Anabaptism Today? This may sound somewhat immodest. Anabaptism, in its generative and expansive form at least, was crushed over four centuries ago. The established churches, often for understandable reasons of responsibility and institutional survival, rejected its insights. Its leaders were killed or cowed into quiescence. Its writings remained unpublished and unread. The very word “Anabaptism” became a byword for fanaticism and tumult.
Beginning about a century ago, however, and gaining momentum in the past twenty years, there has been a growing readiness on the part of many Christians to listen to the Anabaptists. There is new interest in listening not only to the Anabaptists, but also to marginal Christians from other times and places who had parallel insights. At a time when Christianity manifestly is in trouble, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, a growing number of Christians are turning to unexpected sources for ways forward.
Christians are turning to the past, not out of nostalgia, but to reawaken subversive memories. Things have been and can be other than they are. There is no God-given inevitability about forms of Christian witness and church life that past generations have bequeathed to us. God’s Spirit, who reminds us of everything Jesus taught (John 14:26), also reminds us of undomesticated forms of Christian living. Though crushed and marginalized in the past, in our time these can address us with new possibilities for thought, action and common life. Anabaptism’s new influence today is an expression of this. It indicates the transforming potential of a repressed memory brought back into consciousness.
This article examines three ways Anabaptism is important: for its intrinsic significance, for its representative function as part of an alternative strand of Christianity, and for the invitation it presents to rediscover Christian origins.
In a burst of creativity in the 1520s and 1530s, individuals and groups sprang up across western and central Europe to challenge received notions of what it means to be Christian. There were many dimensions to this challenge. After a millenium in which most Europeans were compelled to belong to locally established churches because they had been born in a “Christian” country, the Anabaptists pioneered a voluntarist model of Christianity. Christians should be those who, having counted the cost, had chosen to follow Jesus. Baptism should be given, not to everyone who was born, but to those who had experienced rebirth and were committed to the Christian way.
Faith, the Anabaptists believed, could not be compelled. They sensed that linking church to state polluted the mission of the church without strengthening the state. Theirs was a nonconformist vision of Christianity, and adherents of Anabaptism lived in alternative ways, by different standards from the bulk of the populace. For support in this, Anabaptists developed a variety of communitarian lifestyles. As communities of faith they shared their worship and their possessions, their lives and their sufferings.
The generative core of Anabaptism was its Christocentric understanding. Jesus, whom Christians worship, must also be listened to and obeyed. “Why should God manifest his will”, Michael Sattler reasoned shortly before his execution in 1527, “if he did not desire that it be done?”1 Possibly Sattler’s contemporaries did not heed the teachings of Jesus because it was inconvenient, when Christian Europe was being threatened by Turkish invaders, to espouse nonviolent enemy-love. Possibly because, if people were obedient to Jesus’ injunction to comprehensive truth-telling and prohibition of swearing oaths, civil courts might cease to function. Possibly because, if people insisted on sharing their possessions with the needy, the economic foundations of European society might be shaken.
These reasons for obedience to God, Anabaptists felt, were not enough. Instead, there were persuasive reasons why communities of faith should test and experiment with the teachings of Jesus and demonstrate their applicability to wider society. Jesus, the Anabaptists were convinced, is God’s authoritative Word. He is the key to the rest of the scriptures. He is the source of hope for a humanity experiencing violence, oppression and despair.
Voluntarist, nonconformist, communitarian, Christocentric: these themes emerge from Anabaptist writings and court records that scholars have uncovered in recent decades. The Anabaptists, whose memory was persecuted by powerful people who write histories, now for the first time in over four centuries have been able to speak for themselves. Their voices have given new impetus and self-respect to the groups with uninterrupted Anabaptist lineage: Mennonites, Brethren in Christ, Amish and Hutterites.
Beyond these groups, however, people in other traditions are also listening to Anabaptist voices. Some, in hot disagreement, will point out “That’s an Anabaptist argument!” But this put-down doesn’t work as well as it used to. Less and less can people categorize an alternative point of view as Anabaptist and think that they have thereby dismissed it. An increasing number of Christians, finding that traditional Christian formulations and folkways no longer fit the world in which they live, are discovering intriguing relevance in the Anabaptists’ word and way.
Alternative strands of Christianity
People who warm to Anabaptist insights quickly discover that Anabaptism is not an isolated phenomenon. Instead, it stands in a tradition of radical alternatives to conventional Christianity. Outside the dominant Christian traditions are medieval Waldensians, Lollards, the Czech Brethren, early Baptists, Quakers, Moravians, early Methodists, Christian Brethren, Pentecostals and African Independent Churches. Within the great traditions themselves (often uncomfortably) are monks and friars, missionary orders and societies, the Confessing Church and a variety of communities including Base Ecclesial Communities.
Among Catholic and establishment Protestant groups a lineal descent is often traceable. Some writers have sought to trace a similar genealogy, a kind of alternative apostolic succession, among the nonconformist groups. These attempts have not convinced most scholars; direct connections between them usually are untraceable.
Yet repeatedly the four Anabaptist themes noted above recur in these groups. They appear in differing forms and combinations, to be sure, and especially are evident in the first generation or two of a movement. In their voluntarism these groups have tended to empower the weak and (at least initially) to give new room for women to offer their gifts. In their nonconformity these groups have explored ways of living simply, and often have rejected oath-swearing and lifetaking (including war and capital punishment).
Alternative approaches to life issues led many of these groups to explore new ways of being communitarian. All of these are expressions of a Christocentrism that is sometimes sophisticated and sometimes naive, but that always points to the perpetual freshness of Jesus’ undomesticable teachings.
Why have these diverse movements, so widely scattered in space and time, come to similar conclusions? Perhaps it is because God’s Spirit keeps reminding people of the teachings of Jesus. These people, often in groups that are unrespectable and on the edges of their societies, are ideally placed to say, “Why not? What would happen if … ?” Then they proceed to give social expression to another sample of Jesus’ gracious imprudence.
Anabaptism, by and large, was not genetically connected with these intriguingly similar groups. As some scholars have recently suggested, Anabaptism itself may have been partly a product of an early sixteenth-century monastic renewal movement. It may also have had considerable influence on the early Baptist movement as it developed in the Netherlands and England.
But genes are not the point. Anabaptism has proved significant, not as a link to other groups, but as a symbol of an alternative strand of church history and as a means of providing coherence for it. Two terms derived from Anabaptist study have been especially useful as organizational categories: “Radical Reformation” (Williams; Yoder) and “Believers’ Church” (Weber; Durnbaugh).2 The Anabaptists, therefore, do not stand alone. They are representatives of a tendency that is durable and recurrent.
An invitation to rediscover origins
The third importance of Anabaptism is its invitation to rediscover origins. As one recent writer put it, Anabaptism “has provided a unique point of identification for many from an evangelical heritage who are taking the call of discipleship seriously in our time”. The Anabaptists would have been bemused by this sentence. Their concern was not to be a model for anyone, but to participate with others in a rediscovery of the genius of early Christianity.
Most groups mentioned above had the same concern. According to Elizabethan divine Richard Hooker, so did the Church of England: “The first state of things was best, that in the prime of Christian religion faith was soundest, the Scriptures of God were then best understood by all [people], all parts of godliness did then most abound”.3
There is life in the roots. Almost any Christian tradition can experience renewal by rediscovering insights and energies that first brought it into existence. So it is not surprising when modern Methodists in search of renewal appeal to the evangelistic zeal and communitarian instincts of early Wesleyans; or when contemporary Quakers seek to rediscover the earth-shaking understandings and spiritual dynamics of George Fox and his circle of Friends; or when religious orders, following the impetus of Vatican II, seek to rediscover “the spirit of the founder” of each order;4 or when Mennonites seek a “recovery of the Anabaptist vision”.5
The sixteenth-century Anabaptists’ ultimate concern, similar to that of the early Quakers, Methodists, Plymouth Brethren and Anglo-Catholics, was to rediscover a pattern of faithfulness to Christ according to the pattern of the Early Church. Therefore, valuable though Anabaptist or Anglican or Pentecostal roots may be to the renewal of these traditions today, these roots especially are valuable insofar as they lead to roots that go deeper still, roots embedded in the memory of Christians of the earliest centuries.
Life-givingly dangerous memory
An indication of the power of this memory comes from a statement by the US Roman Catholic bishops: “It is clear today, perhaps more than in previous generations, that convinced Christians are a minority in nearly every country of the world … As believers we can identify rather easily with the early Church as a company of witnesses engaged in a difficult mission. To be disciples of Jesus requires that we continually go beyond where we now are … One must take a resolute stand against many commonly accepted axioms of the world.”6 This statement, which the Anabaptists would have been astounded to applaud, indicates the substance of agreement that is currently emerging between Christians of many traditions.
Of course, the early church is not our ultimate place of meeting final authority; that we find in the generative events described in the New Testament. Most crucially we find our authority in the person, the life and teaching, the death and resurrection of Jesus whom we worship and follow as Messiah. It is Jesus whose memory is the most life-givingly dangerous of all memories. But the early church, across three centuries, continued in boldness and “foolishness” to live the way of Jesus. It was, according to German Catholic exegete Gerhard Lohfink, a “contrast society” which continued the “foundational reception of Jesus’ praxis of the reign of God”.7 Or, to use other language, it was the first nonconformist church.
The church, of course, later changed course. It adapted its structures and assumptions to the maintenance of dominance in a unitary Christian society, in alliance with the State. According to Anglican biblical theologian Christopher Rowland, it engaged in a “process of neutralization of the subversive ideas which threatened the status quo”8 Precisely for this reason the monks and Anabaptists, along with other renewal groups, arose to make their witness.
Something surprising may happen
The coming years are likely to be difficult for the human family. The current global instability is unlikely to diminish, rooted as it is in a lethal mixture of firepower and nationalism, economic immiseration of the southern hemisphere, and ecological crisis of increasing severity. Domestically Britain and the western world are experiencing a disruption of the social landscape and an unsettling normlessness.
This situation is our fault: important causes of our malaise, both global and local, are phenomena familiar to us and distinctive to the West. Particularly evident is our compulsive obeisance to Mammon (in Wendell Berry’s words, our commitment to “limitless economic process based upon boundless dissatisfaction”).9 A related symptom is our individualism, which expresses itself in what sometimes feels like a comprehensive absence of community. In this kind of world, Christians often seem as confused and complicit as anyone else. Even our acts of warship and witness can be unwitting expressions of corrosive Western cultural norms. Meanwhile, the dechristianization of our societies, unchallenged by any real alternatives, hurtles heedlessly ahead. Do we Christians have anything distinctive to contribute?
Insofar as we have something to contribute, it will not be because we are Protestant or Catholic, Anglican or “New Church”. Nor will it be because we are well-informed or sophisticated in our social analysis. Rather, it will be because we have begun to orient our lives around the love and will of God as expressed in the prophetic Jesus of the gospels. Jesus, in turn, will give us a vocabulary, a life-giving narrative and a point of view that “are not of this world” (John 18:36).
None of this will be easy, theologically or spiritually, intellectually or practically. Intrinsic difficulties will be compounded by experiences or feelings of apparent irrelevance. As Jesuit spiritual writer Gerard Hughes states matter-of-factly, ‘Whoever lives the gospel is marginalized”.10 To people who find “public truth”11 in Jesus’ teaching and way, the cross will be a familiar contemporary reality. But God’s Spirit – restless, creative, recreative – will not only provide untold reserves of idea and energy for faithful discipleship; the Spirit will also create community. Will we have the courage to choose as our primary identity membership in the community of believers who “critically disassociate [ourselves], in virtue of free personal decision in every case, from the current opinions and feelings of [our] social environment”?12 What memories, which heroes and heroines, will we choose to nourish us?
In the critical period we are entering, by God’s grace something surprising may well happen. The Anabaptists, after centuries of neglect, may find a voice. Along with their radical brothers and sisters in many traditions from the Early Church onwards, they may well be role models in clarifying the way forward. If that turns out to be the case, Anabaptism Today will not seem an immodest title; it will be soberly descriptive.
1 Michael Sattler, “On the Satisfaction of Christ”, in John H. Yoder, ed., The Legacy of Michael Sattler (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1973), 113.
2. George H. Williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962); John H. Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom (South Bend, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press, 1984),105; Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Scribner, 1958), 144-35; Donald F. Durnbaugh, The Believer’s Church: The History and Character of Radical Protestantism (New York- Macmillan, 1968).
3. Richard Hooker, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, III, i, 10; IV, ii, 1.
4. Walter M. Abbott, ed., The Documents of Vatican Il (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1966), 463.
5. Guy F. Hershberger, ed., The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1957).
6. The Challenge of Peace (London: Catholic Truth Society/SPCK, 1983), 78-79.
7. Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus and Community: The Social Dimension of Christian Faith (London: SPCK, 1985), 149.
8. Christopher Rowland, Radical Christianity: A Reading of Recovery (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988), 155.
9. Wendell Berry, Home Economics (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987), 145.
10. Gerard Hughes, personal communication, 11 June 1992.
11. Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1989), 50.
12. Karl Rahner, The Shape of the Church to Come (London: SPCK, 1974), 23.