New Approaches to the Radical Reformation: Report from the Sixteenth Century Society & Conference 2018

The annual meeting of the Sixteenth Century Society & Conference (SCSC) is the principal forum in which North American (and, to a much lesser extent, European) historians of the Radical Reformation and early modern Anabaptists present fresh results from their research. In these subject areas, the most recent meeting, held in Albuquerque from November 1-4, featured the broadest participation and widest range of research topics since I began attending in 2011. The following is a brief report of the conference, by no means comprehensive but focused on salient questions and themes around which research energies are focused.

A plenary roundtable on “New Approaches to the Radical Reformation,” organized by Geoff Dipple (University of Alberta, Augustana) and sponsored by the Society for Reformation Research, centered discussion around definitions and methods. The most provocative proposal came from Michael Driedger (Brock University), who suggested that historians discard altogether the session’s organizing principle, the Radical Reformation, as a historical phenomenon or framework for research. In his view, the category is inescapably problematic. It reflects early modern majorities’ descriptions of nonconformists too closely, a point Jim Stayer reinforced in his engaging historiographical survey. Instead, Driedger proposes studying post-Reformation religious radicalism as a sociological phenomenon which, once outlined, can be compared with other radicalisms across time and space. Amy Nelson-Burnett (University of Nebraska, Lincoln) echoed Driedger’s critique of the concept of Radical Reformation, suggesting that her work tracing patterns of dissent in early Reformation debates about the sacraments embeds “radicals” in the messy middle, rather than on the margins, of a broader conversation. Kat Hill (Birkbeck College, University of London) also spoke of the benefits of comparative analysis and of reevaluating Anabaptism in light of the insights of post-colonial history or the history of sexuality, for example. However, she highlighted the importance of “holding the difference” or, in other words, finding ways to emphasize features which distinguished specific “radical” communities from their neighbors and shaped a set of unique group identities over the long term. In keeping with this observation, one suggestion of my own contribution was that distinctive Anabaptist religious cultures remain legible in archival collections, despite the distorting effects of early modern and modern record-producing and -keeping practices.

Challenges to the categorization of post-Reformation radicalism in works like George H. Williams’ Radical Reformation (1962) are not new. Nonetheless, this framework remains durable–it continues to bring together scholars (at conferences like the SCSC) who work on topics of research which would otherwise be only loosely connected. Thus, the roundtable, and the question period, brought to the surface a series of important questions. If we were to take Driedger’s proposition seriously, what would be gained and lost? With which larger conceptual frameworks would we be left that might bring our interests together? Would there be any value in keeping a shared conversation among this group of scholars going, at least as intensively as we have done? There are not only historiographical consequences to how these issues are addressed, but also implications for the networks that historians of the early Reformation and Anabaptist religious cultures build and maintain.

Subsequent sessions provided a type of response to these questions. On the one hand, sets of papers illustrated the curious pairing of topics that an organizing concept like the Radical Reformation produces. Presenters forwarded engaging arguments about early modern catechisms, English Baptist views of natural wonders, and the development of Anabaptist masculinities, but it was not immediately clear how to synthesize or connect these findings. At the same time, the richness and breadth of fresh research projects suggested a renewed vitality in the field. In addition to engaging presentations on the intellectual history of the early Reformation, participants addressed issues of gender and the family, migration and mobility, archives, and material culture. Papers exhibited experimentation with new approaches to evidence and an alteration of familiar chronological and geographical parameters into which the history of Anabaptists has fallen.

Most encouraging is that this research really demonstrates the type of deep engagement and comparative work with broader scholarly debates that roundtable discussants had promoted. As a result, historians of “radicals” and Anabaptists are bringing new conversation partners into their ongoing discussions–as demonstrated by significantly increased attendance at and participation in these sessions. Perhaps broadening interest in this body of research should not surprise, given shared and growing concerns around majority-minority interactions, mobility and migration, and the nature and consequences of cultural and religious difference. This elevated level of engagement might event serve as an argument in favor of holding on to the Radical Reformation for a bit longer, even if only to keep these fruitful interchanges going.

List of Presentations

Inevitably, each presentation’s richness is lost in the report above. This list provides names of presenters and presentation titles, hinting at the variety in papers’ contents and approaches.

  • Bonikowske, Adam M. (University of Arizona) “Anabaptist Masculinity and Civic Refusals in Southern Germany and Switzerland: Revisiting Gender History”
  • Davis, Cory D. (University of Arizona) “That Our Manors May Be Rebuilt: Palatine Landlords and Toleration of Anabaptist Immigrants, 1650-1672”
  • Dipple, Geoffrey (University of Alberta, Augustana) “What were Hans Denck and Ludwig Hätzer doing in Worms in 1527?”
  • Lowe, Jessica C. (Vanderbilt University) “Inheritors of the Radical Reformation? Children of Münster Anabaptists and Dialogues around Dispossession”
  • Hill, Katherine (Birkbeck College, University of London) “Pottery Wars: Materials Cultures in Anabaptist Communities and Diasporic Identity”
  • Lambert, Erin (University of Virginia) “The ‘Gospel of All Creatures’ Reconsidered: Late Medieval Mysticism and the Early Reformation”
  • Martinuzzi, Chris (DePaul University) “Attitudes towards Turks, Jews, and Heathens in the Works and Correspondence of Early Reformers and Anabaptists”
  • Nelson Burnett, Amy (University of Nebraska, Lincoln) “Culture of Persuasion or Streitkultur?: The Flensburg Disputation of 1529”
  • Neufeld, David Y. (University of Arizona) “Knowledge Production and Repressive Action: Anabaptist-Reformed Relations in Zurich’s Archives”
  • Randolph, Jacob B. (Baylor University) “Polemic as Catechesis: Instruction and Opposition in the First Anabaptist Catechism”
  • Smith, Joshua C. Smith (Baylor University) “Whirlwinds, Sudden Death, and an Army of Toads: Baptist Prodigies of the 1660s”
  • Vice, Roy L. (Wright State University) “Reading the ‘Twelve Articles’ to the Rebels of 1525”
  • Zhao, Julia Q. (University of Notre Dame) “‘I have already died’: Baptism and Conversion in Early Anabaptist Martyrdom Literature”

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