On the Theological Uses of Anabaptist History: A Conversation

Note: The following is a conversation about the theological and ecclesiological uses of Anabaptist history from the perspectives of an early modernist and a modernist

By Christina Moss and Ben Goossen

CM: When the two of us presented on a panel together in June at the Crossing the Line conference at Eastern Mennonite University, one of the recurring themes during the discussion that followed was the ways in which contemporary Anabaptists engage with Anabaptist history. My own period of study, the sixteenth century, encompasses the beginnings of Anabaptism, so it continues to hold a lot of interest for the spiritual descendants of those first Anabaptists. But of course, Anabaptism is a dynamic tradition and has continued to evolve since the sixteenth century. Ben, your research has focused more on Anabaptists in the modern era. How have you found that contemporary Anabaptists engage (or perhaps fail to engage) with more recent Anabaptist history?


The ongoing influence of Harold Bender’s Anabaptist Vision, despite extensive scholarly critique, represents the entanglement of history and theology in Anabaptist communities.

BG: That was a great discussion! One of the insights I have continued to ponder is your comment that Reformation-era Anabaptists lived during a radically different time that, if we are honest with ourselves, may not actually have that much bearing on our twenty-first century context. In my work, I have tried to trace some of the reasons why modern (i.e. nineteenth- and twentieth-century) Anabaptist church leaders, historians, and lay persons have attached such importance to Reformation history.[^1] Frequently, the answer seems to be a search for a “usable past,” in which sixteenth-century stories are brought to bear on more contemporary challengescrises of faith, external threats, shrinking congregations, etc. I might venture that for modern Anabaptists, the study of Reformation history has disproportionately been about modern issues. So in that sense, I would say that truly understanding either modern or early modern Anabaptism would first require deconstructing how we talkand have talked in the pastabout the Reformation. But you’re the sixteenth-century expert; where would you say the historiography falls on this point?

CM: I’ll admit to being much more familiar with how historians talk about sixteenth-century Anabaptists than how contemporary Anabaptist churches and theologians deal with that legacy, but from what I’ve seen there’s definitely a gap, though perhaps there wasn’t always. The dominant narrative in the mid-twentieth century was that cast by Harold Bender in his essay “The Anabaptist Vision.” Bender argued that Anabaptism was a logical culmination of the Reformation principle of sola scriptura. He distinguished between the “original evangelical and constructive Anabaptism,” or “Anabaptism proper,” and “the various mystical, spiritualistic, revolutionary, or even antinomian related and unrelated groups on the other hand.”[^2] The Bender school of Anabaptist history provided churches and theologians with a usable past, but from a historiographical standpoint it was roundly critiqued because it marginalized so many different expressions of sixteenth-century Anabaptism. Later seminal works like James Stayer’s Anabaptists and Sword and Stayer, Werner Packull, and Klaus Deppermann’s article “From Monogenesis to Polygenesis” emphasized the diversity of early Anabaptism, both in terms of theological views and geographical points of origin.[^3] Currently, some historians working on sixteenth-century have confessional commitments of their own and others don’t, but all would agree on their responsibility to explain the beliefs of their subjects as accurately as possible, regardless of whether those views are theologically relevant for contemporary Anabaptists.

I do want to be clear that I don’t think that churches shouldn’t look to the past for theological inspiration. Certainly, as we seek to be faithful in our own context, we can learn from others who sought to be faithful in theirs. But I do think we need to be really careful about it, and honest with ourselves. Often, as people of faith, we approach church history having already made up our mind about a theological question and seeking antecedents in order to validate our position. Take the question of women’s ordination, for instance. There are some truly fascinating women in sixteenth-century Anabaptism, and they are well worth studying, but even the most permissive Anabaptist groups wouldn’t have practiced women’s ordination the way we do in MC Canada and MCUSA churches today. Melchior Hoffman, who enthusiastically affirmed the callings of both male and female prophets, allowed for the possibility that women might also serve as teachers if no qualified men were present.[^4] As notable as this concession was for its time, reluctantly allowing women to serve as a “Plan B” is not a suitable approach to women in ministry for the twenty-first century church. Where legitimate antecedents do exist, they’re certainly worth highlighting to emphasize that there is, and has long been, room in our theological tradition for the views we’re trying to advance. However, our theological forebears weren’t infallible, and, if we sincerely believe that a theological position is worth advocating for, we should do so regardless of whether or not it has precedent, without trying to reshape the theology of our spiritual forebears to better fit our views.

In fact, I believe that reflecting on our theological tradition’s fallibility is perhaps one of the most crucial ways churches can and should engage with church history. Ben, I know that your work has touched on this quite a bit. Could you speak to that here? What does it look like for Anabaptist churches to reckon with our spiritual forebears’ fallibility, and to do so well?

BG: Perhaps we should pull a few theologians into this conversation. It strikes me that history as practiced by Anabaptists has probably always been theological in nature. For many conservative groups, history writing has in the past and continues today to offer an acceptable alternative to more “worldly” disciplines like philosophy and theology—which, in my opinion, makes it a kind of philosophy or theology par excellence. Meanwhile, those of us influenced by or working in the wider academy would, I think, tend to join other professional historians in seeing the practice of history as a means of tracking power relations in the past, often for purposes of altering them in the present. All historians do this according to a guiding (often changing) set of ethical or moral standards; and Anabaptist historians—like practitioners of other religious traditions—might see these standards as emanating specifically from their theological worldviews.


Images and narratives about Reformation-era Anabaptists, such as this etching from Thieleman van Braght’s Martyrs Mirror, have held different resonances among Anabaptist communities over the centuries.

I like your notion of reckoning with past fallibility as a source for spiritual inspiration in our own time. This way of evaluating history both takes seriously the discipline’s fundamentally ethical character and also avoids purely laudatory accounts. That still leaves the question, however, of how to decide what to praise and what to lament. Here I’m thinking of David Weaver-Zercher’s excellent new book, Martyrs Mirror: A Social History, which examines how Anabaptists of various stripes have read and interpreted Thieleman van Braght’s famous seventeenth-century martyrology over the past four centuries.[^5] Weaver-Zercher persuasively argues that despite vastly different contexts and hermeneutics, Anabaptist readers have consistently seen the Martyrs Mirror as a tool for measuring their own communities’ faithfulness (understood in different ways), against the faithfulness of Reformation-era Anabaptists. Such a practice already depends on the construction of a theologically-grounded narrative dichotomy, which in this case presents Anabaptist martyrs as heroic and their Catholic and Protestant persecutors as fallen.

So I think the issue is less whether our histories—scholarly or popular—should or should not emphasize past fallibility; they do so inherently. Rather, the more significant question might be how closely that fallibility is associated with historical actors with whom we might be inclined to identify, especially “spiritual forebears,” as you put it. Displacing fallibility exclusively or mostly onto others can be appealing, but doing so tends to render the actions of our historical role models unimpeachable, in turn making it difficult to criticize the male-dominated gender relations of the early Anabaptists, to pick up on your example, or to recognize how contemporary discourses of peacemaking, discernment, and process can disadvantage LGBTQ members today. For me, one the basic purposes of Anabaptist history is to recognize when Anabaptism as a denomination or identity is invoked to disadvantage or marginalize others. Often, Anabaptism as an idea is so positively connoted in our minds—or in the minds of historical actors—that preserving its honor, unity, or very existence takes precedence over advocating for the needs of women, queer folks, people of color, or any other number of people. Thus I see recent work around gender, labor, and race by Felipe Hinojosa, Stephanie Krehbiel, Tobin Miller Shearer, and Janis Thiessen, among many others, as vitally important in the task of keeping us skeptical and honest about a faith we have chosen and a past we have not.[^6]


Recent scholarship on Anabaptism in both the early modern and modern periods, such as this edited collection, owe much to non-Anabaptist historians.

In some ways, that brings us back to theology. Christina, I’d be fascinated to know how early modernists like yourself navigate disciplinary boundaries and even professional relationships within the discipline of history, where some practitioners identify as religious and others do not. I’m also wondering what sources Anabaptist and non-Anabaptist historians of the Reformation have drawn upon to develop the moral-theological lenses that they use and have used to evaluate past actions and events—scripture, revelation, arguments and texts developed during the sixteenth century?

CM: In my experience, the scholarly relationship between scholars of different religious affiliations (or non-affiliations) who study early modern Anabaptism has been really fruitful. We bring different questions, interests, and perspectives to the material at times, but we learn so much from each other. The field has been incredibly enriched both by historians who are rooted in contemporary Anabaptist communities and historians who aren’t. For instance, we know quite a bit more about Spiritualists and apocalyptically-minded Anabaptists thanks to the work of scholars who don’t belong to contemporary Anabaptist faith communities. If anything, I see less tension between Anabaptist and non-Anabaptist historians than has sometimes existed between Anabaptist historians and Anabaptist theologians. The debate between Denny Weaver and Arnold Snyder after the release of Anabaptist History and Theology comes to mind.[^7] Essentially, Weaver argued that Snyder had written a skewed historical survey of sixteenth-century Anabaptism that “[opened] the door to the accommodation of violence rather than seeing the rejection of violence as theologically normative.”[^8] Snyder, however, pointed out Weaver’s critique was historically insubstantial, since he failed to demonstrate from the sources how Snyder’s reading was skewed.[^9]

Personally, as someone who is both an active member of a faith community and a historian, I try as much as possible to separate out my historian and theologian hats. As a historian, my job is to be as faithful as I can to the source material—treatises, letters, court records—and to represent the views of the people I study as clearly and accurately as possible. It’s only after I’ve done that work that I can bring out my inner armchair theologian and start asking questions like “Is this a useful model for the Church today?” or “Does this Scriptural interpretation have the potential to lead to human flourishing?” The latter question gets at the heart of the moral/theological lens I’ve personally come to adopt when sifting through approaches to faith and Scriptural interpretation, but that’s highly individual and different scholars and people of faith often come in with different considerations.

BG: Your suggestion that our understanding of early modern Anabaptism has been enriched by dialogue with historians of various (or no) faith traditions is fascinating. It rings true to me for the modernist period as well. Non-Anabaptist scholars have done vital work to situate modern Anabaptist history within larger trends and contexts, often showing that Mennonites, Amish, Brethren, and others are not really as unusual or disconnected from the world as we’d sometimes like to think, but thereby also helping to make true instances of uniqueness all the more significant. More broadly, the integration of modern Anabaptist history into Marxist scholarship, gender analysis, or the so-called social and cultural “turns,” to name only a few important examples, has been possible only because of broader developments emerging from many voices across the academy and beyond. Each of these intellectual and methodological movements has further allowed us to see Anabaptist history as multiple, contested, and endlessly interesting. 

I’d like to thank you, Christina, for initiating this conversation, which I think demonstrates how dialogue between early modernists and modernists—like exchange between disciplines or across religious lines—can illuminate anew topics we thought we knew well. I’d be excited to see more such discussions in the future, and of course I look forward to reading more of your ongoing work and to thinking about how it can inform modernists’ thinking and writing about Anabaptist history. 

CM: Thank you so much for your willingness to take part in this conversation! It’s so important to keep having these discussions, both as historians and as members of faith communities.

Christina Moss is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Waterloo studying Anabaptist prophets in sixteenth-century Strasbourg. Ben Goossen is a historian at Harvard University and the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published in 2017 by Princeton University Press.


7 thoughts on “On the Theological Uses of Anabaptist History: A Conversation

  1. Thanks for this conversation, I found it really interesting and useful as neither a historian or a theologian, but someone interested in both topics. Ben, I’m particularly intrigued by what you say here: “Meanwhile, those of us influenced by or working in the wider academy would, I think, tend to join other professional historians in seeing the practice of history as a means of tracking power relations in the past, often for purposes of altering them in the present.”

    Could you expand on this? Power relations seem central to me as I look at the early Anabaptists as well and as I think about what we can learn from them today.


  2. When I returned from my first visit to Mennonites in Manitoba in the early 1970s I gave a paper to the Social Anthropology Seminar at Oxford on “Who are the Mennonites?” About ten years later I published the paper under the same title, (Who are the Mennonites? Archives Européennes Sociologie, 24, 1983, 241-62). On pp. 256-57 (see below) I raise some of the issues discussed in this blog. Perhaps, as they say, there is nothing new under the sun.

    “In the U.S.A. the ‘Swiss’ and ‘south-German’ Mennonites who had migrated to the Americas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries cared little for national identity but during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries they were concerned about their place in America’s religious community. The problem became critical as Mennonites faced the dual challenge of American liberalism and religious revivalism. Like their Russian brethren the American Mennonites were transformed in the nineteenth century as educational and religious reforms were introduced. To maintain their religion the Mennonites from the late 1920s onwards investigated the history of their faith and the origin of their communities. They hoped to develop from this research a distinctive theology which would separate them historically and ideologically from other ‘Protestant’ denominations. They discovered an ‘Anabaptist’ past.

    The search for ‘Anabaptist’ origins was both historical research and theological revelation. Scholars from the 1940s onwards attempted to define the fundamental essence of ‘Anabaptism’ to revitalize Mennonite faith in the present. But each scholar had a different view of the real ‘Anabaptist’ essence. The debate though became meaningless, for the term ‘Anabaptist’ was a catch-all phrase for something distinctly ‘Mennonite’ in theology and church practice. Exactly what it was no longer important, only that it existed and could justify differences between Mennonites and other religious groups in the past and the present.

    It took some time for the idea of ‘Anabaptism’ to filter through to ordinary Mennonites but the establishment of Mennonite higher educational institutions, the development of Mennonite publishing, particularly English-language newspapers, helped to spread the concept. By the 1970s young Canadian Mennonites often discussed religious, social and political issues in terms of ‘Anabaptism’ though they used, and continue to use, the word in a very simplistic manner. However, the term now has developed its own meaning, somewhat independent of continuing historical scholarship. It is a search back to origins, to a safe foundation not unlike the claims of many of the Reformation figures who themselves looked back to the early Christian church for models of religious behaviour and community organisation.

    The appeal of both ethnicity and ‘Anabaptism’ is that are distinctly Mennonite and the distinctiveness is derived from historical experiences. Through ‘Anabaptism’ Mennonites discovered a ‘theological’ origin and putative kinship connections with early Anabaptist individuals. Just as today kinship links most Mennonites in Canada, so too are they united with their ‘Anabaptist’ ancestors. Later history explains their distinctive ethnic identity.”


  3. Hi Tim – thanks for following up on this; I’d of course be curious to know what others have to say about this, as I’m not sure that all or most professional historians of Anabaptism would see the tracking of power relations as a primary mode of evaluating the past, but this is my general sense of how historians in the academy broadly conceived have understood their task for the past several decades – the absorption of postmodern approaches and particular the writings of Foucault deeply influenced major historiographical trends from social and women’s history to environmental history, although Marxist-oriented traditions had a much longer history of viewing history in a similar way. By contrast, other ways of evaluating the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in history might include nationalist modes of storytelling, in which the good of a given country is considered first and foremost, or a progressive view of history in which the general ‘development’ of humankind toward a particular teleological view is considered. Famously Francis Fukuyama was still arguing for this in the 1990s when he declared that the triumph of the liberal welfare state signaled the ‘end of history.’ There is a separate question about whether Christian / religious historians fit within this trajectory, and if so whether they do so for the same reasons as their secular colleagues. The rise of the social gospel and of liberation theology offer two possible points of during which Christian historians would have imported power relations as a rubric into their historical worldviews. But whatever the timeline, it’s definitely worth noting that not all people, including Anabaptists, would have seen the world (or see it now) through this lens, so evaluating history from this perspective requires acknowledging a distinction between ‘etic’ and ’emic’ views. For instance, Brad Gregory has persuasively argued in his book, Salvation at Stake, that Anabaptist martyrs in the 16th century probably considered death for their principles to be more important that this-worldly justice – so for them, faithfulness was more important than just power relations, or at the very least, their notions of ‘power’ and ‘relations’ were different that we might assume from a 21st century perspective. Christina might have some additional thoughts here on what ‘justice’ meant to sixteenth-century Anabaptists – and how historians have chosen to evaluate Reformation history over the decades.

    James, thanks for mentioning your longstanding work on Mennonite faith, history, and identity, including the excerpt from your 1983 paper “Who are the Mennonites?” Your groundbreaking scholarship on nearly all aspects of community and political life among European-descended Mennonites continues to shape how Mennonites and others think and write about ‘Anabaptism,’ whatever that means, and its adherents. This is certainly true for me. You know I agree with the timeline you present here of Mennonite ‘ethnic’ identity being more or less invented, at least as a self-conscious descriptor’ by prominent church leaders and historians in the mid-twentieth century, particularly the late 1940s, although I would actually put efforts to discover an Anabaptist essence somewhat earlier, as discussed in the second chapter of my book, Chosen Nation. The same type of denominational activists were busy building an imagined and rather simplified confessional past during the late nineteenth century in Imperial Germany, although at that time the preferred term was Ludwig Keller’s ‘Old Evangelical,’ rather than Anabaptism per se. But the scholarship produced by Hermann Mannhardt, Antje Brons, Carl Harder, and company proved influential for the more numerous and now better remembered historians and theologians you discuss in twentieth century North America. Nevertheless, regardless of the timing, I would still think that describing the invention of an imagined Anabaptist past could be considered the start of an interesting discussion that still has a number of places to go. For example, I understand from Christina’s comments above that current Reformation historiography is considerably more nuanced than your characterization of Bender et al., raising questions about how history and theology interact in the context of greater scholarly complexity. Also, I’ll repeat that I think theology (either Christian or otherwise, including secular) and history are at a basic level inseparable for all historians, suggesting that if a simplistic link between Anabaptist faith and certain narratives of Mennonite history in the twentieth century, historians and others now have a corrective responsibility to construct a more meaningful historical-theological framework going forward.


    • My paper was concerned primarily with Canadian Mennonites, particularly those who came to Canada in the 1920s – the so-called Russlaender and their descendants – and why they seemed keen, in the 1970s to ask me, an outsider, what I thought their identity was. It was not concerned with writing a history of the “rediscovery “ of an Anabaptist past or the origins of that search.

      Context, as you suggest, is important and that applies to all aspects of understanding pasts, that of people and of scholarship.


    • Thanks for elaborating, Ben! To your comment on what justice would have meant to sixteenth-century Anabaptists, it depends on the sixteenth-century Anabaptists. Gregory’s points certainly hold for many, but others were very concerned with worldly justice. The Anabaptist prophet Lienhard Jost, for instance, is very concerned with convincing Strasbourg’s city council to “take up the banner of godly righteousness” and govern justly.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Something so very odd to see a discusssion among confesssional historians of Anabaptism swallowed by musings about “power relations,” the invention of a Mennonite identity,” and the “corrective responsibility” of historians “to construct a more meaningful historical-theological framework going forward.”

    Perhaps I am missing something (I am not an historian either!) because I find the condescension and elitism revealed here as both unattractive and unnerving. Don’t we know by now that the deconstructionist M.O. leads inexorably to the kind of world our neo-con, imperial masters have ordained? Why do you so cheerfully contribute your talents to that dystopian effort?


  5. Nov. 29 in its online edition, Mennonite World Review published an op-ed by Martin E. Marty on the Anabaptist wing of the Reformation. It’s worth reading before following Goossen into his project of re-inventing our “invented” history. URL here: http://mennoworld.org/2017/11/29/the-world-together/did-the-anabaptist-reformers-win/

    Marty borrows from another insightful essay on the same topic–Peter Mommsen’s “The Church We Need Now.” It was published in the autumn issue of Plough. URL here: https://www.plough.com/en/topics/faith/anabaptists/the-church-we-need-now


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