What is Anabaptism?

“Okay, Tim, so you say you’re going to study Anabaptism on your sabbatical. Now, what the heck is that?”




Good question, and it’s not one I can give you a short answer to. In this post, I’ll tell you a bit about the early history of the Anabaptist movement. By the way, the word ‘Anabaptist’ was not a name the early followers of this movement gave to themselves; it was a name given to them by others who disagreed with them. It means ‘rebaptizer’, and comes from the fact that the Anabaptists did not believe an infant baptism was a valid baptism; therefore they practiced adult believers’ baptism. More about that later (and don’t worry; I’m not contemplating abandoning infant baptism at St. Margaret’s – if I was, the Bishop would fire me!).





So – Anabaptism was originally a sixteenth-century radical Christian renewal movement in parts of western and central Europe. The early Anabaptists consciously put the person of Jesus (as he is revealed in the gospels) at the centre of their Christian faith, in contrast to many other Reformers who concentrated on the teachings of St. Paul. The Anabaptists believed that Christians are born again to a life of following the teaching and example of Jesus (‘discipleship’), and in this life they especially emphasized simple living and economic sharing, nonviolence and love for enemies, and truth-telling (they refused to participate in war or take oaths in court because of this). They tried to establish believers’ churches free from the control of the state, in which they attempted to restore a simple New Testament Christianity as they understood it. In this New Testament Christianity there was no distinction between clergy and laity; all were followers of Jesus, and all joined together in interpreting the Bible and in doing Christ’s work. Although the movement had similiarities with both Catholic and Protestant versions of Christianity, it is best understood as being neither Catholic nor Protestant, but a distinct Christian tradition with its own vision of what Christian faith and life is all about.





The early Anabaptists came mainly from the poorer end of society, and many of them were in fact illiterate, although a few were university graduates, monks, and priests. The movement was driven underground by persecution from both Catholics and Protestants, who saw it was a threat to the order of society, in which church and state were one and the same, under the control of the powers-that-be. Many of the early Anabaptist leaders were executed for their beliefs, by burning at the stake or by drowning (a cruel parody of their belief in adult baptism). There were four main geographical branches of the movement: the Swiss Brethren, the South German and Austrian Anabaptists, the Dutch Mennonites, and the Hutterites. It was not an organized movement, and pinning down its essential beliefs is sometimes difficult.





Anabaptists were radicals who believed that the Calvinist, Lutheran and Anglican reformers had not gone far enough; they had made the Bible authoritative for doctrines, but not for ethics or the way church was organized. Anabaptists believed the Bible (and especially the teachings of Jesus) should be followed for these things as well. Hence, for instance, their rejection of war and violence, of taking the oath, of the idea that a king could decide the religion of his subjects, of the idea of priests being intermediaries between God and the people, and so on.





Anabaptists emphasized the difference between church and state, or church and society. Since the fourth century when the Roman emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of his empire, the ‘Christendom’ worldview had seen church and society as one. In Christendom, people did not choose to become Christians as they did in New Testament times; rather, they were assumed to be Christians because they lived in a Christian country and had been baptized in a state church as infants. Churches were under the control of the local prince, who decided the religion of his subjects, and the churches generally refrained from emphasizing aspects of the teaching of the New Testament that threatened the prince’s power (like pacifism, for instance, or simple living). Anabaptists challenged this, and sought to re-establish the New Testament vision of the church as an alternative to society, a counter-culture, a resistance movement, an outpost of the Kingdom of God.





Anabaptism was largely a church of the poor. Anabaptists were mostly poor and powerless, with very few wealthy, academic, or influential members. They were seen as subversives and were strongly opposed by those with a vested interest in the wealth and power structures of society. Some Anabaptist views owe much to their powerless position: Anabaptists were prepared to obey the Bible regardless of social consequences.





“Well, what has all this got to do with us today, and why are you planning to spend three months studying an obscure sixteenth-century movement?” For a couple of reasons.





First, the Christendom system has largely collapsed in our time. Church and society are no longer one and the same. Society in general no longer believes or practices the Christian faith, and no longer helps people to become Christians; in fact, rather the opposite. The Church is no longer in a position of power in society; we are a marginal movement, like the Anabaptists and in fact like the New Testament Christians. How do you do Christian mission in this new situation? The Anabaptist tradition has a lot to teach us about this.





Second, the things the Anabaptists believed are highly relevant to us today. They believed that the decision to become a Christian is a free choice, not something coerced by state or family. They believed that following the teaching and example of Jesus is the centre of the Christian life. They believed that the Bible should be interpreted by the standard of Jesus, and that if parts of it seem to contradict Jesus, we should understand them according to his life and teachings. They believed that churches are fellowships of disciples who minister together and help one another –even holding one another accountable for their discipleship – rather than passive communities under the rule of a priest who alone has the authority. They believed that Christians should not accumulate excessive wealth and should share what they have with those in need. They believed that the teaching of Jesus requires Christians to love their enemies, to reject war and violence, and to speak the truth at all times.





As I said, I think these things are highly relevant for us today. I think they challenge us to base our life as a church and as individuals on the teaching of Jesus and the early apostles and not on traditions that grew up during the Christendom era.





In my next post I will say a little more about the distinctive beliefs of the Anabaptists.





(Note: this post is largely based on this article from the Anabaptist Network website).

Peace Shall Destroy Many


Canadian novelist Rudy Wiebe has written many fine books, but to my mind one of the finest is still his first novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many, which I re-read this weekend for the first time in many years.


Wiebe is a fine writer with a wonderful talent for description: witness, these first few sentences on the opening page of the book:

The school stood at the crossroads in the valley, its loggish face southward. Flanked by teacherage and sagging barn, it waited with its door yawning in the spring morning as the children neared on four roads cut like slashes through the bush. Reluctantly they came, listening to the spring frog-song, touching the buds on the slim poplars, snuffing the freshness. Soon the yard rang with their running shouts and tumbled hills’ re-echo.

Or again, this description of a river valley viewed in the moonlight:

They both looked at the pool and heard the frogs again, without thought, and then she rose and they returned as they had come, feet unsteady on the round rocks. “Let’s just look at the river”, he said, and pushed ahead through the tangle until they emerged on the lookout. She stood beside him, smoothing back her simply coiled hair. The clean curve of the moon hung naked at its height in the north. The long river lay dully silver, holding the island as in its arms. The wind flickered the poplars and murmured to the pine; there was no cry of a bird to nag. He knew that in this moment behind the hedges of France men lay silent under the shriek of shells, lurking; here, peace – as when only two people, and God, were on earth. But to stay here.

The book is full of passages like this, the work of an author who has obviously spent hours out in the bush himself, and has learned to paint vivid verbal pictures for the mind’s eye.

Peace Shall Destroy Many is set in 1944, in a small isolated Mennonite community in northwestern Saskatchewan. The community is led by Peter Block, whose strong personality and rigid conformity to the traditions handed down from the ancestors have shaped the lives of these refugees from Russia who have made a new home for themselves in the bush of northern Saskatchewan. The Mennonites, of course, are pacifists, and many of their young men of military age have left to go to conscientious objector work camps around the country. A few have abandoned the traditions of their ancestors and joined the military.

The novel addresses the contradiction at the heart of the life of this separated community. The Mennonites have built their lives on Christ’s command to love their enemies, and in obedience to this command they have refused to participate in the Second World War. They have also embraced the Great Commission and have sent a young missionary couple to India. But on the edge of their settlement live some Métis families, and they have refused to reach out to these families, because their language and customs are different. The main character of the novel, young Thom Wiens, tries to reach out to the Métis children, even holding a Sunday afternoon Bible class for them, but he is opposed by Peter Block. ‘Suppose they become Christians?’ Block asks; ‘Then what? What church will they join? There’s only one church in Wapiti, and it speaks German. Speaking German is one of the ways we maintain our separateness from the world. If we change, we will soon fall away from the purity of the life our ancestors have handed down to us’.

How do you follow Christ’s command to love your enemies when the food you are growing on your farm is used to feed the soldiers on the Normandy beaches? How is it possible to be a consistent pacifist, when the only way you can have the freedom to make that choice is because others are willing not to be pacifists, and in fact to fight for you – the unbeliever dying for the believer? How do you strike the balance between separating yourself from the world on the one hand, and loving your neighbour on the other? How is it possible for a way of life meant to help people love their neighbours to so easily itself become oppressive and dishonest? These are some of the issues raised in this novel.

Rudy Wiebe does not write as a rebel against Mennonite Christianity (although when the book was first published in the 1960’s it caused considerable controversy); he remains a Mennonite and a practicing member of a congregation here in Edmonton. He surely speaks his own conviction through the mouth of Joseph Dueck, one of the characters in the novel, who says, “We are spared war duty and possible death on the battlefield only because we are to be so much the better witnesses for Christ here at home”. And I would add, not only here at home. Jesus did not envision that his followers would love their enemies by hiding from them. That was not the way he lived and died.

In Peace Shall Destroy Many, Rudy Wiebe stares fearlessly into the paradox at the heart of Christian discipleship. He poses the big questions without feeling obliged to provide glib pat answers. This is a book worth reading and pondering many times. I highly recommend it.

(For more about Rudy Wiebe on the Web, look here and here).

I Heard the Owl Call My Name

Maybe it was watching Hank Williams First Nation that did it, but I found I wanted to read this novel again. It is one of the most beautiful books about First Nations people ever written in Canada. It is also one of the most realistic pictures I’ve seen of Anglican ministry in isolated First Nations communities.

My own experience was in very different settings from the Pacific northwest described in this book: the Cree of northeastern Saskatchewan, the Gwitchin and Inuit of the Northwest Territories. The specifics were different, but the atmosphere and ethos were the same as that portrayed in this book. And I suspect that over the years it’s had a great deal to do with my pastoral practice.

I seem to have a thirst for re-reading Canadian fiction right now. I think my next re-read is going to be Rudy Wiebe’s Peace Shall Destroy Many, which I haven’t read for about twenty years.

C.J. Sansom’s ‘Matthew Shardlake’ series

Christmas brought me a little gift money, and an absorbing book is always a good way to spend such gifts. I’d been eying C.J. Sansom’s latest Matthew Shardlake novel, Sovereign, for some time, so I went on down to Indigo Books and bought it. I was not disappointed; it was a wonderful read, as I had expected it to be.

The Shardlake novels are set in England during the reign of Henry VIII. Matthew Shardlake is a hunchback lawyer working out ofLincoln’s Inn in London; when the stories begin he is a member ofThomas Cromwell’s circle, and the first book in the series,Dissolution, concerns a commission Cromwell gives Shardlake to solve a brutal murder which has taken place at a monastery in the south of England. The series continues with Dark Fire, in which Shardlake is charged by Cromwell with discovering the secret of Greek Fire for the king; in this novel he meets Jack Barak, a man of action with a dubious background in the London underworld of the day. The third novel, Sovereign, sees Shardlake and Barak taking part in the Great Progress to the North of England in 1541; Shardlake has been given a commission by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer to ensure the safety of a prisoner who is to be brought south for ‘questioning’ (read, ‘torturing’), but on the way he discovers the existence of documents which question the royal succession of the entire Tudor dynasty. Not surprisingly, this knowledge turns out to be extremely dangerous for Shardlake.

Sansom has done his homework well. The historical research behind these novels is sound (the history of the Wars of the Roses and the Tudor period has been a hobby of mine for years, so I think that I’m qualified to make that judgement). That Sansom was willing to wade through Diarmaid McCulloch’s massive biography of Thomas Cranmer as part of his background study for this novel is testimony to the thoroughness of his research. If you want stories that give you the authentic sights, sounds and stories of the Tudor era, you’ll find them here.

But Sansom is more than a good researcher; he’s also a mystery writer who actually knows how to write a mystery. I’ve read some of the best (P.D. James, Ellis Peters, Colin Dexter), and I’ve become quite adept at guessing ‘who dunnit’, but Sansom was too clever for me by far. The conclusions, in all three of the Shardlake novels, were unexpected – but not in a contrived or far-fetched way; when I thought them through, they made perfect sense, and I kicked myself for not having seen the truth earlier on.

When Dissolution begins Shardlake is a convinced supporter of religious and political reform, but his enthusiasm wanes as he sees the cruel and deceitful lengths to which Thomas Cromwell and others like him are prepared to go; truly, in their eyes, the end justifies the means. As an evangelical Anglican I once idealised the Anglican Reformation, but reading it through Anabaptist eyes has helped me see how coercive and top-down it really was, and also how shot-through with compromise (The King as head of the Church? Where do you find that in the teachings of Christ?). The truth is that Henry VIII was a monster, and (as this essay shows) Thomas Cranmer turned honest biblical exegesis on its head to support his desire for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, because he wanted to use the king to advance reform. Like Shardlake, I now see the protagonists on both sides as equally flawed human beings, full of ambition, fascinated with political power, and far too ready to employ torture and death in the service of the Gospel of Christ.

Sansom is a fine writer, and the Shardlake novels are historical mystery writing at its best. Treat yourself; buy them (or borrow them from the library), make yourself a substantial pot of tea, and curl up beside the fireplace with a good book. It could be a long evening…

Inflation Hits the Falcon Carol

As of January 1st, the price of my CD ‘The Falcon Carol’ is now $10.

We’ve been burning all the CDs on my home computer, buying the disks and the jewel cases. My good friend Alex Boudreau was originally printing the labels and inserts, but I’ve taken that on myself now, and the cost is beginning to be noticeable. So we’ve had to put the price up to cover our costs. Profits from the CD, over and above our costs, will still go to Habitat for Humanity.

Thanks to all those who have bought copies of the CD; we’ve given over $800 to Habitat from the sales of the disk.

The Falcon Carol Gets a New Look

Ever since my CD ‘The Falcon Carol’ came out, my good friend Alex Boudreau has been willingly producing all the CD labels and inserts. Last week I bought a CD labelling program myself, having decided that it was high time I learned to do a few things for myself instead of sponging off my friends so much. So – I designed a new label and cover for ‘The Falcon Carol’, and have started to print them up now. Let me know what you think.

(P.S. The photo was taken by the one and only Tracy Kolenchuk).

‘The Falcon Carol’ jewel case insert

‘The Falcon Carol’ CD label

CD For Salel – UPDATED

My CD, ‘The Falcon Carol’, is ready to go. As mentioned here before, it has fifteen tracks; twelve are traditional folk songs, and three are my own compositions. My son Nick plays additional guitar on three of the tracks.

Please understand, this is not a professionally recorded CD. The recordings were done at the homes of two friends, Barry Westerlund and Alex Boudreau. Alex mastered them and printed off the CD labels and case inserts. And we don’t have any sort of professional distribution network.

However, we do want to raise a bit of money for Habitat for Humanity, so we’re selling them for $10.00 each, plus another $5.00 for postage and handling if you live out of town. All the profits will go to Habitat Edmonton.

I had a PayPal account for a while, but I quickly started to receive fraudulent emails from people claiming to be PayPal and asking for my account information, so I’ve now closed that account. Sorry, but we’ll have to do this the old fashioned way! To get a copy of the CD, please send a cheque or money order for $15.00 in Canadian funds to:

Tim Chesterton
c/o St. Margaret’s Anglican Church
12603 Ellerslie Rd.,
Edmonton, AB T6W 1A3

Don’t forget to include your return address!

If you want to come and pick it up yourself, then you get it for $10.00!