AT 10: Recovering Anabaptist Spirituality: Training the reflexes

by Alan Kreider
Originally Published in Anabaptism Today, Issue 10, October 1995

Daniel Liechty, ed., Early Anabaptist Spirituality: Selected Writings. New York, Paulist Press, 1994. 304 pp. £14.99

Marlene Kropf and Eddy Hall, Praying with the Anabaptists: The Secret of Bearing Fruit. Newton, Kansas, Faith and Life Press, 1994. 176 pp. £8.75; with cassette, £15.50

As depicted in a famous engraving, the image is unforgettable: the Anabaptist Dirk Willems, safely across the frozen river, spontaneously doing the dangerous thing. He turns around and pulls to safety the dripping thief-catcher—who had fallen through thin ice—even though this led to Dirk being arrested and burned for heresy. What Dirk did was not a carefully considered action; it was reflexive, an expression of his character.1 God had so worked in his life that loving the enemy was not something he decided to do; it was rather an expression of who he was. But what was it that shaped Dirk's character? What was the spirituality of Dirk and the other early Anabaptists?

For centuries people in the Anabaptist tradition didn't talk about "spirituality" -a word that would have seemed too Catholic. Prayer was something that was central to their lives, but to talk in detail about it seemed akin to "praying on the street corners" (Matthew 6:5), and hence, proud. In recent decades relatively few Anabaptist scholars have paid attention to the spirituality of their ancestors - partly because of the early Anabaptists' reticence and partly because of their own preoccupation with ethics and polity. In light of this neglect from within, it is not surprising that writers from other traditions have treated Reformation spirituality as if the Anabaptists made no distinctive contribution to it.2

Two recent books, however, agree in finding a lively and distinctive spirituality in the Anabaptist tradition. Other researchers also are at work, whose writings will further illuminate prayer in the Anabaptist tradition. Thus we may grow in our capacity to understand and learn from the inner life and spiritual disciplines that animated Dirk Willems and the other martyrs.

Leichty: a new translation of select writings

Daniel Liechty's volume, Early Anabaptist Spirituality: Selected Writings (in The Classics of Western Spirituality series), is the more conventional of the two. It consists of a selection of thirteen writings by nine Anabaptists, all newly translated by the editor. The texts are fascinating, opening up to the reader the varieties of early Anabaptist reflection on the Christian life. Liechty's rendering makes them readily comprehensible. A number of them—especially the writings of Hans Denck and Peter Walpot—make a strong impression and would be suitable for group discussion.

But these writings still do not help us greatly in our search for the spirituality that animated Dirk Willems. Another Dirk, Dutch Anabaptist leader Dirk Philips, reminds us of the problem. In 1556 he wrote: "Jesus Christ, the only son of God ... is the example to all Christians, ordained by the Father that we might be conformed to him. For godly character, which is to be our pattern, is perfectly reflected and shown in him. Therefore, all those who claim to know the new birth should have the character and nature of Christ and hold firmly to his character from beginning to end"3

Dirk Willems might well have pondered this passage. Yet Dirk Philips doesn't tell his readers how to pray, or how to go about achieving the inner transformation necessary to live reflexively like Jesus. Nor do the other writers in Dan Liechty's volume.

To be sure, clear theological themes emerge from Liechty's Anabaptists. As he summarizes their themes (pp. 9-14), three stand out. First was a classical theme in spirituality: the believer's personal relationship to Christ. To this the Anabaptists added the distinctive assertion that this relationship was immediate and no priest was necessary to enable it. Second was a central Anabaptist concern: the believer's life of discipleship. The Anabaptists believed that Christ was unknowable unless one followed him in practical and costly ways, even at the cost of persecution. Finally, there was a distinctive emphasis upon community. The Anabaptists claimed to know Christ through their life together with other members of his body.

But how did the Anabaptists go about realising these themes? How did they pray, individually or together? The writings in Liechty's collection tell us little about this. This is in part because they are theological writings, not writings about spirituality in the classical sense. It also is perhaps because Liechty has limited himself to writings by "recognized leaders" among the Anabaptists, instead of drawing upon the less cultured sources which reveal more of the inner life of the empowered "rank and file" which made the Anabaptists such a distinctive movement.4 If Liechty had drawn upon Anabaptist letters and court records - not least those recorded in the remarkable source so underused by historians, the massive Martyrs' Mirror- we would know more about how the Anabaptists prayed. How useful it would have been, for example, if Liechty had included accounts such as that of the weaver Joriaen Simons and his fellow prisoners in 1557 in the Haarlem Jail: "Our sister Mariken ... is of such courage and good cheer, that she delights and rejoices us all. We exhort each other with the Word of the Lord, as much as God gives each to speak, now by words, now by hymns; yea, I have many hours in which I never once think of it that I am a prisoner; such is the joy which the Lord gives us.”5

Liechty could also have devoted more attention to two categories of Anabaptist texts which give particular expression to their spirituality: prayers and hymns. Liechty includes two prayers by Hans Schlaffer; but other prayers are scattered throughout Anabaptist writings which can yield fascinating insights.6 As to hymns, the Anabaptists were reflexive singers, and Liechty acknowledges this by providing the text of six hymns, including two by people (one by Annelein of Freiburg, and one by seven anonymous prisoners in Gmund) who were hardly leaders. Through these hymns, multiplied many times, the Anabaptists internalised their faith and experience. These were vehicles of worship; these were means of telling the martyrs' stories; these were prophetic expressions of resistance. In 1552 the glazier Adriaen Corneliss was thrown into solitary confinement, "whereupon," he reported, "I immediately began to sing the hymn" based on Isaiah 59:14: "Justice is turned back, and ... truth stumbles in the public square."7 Far more than the writings of the theologians, the Anabaptist hymns put us into connection with Anabaptist spirituality and help us understand what shaped the Anabaptists' reflexes.

Kropf and Hall: Anabaptist spirituality for today

The second volume, Praying with the Anabaptists, is an attempt to shape an Anabaptist spirituality in our own time.8 The book grew out of a retreat on the part of a number of North American Mennonites, who agreed on the book's main themes and then commissioned two participants - Marlene Kropf and Eddy Hall - to do the writing.

The book's format is simple. Each of its fifteen chapters begins with a meditation upon verses from John 13 - 17 and proceeds with brief quotations from a sixteenth-century Anabaptist writer. Next in each chapter comes the heart of the book, and the part which could shape our character and reflexes: the "Guided Prayer Exercises" which enable the reader to pray on the theme of the chapter. Each chapter ends with a prayer of an Anabaptist martyr in the context of his or her story. The book is divided into three large sections: "Abiding in the Vine", "Joined in Love," and "Bearing Fruit". These develop a threefold Anabaptist "rule of life" -"a vital, personal relationship to Jesus Christ", "a wholehearted, loving commitment to life in Christian community", and "joyfully following Christ's way in the world through a holy life of witness, service and peacemaking - even through suffering" .9 This threefold balance of emphases corresponds neatly to that of Liechty.

Kropf and Hail are not Anabaptist historians, so they rely in part upon edited selections of early writings. But the source in which they find thirteen of their fifteen Anabaptist prayers is the Martyrs' Mirror. At times they quote these prayers precisely; at other times they find implied prayers, editing the texts to write prayers that are usable today. Some edited prayers may bend the original intent of the text, but in general I find them to be a valid way of appropriating Anabaptist words in prayer today. For example, Maeyken Boosers, burnt in 1564:

Martyrs' Mirror: "My heart constantly longs to be fit in His sight, that I might finish to His praise that which He has commenced in me."

As altered by Kropf and Hall: "O Lord, my heart constantly longs to be fit in your sight that I might finish to your praise that which you have commenced in me. Amen."10

The heart of Kropf and Hall's book is its "Guided Prayer Exercises". Whether or not one finds the book helpful will depend on how one responds to these. Each exercise begins with the invitation to listen to a hymn or song on the accompanying cassette tape; the cassette is optional, at an extra cost, and reflects the importance which North American Mennonites have placed upon congregational singing as a means of praising God and experiencing his presence (the choral singing, to my ears, is pleasing, but I found myself just using the book). Then, after a Preparatory Prayer asking God's Spirit to grant a particular grace, the exercise leads the reader into a variety of forms of prayer. There are imaginative meditations, meditations on scripture, prayers of stillness and centering, listening prayers, and prayers of intercession and confession. These prayers can often lead to action. For example, a community-building prayer:

Remember the gifts of love you have received through the body of Christ. Give thanks for these gifts. Ask the Spirit to bring to mind those failures of love in which you or your congregation have taken part. Confess your sin and the sin of your people. Ask God to forgive you. As in Isaiah's vision, imagine God's cleansing as a live coal that touches your lips and body as well as your congregation. Receive the words of grace, "your sin is blotted out" (Isaiah 6.7). In silence, wait before God. Is God asking you to take some healing or reconciling action? How are you called to respond?11

It is fascinating to see how Kropf and Hall, not having an extensive literature of Anabaptist prayer techniques to draw upon, have borrowed freely from the strengths of others. The prayer for discernment, which could be especially useful in congregational business meetings, seems indebted to Quaker insights and practices. Elsewhere the debts seem to be largely to Catholic, especially Ignatian, spirituality. Kropf and Hall (p. 98) talk about these prayers as "spiritual exercises". Praying with the Anabaptists thus mediates insight in two directions: prayer techniques from Catholics to Anabaptists and Evangelicals; and a wholistic "three-fold" theology from the Anabaptists to Catholics and other Christians. I find this to be encouraging, a sign of God's providence. Certainly these exercises will help contemporary Christians - some of whom are having great difficulty praying at all - to pray in new ways. Over several weeks I have used these exercises, and they - like much Ignatian spirituality - have been helpful to me.

Charismatic nature and social setting of early Anabaptism

There are two themes in early Anabaptist spirituality which do not find an adequate voice in either of our books. The first of these is the charismatic nature of some early Anabaptist piety, which Liechty does not mention and which Kropf and Hall do not develop.l2 It is not that, in general, the Anabaptists spoke in tongues; while some of them may have done, tongues do not seem to have been apart of the prayer repertoire of most Anabaptist communities.13 But there was, nevertheless, an openness to the Holy Spirit and to enthusiastic phenomena which would be familiar to many contemporary charismatic Christians.114 It certainly was no staid congregation that could utter, "Praise God with shouting"15 - or that could speak fresh words as if from Jesus: "If I the Lord and Master am poor, it is evident that my servants are poor, and that my disciples do not seek or desire riches."16 It is important for modern students of Anabaptism not to filter out of the historical record the undomesticable spirituality of the early years. In terms of the renewal of the church and its witness today, it also will be immensely helpful when contemporary Anabaptists appropriate charismatic as well contemplative spiritual riches.

The other theme that receives less attention than it merits is spirituality's social setting. In the Liechty volume, it is the Hutterian Peter Walpot who mentions this in his doughty insistence that wealth has spiritual consequences: not only does it fetter discipleship, it locks and "occupies" the heart.17 Kropf and Hall mention the theme at least by implication; they provide a guided prayer inviting us to consider whether possessions are impeding us from responding when God calls us to serve.18 But many sixteenth-century Anabaptists were keenly aware that prison and suffering changed the way that they perceived reality and therefore the way they prayed. "O dear brothers and sisters," Joost Verkindert wrote in 1570, "we now look through quite different eyes ... than when we were out of bonds; for out of bonds I could never pray to God as I now sometimes do."19 I wonder: can well-fed, well-adjusted Western Christians really pray with the Anabaptists?

We can, I believe. But it will take more than searching for themes of spirituality in Anabaptist theological texts. If we, with Kropf and Hall, ask Jesus for the grace of prayer - "Lord, teach us to pray"; if we go on to develop forms of prayer that are liberating and antennae that listen to God not only in churches and retreat centres but also in the world; if we then venture out into areas of risk, oppression and suffering - then we may experience that growth in fellowship with Christ and his disciples which will transform the way we live, our character and our reflexes. Then we may also discover that Dirk Willems will become more than an Anabaptist icon; he will become an elder brother whom we, by God's grace, are coming to understand.

Alan Kreider is director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture at Regent's Park College in Oxford. He and his wife Eleanor coordinate study groups in the Anabaptist Network and frequently speak at churches and other settings in the UK and Ireland.


1. For recent discussion of Dirk Willems' response, see Joseph Liechty, "Why Did Dirk Willems Turn Back'?" Anabaptism Today 6 (1994: 7-12).

2. Alister McGrath, for example, in Roots that Refresh: A Celebration of Refornration Spirituality (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1991}, does not mention Anabaptist spirituality.

3. Dirk Phillips, "Concerning the New Birth and the New Creature," in Liechty, 216.

4. Hans Hillerbrand makes this point in his "Preface" to Liechty, xviii.

5. Thieleman I. van Braght, The Bloody Theater of Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians (henceforth MM; 1660/1685; this ed. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1951), 566.

6. E.g., Menno Simons, Complete Works (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1956), 955-58; also the prayers in Martyrs' Mirror cited by Kropf and Hall (MM, 427, 429, 430, 431-32, 434-35, 464, 467-68, 517, 667, 800, 826, 979). There are many more that they could have chosen.

7. MM, 531.

8. A review of this book already appeared in this journal. Anabaptism Today 8 (1995:22).

9. Kropf and Hall, 10-11.

10. MM, 667; Kropf and Hall, 65.

11. Kropf and Hall, 82-83.

12. See Stuart Murray, "Anabaptism as a Charismatic Movement". Anabaptism Today 8 (1995:7-11).

13. MM, 516, 790.

14. Claus-Peter Clasen, Anabaptism, A Social History, 1526-I618 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972), 121-22.

15. MM, 429

16. MM, 457

17. Liechty, 145.

18. Kropf and Hall, 129.

19 MM, 852, 761.