Current Research on Early Modern Anabaptist and Spiritualist History: A Report from the 2016 SCSC

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Every year, scholars of the European Reformations gather to present papers at the annual meeting of the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference. The most recent annual conference was held in Bruges, Belgium, with over 1000 scholars in attendance. As it did at the 2015 conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, the Society for Reformation Research sponsored three panels on the Radical Reformation, and the papers presented at these panels showcased exciting new research on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Anabaptist and Spiritualist topics and challenged established historiographical norms and categories.

The first panel, entitled New Approaches to the Radical Reformation, featured papers from James Stayer, Mary Sprunger, and me. I opened the panel by presenting a paper on Melchior Hoffman and the prophecies of Lienhard and Ursula Jost. The paper detailed the North German/Dutch Anabaptist founding father’s reverence for contemporary prophecy as equal in value to biblical prophecy and his approach to prophecy both scriptural and contemporary, which served to bolster his own authority in Melchiorite circles as its ultimate interpreter.1 James Stayer, professor emeritus at Queen’s University, presented a paper on The Blasphemy of Jan van Leiden, a work which first appeared in print in 1627 and was attributed to Menno Simons. Stayer outlined the controversy between Willem de Bakker and Helmut Isaak (both of whom accept Menno’s authorship) on the date the work was first written and suggested that the document was a forgery, as Christiaan Sepp had argued in the nineteenth century.2 Mary Sprunger of Eastern Mennonite University closed out the panel with a paper on the migration of Flemish (in the geographic rather than religious sense) Mennonites to Amsterdam following increased religious persecution in the Spanish Netherlands and their economic impact on Dutch Mennonite and Doopsgezind congregations, particularly in the area of trade.3

The second panel, entitled Religious and Social Radicalism in the Early Years of the Reformation, featured presentations from Geoffrey Dipple, Emese Bálint, and Roy Vice. Dipple, of the University of Alberta, revisited the question of who baptized South German Anabaptist founder Hans Denck. Dipple argued that Denck’s focus was far less on baptism than on the Lord’s Supper, and that if he himself was baptized at all, he was not baptized in Switzerland. Rather, as the polygenesis paradigm suggests, Denck’s form of Anabaptism was distinct from that of the Swiss Brethren.4 Bálint, of the European University Institute, presented a paper coauthored with Christopher Martinuzzi of the Scuola Normale Superiore on exchanges between Anabaptists and Saxon reformers in the early years of the reformation. The paper emphasized the widespread exchange of ideas in the early years of the Reformation and the fluid nature of religious identity, calling into question the divide between magisterial and Radical Reformations and arguing that given the multiplicity of influences that shaped every surviving sixteenth-century creed, the religions that began in the sixteenth century are best understood as composite religions.5 Roy Vice presented a third paper on the mockery of the sacred in the Peasants’ War. He particularly detailed the peasants’ frequent desecration of consecrated hosts, an action that evinced both anticlericalism and a denial of the Real Presence.6

The final panel, entitled Spiritualist Currents in the Radical Reformation and Their Long-term Impact, featured papers from Theo Brok, Gary Waite, and Michael Driedger. Theo Brok, of the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, presented a paper on Anabaptism in the Lower Rhine from its origins to the 1550s. Brok maintained that the region developed a unique form of Anabaptism influenced by Johannes Campanus and a network of bishops unconnected to Menno Simons and Dirk Philips.7 Gary Waite, of the University of New Brunswick, gave a paper on the long-term impact of the Spiritualist hermeneutic, in which he traced relationships between Amsterdam’s seventeenth-century religious dissenters and argued that the Spiritualist emphasis on the inner word and distaste for dogmatism paved the way for a historical-critical approach to Scriptural revelation adopted by figures such as Baruch Spinoza.8 The panel’s final presenter, Michael Driedger of Brock University, challenged the very category of Radical Reformation, which had served as an organizing principle for this series of panels. Driedger argued that the idea of an essential unity between Anabaptists, Spiritualists, and other dissenters was an idea propagated not by members of these groups themselves, but rather in polemical literature written by their opponents.9

The complicated and interconnected currents of sixteenth-century religious thought continue to resist simple categorization, whether by academics seeking to present historical material in an accessible fashion or by religious groups seeking a neat and tidy origin story. Ongoing research on Anabaptists and other marginal sixteenth-century religious figures reveals both important distinctions between individuals and groups and the exchange of ideas both within and beyond confessional and sectarian boundaries. For those of us, Anabaptist or otherwise, who belong to a religious tradition, these findings offer an opportunity to reflect on the complicated and multifaceted nature of religious identity. Our forebears may not be our ideological twins, but nevertheless we, like them, are shaped not only by our upbringing—both the parts we reject and the parts we accept—but by the people and ideas we interact with over the course of our lives.

 

Works Cited

Bálint, Emese  and Christopher Martinuzzi. “Composite Religions: Encounters Between Early Saxon Reformers and the First Anabaptists.” Paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016.

Brok, Theo. “Johannes Campanus (ca. 1500–1575) and Early Anabaptism in the Lower Rhine.” Paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016.

Dipple, Geoffrey. “Who Baptized Hans Denck?” Paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016.

Driedger, Michael. “The Origins of the Radical Reformation in the Republic of Hateful Letters.” Paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016.

Moss, Christina. “‘Worth as Much as Jeremiah and Isaiah’: Melchior Hoffman and the Prophecies of Lienhard and Ursula Jost.” Paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016.

Sprunger, Mary. “The Impact of Flemish Mennonite Migration to Amsterdam in the Late Sixteenth Century and Early Seventeenth Century” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016).

Stayer, James. “‘The Blasphemy of Jan van Leiden’ (1627) by Menno Simons?” Paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016.

Vice, Roy. “Mocking the Sacred During the German Peasants’ War.” Paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016.

Waite, Gary. “The Spiritualist Hermeneutic and Its Long-Term Impact: From David Joris to Baruch Spinoza?” Paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016.


  1. Christina Moss, “‘Worth as Much as Jeremiah and Isaiah’: Melchior Hoffman and the Prophecies of Lienhard and Ursula Jost” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016). 
  2. James Stayer, “‘The Blasphemy of Jan van Leiden’ (1627) by Menno Simons?” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016). 
  3. Mary Sprunger, “The Impact of Flemish Mennonite Migration to Amsterdam in the Late Sixteenth Century and Early Seventeenth Century” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016). 
  4. Geoffrey Dipple, “Who Baptized Hans Denck?” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016). 
  5. Emese Bálint and Christopher Martinuzzi, “Composite Religions: Encounters Between Early Saxon Reformers and the First Anabaptists” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016). 
  6. Roy Vice, “Mocking the Sacred During the German Peasants’ War” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016). 
  7. Theo Brok, “Johannes Campanus (ca. 1500–1575) and Early Anabaptism in the Lower Rhine” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016). 
  8. Gary Waite, “The Spiritualist Hermeneutic and Its Long-Term Impact: From David Joris to Baruch Spinoza?” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016). This paper is related to an ongoing research project on religious dissent in England and the Low Countries entitled Amsterdamnified and helmed by Waite and Michael Driedger. See more at http://amsterdamnified.dutchdissenters.net/wp/
  9. Michael Driedger, “The Origins of the Radical Reformation in the Republic of Hateful Letters” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016). 

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