Anabaptists and the Reformation 500 Years Later

October marked the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses and the start of the Protestant Reformation in 1517, an event remembered around the world through festivals, sermons, and hefty debate. Here in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I attended a conference on “The Relevance of the Message of the Reformation,” which raised many of the concerns which have recently reverberated across Christian communities. While many Protestants see the Reformation in unambiguously heroic terms, it was also a period of immense bloodshed and a fundamental rupture in church history. Historians have long argued that the sixteenth century ended the Middle Ages and ushered in a new age of modernity. But this too—particularly the claim that Protestantism is responsible for modern capitalism—has a dark side.

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Panelists in Buenos Aires discuss the Reformation and its legacy. The event was sponsored by Argentina’s Ecumenical Network of Theological Education, which includes Mennonites, Lutherans, Waldensians, and others.

As panelists at the Buenos Aires conference pointed out, the way we choose to talk about the Reformation will shape its ongoing legacy in the twenty-first century. In addition to Luther’s Bible translation and insistence on sola scriptura, for example, should we remember his anti-Semitism—including writings that inspired the Nazis? Are our narratives of the Reformation, with emphasis on figures like Luther, too male-focused? How do we tell a global history of the Reformation, when today most Protestants live in the Global South and are people of color? Perhaps more abstractly, should we even consider the Reformation to be the starting point of Protestantism? After all, one sponsor of the Buenos Aires conference was the Waldensian church, whose tradition—identified by Martyrs Mirror author Thieleman van Braght as a forerunner to Anabaptism—dates not to the sixteenth century but to the twelfth.

How should Anabaptists relate to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation? As in the wider Protestant world, this question is complex. Despite reconciliation talks recently conducted with the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation, inherited memories of the torture and murder of sixteenth-century Anabaptists by both Catholics and Protestants remain significant for many. Nevertheless, broader efforts to commemorate Luther and his contemporaries have found resonance. Mennonite World Conference has initiated a ten-year conference series entitled “Renewal 2027.” Its first event—held last February in Augsburg, Germany—was widely reported in the denominational press. Countless congregations have independently broached the subject.

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Conceived as a global pilgrimage to Anabaptism’s “birth place” in Switzerland, the first Mennonite World Conference, held in 1925, was the first time that Mennonites celebrated a world-wide denominational centennial.

Among the richest forums to appear so far has been the special online issue of Mennonite Life, entitled “Why 500 Years?” In addition to an introduction from editor Brad Born, the special issue includes fourteen essays from Mennonite thinkers on three continents about whether and how to tell Anabaptist origin stories five hundred years after the Reformation. César Garcia, General Secretary of Mennonite World Conference, and J. Nelson Kraybill, its president, outline the plans and promise of “Renewal 2027,” including the joys of being part of a worldwide faith community whose members respond to the history of early Anabaptism in diverse and often unexpected ways.

Offering historical perspectives, Troy Osborne of Conrad Grebel University College explores the distinction between the Reformation itself and the way that it has been studied by Mennonite historians, while Walter Sawatsky, professor emeritus of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, highlights the important role of Mennonites in twentieth-century Russia. Mennonite Central Committee’s Alain Epp Weaver notes the remarkable emergence of global Anabaptist institutions like MCC and Mennonite World Conference during the 1920s—a period in which church leaders celebrated the 400th anniversary of Anabaptism—and asks how we can be responsibly address the good, the bad, and the ugly of historic institutions.

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Anabaptists have long been debating the merits of historic commemorations. This 1761 medallion, struck in Amsterdam on the 200th anniversary of Menno Simons’ death, emphasizes restraint: “celebrate now this man’s second centenary festival/ With a humble heart and spirit.”

Fascinating cross pollination emerges between activist Tim Nafziger’s discussion of how some Mennonites have used triumphalist tales of Anabaptist history to enter dominant white cultures and poet Raylene Hinz-Penner’s account of Cheyenne Peace Chief Lawrence Hart’s integration of Anabaptist theology with the history of native peoples’ destruction. Tobin Miller Shearer, historian at the University of Montana, examines how a holistic approach inspired by civil rights leader and Mennonite pastor Vincent Harding might help us reimagine Anabaptist history. And Julia Spicher Kasdorf of Penn State University reminds us to take seriously the women of the Reformation. “Don’t dismiss your sisters,” she writes.

Considering the radical demographic changes that over the past decades have remade the global church, Bock Ki Kim, Interim Director of Korea Anabaptist Center and Karl Koop of Canadian Mennonite University warn against Reformation commemorations that privilege Eurocentric accounts of Anabaptism, while equally affirming this opportunity to celebrate. Likewise embracing theological and ethnic diversity, Hannah Heinzekehr, editor of The Mennonite, welcomes a future in which our church’s origin stories are plural and plentiful. Gerald W. Schlabach, theologian at the University of St. Thomas, encourages us to look beyond the Anabaptist fold by considering how Mennonites, Catholics, and others have long influenced each other in ways that defy denominational labels. 

As we remember the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the special issue of Mennonite Life offers a stimulating conversation to join. It is a pleasure to read and think with each of these essays, and I hope that as dialogue continues over the next decade—whether through Mennonite World Conference’s “Renewal 2027” program or via other avenues—the ideas these authors have put forward will offer models for reflection and action. We can surely all agree that those who lived and died five centuries ago experienced the Reformation as an era of peril, opportunity, and fascinating complexity. May the memory of this multifaceted past speak forcefully into our own time of religious and political strife.

Ben Goossen is a historian at Harvard University. He is the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published in 2017 by Princeton University Press.

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