates from one movement mobilization to the next. Movement dynamics are not only transient, but reincarnating.”(3)

Seen through this lens, the early Anabaptist movement for reform was one way some of the “symbolic capital” of the Peasant’s Revolt reincarnated, intentionally or not. It is necessary to emphasize that the Anabaptist movement was not a revolution in religious disguise, as Freidrich Engels and others have characterized it. Snyder cautions readers not to follow the tendencies of Engels’ and others’ socialist historiography in reading theological language as “code” for social revolution.(4) Still, it is clear that the milieu after the Peasant’s Revolt, as well as the hopes and grievances of this movement “from below,” influenced the swell of Anabaptism in the 1520’s in ways that scholars are still exploring.

In addition to the influence of the Peasant’s Revolt, the Protestant Reformation also prepared the ground for the Anabaptist message. One historian of Anabaptism, Claus-Peter Clasen, writes that the most growth of the Anabaptist movement happened in regions where Protestantism already held sway, rather than in Catholic-dominated territories. He observes, “Once five of the sacraments had been thrown overboard, it was not difficult to question the remaining two: indeed, all doctrines might now be questioned.”(5) Protestantism made way for new challenges to the State Church; it also seems that discontent with the Protestant movement was one of the underlying reasons for the emergence of the Anabaptist movement. Anabaptist discontents with the Reformation movement included moral indignation over infant baptism, the Reformers’ disregard for the Spirit, clericalism, celebration of rituals without inward transformation, and the lack of an outward manifestation of faith. Luther’s reforms were too slow in the eyes of Reformers such as Zwingli. Other dissatisfied leaders “jumped ship” in more radical ways from the Reformers during the emergence of the Anabaptist movement, and became prominent in what could be seen as the coalescence phase of 16th century Anabaptism.


Coalescence in social movements involves a cohesive development of the movement and its aims, as well as a more organized leadership.(6) Ironically, it may have been persecution and martyrdom that helped forge the Anabaptist movement’s coalescence. Sociologists have shown that social movements can actually “progress” when martyrdom occurs. In his study of religions, Emile Durkheim linked martyrdom and moral power. Victims of martyrdom show a dedication to the movement that is tied to both moral and social strength. People are drawn to the faith of martyrs, since they show through their commitment unto death that they have the power of God on their side. Though persecution destroyed a widespread Anabaptist movement in Central Germany, in other regions the authorities were confounded because of the growth of the movement despite the deaths of many followers. Snyder would likely agree with Durkheim about the compelling moral power of martyrdom; he writes that executions were used as evangelism opportunities to such an extent that authorities “began silencing Anabaptist martyrs with gags, tongue screws, and other means to prevent their public witness.”

Because of ongoing persecution, many Anabaptists fled to more tolerant regions such as Moravia, which was on the margins of imperial control. The development of subversive networks of communication, ways of gathering, and organized leadership was important for the survival of the scattered communities. Snyder argues that Anabaptists existed outside of institutional power and developed systems of communication that did not rely on printing presses and pulpits, forms of communicative capital that Reformers had greater access to in the cities. Instead, they spread the message of Anabaptism in more oral/aural ways, through sewing circles, in weaving rooms, and conventicles gathered in peoples’ homes or in the countryside.

Along with these more developed forms of communication and gathering, coalescence also occurred through the development of movement leadership. Social movement theories recognize the importance of movement intellectuals in helping to define and organize movements, and Anabaptism was no exception. Most of the early leaders of the Anabaptist movement came from an intellectual background, including Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, George Blaurock, Wilhelm Reublin, Balthasar Hubmaier, Hans Denck, Thomas Müntzer, and Michael Sattler. Most of the followers came from uneducated classes (or informally educated), and were largely craftsmen and farmers by trade, though some also served as leaders, especially during the latter part of the movement from 1530-1549 when the majority of the highly educated leaders were killed.

Early political theorist and sociologist Antonio Gramsci emphasized the importance of movement intellectuals who come from the “proletariat” and understand their situation. His description of this kind of leader as an “organic intellectual” may shed light on Hans Hut’s popularity and success in evangelizing the middle and lower classes of laborers. Hut, a book peddler who wrote for the peasants during the Peasants’ Revolt, could be seen as an “organic intellectual” in his ability to articulate the concerns of the commoners and speak the news of the new birth of Anabaptism both out of and into their situation.

Max Weber’s theories on leadership also provide interesting insights into the nature of early Anabaptist leaders and their contributions to furthering the movement. Weber described charisma as the quality that draws followers to religious change agents, especially in volatile social conditions. His theory of charisma seems especially useful in understanding the popular attraction of early Anabaptists who saw themselves in the prophetic tradition, such as those infamous leaders of Münster and others who drew heavily in their self-presentation from the tradition of Biblical typology and eschatology.

Though sometimes prone to rivalries and conflict based on differences in interpretation and belief, Anabaptist leaders generally managed to avoid factionalism and deepened a sense of collective identity. Snyder contends that the mixing of different strains of Anabaptism created conversation among the groups as well as tensions. At times, it seems that differences in belief were put aside for the sake of unity in the movement. In Augsburg in 1526, for instance, Hut organized an inclusive leadership structure when Denck and Hubmaier were also present. This indicates an essential quality of coalescence in social movements, that is, working together across difference for the sake of furthering the movement.

Bureaucratization and Decline

The third and fourth stages of social movements, bureaucratization and decline, are more difficult to align with the spread of Anabaptism, yet the differences present interesting insights into the nature of the Anabaptist movement. Bureaucratization, the third stage, is seen as a time of consolidation and of institutionalization, to some degree. Movement ideology becomes more widespread and accepted, and political power grows as well as access to the political elites. This may apply to the Protestant Reformers, but it does not fit the trajectory of the Anabaptist movement. Rather than bureaucratization, sociologists describe another possibility as social movement abeyance. This alternative state, though not recognized in the four stages, was suggested by sociologists who saw some movements grow inward in order to focus on internal questions of identity and core values.


It seems that the Anabaptist movement experienced abeyance during the decade after the rise in persecution beginning in 1525 in Switzerland and the Holy Roman Empire. This state of suspension most likely came about due to the unfortunate fact that many of the movement leaders had been killed, resulting in a loss of leadership. Many Anabaptist communities had also grown more isolated geographically as they escaped church and political authorities. In addition, the ignominy of Münster may have lingered in the Anabaptist collective unconscious, and this memory could have prevented any further moves toward bureaucratization as the seizure of political power and the sword. Furthermore, the development of the Schleitheim Confession pointed to a need for the clarification of thought within the movement, especially around issues such as separatism.

The Schleitheim Articles are one indicator of the inward focus seen during periods of social movement abeyance. Michael Sattler’s systematic approach to Swiss Anabaptism in the Articles helped develop a separatist stance for some Anabaptist groups. They were a pointed refusal of any desires within the movement for territorial reform. It should be said that Anabaptist leaders did not accept the Articles wholesale, and some still pushed for Anabaptism as a State or territorial church of the majority, particularly Hubmaier. However, the Articles represented the beginning of a shared understanding and a formal iteration of a strikingly separatist stance, especially in their two-kingdom approach to society. They also exemplified a move toward an internal working-out of certain tensions within the movement, not only between the use of force and non-resistance, but also on other issues such as the ban, the Lord’s Supper, and the election of pastors.

Unlike John H. Yoder, Snyder de-emphasizes the Schleitheim Articles as the defining, crystallization moment of the Anabaptist movement beyond Swiss territories, and sees them as only accepted later. Yet even if Schleitheim was not a watershed document for the Anabaptist movement as a whole, when compared with the first major Protestant confession of faith, the Lutheran Augsburg Confession, the Articles stand out in their power to define Anabaptism in a way that resists political power and control.

James Urry writes that from about 1530 to 1650, “confessions became central features of ‘internally coherent and externally exclusive communities’ defining ‘distinct institutions, membership, and belief’ with important political consequences.” Religious confessions such as the Lutheran Augsburg Confession acquired political backing as well as the right to be defended through war, and contributed to the eventual formation of politically centralized modern societies. The Augsburg Confession was approved by Emperor Charles V and included a section on civil affairs that maligned the Anabaptists who refused civil office, “without which no state is successfully administered.” Though some scholars do not see the Schleitheim Articles as confessional, it is interesting to observe the striking distinction between their clear spiritual and political stance of separatism in contrast with other internally and externally defining confessionals like the Lutheran Augsburg Confession with the might of the Empire standing behind the religious assertions of faith.

Persecution drove out the possibility of an Anabaptist state church or of controlled territories. It appears that the theology of separatism expressed in the Schleitheim Articles grew out of this context of persecution. Snyder writes, “With almost negligible exceptions, Anabaptism was forced to develop in an openly hostile political environment.” In this antagonistic environment, there was an overall lack of consensus on the issue of the sword and non-resistance, though the early Anabaptists eventually reached consensus on the issue of separatism by the end of the 16th century. Interestingly enough, consensus was reached only after apocalyptic prophecies did not come true. It seems that separatism and even non-resistance were not only theologically based conclusions arising from a Christocentric hermeneutic, but also became survival strategies for the various Anabaptist groups. Through the lens of social movement theories, these strategies would prevent the growth of a movement. However, it is necessary to remember that only two options, the sword or the staff, were considered possibilities at the time.

Because Anabaptist communities for the most part forsook the sword and became separatist, they may have avoided the fate of Münster and the fate of many movements that die out because of violent repression in response to violent uprising. When viewed through social movement theories, rather than experiencing decline, it seems that the Anabaptist movement as a whole continued in a prolonged state of abeyance. Maintenance may be a better term for what happened to the movement after it was pushed underground and scattered throughout Western Europe. Traveling pastors and teachers such as Menno Simons helped to keep Anabaptism from total decline.

Menno Simons was instrumental as a shepherd of the fragmented movement that remained, and helped to maintain the identity of the diaspora through his teachings. His traveling ministry and surprising ability to avoid death meant that Anabaptism stayed alive under the radar of the authorities. However, even with committed itinerate leaders such as Menno, it seems the movement remained static in the lens of social movement theory; it did not generate widespread change or social reform for the majority.

Part 4 of this series will be posted later this week. Katerina Friesen is currently a M.Div. student at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, IN.


1. Jonathan Christiansen, “Four Stages of Social Movements,” Social Movements and Collective Behavior (2009).

2. Snyder, Anabaptist History, 227.

3. Goodwin, Passionate, 43.

4. Snyder, Anabaptist History, 399.

5. Clasen, Anabaptism, 301.

6. Christiansen, “Four Stages,” 3.

7. Goodwin, Passionate, 33.

8. Snyder, Anabaptist History, 114.

9. Snyder, Anabaptist History, 181.

10. Ibid, 101-104.

11. Clasen, Anabaptism, 309.

12. Ibid., 309-315.

13. William H., Jr. Swatos, ed., “Charisma,” Encyclopedia of Religion and Society (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 1998).

14. Snyder, Anabaptist History, 125.

15. Christiansen, “Four Stages,” 5.

16. Snyder, Anabaptist History 115.

17. Snyder, Anabaptist History, 61-63.

18. Snyder, Anabaptist History, 185-87.

19. Anabaptist History and Theology class notes, Sept. 11, 2013.

20. James Urry, Mennonites, Politics, and Peoplehood, (Winnipeg, Manitoba: University of Manitoba Press, 2006), 22. [Quoting Heinz Schilling, “Confessional Europe.”]

21. Urry, Mennonites, 22.

22. Urry, Mennonites, 21.

23. Snyder, Anabaptist History, 183.