New Research on Early Modern Religious Radicalism: A Report from the 2019 SCSC

From October 17-20, the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference held its annual meeting in St. Louis, Missouri. Over the past several years, the so-called Radical Reformation has been a topic of considerable discussion at SCSC annual meetings, as scholars (chief among them Michael Driedger) have challenged the applicability of term, which suggests a more coherent and unified movement than actually existed in the sixteenth century and hews too closely to the descriptions promulgated by the radicals’ contemporary opponents.1 As such, scholars who write on individuals and groups on the margins of the Reformations have been forced to grapple with the labels they apply to their objects of study. While the terminology used remains in a state of flux, the study of religious radicals, whether Anabaptist, Anabaptist-adjacent, or wholly unconnected to Anabaptism, continues to generate considerable interest, as was evident at this year’s gathering.

The conference took place at the Hyatt Regency in downtown St. Louis, near the Arch and the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis.

The Society for Reformation Research sponsored two panels on the subject. The first of these, entitled Mysticism, Dissent, and Rejection of the Ecclesiastical Order, included papers by Roy Vice (Wright State University), Christopher Martinuzzi (DePaul University), Marvin Anderson (University of Toronto), and Archie MacGregor (Marquette University). Vice’s paper, entitled “The Peasants’ War and the Jews,” examined the ways in which peasant revolutionaries—though their principal targets were their ecclesiastical overlords—also targeted Jews, particularly those who worked as moneylenders and pawnbrokers.2 Martinuzzi’s paper, entitled “Why Did Conrad Grebel Write to Thomas Müntzer in 1524?,” argued that Grebel’s letter appealed to a shared identity as a persecuted minority. Both Grebel and Müntzer saw the persecution they experienced as proof of their faithfulness.3 Anderson’s paper, entitled “‘Hidden Under a Bench:’ The Radicals’ Retrieval of the Inner Word à la Eckhartian and Taulerian Mysticism” revisited how Karlstadt and Müntzer appropriated the mystical notion of the Inner Word in contrast to Luther’s Outer Word, in light of Luther’s rhetorical lament about how the pure and Holy Word of God had been shoved and “hidden under a bench,” a charge he directed against the medieval church as well as Karlstadt and the Radicals.4 MacGregor’s paper, entitled “‘Take, Then, the Body of the Lord:’ the Unusual Liturgy and Theology of Thomas Müntzer,” examined Müntzer’s liturgy and argued that it demonstrated a conservative sacramental theology (particularly in its elevation of the Eucharist, which suggests that Müntzer may have retained belief in the Real Presence in some form).5

The second sponsored panel, entitled Constructions of Radicalism in the Long Sixteenth Century, included papers from Jonathan Trayner (University of Reading), Adam Bonikowske (University of Arizona), and Jessica Lowe (Vanderbilt University). Trayner’s paper, entitled “The Sword in the Ragged Sheath: The Motif of the Peasant Radical in Sixteenth-Century Prints,” examined how images of swords in damaged sheaths—emblematic of peasants—were used in early modern prints, in both positive and negative depictions connoting alternately sexuality, conflict, and deference.6 Bonikowske’s paper, entitled “Anabaptist Recanters: Masculine Identity and the Maintenance of Dishonor,” argued that the penalties imposed on Anabaptist men who recanted—such as inability to bear arms or do business, or visible marks of shame like placards or brands—were designed to insult their masculine honour.7 Lowe’s paper, entitled “Münster but not Münster: A Case of Property Dispossession and Anabaptist Contention in the 1550s,” examined a lawsuit brought by Heinrich auf dem Berg, field marshal of Essen and accused Anabaptist (a charge he now denied) against his sister and brother-in-law for appropriating his home during his imprisonment. Heinrich’s case was an unusual example—it was more the children of Anabaptists, rather than the accused Anabaptists themselves, who sued for the return of property.8

In addition to the two sponsored panels, several other panels featured individual papers of interest to scholars and enthusiasts of the phenomena formerly known as the Radical Reformation. At a roundtable entitled Rewriting Reformation Textbooks, Geoffrey Dipple (University of Alberta, Augustana) addressed the challenges of talking about radicalism in the Reformations in light of recent critiques of “The Radical Reformation” as a concept. In a panel on charity and poor relief, David Y. Neufeld (Conrad Grebel University College) gave a paper entitled “‘Under the Guise of Christian Charity:’ Anabaptist Responses to Poverty in Reformed Zurich, 1570-1650,” in which he described the voluntary systems of charity that Zurich’s Anabaptists developed in parallel with the Reformed State (which saw those systems as a threat and worked to dismantle them.9 Patrick Hayden-Roy (Nebraska Wesleyan University) gave a paper entitled “Everything Falls Apart: Sebastian Franck’s Vision of the Apocalypse” as part of a panel on Protestants and Mysticism in Reformation Europe, in which he detailed Franck’s pessimistic view of human history. Franck saw human institutions as irredeemably evil, and the best hope of the faithful lay in quiet submission to this evil order of the world until God finally destroyed it all.10 Finally, in a panel on Trajectories of the European Reformation: Disputation, Biography, and Martyrdom, Jennifer Otto (University of Lethbridge) gave a paper entitled Ethics and Exhortation to Martyrdom, which compared the Church Fathers’ writings on martyrdom and Menno Simons’ writing on martyrdom in The Cross of the Saints. While Church Fathers such as Origen had urged caution, viewing martyrdom as the path of a chosen few, The Cross of the Saints presented the risk of martyrdom as the norm for all true Christians.11

Even as we struggle to find a new name for it, this is an exciting time for our subfield of Reformation history. The lives and beliefs of Anabaptists and others on the fringes of the Reformations in the sixteenth century continue to provide ample opportunities to ask new questions and pursue new avenues of research.


  1. Christina Moss, “Current Research on Early Modern Anabaptist and Spiritualist History: A Report from the 2016 SCSC,” Anabaptist Historians: Bringing the Anabaptist Past Into A Digital Century, published September 15, 2016, https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2016/09/15/current-research-on-early-modern-anabaptist-and-spiritualist-history-a-report-from-the-2016-scsc/; David Y. Neufeld, “New Approaches to the Radical Reformation: Report from the Sixteenth Century Society & Conference 2018,” Anabaptist Historians: Bringing the Anabaptist Past Into A Digital Century, published November 24, 2018, https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2018/11/24/new-approaches-to-the-radical-reformation-report-from-the-sixteenth-century-society-conference-2018/  
  2. Roy Vice, “The Peasants’ War and the Jews” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, St. Louis, Missouri, October 17-20, 2019).  
  3. Christopher Martinuzzi, “Why Did Conrad Grebel Write to Thomas Müntzer in 1524?” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, St. Louis, Missouri, October 17-20, 2019).  
  4. Marvin Anderson, “‘Hidden Under a Bench:’ The Radicals’ Retrieval of the Inner Word à la Eckhartian and Taulerian Mysticism” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, St. Louis, Missouri, October 17-20, 2019).  
  5. Archie MacGregor, “‘Take, Then, the Body of the Lord:’ the Unusual Liturgy and Theology of Thomas Müntzer” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, St. Louis, Missouri, October 17-20, 2019).  
  6. Jonathan Trayner, “The Sword in the Ragged Sheath: The Motif of the Peasant Radical in Sixteenth-Century Prints” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, St. Louis, Missouri, October 17-20, 2019).  
  7. Adam Bonikowske, “Anabaptist Recanters: Masculine Identity and the Maintenance of Dishonor,” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, St. Louis, Missouri, October 17-20, 2019).  
  8. Jessica Lowe, “Münster but not Münster: A Case of Property Dispossession and Anabaptist Contention in the 1550s” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, St. Louis, Missouri, October 17-20, 2019).  
  9. David Y. Neufeld, “‘Under the Guise of Christian Charity:’ Anabaptist Responses to Poverty in Reformed Zurich, 1570-1650” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, St. Louis, Missouri, October 17-20, 2019).  
  10. Patrick Hayden-Roy, “Everything Falls Apart: Sebastian Franck’s Vision of the Apocalypse” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, St. Louis, Missouri, October 17-20, 2019).  
  11. Jennifer Otto, “Ethics and the Exhortation to Martyrdom” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, St. Louis, Missouri, October 17-20, 2019).  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.