An Introductory Taxonomy of Anabaptist Histories

IMG_6493“Anabaptist Historians: Bringing the Anabaptist Past into a Digital Century” is a collaborative blog gathering scholars of Anabaptist history to share their research and engage on critical issues in contemporary Anabaptist life. But what is Anabaptist history? Part of the trouble is that the word “anabaptist” has many overlapping meanings, as does “Mennonite.” In this blog, each contributor will have his or her own understanding of what “Anabaptist” and “Anabaptist history” means.

In a conversation with Linford Stutzman during my Cross Cultural semester with Eastern Mennonite University, he postulated a three-part criteria for being a Mennonite, where meeting two out of three constituted a pass: 1) having Mennonite values; 2) belonging to a Mennonite congregation; 3) belonging to a Mennonite family. This construct concisely states the three strands of identity that are bound together in each individual’s experience (I recognize the lack of any may be as important– if not more important–in shaping the experience). The variations are not just an individual experience, they play out in the stories Anabaptists (and I include myself therein) tell themselves. As Dallas E. Wiebe ends his satirical work, The Sayings of Abraham Nofziger: A Guide for the Perplexed, vol. 3:1

147. The logical extension of Anabaptist thought is that each person becomes a church of one.

148. I’m the only Mennonite I know.

There are as many Anabaptist histories as there are Anabaptists. Since it is crucial to understand which type of history is being read in order to understand it, I am providing a brief taxonomy.

The Ethnic Genus of Anabaptist History

The Ethnic Genus of Anabaptist History is the story of Anabaptist peoplehood. That is, it is the story of how Anabaptists have been together.

To many understandings, an “ethnic” understanding of Anabaptism is simply not true, as believer’s baptism and the clear choice to join are central to Anabaptist faith. There are, however,  cultural markers that persist in differing Anabaptist communities, and the language of ethnicity can be a helpful tool to describe them—it is not meant as a pejorative.

Ethnic: Peoplehood Studies

Perhaps the most developed species of Anabaptist history is “Ethnic: Peoplehood Studies.” This is focused on looking at the many types of Anabaptist groups (say, “Ethnic: Peoplehood Studies: Amish Studies” or “Ethnic: Peoplehood Studies: Mennonite Studies”). It looks at trends, markers, and mores in the groups on the Anabaptist spectrum. There are as many subfields under “Ethnic: Peoplehood Studies” as there are Anabaptist groups.

Ethnic: Boundary Politics

The species of “Boundary Politics” is worthy of special attention: it is historical work that is less concerned about the past and more with the present. One example of this would be Thieleman J. van Braght’s guiding ethos when he considered whom to include in the Martyrs’ Mirror,  in counting only the “Defenseless Christians” as part of the true Brotherhood. Another can be found in the work of H. S. Bender—who through historical work attempted to recreate an Anabaptist vision.2 Bender systematically expunged violent Anabaptists from the mythic past: “this principle of nonresistance, or biblical pacifism, which was thoroughly believed and resolutely practiced by all the original Anabaptist Brethren and their descendants throughout Europe from the beginning until the last century.”3 The story of staunch pacifism had such sway for Bender that he ignored the likes of Thomas Müntzer, the Anabaptist Kingdom of Munster, or the Anabaptist Riot of 1535. Both Braght and Bender used history as their medium to work theologically“Bender was able to build the new vision because his initial position at Goshen College was in history rather than biblical studies. He was thus able to avoid most of the divisive disputes over doctrine. By concentrating on Anabaptist-Mennonite history, he was able to concentrate on questions that drew communalism back into the center of Mennonite discussion.” 4

The efforts of German Mennonite leaders to shift Mennonite identity by creating historical narratives from 1772 to 1950 is an example of “Boundary Politics.”  Mark Jantzen in Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772–1880, traces how Mennonites reworked their identity to move from closed sectarians to fully German.5 Ben Goossen, in his Mennonite Quarterly Review article, “From Aryanism to Anabaptism: Nazi Race Science and the Language of Mennonite Ethnicity,” looks at how that same identity-shifting work was brought to fullness under the Third Reich and then quickly redone to rebirth Anabaptists as a distinct Ethnicity for preferential treatment post World War II.6 Examples of “Boundary Politics” can be very problematic: they wear the clothing of history, but have another purpose. When encountering work that falls under “Ethnic: Boundary Politics,” it is especially necessary to understand what the type of work one is reading so that what is not being said can be considered, as well as that which is.7

Ethnic: Genealogical/Family

One popular form of folk-history among many Anabaptists is that of genealogy and family history. I call it a folk-history because it is not a field of study popular in the academy. Perhaps this is so because of the past efforts by eugenicists to develop it as a scientific field. Or it could be that while genealogists are busy collecting and archiving pieces of the past, they do not, strictly speaking, work historically; they are not using what they have collected to tell a story beyond personal and family identity. But for many Anabaptists, this is their primary way of thinking about history: Where and Who Did I Come From? Working at the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, it is clear that most people who come through our doors are looking for answers about where they came from, and the tools they use or desire to answer that question are genealogical.

The Ecclesiastical Genus of Anabaptist History

The Ecclesiological Genus of Anabaptist History is concerned with the study of Anabaptist church history. That is, it is the story of how Anabaptists have been church.

As is the case with “Ethnic: Peoplehood Studies,” each sect and sub-organization therein has its own species and subspecies. For Lancaster Mennonite Conference, John Ruth’s tome, The Earth is The Lord’s: A Narrative History of Lancaster Conference is the defining work; Ruth’s Maintaining Right Fellowship would hold the same position for Franconia Mennonite Conference. For the Meserete Kristos church of Ethiopia, Alemu Checole’s work in Anabaptist Songs in African Hearts is another fine example.

The Epistemological Genus of Anabaptist History

This Epistemological Genus of Anabaptist History is concerned with how people considering themselves Anabaptist have known; it is Anabaptist historiography. When Julia Kasdorf traces how and looks towards why the Martyrs’ Mirror “has collapsed into only one story and one iconic image for many readers” (that of Dirk Willems), she is working in the Epistemological Genus of Anabaptist History.8 This area is receiving the most attention in emerging scholarship, not just from the historical arena but in literary studies. I will not try to give a synopsis of current state of the field here.

Conclusion

Here I have attempted to start a taxonomy of Anabaptist Histories, identifying in broad strokes the subsets of our discipline. However, unlike Linnaeus and his heirs, most of the specimens we see in the wild are chimeras, and so I have sought to describe various phenotypic packages rather than prescribe what this scholastic menagerie should look like. Surely there are species out there that I have not seen yet, in other parts of the world, in other languages, or in other fields. These classifications I have laid out are not fixed, nor are they meant to demean or devalue, but simply to help the hunters of Anabaptist History to properly place and understand that which they read.


  1. Dallas E. Wiebe, The Sayings of Abraham Nofziger: A Guide For the Perplexed (2004), 65. 
  2. Leonard Gross, “Bender, Harold Stauffer (1897-1962),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online,1990. <http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Bender,Harold_Stauffer(1897-1962); (Accessed August 29, 2016). 
  3. Harold S. Bender, The Anabaptist Vision, (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1944), 32. 
  4. Fred Kniss, Disquiet in the Land, (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 65. 
  5. Mark Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772-188, (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010). 
  6. Ben Goossen, “From Aryanism to Anabaptism: Nazi Race Science and the Language of Mennonite Ethnicity,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 40 no. 2 (April 2016). 
  7. I might be inclined to argue that the role of the historian in the church is to promote an unbounded boundary politics. “I have discovered a truly marvelous proof of this, which this margin is too narrow to contain.” 
  8. Julia Spicher Kasdorf, “Mightier than the Sword: Martyrs Mirror in the New World,” The Conrad Grebel Review 31, no. 1 (Winter 2013), https://uwaterloo.ca/grebel/publications/conrad-grebel-review/issues/winter-2013/mightier-sword-martyrs-mirror-new-world (Accessed August 29, 2016). 

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