In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Radical Reformation

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Source Materials

Renaissance and Reformation The Radical Reformation
Wladyslaw Roczniak
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 July 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0066


The reformation of the 16th century challenged the core of traditional Christian theological concepts. Within the myriad small and large changes, one alteration soon came to symbolize and define the newness of the moment: the insistence on the Bible’s availability to and approachability by the individual reader. Since one of the major unintended consequences of such an allowance saw the turning of individual reading into individual interpretation, the Reformation soon splintered into a plethora of competing ideologies, doctrines, and beliefs. Behind the “mainstream” Lutherans, Calvinists, and Zwinglians stood a legion of more radical prophets whose often millenarian, sometime violent, sometime irenic stands propelled their adherents to action and placed them in the crosshairs of both Catholic and Protestant reaction. Popular dissatisfaction with the affairs of the Roman Catholic Church and with the progress and aims of the magisterial-driven Reformations of mainstream Protestant denominations gave voice to these emerging theological strands whose interpretations of the Bible differed quite markedly from standard and accepted models and offered new, often socially revolutionary conclusions. These voices eventually included such disparate groups as the Anabaptists, Mennonites, Hutterites, Spirituals in general, and the Müntzerites, among others, in Continental Europe, and Puritans, Quakers, and Dissenters in England (the English Dissenter groups are collectively dealt with in the separate bibliography “English Reformation”). Called collectively “The Radical Reformation,” after a term coined by George Huntston Williams, these sects displayed a marked variety of religious and social approaches and altered the religious history of Europe and the rest of the world.

General Overviews

In history textbooks and in Reformation research the Anabaptists and their successors and offshoots such as Mennonites and Hutterites are usually grouped under a general tag of Radical Reformation. Though strict irenism and notions of freedom of conscience and freedom of religion might seem anything but radical today, it must be remembered that in the 16th century such concepts were perceived to be as revolutionary and as much a challenge to accepted norms, both Catholic and mainstream Protestant, as Thomas Müntzer and the German Peasants’ War. Dissent itself, even dissent from the original dissenters such as Luther and Calvin, was seen as inimical to the preservation of Christian (however defined) society and necessitated a reaction of the strongest magnitude. For a fine, now classic introduction to the concept of the Radical Reformation, which includes the story of the Anabaptists, no book serves better than the one that originated the term, namely Williams 2000. Rupp 1969 likewise focuses on early radical leaders, as does Goertz and Klaassen 1982. Cohn 1970 is an example of a historic work treating the Anabaptists and Müntzerites not as a singularity but rather as a part of a long tradition of radical movements. So does Verduin 2001. Seebass 2002 provides the ideological and theological bridge between Müntzer, the German Peasants’ War, and the Anabaptists. Goertz 2002 is a collection of essays on modes of 16th-century religious dissent while Diekmannshenke 1994 provides an interesting analysis of the language of dissent and resistance utilized by early-16th-century reformers.

  • Cohn, Norman. The Pursuit of the Millennium. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

    A fascinating history of radical and millenarian religious movements that challenged established Christian spiritual norms from the 10th century onward. Includes a discussion of the Anabaptists and their ilk. Sees the history of radicalism and millennialism of the 16th and 17th centuies as part of a long tradition of Christian dissent.

  • Diekmannshenke, Hans-Joachim. Die Schlagwörter der Radikalen der Reformationszeit (1520–1536): Spuren utopischen Bewußtseins. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1994.

    A linguistic and religious analysis of the meanings and expectations of the many catchphrases used by the radical German reformers in the early 16th century.

  • Goertz, Hans-Jürgen, ed. Radikalität und Dissent im 16. Jahrhundert. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 2002.

    A collection of essays produced by a joint venture of the German Vereins für Reformationsgeschichte and the American Society for Reformation Research. The essays in the third and fourth sections are of particular importance as they deal with the modality of radical dissent. What is also of interest is that the essays in this volume underline deep differences in continental and Anglo-Saxon Reformation research interests.

  • Goertz, Hans-Jürgen, and Walter Klaassen eds. Profiles of Radical Reformers: Biographical Sketches from Thomas Müntzer to Paracelsus. Scottdale, PA, and Kitchener, Canada: Herald, 1982.

    A well informed biographical collection on twenty-one radical reformers, most of them Anabaptists, that points to the theological genius of the Age of Reformation (as well as to its inherent dangers) in its attempts to reshape European society through new spiritual visions. The non-Anabaptist radicals are present as well, represented by the likes of Thomas Müntzer and Michael Servetus.

  • Rupp, Gordon E. Patterns of Reformation. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969.

    An older book but still eminently readable that focuses on a few of the poignant marginal and radical figures of the early Reformation.

  • Seebass, Gottfried. Müntzers Erbe: Werk, Leben und Theologie des Hans Hut. Gütersloh, Germany: Gütersloher Verl.-Haus, 2002.

    Draws a connection between the social ideology and theology of the Thuringian revolutionary and Hans Hut, the later a major figure in the Anabaptist movement, thus setting the thesis that the Anabaptists were a continuation of Müntzer’s radical program.

  • Verduin, Leonard. The Reformers and Their Stepchildren. Dissent and Nonconformity 14. Paris, AR: The Baptist Standard Bearer, 2001.

    Traces the progression of religious dissent and its persecution from the time of the Reformation onward. Another work that sees the Anabaptist movement as a continuation of earlier strands of spiritual radicalism.

  • Williams, George Huntston. The Radical Reformation. 3d ed. Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2000.

    A classic book from the scholar who coined the term “Radical Reformation.” The encyclopedic work covers all major radical sects, including the Anabaptists and their offshoots, discusses their origins, their theological stands, and their proliferation in Germany and Europe.

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