Sabbatical Report #13: Book Review

Guy F. Hershberger, Ed.: The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision




This is an old book, published in 1957, the year before I was born, and now out of print (my link above leads to some second hand copies on ‘Abebooks’). I read it on the recommendation of Ed Shirk, one of the hosts here at the London Mennonite Centre, and I’m very glad I did. I found much to admire, and also learned a lot about Mennonite history and Mennonite self-understanding.





This is a collection of essays to celebrate the 60th birthday of Harold S. Bender. Bender was a Mennonite historian and scholar who had an enormous influence on Mennonite Christianity in the middle of the 20th century. In 1943 he delivered a presidential address to the American Society of Church History entitled ‘The Anabaptist Vision’. Briefly put, Bender identified three elements as key to the Anabaptist view:



‘First, a new conception of the essence of Christianity as discipleship; second, a new conception of the church as a brotherhood; and third, a new ethic of love and non-resistance’.


This crystalising of the key elements of Anabaptism apparently had an enormous impact on Mennonites at the time, galvanizing them into a re-appropriation of their heritage which in a very real sense had been in danger of being lost altogether.





This book of essays (which includes Bender’s original address, ‘The Anabaptist Vision’) was written at an interesting time; fourteen years on, Mennonites were still apparently excited about Bender’s vision and had not yet begun to ask critical questions about it (which came a few years later). So here in this collection we have twenty-four essays from a group of scholars, most of whom I’m unfamiliar with, although one of the pieces is by a very young John Howard Yoder (in my view, by far the best essay in the book), and other writers include Roland Bainton and Ernest Payne. We have historical essays on the rise of Anabaptism, a group of essays on Anabaptist theology (including Yoder’s ‘The Prophetic Dissent of the Anabaptists’ which examines the dialogues between the Anabaptists and the Reformed Christians in Zurich in 1523-5), and then a collection on continuing Anabaptist history.





Allow me to give a lengthy quote from Yoder:



‘If the starting point of the pre-Anabaptist movement in 1523 was a view of Scriptural authority, the end point, which enabled the movement to become a force in history, was a view of the church. Negatively expressed, the product of the development from October 1523 to January 1525 was the Anabaptists’ rejection of the Corpus Christianum. Following the revolutionary changes in the relation of church and world which we associate with the names of Constantine, Theodosius, and Augustine, medieval Christendom had no room for the concept of ‘the world’. The consequences for ethics, for the doctrine of the church, for evangelism, and for eschatology, were revolutionary and yet were hardly noticed. So unconscious and so all-pervading was the acceptance of the identity of church and society that the Reformers, each working closely with the local magistracy and seeking to reform medieval Catholicism with as little commotion as possible, were not even aware of a problem and were able to pass off as political revolutionaries anyone who raised the question…




Only among the Zurich Anabaptists and those who learned from them was a new answer to the problem reached. Led by their simple Biblicism, abetted by the opposition of both civil and ecclesiastical authorities, they learned that the ‘world’ was just as significant a theological quantity in the sixteenth century as it had been in the first, and that the church is not simply an administrative subdivision of a monolithic society, charged with giving that society moral sanction and psychological stability, nor an invisible mystic communion of true believers, but a new kind of disciplined fellowship, taking shape within history by the gathering of confessing believers… Thereby evangelism, which for the ‘Constantinian’ reformers was by definition inconceivable, became a real possibility; alone of all the churches of the Reformation, the Anabaptists considered evangelism as belonging to the essential being of the church. Church discipline; a level of ethical requirements distinct from the average behaviour of the average citizen; economic fellowship within the local congregation, whether through common ownership of goods or through the deacon’s office; baptism upon confession of faith; refusal of the oath and of civil office; all the foci of disagreement with the Reformers fell into place as parts of a consistent whole once one dared, at the price of scandal and persecution, call into question the Constantianian synthesis, and to conceive of the church as being distinct from the world.





This is a truly rich quote from Yoder, and I plan to unpack it in a future post as I think some of the references will be unclear to some of my readers. But I was struck by his identification of evangelism as a key concern of the Anabaptists. History bears him out; the early Anabaptists were deeply committed to evangelism and the (largely lay and illiterate) evangelists traveled up and down western Europe making thousands of converts.




Lawrence Burkholder’s essay in this book, entitled ‘The Anabaptist Vision of Discipleship’, underlines this point; he identifies ‘obedience to the Great Commission’ as the first outstanding feature of the Anabaptist view of discipleship (the others are ‘love and nonresistance’, ‘suffering in the spirit of cross-bearing’, and ‘the separated life of holiness’). He says:



Franklin H. Littell has given us a most illuminating account of the missionary enterprise of the Anabaptists in his volume entitled The Anabaptist View of the Church. He says that “no words of the Master were given more serious attention by his Anabaptist followers than his final command: ‘Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you…’”. The evangelical Taufer became effective evangelists who went into the highways and along the ‘hedges’, preaching. Most significant were their assumptions that a great Christendom culture after a thousand years of Christian teaching, needed to hear the Gospel and that the responsibility of witnessing was not the professional task of a particular class of Christians. According to the Anabaptists, the Great Commission followed baptism and therefore it became the task of every believer. This was a revolutionary idea which if practiced generally would soon change the face of Christendom.




Evangelism belongs to the essential being of the church; evangelism (understood as obedience to the Great Commission) is the responsibility of every Christian, not just a professional class. How startling to read, then, in this book, that before very long the Anabaptists – or, as they had then become, the Mennonites and Hutterites – ceased to practice evangelism at all!





How did this happen? In a nutshell, it was a result of years of persecution. Anabaptists were pacifists in an age when it was perilous to refuse military service. Many times in their long history they had to negotiate safe living space in new territories because the places where they were currently living were becoming very unsympathetic to their pacifism. Many times new rulers were glad to let them move in, because of their reputation as honest hardworking farmers who would go into new territory and open it up for agriculture. But over and over again, the agreements which the Mennonite leaders negotiated with these new rulers included their acceptance of a strict moratorium on attempting to make new converts. Abandoning evangelism was the price they paid for safety and survival. And what a price! Blaurock, Grebel, Sattler and the other martyrs of Zurich would have been flabbergasted to hear that their spiritual descendants would even conceive of such a thing! And yet, who can fail to understand the pressure these people felt to buy safety for their families in this way?





And so a movement which began with a burning desire to change the world, eventually, as a result (if I may reverently and respectfully say so) of ‘having the shit kicked out of it’ for years, came to find a different way of relating to the world – or, to be more accurate, two different ways. Broadly speaking, according to the authors of this book, Mennonites in later years did one of two things.





Some of them withdrew physically from the world, living in isolated communities protected from the world by geography and by their distinct language and culture. In effect (as Yoder has pointed out in another place), a movement which began as a protest against Christendom ended up forming many little Christendoms, in which the supposedly free choice to become a disciple of Jesus (on which Anabaptism had been founded) was replaced by all the pressure a distinct community can bring upon its members (especially its young members) to conform. And (as Rudy Wiebe portrayed it so graphically, a few years after this book was written, in his brilliant novel Peace Shall Destroy Many) keeping one’s distinctiveness from the world (which meant preserving the German language and culture as a hedge to keep out the world) effectively meant that evangelism of non-German-speaking peoples could not take place; after all, where would new converts go to church?





The other solution, which apparently happened in the seventeenth century in the Netherlands and later in Germany, was for Mennonites to conform to society, to gradually dull the edge of simple living, nonviolence, the refusal of the oath etc., and to become simply another pietistic form of Christianity like many others, which gave no challenge to the world around them except by pointing toward a faith in Jesus which had very little bite to it. This solution to the problem has a contemporary ring to it, and I suspect that Mennonites are far from being the only ones who have been tempted by it.





Hence the need to recover a distinctive Anabaptist vision – neither living like the world, nor withdrawing from it, but engaging it as committed followers of Jesus. Undoubtedly Harold Bender’s challenge to the Anabaptist world in 1943 had a hugely positive effect and went along way toward helping them recover their sense of mission and purpose.





However, later generations have noticed a few holes in Bender’s argument. Bender saw the pure Anabaptism as flowing from the Swiss Brethren in the early 1520s; he saw it as having been adopted by Menno Simons in his work of reshaping the Dutch Mennonite communities after the disaster of Münster and hence becoming the defining character of the Anabaptist movement as a whole. This has become known as the theory of ‘Monogenesis’ – in other words, Anabaptism had one pure source: Zurich, 1525.





The problem with this theory is that it leaves out many people who would have been thought of as Anabaptists in the 16th century, for no other reason than that they represent emphases which Mennonites later abandoned. And so Arnold Snyder and other Mennonite historians in the last thirty years have proposed a new theory, polygenesis. As Snyder outlines it in his book Anabaptist History and Theology’, it recognizes at least three emphases in sixteenth century Anabaptism:


  • Literal/biblical, oriented toward discipleship (mainly the Swiss Brethren)
  • Spiritual/mystical, oriented toward the inner work and voice of the Spirit (mainly the south German and Austrian Anabaptists).
  • Apocalyptic, oriented toward speculations about the end of the world (mainly the north German and Dutch until Münster – after that, Menno led them slowly into the more Swiss style).




The problem with Bender’s analysis is that it leaves out or marginalises great Anabaptist thinkers like Balthazar Hubmaier (who was not a pacifist) and Hans Denck (who was a mystic). It is neat and tidy, but real church history is rarely neat and tidy. And the fact is that the later Mennonites, who sometimes lapsed into legalism, could have used a bigger dose of the gentler mysticism of a Denck. Again, it is better and more honest to accept that the Münster people were Anabaptists who went off the rails than to pretend that they were never really Anabaptists at all.





I must stop here, but I must confess that I am thinking about the application of this principle to the UK Anabaptist Network as well. Sometimes I see some romantic idealizing going on. People talk about ‘Anabaptist values’, but it isn’t always easy to see how those values connect with the real Anabaptist groups – Mennonite, Brethren in Christ, Hutterite, Amish – who have lived their brave and flawed church lives in the nearly five hundred years since 1525. A ‘generic’ tradition can be a lot easier to romanticize than a real and imperfect denomination.





So – more to come on the Yoder quote, and more to come on the advantages and disadvantages of ‘generic Anabaptism’!



One thought on “Sabbatical Report #13: Book Review

  1. Pingback: Canon and church - Gentle Wisdom

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