Abecedarian from the Latin abecedarius, from the first three or four letters of the alphabet, (which of course in more phonetic languages such as Latin, are pronounced as aah-beh-ek-deh rather than aay-bee-cee-dee) signifies something or someone obsessed with matters alphabetical.
However the entry in 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica for Abecedarians briefly states;
Abecedarians, a nickname given to certain extreme Anabaptists who regarded the teaching of the Holy Spirit as all that was necessary, and so despised all human learning and even the power of reading the written word.
The Catholic Encyclopaedia adds the following detail describing them as;
A sect of Anabaptists who affected an absolute disdain for all human knowledge, contending that God would enlighten His elect interiorly and give them knowledge of necessary truths by visions and ecstasies. They rejected every other means of instruction, and pretended that to be saved one must even be ignorant of the first letters of the alphabet; whence their name, A-B-C-darians. They also considered the study of theology as a species of idolatry, and regarded learned men who did any preaching as falsifiers of God's word.
The Catholic Encyclopaedia then names one Nikolaus Storch as their leader, at which point it becomes the clear that Abecedarian is simply a disparaging, if somewhat ironic, nickname for that radical anti-ecclesiastical movement better known as the Illuminati of Zwickau or the Zwickau prophets.
These Zwickau prophets, namely Nikolaus Storch, Marcus Stubner, and Thomas Munzer appeared at Wittenberg in 1521 believing that they were in receipt of a series of direct revelations from God and that mankind was now experiencing the 'end of days'. Fairly obviously if the apocalypse is imminent then such matters as education cease to be of any importance. Hence it wasn't so much that they "despised human learning", it was more the case that they regarded it as a dangerous waste of time given that the day of judgement was fast approaching. They were however regarded as being responsible for an outburst of iconoclasm at Wittenberg in January 1522, and were driven out of the city later that same year by Martin Luther and thereafter faded from history.
Whilst it is true that these Zwickau prophets rejected infant baptism, it is misleading to think of them as Anabaptists - "the characteristic teaching of the Zwickau prophets was not Anabaptism" is the judgement of the same Encyclopaedia Britannica in its entry on Baptists and probably equally misleading to think of them as a sect, as this implies a degree of organisation that simply wasn't present at the time.
In modern usage the word abecedarian appears to have attracted a quite different meaning unconnected with its religious origins. Firstly the word is deployed as a noun meaning someone who is either learning or engaged in teaching the alphabet. Which, curiously enough, is quite the opposite of the original meaning. Secondly it is deployed as an adjective, either as a synonym for alphabetical or to mean something rather simple or rudimentary.
- The entries for ABECEDERIAN in the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica and the 1913 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia. The former of which is reproduced in its entirety.
- Diarmiad MacCulloch Reformation: Europe's House Divided 1490-1700 (Penguin Books, 2004)
- The Oxford English Dictionary