‘What Does Anglicanism Have To Do With Anabaptism?’ – Part Nine

In the last section, I outlined two ways in which there is convergence between Anglicanism and Anabaptism – in our understanding of the centrality of Jesus, and in our view of the Christian life as fundamentally communal. In this section I want to discuss three more areas of convergence – the church as a distinct community from the world, conversion as a personal response to the gospel, and social justice and care for the poor and needy as an integral part of the Christian life. These three areas of convergence come from particular traditions within Anglicanism, rather than Anglicanism as a whole.

First, the church as a distinct community from the world. This of course has been a primary emphasis in the Anabaptist movement from the very beginning. Article Four of the Schleitheim Confession begins with these strident words:

We have been united concerning the separation that shall take place from the evil and the wickedness which the devil has planted in the world, simply in this; that we have no fellowship with them, and do not run with them in the confusion of their abominations.

Throughout their history, Anabaptists have tried to preserve the distinction between church and world. They have not been afraid to take unpopular ethical stands such as pacifism or the refusal to swear oaths. Some of them have taken this to extremes, using the German language and distinct forms of clothing as marker points to differentiate the Mennonite community from the world around them. At its best, this emphasis has freed Anabaptism from the Christendom burden of having to discuss Christian ethics on the basis of ‘what will work for an entire (nominally Christian) society. As John Howard Yoder puts it so succinctly, ‘Christian ethics is ethics for Christians’.

However, most people would not see this as a typically Anglican emphasis. Rather, in our history we have been the ultimate ‘state church’, created by a king as an excuse for him to do what he wanted in terms of divorce and remarriage. The mother church of our worldwide communion is still in the ridiculous position of having its bishops appointed by the state; some of them sit in the House of Lords, and they preside over coronations and royal weddings. I would argue that even beyond the shores of England, we Anglicans tend to be most comfortable as a state church, responsible to be a good ecclesial citizen, shore up the monarchy and the government, pray for the soldiers in time of war and be a good chaplain to the current values of society.

But our history has some noble examples of protest against this view, and the best known is the original Anglo-Catholic revival. In the early 1830s the British government proposed to abolish a number of bishoprics in Ireland. This prompted a powerful response from the Rev. John Keble, professor of Poetry at Oxford. On 14 July 1833, he preached the Assize Sermon at Oxford. His sermon was called “National Apostasy,” and denounced the nation for turning away from God, and for regarding the Church as a mere institution of society, rather than as the prophetic voice of God, commissioned by Him to warn and instruct the people. The sermon was a nationwide sensation, and is considered to be the beginning of the Anglo-Catholic revival. It was Keble’s view – and the Anglo-Catholic movement has followed him here – that the Christian church is not a mere arm of the State but an independent, divine society, with the right and responsibility to order its own life. To him it was preposterous that the government should have anything to do with the appointment or abolition of bishops and their positions.

To be sure, the Anglican world as a whole has not been markedly effected by this emphasis, but I would argue that there is a growing awareness amongst us of our call to be a distinct society, and that there is at least the beginning of a convergence here with our Anabaptist brothers and sisters.

Second, conversion as a personal response to the gospel. The sixteenth century Anabaptists did not accept the idea that a person could be a Christian just by virtue of being brought up in a so-called ‘Christian country’, or by going through a perfunctory ritual of infant baptism (which, in those days, was given to every child at birth, irrespective of the faith or non-faith of the parents). They argued that the gospel of Jesus called for a personal response on the part of the hearers. People became disciples by personal decision, and believers’ baptism was meant to be a sign of this free-will commitment to Christ and to his church.

Historically, in the Anglican family, the evangelical movement has been most closely identified with this view. Evangelical Anglicans were wary of the idea of baptismal regeneration – the view that all that is necessary to make a person a Christian is to baptize them (as an infant). Evangelicals have preached for conversions, believing that people needed to make a personal response to the gospel, a response of repentance and faith. Traditional evangelical testimonies have emphasized the sort of experienceJohn Newton immortalized when he wrote the words, ‘I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see’, and ‘How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed’. Many evangelicals point to a distinct ‘hour they first believed’, when they committed their lives to Jesus Christ. Those who do not have such a distinct time of conversion (and many do not) would still say that they have made a personal choice to be Christian; it is not a matter of ‘being brought up in a Christian family’ or ‘being born in a Christian country’.

As our society has become less and less Christian, this idea is finding a wide acceptance. Most Christians today are Christians by choice, not by heritage. Here again, I would argue, we see a growing convergence with historic Anabaptism.

Third, social justice and care for the poor as an integral part of the Christian life. This again was a part of the Anabaptist tradition from the beginning – although, to be sure, in the earliest days of the movement it had more to do with caring for the poor and needy members of the Anabaptist congregations themselves, rather than reaching beyond to others. Not all Anabaptists held their goods in common, but all agreed that their goods were not their own – they were to be shared with the needy members of the congregation. They questioned the reality of the Christian profession of the people around them on these very grounds – how could they be true followers of Jesus when in their churches there were such huge differences between rich and poor?

In recent years, of course, Mennonites have become recognised worldwide for their concern for peace and justice issues. Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Disaster Service, Mennonite Economic Development Associates, and Christian Peacemaker Teams are just a few examples of the organisations which they have founded to make a difference in the lives of the global poor. Ten Thousand Villageswas one of the first retail organisations to champion the Fair Trade cause. The list could go on.

In the Anglican Communion we can thank both the evangelical and liberal sides of our tradition for bringing these issues to our attention. The eighteenth century evangelicals were great social reformers – we need only think of William Wilberforceand Thomas Clarkson and their work on the abolition of the slave trade, or Lord Shaftsbury and his work. The so-called ‘Clapham Sect’ made the transformation of the nation their goal and worked tirelessly to better the lives of the poor. They can certainly be faulted for their blindness to the evils and inequalities that were an intrinsic part of the English class system, but this does not invalidate the magnitude of their achievements.

The liberal catholic tradition associated with names like F.D. Maurice (1805-1872) has also championed the cause of care for the poor and social transformation. Wikipedia says of Maurice:

He…threw himself with great energy into all that affected the social life of the people. Certain abortive attempts at co-operation among working men, and the movement known as Christian Socialism, were the immediate outcome of his teaching… As a social reformer, Maurice was before his time, and gave his eager support to schemes for which the world was not ready. The condition of the city’s poor troubled him; the magnitude of the social questions involved was a burden he could hardly bear. Working men of all opinions seemed to trust him even if their faith in other religious men and all religious systems had faded, and he had a power of attracting both the zealot and the outcast.

In recent years this has become a standard part of our Anglican understanding of mission. In Canada we have the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, which partners with organsations all around the world to improve the lives of people in need. Numerous coalitions and political advocacy groups have been formed to lobby governments on various social issues. Anglicans and Anabaptists have often found themselves standing shoulder to shoulder in these efforts, and here again, we see a growing convergence in our two traditions.

In the next article I will address the questions, ‘How does the Anabaptist in me challenge the Anglican? And how does the Anglican in me challenge the Anabaptist?’

‘What does Anabaptism have to do with Anglicanism?’ – Part Eight

Is there something of a convergence going on between Anglicanism and Anabaptism? Perhaps that might be too much to claim. However, I would argue that the Anglican family of churches has become a much more congenial place to practice an Anabaptist understanding of Christianity than it once was, and is definitely far more congenial to Anabaptism than many other denominational families. Let me outline a few points where I see some convergence and some interesting dialogue taking place.

First, both our traditions emphasise the incarnation. As I have already outlined in this series, the Anabaptist tradition places the highest emphasis on Jesus – on his life and teachings as the interpretive centre of the Bible and the focus for Christian life. The Bible is to be interpreted according to Jesus, who is God’s final Word, and Christian living consists in putting the teachings and example of Jesus into practice.

But this is a big part of the Anglican tradition as well. It’s certainly present liturgically; whatever else we read when we get together for worship on Sundays, we always read from the Gospels, and we make that reading the high point of our celebration of God’s Word by standing to mark our respect for Jesus and his words. In many of our churches, the gospel is read from the centre of the congregation – a reminder that the Word of God did not stay safely in heaven but came down among us as one of us – and the people turn toward the reader to hear the Word.

But emphasis on the incarnation is strong in our theology as well. We understand it to mean that God has not rejected the material world but has come among us as one of us, thus hallowing our human nature and all the created order with it. Inspired by this, Anglicans have tended not to be as world-rejecting as some other Christians – we have embraced the material world, for instance, and have rejoiced in human culture as a good gift of God.

However, while there is some convergence here, there is also a subtle difference between this approach and the Anabaptist emphasis. John Howard Yoder spells it out in an address he gave to a group of Episcopalians:

It is especially from the Anglican tradition that the rest of us have learned something of the pervasive intellectual power of the idea of incarnation. It has been a most impressive vision, to say that all human concerns have been divinely sanctioned and hallowed by God’s coming among us, taking on our flesh. Gardening and the weather, our work and our family, the total fabric of our society – economics and warfare, have been bathed in the light of God’s presence. All of humanity is now seen to be good, wholesome, holy. This seems to a non-Episcopalian to be a deceptively incomplete way of saying something that is nonetheless deeply true. When God came into human society, God did not approve of and sanction everything, in “normal, healthy, human society”; God did not make of all human activity, not even of all well-intentioned human activity, a means of grace. There are some loyalties and practices in human community that God rejected when God came among us… The pattern of faithfulness is one of genuine obedience in human experience – which we may well call Incarnation; but it is always also a break with the continuities of human civilization and the loyalties of local human societies, which we call Election or Exodus. When we then speak of incarnation it must not mean God sanctifying our society and our vocations as they are, but rather God’s reaching into human reality to say what we must do and what we must leave behind.

In other words, if I may make a dangerous generalization: while Anabaptists and Anglicans both emphasise the Incarnation, Anglicans tend to emphasise it as God’saffirmation of the created order and of human life and culture, whereas Anabaptists tend to emphasise it as God’s demonstration to us of what he intended human life to be like, thus giving us direction about those activities we should turn away from and those which we should turn towards.

Second, both our traditions emphasise Christianity as a community activity. The foundational document of Anglicanism is a book called The Book of Common Prayer; ‘common’ here means not ‘ordinary’ but ‘prayers we pray together’. Unlike many of the more recent evangelical traditions, our tradition has not tended to emphasise the priority of private prayer and Bible reading. For us, the prayer together on Sunday is the primary prayer of Christians, where the Word is read and preached, prayers are offered, bread and wine are shared. And for some of us, this extends into the week as we meet together with small groups for the Daily Office, or in more informal groups for prayer and Bible study.

In the Anabaptist tradition too, the community is central. As a ‘free church’ tradition, Anabaptism protested against the idea that all of the citizens living in a geographical parish should be considered to be ‘the church’ in that area. While they emphasized the choice of the individual to become a follower of Jesus, they placed an equal emphasis on the church as a gathered community of disciples of Jesus, supporting one another, teaching one another, and even admonishing one another.

In the best examples of Anglican and Anabaptist practice, neither of our traditions has been content for this idea to remain just untested theory; we have wanted to put it into practice. In Anabaptism this has shown itself in two ways: in mutual aid, and in the practice of brotherly and sisterly admonition. Mutual aid is the term Anabaptists used historically for the responsibility of the members of the church to give financial and material support to those of their number who needed it. Whether or not a particular Anabaptist group practiced literal community of possessions (as the Hutterites did), all were agreed that a Christian’s goods were not his or her own private possession, but were entrusted to them by God for the good of the whole community.

Brotherly and sisterly admonition is also a strong part of the Anabaptist tradition. It is not faithfulness, they would argue, for us to see a sister or brother living in unrepentant sin and not to speak to them about it. Anabaptists emphasized what Martin Luther called ‘The Law of Christ’ in Matthew 18:15-20 – if you see your sister or brother in sin, go and speak to them about it, just between yourselves. If they don’t listen take a couple of others along and try again. If they still don’t listen, tell it to the church. Anabaptists understood that in becoming followers of Jesus they were committing themselves to this process; their early baptismal promises included an indication of their willingness both to give and to receive this admonition.


Historically, Anglicanism too has rejected the idea that each person is master of their own soul and that the rest of us should just mind our own business. Our earliest prayer books have contained rubrics about Christian discipline: what the priest is to do if he (in those days it was always ‘he’) perceives members of his congregation to be at odds with each other or to be living in sin (which in practice often meant sexual sin). A procedure for the denial of communion to the unrepentant parties is laid out in theBook of Common Prayer – and has occasionally still been practiced in my lifetime, although it is now very rare.

Both Anglicanism and Anabaptism have had problems with our traditions at this point. The Anabaptist practice of ‘the ban’ – the exclusion from the community of those who refuse to listen to brotherly or sisterly admonition – has often been used in unjust and pharisaical ways – as a means of judgement rather than as a way of winning back the brother or sister, as Jesus describes it. Similar problems have been perceived in the practice of excommunication as outlined in the Book of Common Prayer. And, frankly, both practices have run up against the modern heresy of individualism, which says that my soul is my own and is no one else’s business, and if my fellow-Christians don’t leave me alone to do what I think is right I’ll go and find another church, one that will respect my individual freedoms. The outcome has been that both traditions have tended to go to the other extreme and abandon the older practices altogether – with the result that individual Christians are often left to navigate the Christian life on the strength of their own (naturally selfish and limited) insights and impulses, rather than with the guidance of a loving and disciplined community.

I have outlined two ways in which there is convergence between Anglicanism and Anabaptism – in our understanding of the centrality of Jesus, and in our view of the Christian life as fundamentally communal. In the next section I will discuss three more areas of convergence – the church as a distinct community from the world, conversion as a personal response to the gospel, and social justice and care for the poor and needy as an integral part of the Christian life.

‘What does Anabaptism have to do with Anglicanism?’ – Part Seven

(This section is based on an article by Alan Kreider in the book ‘Coming Home: Stories of Anabaptists in Britain and Ireland’).

The name that was used for these persecuted refugees from Flanders, the name ‘Anabaptist’, was a name given them by those who persecuted them. In the long story of the Christian church, it was a name with a history. In the early Christian centuries it was used for the Donatist heretics, who rebaptized those who had already been baptized by clergy they considered to be apostate. At the time of the Donatist controversy it was made a capital offence to rebaptize someone, and those who did so were called ‘Anabaptists’. This name was purposely revived in the 16th century so that the death sentence could be imposed on the ‘Brethren’, or the ‘Defenceless Christians’ – two of the names they actually used for themselves.

But in 16th century England the title was used very loosely. As Alan Kreider says, ‘there were many people who called others, whom they didn’t like, Anabaptists. “Anabaptist” was the way that one stigmatized someone whose social or theological stance was more radical than one’s own. But everyone in the period agreed: there were no English Anabaptist congregations, and there were very few English Anabaptists’. The persecuted Flemings in prison concurred with this; they wrote:

They pretend there are so many thousands of us in the country, who want to take possession of countries and cities; whereas no such thoughts have entered into our hearts, for it is impossible to take possession of countries and cities without violence and bloodshed… We have not so easy a faith, that they flock to us in crowds; only here and there may be a household, which are very solitary.

Nevertheless, fear of Anabaptism was widespread, and opposition to it was famously incorporated into the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles, as follows:

The riches and goods of Christians are not common, as touching the right, title, and possession of the same, as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast.

It seemed that everyone wanted to make sure others knew that they weren’t Anabaptists. Contemporary Baptist theologian Nigel Wright is fond of saying, “When Baptists want to appear respectable they talk about their Puritan roots; when they want to appear radical they talk about their Anabaptist heritage – and most of the time most Baptists have wanted to appear respectable!”

But why did the established Church of England in the 16th century see these people as such a threat? Alan Kreider points to the concern for social cohesion at the time, the fear of a Muenster-like revolution, despite the fact that all parts of the Anabaptist movement had repudiated the ethics and social strategy of Muenster. In 1575 it seemed that the moderate Protestantism represented by the Queen and the Church of England was on the ascendancy, but extremists on both sides were simply biding their time, as the civil war of the next century showed. For the stability of the country it was felt to be necessary to maintain the underlying assumptions of Christendom, and it was precisely these assumptions that the Anabaptists seemed to be challenging.

Alan Kreider lists six areas of disagreement between the Anabaptists and their Anglican persecutors.

First, heresy. The Anabaptists knew that the leaders of the Church of England referred to them as ‘heretics’. And indeed there was some justification for this. The first article which the Bishop of London demanded that they sign referred to a bizarre doctrine called ‘The celestial flesh of Christ’ – the idea that Christ got his human flesh not from the Virgin Mary but directly from heaven. This teaching was adopted by Dutch Anabaptists, including Melchior Hoffman and Menno Simons, although most 16th century Anabaptists repudiated it, and Mennonites have long since abandoned it.

But as Alan Kreider points out, ‘the church authorities viewed an amateurly constructed statement on the incarnation as heresy to be extirpated at all costs, but they did not consider their own behaviour to be a deviation from the gospel or from the earliest Christian traditions’. To the Anabaptists, doctrine was not just a matter of theory, but of walking as Christ walked. And judged by this light, how was it, they asked, that persecution is not wrong teaching? Why isn’t persecution heresy?

Second, establishment. To the Anabaptists the Church of England was an alliance with the civil power; as Bishop Sandys put it in one of his sermons, “One God, one king, one faith, one profession, is fit for one monarchy and commonwealth”. But to the Anabaptists this was an unacceptable path for Christian disciples; being a Christian meant submitting to the Lordship of Jesus and evaluating all other allegiances in the light of that primary allegiance. And to them, whether or not Queen Elizabeth really knew Jesus, it seemed plain that she embodied policies which seemed to disobey him, policies of violence and persecution. Furthermore, it seemed clear to them that the Church of England, in submitting itself to the English state, was compromising its loyalty to Jesus at several key points such as the use of violence, the swearing of oaths, and the persistence of huge differences in wealth and power between the rich and the poor.

Third, ecclesiology. To the Anabaptists, membership in the Church of England was based on compulsion: everyone in England was legally required to belong to it, and many who were thus declared its members by law were in fact behaving in ways that were incompatible with Christian discipleship. To the Anabaptists this was an inevitable result of compulsion; it doesn’t produce committed disciples who will live out the way of Jesus. The true church, in contrast, would be made up of volunteers who would commit themselves of their own free will to following Jesus together, and thus within every nation would live the life of a community of resident aliens.

Fourth, baptism. The Anabaptists saw infant baptism as yet another instance of religious compulsion. Baptism was important to them, and in their minds it was a matter of Christian obedience to follow the biblical order of first evangelism, second faith and baptism, and third teaching, an order that, to them, precluded infant baptism. But perhaps the most telling of their complaints is found in a little aside in one of their letters, where they say of their persecutors, “They accuse us of being disobedient to the magistrate, because we do not have our children baptized”. Baptism, to them, could not possibly be a matter of compulsion, either for parents or for their ‘speechless children’, as they called them.

Fifth, hermeneutics. The Anabaptists saw their Anglican persecutors as having an inconsistent way of interpreting the Bible. Bishop Sandys and his fellow-clergy appealed to Deuteronomy 13:5: “It is the Lord’s commandment; let the false prophet die”. But if Deuteronomy were to be the law for Christians, the Anabaptists reasoned, “we would have to kill not only the false prophets, but also the adulterers, whoremongers, and those who take the name of the Lord in vain and curse”. In contrast, the Anabaptists had adopted an alternative hermeneutic whereby the words and the way of Jesus provided the interpretive key to the rest of the Scriptures; everything else was judged by their light.

Sixth, learning and status. The Anabaptists viewed themselves as simple poor folk and saw the representatives of the Church of England as their social and intellectual betters. Nonetheless, throughout the whole process of their imprisonment and trial they held onto their self-respect. Alan Kreider comments:

They were holding on, it seems to me, to the intuition that they could see things that others were missing. The gospel talks about persecution, but never about imposing it; persecution, as numerous New Testament texts pointed out which the Anabaptists never tired of quoting, is the price of following Jesus seriously. Thus the Anabaptists could, perhaps with a wry smile, appropriate to themselves the Pauline self-designation – “the off-scouring of all things” (1 Corinthians 4:13). And we might, as we contemplate their day and ours, begin to ask, “In what social setting can one best read the Bible with understanding? Is there perhaps a hermeneutical privilege of the ‘off-scoured’?

So the initial contact between Anabaptism and Anglicanism did not have a happy ending, and although in the next century there came to be Baptist congregations in England, some of which had some contacts with Dutch Mennonites, nevertheless for three hundred years the distinctive Anabaptist voice was silent in Britain.

But in recent years that situation has changed, and I would also argue that subtle shifts in the Anglican ethos over the years have made Anglicanism a much more congenial place to practice an Anabaptist understanding of Christianity than it once was. Of this, more in the next section…

‘What does Anabaptism have to do with Anglicanism?’ Part Six

I now want to tell the story of the first recorded contact between the Anglican tradition and the Anabaptist movement, and I need to say at the beginning that my account will essentially be a summary of what Alan Kreider has written in his essay ‘When Anabaptists were last in the British Isles’ in the book Coming Home: Stories of Anabaptists in Britain and Ireland.

In April 1575 a small group of refugees from Flanders gathered on Easter morning in a private home to hear the Word of God and to pray. The group comprised fifteen women, ten men, and a young lad. But some of their neighbours had gotten suspicious about them; at nine o’clock there was a knock on the door, and there stood the constable and some beadles, who arrested the group and took them to the Mersey prison.


A few days later they were visited by Edwin Sandys, bishop of London, by two aldermen and four preachers, who confronted them with four articles that they must sign or be burnt at the stake. The articles were:

  1. That Christ had assumed his flesh and blood from the substance of the flesh and blood of Mary.
  2. That infants ought to be baptized.
  3. That a Christian might administer the office of a magistrate, and
  4. That a Christian might swear an oath.

They replied cautiously at the time, and over the next few weeks increasing pressure was brought to bear on them. They were kept in solitary confinement and were visited by church officials who continued to press them to sign the articles. Five of the men eventually recanted, but the rest held firm.

Five weeks after their arrest a Commission was appointed to examine them, including two bishops, two deans and several civic officials. When the prisoners still refused to recount they were separated; the women and the lad were sent to Newgate, the prison for those confined for capital crimes, where the pressure on them continued. Eventually this group was carted to a ship and deported to Holland; the young lad was tied to the front of the cart and whipped along the way.

Meanwhile attempts were made to forestall the execution of the male prisoners; overtures were made by the Dutch and French congregations in London and by John Foxe, the famous martyrologist, who disagreed with the Anabaptists but felt that it was wrong to persecute them. On June 2nd Bishop Sandys called them before his Episcopal court and threatened them with burning. When they refused to sign the four articles, he proceeded to expel them from his church. Hendrick Terwoort, one of the prisoners, said, ‘How can you expel us from your church, where we have never yet been one of you?’ Sandys replied that ‘in England there is no one who is not a member of God’s church’. He then condemned them all to death and handed them over to the secular arm.

They were taken to Newgate and put in a deep dungeon, where they were placed in cages so that they could not even converse with their neighbours. And in the end it was Queen Elizabeth who pressed the issue of their execution; she ordered Lord Chancellor Bacon to prepare the writ ‘for the execution of justice… and to give example to others lest they should attempt the like hereafter’.

One of the prisoners died of the privations of prison life, but of July 22nd 1575 the oldest two, Jan Pieterss and Hendrick Terwoort, were burned at Smithfield in the slowest way possible, without strangulation or gunpowder. Hendrick Terwoort was 35 and had been married for six months. Jan Pieterss was 50 years old; his first wife had been burned at the stake in Ghent, and together he and she left nine children to the care of his second wife, whose first husband had also previously been burned in Ghent for his Anabaptist faith. The other two prisoners were eventually released; as Alan Kreider says, evidently Elizabeth and her councilors felt that the two executions had made their point.

We know about these events because the Anabaptists left letters and accounts, and other people saved copies of their letters to the Queen and to John Foxe. All of these and other documents were passed down to Dutch Mennonites and were eventually included in the Mennonite equivalent of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, the massive‘Martyrs’ Mirror’ compiled by the Dutch Mennonite preacher Thielemann van Braght in the 17th century.

What were the points of disagreement between these simple Flanders refugees and the established Church of England? And why was the Anglican establishment so afraid of them? Stay tuned…

‘What does Anabaptism have to do with Anglicanism?’ – Part Five

There is not time or space for me to recount in any detail the long story of the Mennonites, Hutterites, and Amish from the 16th century to the present day. For those who are interested in pursuing it, I highly recommend Cornelius J. Dyck’s highly readable book An Introduction to Mennonite History. All I can do in the context of this article is to sum up some trends, and I will do so using the following words: Migration, Isolation, Fragmentation, Assimilation, and Engagement.

First, migration. To read the continuing history of the descendants of the 16th century Anabaptists is to read a story of migrations. How does it happen that in Canada today you can still meet older people who live in an Anglophone society, but who describe themselves as Russian Mennonites, even though the ancestral language they speak is not Russian but Low German? The answer to that question is in the one word: migration.

Simply put, the Anabaptists were hard pressed to find a society that would allow them to practice the way of life they had chosen for themselves. The freedom to opt out of the Christendom system, and especially to opt out of military service, was a rare thing in 16th century Europe, and continued to be a rarity in the centuries to come. Most of the early Anabaptist leaders died young. I have heard it said that throughout the Reformation period in Europe and England approximately ten thousand people were executed for their religious beliefs. Even in the places where their movement was the strongest, the Anabaptists never made up more than ten percent of the population, but they make up more than fifty percent of the martyrs! Persecuted by Catholic and Protestant alike, they eventually migrated to places where they could find sympathetic princes or governments who would let them live in peace. In the early years Strasbourg was one such place, and the territory of lords of Lichtenstein was another. In the 17th century many Mennonites moved to Poland, where their skill as engineers who knew how to drain waterlogged land made them very useful in the draining of the Vistula delta. In the 19th century large numbers of Mennonites moved to Russia, where they were able to negotiate an exemption from military service and the freedom to educate their own children as they chose. They lived there for a century, preserving their distinction from the society around them by means of their ancestral language, low German. But in the 20th century with the communist takeover in Russia, persecution began again, and many fled for refuge to Canada, the United States, and South America.

In many cases the negotiations for safe places to live involved the Mennonites in some compromises. The most telling one, in light of early Anabaptist history, was the willingness not to try to convert others to their beliefs. And so the greatest evangelists in Europe gradually became ‘the quiet in the land’, content to live by themselves and bring up their children in their ancestral beliefs. This leads to the second word,isolation.

Separation from the world had been part of the Anabaptist theological understanding from the beginning of the movement. They understood that their primary loyalty was not to an earthly ruler or to a nation state, but to Jesus Christ and his coming kingdom. They understood that being followers of Jesus meant that they were committed to a different way of life.

As Mennonite history progressed, however, this separation from the world began to take on a geographical and cultural dimension which has become so strong that in the twentieth century there has even been a serious discussion in Mennonite circles about whether the term ‘Mennonite’ is primarily a religious or cultural/ethnic term. In order to preserve their distinctive way of life Mennonites grouped themselves in their own villages and settlements (in the case of the Hutterites, in their own colonies, where they had all things in common); they ran their own schools, married only amongst themselves, spoke Low German in ordinary life and High German in worship. They did not attempt to influence the political or social life of the world around them, and of course took no part in its wars. They tended to look for isolated places to live – the Russian steppes, or the Canadian prairies – where they could exist as ‘the quiet in the land’. And because they were frugal and hard working, their farms often prospered and became the envy of the people around them.

Something rather interesting was happening here. Anabaptism had begun as a protest movement against the idea of Christendom – the idea that church and society were one, and that every member of a given society was also a Christian and a church member. Early Anabaptists protested that the decision to become a Christian should be a free adult decision, made with no compulsion from the society around. However, as John Howard Yoder has pointed out, over time the Mennonite farming communities became little Christendoms of their own, with community decisions made at church meetings, with social institutions such as schooling under effective church control, and so on. And once again, as in the days of the Christian empire, the heathen were seen as living ‘out there’ on the edges of the new Constantinian communities.

A third characteristic of Mennonite history is fragmentation. To an Anglican, brought up with a story of a church which values visible unity and has a long history of hanging together – sometimes very uncomfortably – despite disagreements, the proliferation of Mennonite denominations can be bewildering. The Mennonite Church, the General Conference Mennonite Church, the North West Conference, the Evangelical Mennonite Church, the Mennonite Brethren – and so it goes on; there are literally hundreds of Mennonite denominations around the world today. How did this happen? My observation as an outsider would be that two things were involved: perfectionism and renewal.

First, perfectionism. One of the strengths of Anabaptism has been its high ideals for individual and church life, but paradoxically, this has also been one of its weaknesses. Anabaptism has not dealt well with imperfection and failure.

In Matthew 18:15-20 Jesus gives instructions to his followers that if they see someone in sin, they are to go and talk to them about it; if this fails they are to go again with one or two witnesses, and if the sinner still does not listen, they are to tell it to the church. If the sinner refuses to listen to the church, then they should be treated ‘as a Gentile or a tax collector’. The purpose of this process is reconciliation and restoration of relationships, and in the early years of the Anabaptist movement this was so. However, this process very quickly came to be described as ‘the ban’, with the emphasis on the last stage, the exclusion or ‘banning’ of the unrepentant sinner. And within the lifetime of the first and second generations of Anabaptists, the ban was being used by leaders such as Menno Simons and David Joris against other leaders with whose views they disagreed. This continued throughout Mennonite history: over and over again, different groups excommunicated each other while seeing themselves as the true heirs of the authentic Anabaptist tradition.

But the other factor in the fragmentation of Anabaptism has been renewal. As in the history of monasticism, when Christian institutions become lukewarm and comfortable, God often seems to raise up new movements to fan the flame of the Spirit into life again. This has happened in Mennonite history, and often the new movements became new Mennonite denominations. In some cases in the 18th and 19th century the new movements attempted to import elements of other traditions into Anabaptism: for instance, the Mennonite Brethren began as a revivalistic movement which brought elements of evangelical pietism into the Anabaptist tradition. Of course, traditional Anabaptists often looked askance at this, and the new groups themselves responded by looking down on what they saw as the compromised and worldly churches they had left.

Migration, isolation, fragmentation – a fourth word is assimilation. Isolation was not the whole story amongst Mennonites. In some societies they were welcomed, and they prospered as integrated members of the community. One example of this would be the Netherlands in the 17th century where Mennonites lived in relative freedom and were respected members of their communities. As I said in my review of the bookThe Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision, these Mennonites gradually opted to conform to the society around them, to dull the edge of simple living, nonviolence, and the refusal of the oath, and to become simply another pietistic form of Christianity like many others, giving no challenge to the structures of the world around them except by pointing toward a faith in Jesus which had very little bite to it. This story has a contemporary ring to it, and I suspect that Mennonites are far from being the only ones who have been tempted by it.

In recent years this has definitely been the temptation of Mennonites in North America as the isolation of the past has ended and as young people have moved to cities where they live at close quarters with everyone else. It has recently been observed in Canadian Mennonite magazine that the incidence of SUVs in the parking lots of Mennonite churches does not seem to be appreciably lower than in other churches. And it is a well known fact that during the Second World War many young Mennonite men – on both Allied and German sides – chose to ignore the convictions of their ancestors and enlist in the armed forces to fight for their country.

And this leads me to the fifth word: engagement. It is undeniable that in the past fifty years a huge change has taken place in the Mennonite world; the quiet in the land have begun to get noisy! A tradition which for centuries had lived in isolation has begun to think seriously and creatively about engaging with the world around it. Undoubtedly, this has partly to do with the fact that many Mennonites no longer live in isolated farm communities where they only rub shoulders with their own kind. But it has also to do with the subject of Harold Bender’s essay, with the recovery of the Anabaptist vision and the sense of having something worthwhile to say and show to the world.

Partly this engagement has taken the form of service and social action. And so the middle of the twentieth century saw the formation of the Mennonite Central Committee, which has evolved into a huge international organization engaging in relief and development work; it is also one of the bodies in which most Mennonite denominations are involved. Increasingly, at least in North America, Mennonites are turning away from their earlier refusal to be involved in civil government; they are engaging in political action, and some of them are running for elected office.

Another part of this engagement has been at the level of ideas and books, and in particular the influence of two American Mennonites, John Howard Yoder and Ronald J. Sider, must be acknowledged. John Howard Yoder, who died in 1997, was a Mennonite theologian who taught for many years at the University of Notre Dame; his 1972 book The Politics of Jesus (see my review here) had a huge influence, far beyond the Anabaptist tradition, and served as the first introduction to Anabaptist ideas for many people in other Christian traditions. His influence over non-Mennonite scholars and writers such as Stanley Hauerwas, Michael Cartwright, Richard Hays and James McClendon has been enormous. On a more popular level, Ron Sider’s book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger first came out in the 1970s and was highly influential in pointing many Christians to their responsibility to care for the poor. In the early 1980s Sider gave a highly influential speech to an international Mennonite gathering, calling for Anabaptists to be prepared to lay down their lives for peace just as soldiers were willing to lay down their lives in war. Out of that speech came the beginnings of the Christian Peacemaker Teams movement.

Migration, Isolation, Fragmentation, Assimilation, and Engagement; I hope that Mennonites would recognize their story in the five words I have used here, and that they will forgive me for some of the unavoidable generalizations I have made! But having (I hope) described the Anabaptist tradition in some detail, in the next section I want to begin to address the title of this series: What does Anabaptism have to do with Anglicanism? And I want to begin to address this question by going back to the 16th century and telling the story of the first contact between the Anglican tradition and the Anabaptist movement…

‘What does Anabaptism have to do with Anglicanism?’ – Part Four

Harold Bender described Anabaptism in terms of three defining characteristics. His ‘Anabaptist Vision’ was simple and compelling, but perhaps a little too neat and tidy. I’m going to resist the temptation to describe a few things that all Anabaptists agreed on (which could then be used as a way to rule on the issue of who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’). Rather, I’ll describe some things that most Anabaptists in the 16th century had in common.

Christocentric Interpretation of the Bible. Anabaptists agreed with the 16th Century Protestant Reformers that, under Christ, the Bible (not church tradition) has supreme authority in the life of the church. However, they disagreed strongly with them about its interpretation and application. They focused on the New Testament, and especially on the life and teachings of Jesus, and this radically affected the way they understood the Bible. They started from Jesus and interpreted everything else from him, and they suspected that the Reformers started from the doctrinal passages – especially in Paul’s letters – and tried to fit Jesus into them.

So, for instance, Catholics and Protestants justified their belief in the ‘just war’ theory by appealing to Old Testament passages in which God seems to command his people to go to war. Anabaptists saw this interpretation as contradicting the teaching of Jesus to ‘love your enemies and do good to those who hate you’, and so they used Jesus to interpret the rest of the Bible, rather than the other way around.

Salvation includes a changed life. The Protestant Reformers emphasized justification by faith (which they understood to mean that we are declared righteous by God because of Jesus’ death, not our own good works, and that we receive this as a free gift, by faith) and forgiveness of past sins. Anabaptists did not necessarily disagree, but their main emphasis was on new birth and the power to live as Jesus’ disciples. They stressed the work of the Holy Spirit in believers, and taught that Jesus was to be followed and obeyed, as well as trusted; he was not only Saviour but also Leader and Lord. So Dirk Philips (1504-1568) wrote: “Jesus with his doctrine, life and example is our teacher, leader and guide. Him we must hear and follow.” Hans Denck (1495-1527) insisted that faith and discipleship were inter-connected: “no one can truly know Christ unless he follows him in life, and no one may follow him unless he has first known him.” Here is Harold Bender’s first characteristic of Anabaptism: Discipleship as the essence of the Christian life.

A different sort of church. Anabaptists formed churches made up of committed disciples and denied that all citizens should automatically be regarded as church members (as Catholics and Protestants assumed). They insisted on differentiating believers from unbelievers, so that church membership could be voluntary and meaningful, and they resisted state control in their churches. They rejected infant baptism as unbiblical, forcibly imposed on children, and a hindrance to developing believers’ churches. They challenged the way clergy dominated the life of traditional churches and also the lack of church discipline (as outlined by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-20). Their gatherings were informal and unstructured, concentrating on Bible study and singing. Prayer was commonly offered in silence. Some of the early communities (especially those which encouraged a more charismatic expression of prophecy, such as the Melchiorites) encouraged women to participate much more actively than was normal in church and society in their day (although this does not appear to have been anything like as common as some members of the Anabaptist Network would like to think!!!). One of their early documents, ‘A Congregational Order’ (1527), says, “when the brothers and sisters are together, they shall take up something to read together. The one to whom God has given the best understanding shall explain it…when a brother sees his brother erring, he shall warn him according to the command of Christ, and shall admonish him in a Christian and brotherly way.”

‘A spirituality of the remembered word’. This is Arnold Snyder’s phrase, which he uses to describe the way in which illiterate Anabaptist disciples memorized key passages of scripture and used them both in their prayer lives and in defence of their beliefs when they were on trial. The Swiss Brethren produced a topical concordance in which key verses dealing with the central subjects of Anabaptist faith and practice were listed and sometimes given in full. Evidence is strong that this concordance was in common popular use; transcripts of trials of Anabaptists show them quoting the same verses over and over again when they are questioned on such subjects as baptism, private property, and the mass, and letters from Anabaptists in prison contain prayers which show evidence of having been inspired by the same passages of scripture.

Enthusiastic evangelism. Catholics and Protestants in the 16th century did not normally practice evangelism. When they had state support they relied on legal sanctions to enforce church attendance. They assumed that church and society were the same, so their policy was to pastor people through the parish system, rather than seeing them as unbelievers and evangelizing them. The Anabaptists rejected this interpretation of church and society, and so they embarked on a missionary venture to evangelise Europe. Evangelists like Hans Hut (1490-1527) traveled widely, preached in homes and fields, interrupted state church services, baptised converts and planted churches. Such evangelism, ignoring national and parish boundaries, and carried out by untrained men and women, was regarded as outrageous by the state churches.

Ethics. Anabaptists departed from the accepted norms of their society and lived in anticipation of the Kingdom of God. Here are some of the points of disagreement between them and the Christendom society in which they lived.

They questioned the validity of private property. One group, the Hutterites, lived in communities and held their possessions in common. Most Anabaptists retained personal ownership, but all taught that their possessions were not their own but were available to those in need. The 1527 Congregational Order urged: “Of all the brothers and sisters of this congregation, none shall have anything of his own, but rather, as the Christians in the time of the apostles held all in common, and especially stored up a common fund, from which aid can be given to the poor, according as each will have need, and as in the apostles’ time permit no brother to be in need.” When they shared communion they confirmed this mutual commitment. All Anabaptists saw excessive wealth and greed as being in stark contrast to the teaching and example of Jesus, and they became known for the modesty and simplicity of their way of life.


For the most part (with honourable exceptions such as Balthasar Hubmaier, and dishonourable exceptions such as Jan Mathijs and his followers) they rejected the use of violence, refusing to defend themselves by force. Conrad Grebel (1498-1526) described his congregation: “Neither do they use worldly sword or war, since all killing has ceased with them.” They urged love for enemies and respect for human life. Anabaptists accepted that governments would use force but regarded this as inappropriate for Christians. Felix Mantz (c1498-1527) concluded: “no Christian could be a magistrate, nor could he use the sword to punish or kill anyone.” They aimed to build an alternative community, changing society from the bottom up.

Many refused to swear oaths (again, Hubmaier is an exception here). Oaths were very important in sixteenth-century Europe; they were used both to enforce truth-telling in court and as pledges of loyalty to the state. Anabaptists often rejected these, citing Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5 and arguing that they should always be truthful, not just under oath. Nor would they swear loyalty to any secular authority, as they saw this as contradicting their primary loyalty to Jesus Christ.

Finally, Anabaptists saw suffering as a normal part of the Christian life. They were not surprised by persecution. They knew they would be seen as revolutionaries, despite their commitment to non-violence; as heretics, despite their commitment to the Bible; and as disturbers of the status quo. They regarded suffering for obedience to Christ as unavoidable and biblical: suffering was a mark of the true church, as Jesus had taught in the Sermon on the Mount.

What happened to the Anabaptists after the early days of their movement? Were they able to retain their high ideals as their communities matured and developed? Stay tuned…

(Note: this section is adapted from an article on the Anabaptist Network website).

‘What does Anabaptism have to do with Anglicanism?’ – Part Three

So why were the Anabaptists persecuted? What harm did they do to anyone, these little groups of disciples who chose to withdraw from the state churches, accept believers’ baptism, and practice the teaching of Jesus in a literal way? Why, particularly, would anyone consider pacifists to be a threat worth persecuting?

There are many possible answers to this question, and I will briefly outline three. They were persecuted because they were seen as a part of a widespread movement of social unrest, because they threatened the established order of things, and because they rediscovered the biblical concept of ‘the world’ as distinct from ‘the church’.

The early years of the 16th century were a time of widespread unrest in Europe, culminating in the Peasants’ War of 1525, which was basically a struggle between the social classes, with the serfs and peasants on the one hand and the landowners and the aristocracy on the other. The church was involved in this struggle; it was one of the major landowners of Europe, and much of its leadership at the higher levels was drawn from the aristocracy. The common people saw the church as being part of the problem of injustice and oppression, and Martin Luther’s response to the Peasants’ War, in which he encouraged the princes to kill the rebels, showed that in this respect the magisterial Reformation was entirely traditional. To use modern typology, if faced with a choice between a hermeneutics of order and a hermeneutics of justice, Catholic and Protestant were alike in opting for order.

On the other hand, the Anabaptists came largely from the lower classes of society; many of them were illiterate working people. One of the earliest demands of the little Anabaptist congregations in Switzerland was for a suspension of the system of compulsory tithes, which often did not benefit the local congregations but were used to provide a fat living for ecclesiastical functionaries far away. This was one of the major grievances of the peasants, and there is no doubt that many of them were attracted to Anabaptism because of its opposition to this practice. Anabaptism was seen as an anticlerical movement, protesting against the obvious abuses in the medieval church and pressing for a reformation in line with the highest ideals of the New Testament. This did not endear the Anabaptists to those who were in power, whether the princes of North Germany or the city councilors of Zurich.

The second two answers are connected to each other. The Anabaptists were persecutedbecause they threatened the established order of things and because they had rediscovered the biblical concept of ‘the world’ as distinct from ‘the church’.

For over a thousand years in Europe Christianity had been characterized by the Constantinian order of things, in which state and church were seen as one and the same. This enormous change from Christianity’s earliest years as a marginalized movement had received its greatest boost in the fourth century when Constantine, the Roman Emperor, decided to promote Christianity as a bold new religion that could unite his empire. He not only tolerated it – he gave financial inducements for people to join it, lionized its bishops and leaders, and built it some huge churches. He presided over its theological councils, even though he himself had not been baptized. This process of the co-option of Christianity as the official religion of the empire continued under Constantine’s successors, so that over an eighty-year period the church went from being a persecuted movement to being itself a persecutor (with the help of the machinery of state). Obviously, when that happens, something radical has changed.

Stuart Murray Williams, in his book Post-Christendom (see my reviews here, here andhere), outlines some of the changes which the Christendom era brought. They include the movement of the church from the margins to the centre of society; the assumption that all citizens (except Jews) were Christians by birth; infant baptism as the symbol of obligatory incorporation into Christian society (it became illegal not to have your children baptized as this would threaten the unity of the Christian state); the imposition, by legislation and custom, of a supposedly Christian morality on the entire society (although in fact it was normally Old Testament morality that was applied and not the teaching of Jesus), and the defence of Christianity by legal sanctions to restrain heresy, immorality, and schism. A hierarchical church system was created, based on a diocesan and parish arrangement, roughly analogous to the state hierarchy and buttressed by state support. A sharp distinction was drawn between clergy and laity, with the laity relegated to a largely passive role. Massive and ornate church buildings were constructed to accommodate huge congregations of largely nominal Christians; the church became increasingly wealthy and obligatory tithes were imposed to support the system. The world was divided between ‘Christendom’ and ‘heathendom’, and wars were waged against heathendom in the name of Christ and the church. The use of political and military force to impose Christianity, regardless of personal conviction, was increasingly seen as legitimate as enemy-loving and peacemaking were replaced by the formation of a Christian army and the ‘just war’ or ‘holy war’ theory. And over and over again, apologists appealed to the Old Testament, rather than the New, to justify these changes.

Stuart Murray Williams makes the further telling point that in order for the church to be brought in from the margins to the centre of society, Jesus had to be banished from the centre to the margins of the church, in the sense that his example and teaching no longer held centre sway – a Master who taught love for enemies, simplicity of life and caring for the poor was a little awkward for a rich and powerful empire! So in Christendom the worship of Jesus was emphasized at the expense of actually following his teaching and example. This can be seen most strikingly in the creeds, which date from this period of time. They jump straight from the birth of Jesus to his death and resurrection, but say nothing about his life, his miracles, his relationships, his teachings, or his subversive lifestyle at all!

Having considered the magnitude of these changes we are now in a better position to see why the Anabaptists were seen as such a threat. The absolute unity of church and state was considered as axiomatic in Europe in the 16th century; to question that unity was to tear the whole fabric of society and bring down the good order which alone guaranteed peace and stability. And this is what the Anabaptists were doing. They correctly identified the major theological flaw in the Christendom system, from which most of its other errors flowed: the abandonment of the biblical concept of the world as distinct from the church. In Christendom it was assumed that the world had been absorbed into the church (although it seems far more likely that in fact the church had been absorbed and domesticated by the world). The New Testament teaching about the world as a system of rebellion against God, a system whose natural inclination was to hate God and God’s people and to persecute them as it had persecuted Jesus, had been forgotten. The 16th century world had assumed that it was Christian, but the Anabaptists had the gall to question this and to see it as in fact non-Christian, as the world from which Christians needed to come out and be separate, regaining again their distinctiveness as the gathered community of followers of Jesus.

How did this distinctiveness work itself out in the little Anabaptist congregations? Are we now in a better position, without the oversimplification of Harold Bender’s ‘Anabaptist Vision’, to explore some of the central ideas and practices that energized the Anabaptist movement? Stay tuned…