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?
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 challenges—crises 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 talk—and have talked in the past—about 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.
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]
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.