Pacifism in Early Anabaptism

by Vic Thiessen

Separation and the Sword in Anabaptist Persuasion: Radical Confessional Rhetoric from Schleitheim to Dordrecht
Gerald Biesecker-Mast
Pandora Press, 2006

Separation and the Sword in Anabaptist Persuasion is the latest contribution to a longstanding debate among Mennonite historians and theologians on how the early Anabaptists viewed the use of the sword. In this book, Biesecker-Mast is particularly interested in how early Anabaptists confessions and writings link their teachings on the use of the sword to their views on separation from the world and their relationship to the civic order which is ruled by the sword. Biesecker-Mast claims that in these documents pacifism is rhetorically linked to changing ways of talking about Anabaptist separation from the ‘world’.

Before defending this claim, Biesecker-Mast provides a very useful and daring chapter on the “Anabaptist Vision” (Harold Bender’s thesis that “the pacifist Swiss Brethren were the true origin and guidepost for authentic nonresistant Anabaptism”) and polygenesis historiography (the thesis that Anabaptism had a number of origins, and diverse viewpoints on issues like sword-bearing), introducing us to the above-mentioned debate. The focus of the debate today involves the ‘theological core’ of Anabaptism. Arnold Snyder sees this core as those teachings which all Anabaptists held in common. This eliminates pacifism, since not all Anabaptists were pacifists. Biesecker-Mast argues that those Anabaptists who viewed pacifism as a core teaching (like the authors of the Schleitheim Confession) would not agree that a theological core which omitted pacifism represented their views. For Biesecker-Mast, it is a mistake to look for a core Anabaptist theology; Anabaptism is about the practices by which it is known. In the case of pacifism, it is neither as relative as the polygenesis thesis would make it nor as universal as the “Anabaptist Vision” would claim. Rather, pacifism was normative for those Anabaptists who stressed separation from the world.

To support his claims, Biesecker-Mast takes us on a journey through the history of the Anabaptist views on separation and the sword from the early days in Zurich (1520’s) to the Amish division in 1693. In particular, he closely examines writings like the Schleitheim, Dordrecht and Ris Confessions as well as writings by leaders like Hubmaier, Denck, Marpeck, Riedemann, Menno Simons and Dirk Philips. Most of these writings condemn the use of the sword, but they differ in their level of antagonism (“engendering a mutually exclusive relationship to the broader social order”) and dualism (“constituting a mutually tolerant relationship to the world”), which Biesecker-Mast also relates to their views on the sword of governance.

Schleitheim, and the writings of Riedemann, represent an antagonistic approach, where separation is key to following Jesus and there is a strong teaching against the Christian use of the sword. But the Schleitheim Confession contradicts itself by saying that governance (protecting good and punishing evil) is good while maintaining that its use of the sword is wrong and that therefore no Christian may participate in the government. By the time we get to the Dordrecht Confession, we have a much more dualistic approach which sanctions the use of the sword by the civic order. In between, we have Hubmaier, who supported the use of the sword, Menno, who critiqued the social order but sought toleration from that order, and Dirk, who promoted a strong separation without challenging the social order (quiet in the land).

In his thought-provoking conclusion, Biesecker-Mast states that the majority of Anabaptist writings view the church as an alternative community which rejects the violence of the state (“separation was a strategy of liberation from the violence-bearing structures of society”). While the “antagonistic” writings provide the strongest voice against the violence of the state, even the dualistic writings, which minimize the church’s responsibility to the social order, witness against its abuse of power. Hubmaier (with his civic Anabaptism) and Rothmann (in Münster, with his revolutionary Anabaptism) sought to resolve entirely the tension between the church and the world and thus represent departures from the defenseless Anabaptism of the majority.

Biesecker-Mast concludes with some controversial observations, including the claim that the Anabaptist contribution to theology was its insistence that Christian faithfulness was more important than doctrinal orthodoxy.

Biesecker-Mast’s book is a must-read for students/scholars of Anabaptist history and theology and for all those who are interested in how the early Anabaptists viewed their relation to the social order ruled by the sword. It is well-written, thorough, fascinating and not afraid to be controversial. While I probably would not recommend this book to the casual reader interested in an introduction to Anabaptist thought, laypeople should not be deterred by a rather difficult Introduction.

There is no doubt that Biesecker-Mast has made a vital contribution to the ongoing debate surrounding early Anabaptist theology. While I did not find all his arguments convincing, many were surprisingly compelling. However, I find that both sides in the debate seem to have too much confidence in (and attribute too much weight to) their views while neglecting what are, for me, the most important questions facing Anabaptists today; questions like: What does it mean to be an Anabaptist in the 21st century? How should we relate to governments today? What role does pacifism play in our theology today? How do we, today, view our theology’s relationship to creedal orthodoxy? To answer these questions, it is not necessary to argue about the writings and actions and ‘theological core’ of 16th-century Anabaptists (or 20th-century Anabaptists) as if they were sacred and authoritative. I love history and I have boundless admiration for all those Anabaptist thinkers who have preceded us, but I also have confidence in our ability to build on their work and decide for ourselves what our theology should be and on what it should be founded. Books like this are a great place to start this conversation.