Medieval and Early Modern Echoes in QAnon: A Conversation with Gary Waite

Over the course of his career, Gary Waite has published widely on Dutch Anabaptism, witchcraft, Jews and Muslims in Early Modern Europe and taught courses on the same at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. In March, I had a conversation with him, excerpted below, about how he sees these topics reflected in the modern QAnon movement.

On Anti-Semitism in Premodern Europe and in QAnon

GW: As an historian of anti-Semitism and its development, I see all of these things interconnecting in QAnon. It’s not that the members of QAnon or whoever is the leader of QAnon is aware of all of these predecessors, but they’re clearly continuing to shape how these people are thinking. And some of the some of the stuff in the Q Anon is hundreds of years old and goes back to the medieval anti-Semitic tropes of a vast global conspiracy of Jews plotting the overthrow of Christendom.

CM: Now with space Laser Tech.

GW: Now with space lasers and drinking the blood of children. They’ve just made it a more modern version with this extract from children’s blood that the celebrities of Hollywood, i.e., the Jewish conspiracy group, are supposedly consuming to extend their lives.1 Jews were accused of ritual murder of Christian infants starting in the twelfth century in England and spreading from there to the continent and continuing on into the twentieth century. In case after case after case, a Christian child may go missing or someone says a child’s gone missing, it may not actually be a real child, and the Jews are rounded up and tortured into confessing that they have kidnapped his child, that they do this globally as an organized conspiracy against Christendom. They pick one place in Europe every year to kidnap a Christian child and that child stands in for Christ. And according to these Christians, that child represents Christ by virtue of its innocence, and therefore the Jews want to kill Christ over and over again. But they also want the blood of the infant for their various nefarious things, so they bleed it to ritually murder the child, and then they are almost always caught afterwards. Even the use of the of the blood is very similar to what I see in the QAnon propaganda, that fear that children are being kidnapped for their blood to extend the life of the drinker. It’s the same kind of argument made against Jews that they needed it to, not so much extend their life, but to remove the odor that they were apparently born with, to remove the horns that Jewish males were supposed to be born with and that sort of thing. Just absolutely bizarre beliefs that were taken seriously by Christians and led to the deaths of countless numbers of Jews and the destruction of Jewish communities. The expulsion of Jews from England in 1290 was based largely on ritual murder accusations. The last known ritual murder accusation in Europe was in 1948 in Poland. So it even survived the Second World War and the Holocaust.2 So that’s just one strand.

How did that get to modern America to such an extent that parents, all these adults who joined QAnon think there’s a grand conspiracy against their children, even though the children aren’t disappearing in the numbers that are alleged? Well, it’s become part of—I won’t say subconscious, but I think it’s just wrapped up into the fabric of European/North American discourse and beliefs. It’s in fairy tales and it’s also there in a lot of Christian preachers who disseminate this kind of conspiratorial thinking. It’s kept alive in the propaganda of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century, in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which still is a best seller in parts of the world. So all this stuff resides below the surface, all this anti-Semitism and all this conspiratorial thinking, and it just keeps popping up almost every generation we see a new variant, and this is just the latest one.

There’s also elements of racism in Q Anon. It arose when there was a black president in power and a lot of what’s been happening is a reaction against having a person of color in the highest office of the land. And of course—and this is one of the points I make in one of my books on Christian views of Jews and Muslims in the seventeenth century—one of the major determinants of how a population responds to others such as Jews or Muslims is the attitude and the statements made by those at the top, the political elite.3 And in the Dutch case, the Regents and magistrates of the realm said, “yeah, it’s okay to have Jews, they’re fine as long as they don’t cause any trouble, and we’ll start negotiating with Muslims” and they set a tone of acceptance of religious diversity, which included Mennonites and Catholics even to a point, and various others. Refugees started flooding into the Dutch Republic because of this and the magistrates said: “we will treat everyone equally, even though they are not all citizens, we will treat them as if they are.” And they said that about Jews. Jews could not be citizens, “but we will treat them as if they are,” and that really set a tone. So when I went through all of the propaganda and pamphlets and the news sheets and so on of the period, I found very little of the kind of anti-Semitism that you can see from the English side or the German side, and it’s the leadership at the top. And when you get a guy like Trump who believes in conspiracy theories, who’s got a racist, white supremacist streak through him, who loves to cater to the worst of American fears and anxieties, then of course you’re going to get all of these conspirators, white supremacists, racism suddenly coming back up to the surface where it had been suppressed beforehand. It’s people’s desire to know the future, to have someone to lead them in a way that they can feel confident in the future.

And the pandemic…Disease outbreaks almost invariably lead to targeting of others, typically the Jews. I just lectured this week on the Jews being targeted as responsible for disease outbreak in southern France in 1321, and the King of France used that to get money from the Jews. Then when the plague strikes in 1347, 1348, suddenly it’s the people who are saying the Jews are responsible and without any kind of organization they go to the Jewish communities and they burn them down. So this notion that others are to blame whenever there’s an epidemic of any kind is still with us, and I think that has really exacerbated everything. And it’s interesting, it’s nerve wracking to be an historian watching this stuff happening on the news every night. It is really, really strange. I like to study the past. I don’t want to live the same kind of stuff that I study though.

Anderson Cooper interviews a former QAnon supporter.
Image source: https://www.cnn.com/videos/us/2021/01/30/anderson-cooper-former-qanon-supporter-special-report-sot-ac360-vpx.cnn

On QAnon and Early Modern Fears of the Devil and Witches

GW: I think Q Anon comes out of that particular form of American evangelicalism, which emphasizes the literal interpretation of prophecies and the Scriptures themselves, and especially the devil, or Satan…I know most modern people don’t believe the devil is real, but I think a lot of people still fear that there is this malign figure. And as Elaine Pagels wrote years ago in her book, The Origin of Satan, the devil was created by Christians in the way that we know him—there was Lucifer and Satan before in the Old Testament—but the devil that the Christians developed and that really became big in the later Middle Ages and in the early modern period is a creation of the need of Christians to target another group, the Jews, to prove to the Romans that it’s the Jews that deserve to be punished in AD 70 because of their father, the devil, and that Christians are distinct from it.4 And the devil plays that role. The devil allows one group to create a self identity that we are of the good, we are of God, you are of the devil. There seems to be a need for people to have these binary opposites so that we’re good and they’re evil, and so the groups that emphasize the reality of the devil—if you believe that the devil is real, as I said before, just about anything can be possible.

CM: And it allows you to say, if you have, you know family members or people you really love on the other side, it allows you to say “it’s not that they’re fundamentally evil. They’re taken over. It’s not them, it’s Satan.” And you need to try to rescue them.

GW: There were, even in the early modern period, as you know with the witch hunts, they identified two sets of victims of the devil—there were several, but two relating to witchcraft. One were witches who made a voluntary pact with the devil and therefore didn’t deserve any mercy. But there were those who were possessed by demons involuntarily, and therefore they were treated differently. So there were a lot of times when the jurists and the preachers and the medical personnel were trying to distinguish, is this person possessed by demons, and therefore we treat them with an exorcism? Or is this a person who’s made a pact with the devil? And we would like to think we don’t ask those questions anymore, but we do. In the Atlantic magazine just recently there was a long article on the rise of demonic possession and how the demand for exorcism in the United States is on the increase.5 And then this pandemic has simply escalated those anxieties that there is some malign thing out there that is causing this and we need to do something to protect ourselves and our children. And QAnon—every time I see all their signs saying that there are pedophiles who are drinking the blood of children I say here we go again, because in the witch hunts it was fears of what was happening to children, mysterious deaths of children, kidnapping of children, that led to parents and the authorities taking this very, very seriously, when otherwise they wouldn’t take these accusations seriously. I mean, these are learned people who, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries actually came to believe that women were getting on broomsticks—I know this is part of the stereotype, but this is this is in court records and learned discourse—and flying to a distant Sabbath meeting (there’s the Jews again) to worship the devil and to cause harm to children.6 It is such a powerful force, this parental drive to protect children, that all you have to do is say “they are kidnapping your children, we need to do something and you can get people involved who would not normally believe this stuff because their children are at risk. You saw that with the ritual murder panics of the 1980s and 90s.7 It was like the witch hunts had come back, that there were these groups of Satan worshippers who were kidnapping children and ritually murdering them in front of other children and worshipping the devil. And you would say nobody would believe that, except dozens, hundreds of social workers, prosecutors, police, and so on did believe it. Because of the fear that this is involving children. So using leading questions they got children to answer in the right way that yes, they saw a child being ritually murdered and people were arrested and put on trial and jailed, including Canadians—Richard Klassen out in Saskatchewan about fifteen years ago won a wrongful prosecution suit against the government of Saskatchewan based on the testimony of children.8 And so when I look at that and then I look at the early modern witch hunts and the role of children in making confessions, it’s like we haven’t changed. The dynamic remains that if our children are threatened, it doesn’t matter if there’s any truth to the matter, we will go and defend them.

And in all the cases in the Satanic ritual abuse cases, in the investigation reports after the fact…they could not find any evidence that any of the children had actually gone missing. There’s no correspondence between missing children and the alleged events, no evidence that any children were being killed. And the same thing was happening in many cases in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. My favourite example is the Spanish Inquisition’s one and only witch panic, started around 1610 when two of the three Spanish inquisitors got involved in listening to women who were saying that they had been to a witches’ Sabbath just across the border in France. And that snowballed as these two inquisitors took seriously the testimony not just of adults but increasingly of children. And they would interrogate the children in such a way, ask them leading questions. Of course the children are going to respond to that. And so they ended up with hundreds of children as part of this ongoing investigation, and everybody is concerned that their children are being taken to the witches’ Sabbath to be sacrificed to the devil. The third inquisitor, Alonso de Salazar Frías, joins them finally. This team was supposed to always be three inquisitors in a local investigation, and so he finally joins. At the start he was supporting it and then he began to rethink and said “wait a minute, what is the evidence here?” And the Spanish Inquisition, to its credit, emphasized hard evidence. If you’re going to convict someone of a crime like witchcraft, you need evidence. What kind of evidence do you have? A confession in your own words is it. Eyewitnesses? Well, the only eyewitnesses to someone going to a witches’ Sabbath would be somebody already at the witches Sabbath, therefore you’re a witch, therefore your testimony does not count. So there’s always a problem. So he said, “no, I’m going to conduct my own investigation.” He went back to the facts, he reinvestigated thousands of confessions and depositions, he went and he talked to all of the children, but without the leading questions, and he finally wrote up a report that he sent to the Suprema, the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition, saying “there’s not a single shred of evidence that there’s been any act of witchcraft or any abuse of children in all of this, I recommend we put a halt to it.” The Suprema agreed, and in 1614 it said release all the prisoners. There were about two thousand people waiting trial and burning on these charges and because this one guy had doubts about it and pushed against his fellows at great personal risk he saved them all.9 And that’s one of the things that I’m afraid has gone by the board with the whole fake news business and this whole not trusting experts and not trusting the media. How do you say “show us the evidence”? I’ve watched reporters asking QAnoners: “Where’s your evidence for all this?” Well, their answer is: “is there evidence that it’s not happening?” And this is how they work. So no, your belief in a conspiracy is not evidence, and yet, we’ve lost the ability to say we need hard facts, because facts are no longer taken at face value like they used to be just two years ago, four years ago, before Trump. So that’s a real problem.

On Connections Between QAnon, Apocalyptic Movements, and Early Anabaptism

GW: Another element [of QAnon] is this belief in prophecy. Q keeps making these prophecies as to when Trump will be revealed and there will be a great reckoning and each time it fails. As a scholar of sixteenth century Anabaptism that, of course, resonates with me because you’ve got all these Anabaptists who were caught up in this belief that Christ was coming any moment and they picked the dates and they set the location and they all waited and it didn’t happen. And so some of the members left—such seems to have happened with QAnon—and others remained and just revised the interpretations and the prophecies. And so these kinds of prophetic moments when you’ve got these expectations that build up and people devote themselves to it to such an extent, they can’t just walk away. It is very hard for someone who says “I believe in all this stuff: that Q is real, that Trump is the Messiah-President, that he’s going to be returned to power, and they invest in it so much that they go marching. They go to Congress, they invade the buildings, they do violence. And then to just say, “oh whoops, I was wrong . . . ”? The same thing happened with the Anabaptists. Psychologically it’s very difficult.

CM: I think there’s a real family relationship element to it as well. If you’ve torpedoed your marriage for this, or if your kids aren’t speaking to you anymore because of this, if it’s caused a real rift in your family, then that’s another dimension where it’s much too hard to say “I was wrong” and try to get back.

GW: That certainly happened with the Anabaptists. It divided families and you make these decisions to join and to follow, and then whoops, and you’ve lost your family, you’ve lost your livelihood, you’ve lost your property, you’re in jail or you’re running from the authorities. You see that for example in the group that was around David Koresh, the compound in Waco, Texas, there are still people who believe that he was the Messiah. And so one of my thoughts as I’m watching QAnon is I think we’re watching the rise of a new religious movement. It’s got all the same kinds of expectations and hopes and dreams, zeal, everything that you need and a Messiah-like figure and a Prophet who’s behind the scenes… So I’m expecting that Q will remain in some fashion as a new religious movement of some kind. The Americans are pretty good at creating these new religious movements. One of the examples that I use in teaching is the Great Disappointment in the 1840s in the States, with the Millerites. Miller was an evangelical Christian who believed that he could figure out precisely when Jesus was returning through close interpretation of Scripture. And so he got it down to a particular date and place and by the thousands the Millerites came out to watch for Jesus’ return. It didn’t happen. So many left, and Miller himself and others stayed and revised their interpretations. A lot of people were angry—if you look up the Great Disappointment, as this was called, you’ll see a lot of popular print stuff that was made satirizing these poor folk. Well, that Millerite movement is the foundation of the Seventh Day Adventist Church.10 And David Koresh was a member of a branch group called the Branch Davidian sect of the Seventh-day Adventists. So even with all of the failed prophecies—and you could talk about the Jehovah’s Witnesses prophecies here—people will continue to believe because, as you say, they’ve invested so much of their personal lives, so much of their identity in this group and in these beliefs. It’s very hard for people to walk away. So you’ve got the Great Disappointment in nineteenth century and then you have the David Koresh group. . . . The Mormons started as an end of the world group, the Church of the Latter Day Saints.

CM: I find myself thinking a lot about the aftermath of Münster and how the Melchiorites disperse after that, and particularly thinking of the fairly large numbers who were successfully brought back into their regional churches in part due to, in the end, the concerted efforts of Tasch and Eisenberg, who had been Melchiorites and then decided to work somewhat covertly with the regional churches to facilitate this return. And of course, Lienhard Jost also then returns to the established church in Strasbourg. And I’m curious to know, when you study new religious movements, if you can think of other examples of this sort of successful reintegration and what some elements of that look like.

GW: Well, certainly it happened. It happened in in the Dutch side too. . . . You know this is one of the frustrations as historians working the Anabaptist field. We all know that so many people disappear from the record because they’re no longer part of the group. They’ve left it and therefore they’re not being arrested anymore, and that’s good for them. I wouldn’t want to have brought them back into the courtroom just so I would have a record of their beliefs. Certainly in the Dutch scene David Joris played a major role in keeping some of the Münsterite Anabaptists within the movement, but he did so by moving them away from a sectarian or confessional identity and moving them towards spiritualism, which says religion is interior, the letter of Scripture isn’t as important as the spirit within, that sort of thing.11 But his movement was actually more long lived than we had thought even just a few years ago. There’s a new book out on the Reformation Movement in the region east of the Dutch border in Germany, where Joris was very active, and his name and his ideas are stamped throughout.12 And even with the Dutch Mennonites, who are Menno’s heirs, he kept fighting against this David Jorisism, the spiritualism, but he never succeeded, and so there’s an element of that that runs right through the Dutch Mennonites into the 17th century. There’s a sort of a two-word debate. For most people, I would say for most of these new religious movements, once there’s the crisis, once there’s the great disappointment, once there is the failure of prophecy, a lot of the followers sort of disappear from the record. We don’t know where they went. It’s those who remain within it and help shape it into something else that we know that they are there. How many of them go back to a mainstream church or two? I don’t really know.

Menno Simons worked diligently to bring these disillusioned Anabaptists into his orbit, and he succeeded. He and the other fellow preachers, Dirk Phillips, Adam Pastor and so on did get a lot of these people back into the Mennonite Church, which is the heir to the Anabaptists. But they didn’t succeed entirely. There are a lot of people who just abandon anything like Anabaptism. Ben Kaplan, for example, has shown that around 1600 in the Dutch Republic a large minority of people and in some places a majority people did not belong to any church.13 And I think this is part of this whole disillusioning experience of the real bloodshed and violence of the Reformation in the Netherlands. And not just the Anabaptist persecution and Anabaptist Münster, but also the Catholic versus Calvinist battles and the Civil War. And so there were a lot of people who just said “not joining any of them.” And this is noticed by observers who came to the Dutch Republic. The Reformed Church is the public Church of the Realm, but not a formal state church. You don’t have to join it to be a citizen, to be a resident of the realm. The result is a lot of people decided not to. And so I think that there can be several different responses. Some people are successfully reintegrated into a more mainstream kind of church, a lot of people just drop away, and some people take an intentionally distinctive approach to religion. And in the Dutch Republic that was spiritualism, which really had a powerful impact on the mentality of people after the turmoil of the Reformation and Civil War.

CM: And even the more sectarian churches that do survive like the Mennonites, it’s a form of reintegration into society in a way to have developed a symbiotic relationship with the governing authorities rather than to view them as enemies to be overcome as soon as possible.

GW: Yeah, you need to make nice with the government and the Anabaptists found that a very difficult adjustment to make. And there’s always a sense that we are the persecuted people of God. It’s still a major force among some evangelical churches and other churches today. How do you know that you are God’s chosen people? Well, if you’re being persecuted, then that’s one of the signs as Jesus said. Problem is, if you’re not being persecuted, you have to find ways in which you can say that you are being persecuted. So saying Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas means we are being persecuted for faith—no you’re not!

The Mennonites did very well [in the Dutch Republic].14 You couldn’t be a Mennonite and be a citizen, and that’s okay. They didn’t mind that, they were happy to be an ignored minority. But they had all the economic rights and they could take on business. Some of them became fabulously wealthy. I’ve seen some of the houses. Piet Visser has taken me on tours and it’s just incredible the wealth that these heirs of the Anabaptists achieved. They would join with the merchants of the East India Company, but their ships could not have cannons on them because they’re pacifists. But they would sail with the Dutch Reformed who had plenty of cannons on their ships. And some of them became fabulously wealthy. You’ve got artists galore, you’ve got writers of great fame in the Dutch Republic who are of this Mennonite heritage. By 1600 the Mennonites were a significant part of the population and really influencing things. Some cities, some towns in the Dutch Republic, in particular North Holland in the Waterland area are almost entirely Mennonites and the economic prosperity is just incredible. But that leads to the new problem. They then become the social equals of the elites. Why not just marry into the elites? Why not just join the elites? Why not just reconvert to the Reformed Church then you can have all the full formal memberships and citizenships and so on. And that’s what most of them did. So by 1700 the Mennonite population had really shrunk not by persecution, but by assimilation, by social, cultural, economic motivations that it’s actually nicer to just join with this side. So I imagine some of that will happen. I have no idea what’s going to happen with the QAnoners now that as far as I know all of their prophecies have failed. What are they gonna do next? Go back to your churches, I would think but I’m waiting to see is it going to continue? Are they going to start a separate or distinct quasi denomination or religion? I don’t know. This could be the beginnings of a new Mormonism or a new Seventh Day Adventism or something of that nature, that has elements of Christianity, but with this new Q conspiracy Donald Trump is Messiah thing.


1 Tarpley Hitt, “How QAnon Became Obsessed With ‘Adrenochrome,’ an Imaginary Drug Hollywood Is ‘Harvesting’ from Kids,” The Daily Beast, https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-qanon-became-obsessed-with-adrenochrome-an-imaginary-drug-hollywood-is-harvesting-from-kids, 14 August 2020.

2 For more on ritual murder accusations, see Hannah Johnson, Blood Libel: The Ritual Murder Accusation at the Limit of Jewish History (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012).

3 Gary Waite, Jews and Muslims in Seventeenth-Century Discourse, From Religious Enemies to Allies and Friends (London: Routledge, 2018.)

4 Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan (New York City: Vintage Books, 1996).

5 Mike Mariani, “American Exorcism,” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/12/catholic-exorcisms-on-the-rise/573943/, accessed 21 April 2021.

6 For more on early modern witch hunts, see Gary Waite, Heresy, Magic and Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003); Gary Waite, Eradicating the Devil’s Minions: Anabaptists and Witches in Reformation Europe (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007).

7 See Jeffrey S. Victor, Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend (Chicago: Open Court Press, 1993).

8 Oliver Moore, “Klassen wins suit over malicious prosecution,” CBC News, 30 December 2003, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/klassen-wins-suit-over-malicious-prosecution/article1170870/. The Supreme Court overturned this verdict in 2009. See The Canadian Press, “Crown not malicious in pressing Sask. abuse case: SCC,” CTV News, 6 November 2009, https://www.ctvnews.ca/crown-not-malicious-in-pressing-sask-abuse-case-scc-1.451422.

9 See Gustav Henningsen (Ed.), The Salazar Documents: Inquisitor Alonso de Salazar Frías and others on the Basque Witch Persecution (Leiden: Brill, 2004).

10 See David L. Rowe, God’s Strange Work: William Miller and the End of the World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

11 On David Joris, see Gary Waite, David Joris and Dutch Anabaptism (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1990); Gary Waite (Ed.), The Anabaptist Writings of David Joris, Second Edition (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2019).

12 See Karin Förster, Das reformatorische Täufertum in Oldenburg und Umgebung (1535-1540): Unter des besonderen Berücksichtigung des Täufertheologen David Joris (Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2019).

13 See Benjamin Kaplan, Reformation and the Practice of Toleration: Dutch Religious History in the Early Modern Era (Leiden: Brill, 2019).

14 For more on Dutch Mennonite assimilation over time see Alastair Hamilton, Piet Visser, and Sjouke Voolstra (Eds.), From Martyr to Muppy (Mennonite Urban Professionals): A Historical Introduction to Cultural Assimilation Processes of a Religious Minority in the Netherlands, the Mennonites (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1994).

Teaching Mennonite History in “Historic Times”

As a historian, I am well aware that all times are in some sense historic, that every time period and every surviving source worthy of study, and yet, like so many of us, I have been well aware that the events of the past year—the Covid-19 pandemic, the protests for racial justice and against police brutality that spanned first America and then the globe, and the end of the Trump presidency—are events that my descendants will ask about, in the same way that I have been curious about my grandparents’ experiences of World War II. Likewise, I am confident that future students taking Mennonite history courses will want to know how Mennonites and other Anabaptists were affected by and responded to these events—as in fact, did my current students, who brought up some of these topics in their online discussions. This, then, is the beginning of a modest collection of contemporary links, in the hope that they might serve as useful primary sources for future Mennonite history instructors and students writing term papers as they attempt to make sense of the past year.

Covid-19

When it first became evident that Covid-19 would spread virtually unchecked across North America, I couldn’t help but think of the Amish and Old Order Mennonites who refuse both private and government-run health insurance might be affected. Would they be more reluctant to seek medical care for Covid as a result? Moreover, how difficult would it be for them to maintain social distancing without many of the technological solutions that the rest of us have used to fill the gap?

I was intrigued by this post from Penn Medicine, which discussed health outreach efforts among the Amish by Lancaster General Health, useful as a way to see how Amish communities in Lancaster County have been affected and how health care workers have tried to provide Covid safety guidance in culturally appropriate ways.1

This CBC news article detailed how, a month into the pandemic, Hutterite and Old Order Mennonite communities in Canada were adapting to restrictions on gatherings.2 The better part of a year after these restrictions have been put in place, the cost of isolation is felt even more keenly.

Of course, anyone seeking to learn how more assimilated Mennonite churches have weathered the pandemic is faced with an embarrassment of riches, as more churches than ever have recorded sermons and even full services and shared them online over the past year.

Black Lives Matter

During the protests following the murder of George Floyd, an image and video quickly circulated featuring a group of people in plain dress, singing hymns and holding signs that read “Justice for George Floyd,” “Thou Shalt Not Kill Anyone,” “I Can’t Breathe,” and “Standing Against Systems of Oppression.” Twitter users quickly identified the group as Amish, and tweets about Amish support for Black Lives Matter quickly proliferated. One such post, by Twitter user @nedwhat, garnered over 400, 000 likes.3 In fact, these protesters were not Amish at all, but members of the Church of God (Restoration), a church with no Anabaptist affiliation based in Greenville, Ohio.4

Though the actual Amish do not appear to have participated in Black Lives Matter protests in any great numbers, other Anabaptists did. On June 1st, Mennonite Church USA released a statement on racial injustice that forcefully repudiated white supremacy and state violence and encouraged Mennonite congregations “to lament and pray together…to stand in solidarity with communities of color, walk alongside them and, indeed, be led by them.”5 My own city of Portland became a particular point of national and international media attention, and several members of Portland Mennonite Church participated in peaceful protests across the city. Britt Carlson, our pastor of community life, also wrote a reflection on the citywide protests for Baptist News.6

Members of Portland Mennonite Church participate in a protest for racial justice. Photo by Art Wright.

The 2020 Election

As journalists and political strategists attempted to determine which candidate might carry the swing states in the Great Lakes region, several outlets published pieces about the political sympathies of Amish communities in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. Many of the Amish interviewees had a broadly favorable opinion of Trump’s presidency, particularly his support of deregulation and his perceived support of businesses.7 Amish voter turnout remained low in the 2020 election, but opposition to restrictions on businesses and religious gatherings designed to curb the spread of Covid-19 appears to have motivated at least some younger Amish voters.8 The ongoing work of Steve Nolt and Kyle Kopko of the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College will no doubt help to clarify how Amish turnout in 2020 compared to past year.

We are, of course, in the midst of these events still. It remains to be seen just how various Mennonite and other Anabaptist communities will have been shaped in the long term by the events of the pandemic, the ongoing work of racial justice, and the increasing political polarization in the United States (and indeed in many parts of the world). I welcome additional links and resources in the comments as well, in the hopes that this collection might continue to evolve as the situation does.


1 Mary Beth Schweigert, “How Amish Communities are Staying Safer from the COVID-19 Pandemic with Help from Good Neighbors at Lancaster General Health,” Penn Medicine News Blog, 1 September 2020, http://www.pennmedicine.org/news/news-blog/2020/september/how-amish-communities-are-staying-safer-from-the-covid.

2 Karen Pauls, “’We, too, are part of this world’: How Hutterites, Old Order Mennonites are responding to COVID-19,” CBC News, 1 April 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/hutterites-covid-mennonites-1.5515797.

3 WhatTheNed, Twitter Post, May 29, 2020, https://twitter.com/NedWhat/status/1266515656037588992.

4 Adrienne Dunn, “Fact check: Images of witches, ‘Amish’ supposedly at Floyd protest are out of context,” USA Today, 19 June 2020, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/factcheck/2020/06/19/fact-check-viral-photos-dont-show-witches-amish-floyd-protests/3195430001/.

5 Mennonite Church Executive Board Staff, “Mennonite Church USA statement on racial injustice

By Mennonite Church Executive Board staff,” Mennonite Church USA, 1 June 2020, https://www.mennoniteusa.org/news/mc_usa-statement-on-racial-injustice/.

6 Britt Carlson, “At the Portland protests, I’m afraid the bread won’t rise,” Baptist News Global, 21 July 2020, https://baptistnews.com/article/at-the-portland-protests-im-afraid-the-bread-wont-rise/#.YAqfxuhKjIU.

7 Ted Roelofs, “Michigan’s Amish seem to love Trump. But voting is another matter,” Bridge Michigan, 30 October 2020, https://www.bridgemi.com/michigan-government/michigans-amish-seem-love-trump-voting-another-matter; Tim Huber, “Ohio Amish Show Trump Support,” Anabaptist World, 2 October 2020 https://anabaptistworld.org/ohio-amish-show-trump-support/.

8 Gillian McGoldrick, “Was 2020 a breakout year for Amish voters? Here’s what the numbers show,” Lancaster Online, 30 November 2020, https://lancasteronline.com/news/local/was-2020-a-breakout-year-for-amish-voters-heres-what-the-numbers-show/article_f77af684-32a7-11eb-b3ec-13a56697652f.html.

Some Reflections on Early Anabaptists and the Creeds

This past summer I found myself reviewing a number of classic early Anabaptist works as I researched and wrote a chapter on Anabaptist eschatology. As I researched and read I was struck by an unrelated phenomenon—the prevalence of the creeds in several of these writings. In the four years since I first began attending a Mennonite Church, I have sometimes heard Anabaptists referred to as non-creedal Christians. It is certainly true that, when asked to describe what it means to be Anabaptist, most Anabaptists will understandably give an answer that prioritizes doctrines and practices that are not common to the majority of Christian churches, particularly pacifism or credobaptism. Similarly, when drawing doctrinal boundaries around their churches (something they were as ready to do as the state churches, though not at the point of a sword), Anabaptists have tended to appeal to Scripture directly, since its authority superseded any creeds and confessions, however valuable.1 Nevertheless, insofar as the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds can be said to summarize the essentials of the Christian faith, the earliest Anabaptists upheld these teaching with only a few exceptions.

Of these exceptions, the anti-Trinitarianism of Adam Pastor and of the Polish Brethren was never particularly popular, and in Pastor’s case resulted in his being banned. The more significant exception is Melchior Hoffman’s Christology—his assertion that Christ took no human flesh from Mary, who served only as a vessel, and instead possessed his own, celestial flesh. Menno Simons also adopted and promulgated this Christology—indeed it was one of the most significant features the Mennonites inherited from their predecessors the Melchiorites as they sifted through the legacy of Münster and determined what to retain and what to rebuke. Despite Menno and Dirk Phillips’ defense of this doctrine, support for it faded over the ensuing centuries, as the Dutch Mennonites made common cause with Swiss Anabaptists.2 This teaching was not necessarily irreconcilable with the letter of the Apostles’ Creed (they did still believe Christ to be born of the virgin Mary) but it was unquestionably a departure from the way these creeds had historically been interpreted. Nevertheless, the Dutch Anabaptist Thieleman Janzs van Braght, writing in the seventeenth century, had no trouble including the Apostles’ Creed in the Martyrs’ Mirror as a distillation of true, simple faith, and he described the three representative seventeenth-century confessions of faith that followed as elaborations on this core creed.3

The most enthusiastically creedal of the early Anabaptists was undoubtedly Balthasar Hubmaier. He referred often to the Apostles’ Creed, or the Twelve Articles of the Christian Faith. He considered acquiescence to and understanding of these articles a prerequisite for baptism and included them in his Christian Catechism, published in early 1527.4 During his 1526 imprisonment in Zurich, he even produced a devotional writing centered entirely around the Apostles’ Creed. He expanded upon the creed’s articles and transformed it into a prayer by changing the pronouns for God from the third to the second person, expressing the comfort and hope that he found in these doctrines.5 He also found the Apostles’ Creed polemically useful and appealed to it to advocate against the doctrine of transubstantiation and for believers’ baptism.6 As far as Hubmaier was concerned, the form of Christianity for which he advocated was not only compatible with these twelve articles, it was in fact more faithful to them than Catholic, Zwinglian, or Lutheran forms of Christianity.

The Hutterite Theologian Peter Riedemann likewise drew extensively on the Apostles’ Creed when he wrote his Confession of Faith during his imprisonment in the early 1540s. The Creed formed the scaffolding of the first part of the confession, as he elaborated on each clause: his beliefs on God the Father, the creation of Heaven and earth, Christ the son, the incarnation, and so forth. In choosing this framework, Riedemann appealed to many beliefs he held in common with his captors, but he also provided a distinctly Anabaptist gloss on these beliefs, emphasizing the importance of gathering a church without spot or wrinkle.7 He then went on to elaborate the points where Hutterite teaching diverged, including believers’ baptism, community of goods, and opposition to warfare.

The text of hymn 2 in the Ausbund, as printed in Lancaster in 1856 by Johann Baer and Sons.

Hymnody has long been a method of doctrinal formation for Anabaptists, and the second hymn of the Ausbund provided the faithful in Switzerland with the opportunity to rehearse the teachings of the creeds. The hymn is described as “the Christian faith, in song form,” and consists of three verses, one for each person of the Trinity. It appears to be an attempt to harmonize the two principal Christian creeds: it contains elements unique to the Apostles’ Creed, such as Christ’s descent into hell, as well as to the Nicene Creed, such as the description of Christ as “begotten, not made” and “of one substance with the Father” and the mention of baptism. At times, it elaborates further than either Creed. Nearly half of the stanza on God the Father lists “things visible” he has created—plants, sun, moon, stars, animals, and humans—before concluding with a mention of “things invisible.”8

The first generation of Anabaptists all converted as adults, after having already received some amount of Christian spiritual formation. These creeds formed part of the foundation that they brought with them into their new understanding of Christianity. Even as they were foundational, however, they were largely taken for granted—unlike nonresistance or believers’ baptism, the creeds were never under attack by either Catholics or magisterial Protestants. The creeds, then, could be seen as a quieter, less visible part of early Anabaptist identity—not particularly useful to distinguish Anabaptists from other Christians or explain the persecution they suffered, but nevertheless a useful description of the God in whom they trusted and the future for which they hoped.


1 They did, however, consistently engage in the work of attempting to formulate confessions that they felt faithfully reflected Scripture. See Karl Koop (ed.), Confessions of Faith in the Anabaptist Tradition, 1527-1660, second edition (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2019).

2 For more, see C. Arnold Snyder, “Christology” in Anabaptist History and Theology: Revised Student Edition (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 1997), 375-390.

3 Thieleman Janzs van Braght, Het Bloedig Tooneel of Martelaers Spiegel der Doopsgesinde of Weereloose Christenen (Amsterdam: Hieronymus Sweerts et al., 1685). https://books.google.com/books?id=UxmlV7PyedoC Support for the Melchiorite formulation of the Incarnation was already reduced by this point. The seventeenth-century van Braght includes take no firm position but instead acknowledge the longstanding debate among the Brethren on this question and content themselves with describing Christ’s incarnation as miraculous, however unknowable the specifics might be.

4 Balthasar Hubmaier, “A Christian Catechism which Everyone Should Know Before He Is Baptized” in Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, edited by H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), 349; Balthasar Hubmaier, “A Form for Baptism in Water of Those Who Have Been Instructed in Faith” in Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, edited by H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), 387.

5 Balthasar Hubmaier, “The Twelve Articles of the Christian Faith, Phrased in the Form of a Prayer at Zurich on the Water Tower” in Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, edited by H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), 235-240.

6 Balthasar Hubmaier, “A Letter to Oecolampad” in Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, edited by H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), 70.

7 Peter Rideman, Confession of Faith, translated by Kathleen E. Hasenberg (Bungay, Suffolk: Hodder and Stoughton, 1956), 38.

8 Ausbund, Das Ist Etliche Schöne Christliche Lieder, Wie Sie in Dem Gefängnis zu Passau in dem Schloss von den Schweizer-Brüdern und von Andern Rechtglaubigen Christen Hin und Her Gedichtet Worden (Lancaster: Johann Baer and Sons, 1856), 5-8. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Ausbund/VKZXSla-jKoC

Public Nudity and Prophecy in Early Anabaptism: The Cases of Lienhard Jost and the Naaktlopers

On the 10th of February, in 1535, the Melchiorite Anabaptist Hendrick Hendricks Snyder addressed a group of seven men and five women and prophesied to them of God’s impending wrath. Then he cast off first the weapons and then the very clothes he wore, and threw them into the fire.[1] The other men and women followed suit and burned all their clothing as well. The group then ran into the city, shouting “Woe, woe, woe! Divine wrath, divine wrath, divine wrath!” Unarmed and small in numbers, the naaktlopers or “naked walkers” were easily captured by the Netherlandish authorities. They refused clothing even as they were escorted to prison, citing their intention to proclaim the “naked truth.”[2] All the men involved in the incident, and some of the women, were sentenced to capital punishment as a result of their involvement, and the authorities in Amsterdam were motivated to enforce imperial edicts against Anabaptism more stringently than they had before.[3]

The naaktlopers’ demonstration provided ample fodder for polemicists who sought to warn their readers about the dangers and excesses of Anabaptism. A little more than a decade after the incident, in 1548, the Dutch humanist and Catholic priest Lambertus Hortensius published a scathing account of Anabaptism in the Low Countries. Hortensius’ account circulated in several editions well into the seventeenth century and in several countries. A Dutch translation appeared in 1667, and in 1702 a French adaptation was published. The Dutch and French editions came accompanied with a striking woodcut of the incident, intended to further shock the audience and convince them of Anabaptism’s ridiculousness, if not its nefariousness.

1702 woodcut
A woodcut featuring the naaktlopers from the 1702 French edition of Lambertus Hortensius’ anti-Anabaptist polemic, available at https://books.google.com/books?id=Ei-qGw_urRUC

For Hortensius and his translators, the naaktloper incident provided prime evidence of just how ludicrous Anabaptism was, and how deluded and unreasonable its followers were. Their descriptions of the event alternated between ridicule and pity for the persons involved. “Since these people were full of nothing but visions and each one considered himself a prophet, when the mood seized them, one could see them committing completely strange and ridiculous acts,” wrote Hortensius’ French translator. He went on to describe their decision to cast off their clothes and walk around Amsterdam naked as “one of the most ridiculous [ideas] that could befall the imagination.”[4] For these early modern polemicists, the naaktlopers, with their immoderate excess and their willingness to perform every strange idea that came into their heads, perfectly encapsulated the failings of Anabaptism. More recent histories of Anabaptism have largely recounted the story of the naaktlopers as part of the general uproar surrounding the establishment of the Anabaptist kingdom of Munster, but have largely treated the public nudity aspect of the story as a curious but isolated incident.

The naaktlopers, however, were not entirely unique among their coreligionists. The third chapter of Strasbourg prophet Lienhard Jost’s visions reveals that he engaged in public nudity as a prophetic act, just as the naaktlopers did. Lienhard recounted that, one night, he felt the Spirit of God tell him to rise immediately, disrobe, and run through the streets of Strasbourg naked in order to sound the Mord Glock—the alarm bell located in Strasbourg’s cathedral. He rose immediately and ran through the streets of Strasbourg, shouting the following prophetic utterance: “Murder upon murder! The child in its mother’s womb must and will be terrified before the word of the Lord comes to pass . . . if the lords and rulers of the city only knew that their princely clothes will be removed from them before God and the world, that they might seek God again, they would all cry along with me…but after this the child in its mother’s womb will rejoice again, and all those who have been sad will find peace.”[5] Like the naaktlopers, Lienhard’s actions resulted in his capture. However, given the relative tolerance of Strasbourg’s magistrates toward religious dissenters, he met with a much lighter sentence—he was brought to Strasbourg’s hospital, where he was deemed insane and moved to an asylum. He remained there for a few months until his release.

This is the only incidence of public nudity in Lienhard’s visions, but it nevertheless is not out of place. In his 2015 article on Lienhard’s prophecies, Jonathan Green notes the prevalence of clothing-based imagery. Lienhard counsels his audience to throw off their stinking clothes in order that God might clothe them, although he quickly clarifies that he is speaking in spiritual, not physical terms.[6] Green also notes the performative nature of Lienhard’s visions in general. Lienhard was not content to merely share the words of God, but instead frequently contrived an object lesson. He chewed and then spit out bread in order to demonstrate his rejection of “idolatrous masses,” and he poured wine on his bed and watched it spread as a symbol of how a God-sent abundance of good things would soon spread across the earth.[7] Lienhard’s own experiences of God were multi-sensory. He not only saw and heard God’s messages, he felt and tasted them. Since his experience of divine revelation that was so arresting and all-consuming, it is unsurprising that Lienhard would attempt to replicate aspects of this experience for his audience.

It is impossible to establish with certainty whether Hendrick Hendricks Snyder and the rest of the naaktlopers were familiar with Lienhard’s prophetic career, but it seems distinctly possible, and perhaps even likely. Melchior Hoffman assiduously disseminated their visions and prophecies among his followers. In 1533, his associate Cornelijs Poldermann testified to Strasbourg’s Protestant preachers in a letter that the whole Netherlands were full of the Josts’ books—an obviously hyperbolic claim, but one that nevertheless speaks to the popularity the Josts’ visions enjoyed among Hoffman’s followers in the Low Countries.[8] Thus, Snyder and his compatriots may well have read Lienhard’s visions, or at least been apprised of their contents if they could not read them themselves. Their cries of woe even echo Lienhard’s cries of “murder upon murder,” although Lienhard went further and promised God’s eventual mercy after announcing impending judgment. He also tied nakedness to the casting off of superfluous wealth, and the historical record does not say whether any of the naaktlopers made a similar connection.

Whether or not the naaktlopers drew their inspiration from Lienhard, however, the practice of public nudity as a prophetic act has a long-established place in the Jewish and Christian canon. In Isaiah 20, God commanded Isaiah to remove the sackcloth and ashes he had previously worn to prophesy and instead to prophesy completely naked for a period of three years as a portent of God’s impending judgment on Egypt.[9] Isaiah’s display is the only divinely sanctioned instance of post-Garden of Eden public nudity in the Bible—Noah’s drunken exhibitionism in Genesis earned the patriarch and his son divine censure—but it is not, for all that, an aberration.[11] The Old Testament prophets frequently engaged in visually arresting, often shocking and bizarre displays as a means of reinforcing God’s message. Early modern Christians in search of a more recent example could point to Saint Francis of Assisi, who made a public display of his rejection of his parents and his upbringing by publicly casting off his clothing before the Bishop of Assisi. This incident had a powerful hold on the imaginations of medieval Christians; it was not only recounted in many of St. Francis’ vitae, but also became the subject of several different artistic depictions of the life of Francis in late medieval and Renaissance-era European churches and chapels.

It is difficult to ascertain just how much Lienhard Jost and the Amsterdam naaktlopers knew about the biblical and medieval prophets and saints who came before them. Lienhard Jost was an illiterate peasant labourer, and the educational status of Hendrick Hendricks Snyder and his followers is not known. It is probable that they never had the opportunity to study the biblical text in much detail or read saints’ vitae for themselves. Nevertheless, they may well have become acquainted with some of these examples through preaching, ecclesiastical artwork, or oral tradition. Elements of Lienhard’s account suggest that he may have, consciously or unconsciously, drawn inspiration from the life of St. Francis of Assisi. It is true that he never mentioned Francis by name and he frequently derided the Catholic mass as idolatrous and clerical celibacy as an abomination. Even so, however, there are some striking points of similarity between the life of the Strasbourg prophet and that of the Italian mendicant. Lienhard’s motivation for running around Strasbourg naked bears a strong resemblance to the Francis’ motivation for disrobing in front of his father and the bishop of Assisi. For both men, the casting off of clothing represented an emphatic rejection of wealth and opulence. In Francis’ case, he rejected the wealth and opulence to which he had been born and which his family still enjoyed. In Lienhard’s case, though he himself was not endowed with much wealth to cast off, he physically enacted the spiritual renunciation he expected from Strasbourg’s ruling class. Another event in Lienhard’s life also mirrored that of St. Francis: in pondering the wounds of Christ, Lienhard received a physical reminder of these wounds on his right foot, which calls to mind Francis’ reception of the stigmata, a famous event that inspired many imitators—particularly women—well into the seventeenth century.[12]

The surviving accounts of the naaktlopers are far less detailed than Lienhard’s description of his visions, and make it difficult to say with certainty even what their motivation was for running into Amsterdam unclothed—whether it was a warning of God’s impending wrath, a reminder of humanity’s vulnerability, or a call to cast off worldly wealth and greed—let alone what people in biblical or church history served as their inspiration. Nevertheless, regardless of whether Hendrick Hendricks Snyder and his followers consciously imitated Lienhard Jost or Francis of Assisi or the prophet Isaiah in their public display of nudity, their actions, while shocking (and purposefully so), were not an aberration. Lienhard Jost and the naaktlopers’ decisions to disrobe publicly form part of a long Judeo-Christian tradition of prophecy as a public performance, designed not only to share the word of the Lord, but also to communicate his message to the people visually through the use of striking physical displays and object lessons. The word had become flesh in Jesus, and, in a lesser way, it became flesh again and again through his messengers.


[1] Samme Zijlstra, Om de ware gemeente en de oude gronden: Geschiedenis van de dopersen in de Nederlanden, 1531-1675 (Leeuwarden: Fryske Akademy, 2000), 135-136.

[2] Lambertus Hortensius, Tumultuum Anabaptistarum Liber Unus (Amsterdam: Henricus Laurentius, 1636), 55.

[3] Cornelius Krahn, Dutch Anabaptism: Origin, Spread, Life, and Thought (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981), 148.

[4] Lambertus Hortensius and François Catrou, Histoire des Anabaptistes (Amsterdam: Jacques Desbordes, 1702), 106.

[5] Lienhard Jost, Ein Worhafftige Hohe und Feste Prophecey des Linhart Josten van Stroßburg, edited by Melchior Hoffman (Deventer: Albert Paffraet, 1532), fol. B3r.

[6] Jonathan Green, “The Lost Book of the Strasbourg Prophets: Orality, Literacy, and Enactment in Lienhard Jost’s Visions” in The Sixteenth Century Journal 46:2 (Summer 2015): 324.

[7] Green, 324-325.

[8] Manfred Krebs and Hans Georg Rott (eds), Quellen zur Geschichte der Täufer. Vol. 8. Elsass II. Teil: Stadt Straßburg 1533-1535 (Gütersloh: Gerd Mohn, 1960), 213.

[9] Isaiah 20:1-6.

[10] Genesis 9:20-23

[11] See Julian Gardner, “A Minor Episode of Public Disorder in Assisi: Francis renounces his Inheritance.” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 68:2 (2005): 275-285.

[12] Jost, Worhafftige Hohe und Feste Prophecey, fols. E1v-E2r. On the stigmata in late medieval and early modern mysticism, see Stephen Haliczer, Between Exaltation and Infamy: Female Mystics in the Golden Age of Spain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

Relaunched: The Classics of the Radical Reformation Series

83415202_653579875468216_6692021859958915072_nThe Classics of the Radical Reformation Series is published under the auspices of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s Institute for Mennonite Studies and overseen by a reference council of scholars from Canada and the United States, a group I joined in 2018.  Since the 1970s, the series has existed “to offer in the English language, scholarly and critical editions of the primary works of Reformers of the Radical Reformation…also intended for the wider audience of those interested in Anabaptist and free church writers of the sixteenth century.”[1] The first nine volumes, published from 1973 to 1999, were published by Herald Press, while the remaining five volumes, which first appeared between 2001 and 2017, were published by Pandora Press. The series included the writings of such prominent sixteenth-century figures as Pilgram Marpeck, Balthasar Hubmaier, Michael Sattler, Andreas Karlstadt, and David Joris, as well as collections organized by genre (confessions of faith) and loose geographical networks (Swiss Anabaptism and South German/Austrian Anabaptism). They have proved an indispensable resource for both academics (I cited multiple volumes in my doctoral dissertation) and interested pastors and laypeople.

As some of the older titles fell out of print, however, it has become increasingly difficult for those without borrowing privileges from well-stocked university libraries to access the full series. In the interests of making all the volumes accessible to a new generation of readers, the entire series was republished by Plough, the publishing house of the Bruderhof, in late 2019. Plough marked the republication of the series with a November 23rd launch in San Diego, during the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature.[2] The first nine volumes, originally published by Herald Press, also have updated prefaces (from the author where possible, and otherwise from top scholars in the field).

The following volumes are now available from Plough: [3]

  1. The Legacy of Michael Sattler (edited by John H. Yoder, with a new preface by C. Arnold Snyder)
  2. The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck (edited by William Klassen and Walter Klaassen, with a new preface by John D. Rempel)
  3. Anabaptism in Outline: Selected Primary Sources (edited by Walter Klaassen, with a new preface by John D. Roth)
  4. The Sources of Swiss Anabaptism: The Grebel Letters and Related Documents (edited by Leland Harder, with a new preface by Andrea Strübind)
  5. Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism (edited by H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder, with a new preface by Brian Brewer)
  6. The Writings of Dirk Philips, 1504–1568 (edited by Carnelius J. Dyck, William E. Keeney, and Alvin J. Beachy, with a new preface by Piet Visser)
  7. The Anabaptist Writings of David Joris (edited by Gary K. Waite, with a new preface by the editor)
  8. The Essential Carlstadt (edited by E. J. Furcha, with a new preface by Amy Nelson Burnett)
  9. Peter Riedemann’s Hutterite Confession of Faith (edited by John J. Friesen, with a new preface by the editor)
  10. Sources of South German/Austrian Anabaptism (edited by C. Arnold Snyder)
  11. Confessions of Faith in the Anabaptist Tradition 1527–1660 (edited by Karl Koop)
  12. Jörg Maler’s Kunstbuch: Writings of the Pilgram Marpeck Circle (edited by John D. Rempel)
  13. Later Writings of the Swiss Anabaptists 1529–1592 (edited by C. Arnold Snyder)

We hope that this re-launch will prompt new interest in the CRR series and that it will continue to be useful both inside and outside academia.

[1] “Classics of the Radical Reformation series,” Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, accessed 14 January 2020 https://www.ambs.edu/ims/classics-of-the-radical-reformation

[2] “Beyond Capitalism,” Plough Publishing House, accessed 14 January 2020, https://www.plough.com/en/events/2019/beyond-capitalism-san-diego-2019

[3] “Classics of the Radical Reformation,” Plough Publishing House, accessed 14 January 2020, https://www.plough.com/en/books/classics-of-the-radical-reformation

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).  

Archive Spotlight: The Thomas A. and Katherine (Gingrich) Brady Collection

This past semester I had the privilege of spending a few months looking through a new collection donated to the Mennonite Archives of Ontario, housed in the Milton Good Library at Conrad Grebel University College. The collection is a gift from Thomas A. Brady Jr. and Katherine Gingrich Brady. Thomas Brady, the Sather Professor Emeritus of History at UC Berkeley and his wife Katherine, an expert paleographer, have spent decades studying the history of the Reformation(s) in Strasbourg and Reformation-era politics more broadly.1 During that time, they gathered a wealth of early modern primary sources on microfilm, which they have now donated to Conrad Grebel University College. The collection promises to be a great resource for scholars interested in the late medieval/early modern history of Strasbourg and politics in the Reformation era.

The Grande-Ile, the heart of Strasbourg’s old town, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988. Many of the buildings first erected in the medieval and early modern periods are still standing there today. Photo by the author.

The city of Strasbourg is of particular interest to scholars of early Anabaptist history, both for the number and diversity of Anabaptists it attracted and the relatively mild punishments Anabaptists and other religious dissenters faced there. While Strasbourg’s Anabaptists alone numbered as many as 2000 in 1530—a substantial minority of the city’s population—only two Reformation-era non-conformists received a death sentence from Strasbourg’s magistrates: Claus Frey, who practiced bigamy, and Thomas Salzmann, who called Christ an imposter.2 As the spiritualist chronicler Sebastian Franck put it, “he whom one hangs elsewhere, one drives out of Strasbourg with rods.”3 While some scholars have attributed Strasbourg’s relative tolerance for dissent to the irenicism of its reformers—and Martin Bucer, Wolfgang Capito, and Mathis Zell were certainly less quick to burn bridges than many of their contemporaries—Brady has argued convincingly that the primary impetus for toleration came from Strasbourg’s magistrates, who sought peace and order more than they sought conformity.4 While few of the documents in the collection deal directly with Anabaptists, the primary sources the Bradys donated shed light on the inner workings of Strasbourg politics and the history of the city leading up to and during the Reformation era, all of which helps to illuminate the context in which so many sixteenth-century Anabaptists managed to survive and even thrive to some extent.

The majority of the microfilms in the collection contain copies of documents housed in the Archives de la ville et de l’Eurométropole de Strasbourg (the Strasbourg municipal archives, which also house the Archives de St. Thomas, dedicated to Strasbourg church history), the Archives départementales du Bas-Rhin (the regional archives for the Lower Rhine), and the Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire de Strasbourg (the Strasbourg university library, which houses a substantial collection of premodern manuscripts and rare books). Other microfilms include copies of documents from a number of other European and North American libraries and archives, including the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, the Weimar Staatsarchiv, the Danish Royal Library, the Newberry Library, and the Harvard University Library. The contents of these documents include multiple late medieval and early modern chronicles of Strasbourg history, large amounts of sixteenth-century correspondence from Strasbourg’s Reformation-era political and religious leaders (including the entire Thesaurus Baumianus, a collection of nineteenth-century copies of the Strasbourg reformers’ correspondence), sixteenth-century notes from Strasbourg Senate meetings (particularly focused on the years of the Schmalkaldic War), and many other treasures. For scholars interested in Reformation-era religion and politics, the collection promises to yield the raw material for several fascinating projects.


  1. Among Professor Brady’s best-known books are Ruling Class, Regime, and Reformation at Strasbourg, 1520-1555 (Leiden: Brill, 1978), Protestant Politics: Jacob Sturm (1489-1553) and the German Reformation (Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1995), and German Histories in the Age of Reformations, 1400-1650 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
  2. John David Derksen, From radicals to survivors: Strasbourg’s religious nonconformists over two generations, 1525-1570 (Goy-Houten, Netherlands: Hes & de Graaf Pub., 2002), 53; Camill Gerbert, Geschichte der Strassburger Sectenbewegung zur Zeit der Reformation, 1524-1534 (Strasbourg: Heitz & Mundel, 1889), ix.
  3. Cited in Bodo Brinkman and Berthold Hinz, Hexenlust und Sündenfall: Die Seltsamen Phantasien des Hans Baldung Grien (Petersberg: Imhof, 2007), 181.
  4. Brady, Ruling Class, 247n43.

The (Radical) Reformer’s Wife: Katharina Purst Hutter

In the study of women and the Protestant Reformation, the reformers’ wives loom large. For those magisterial reformers who had begun their careers as Roman Catholic priests or monks, the choice to marry was a deliberate rejection of Catholic dogma, and the women who married former priests and monks likewise made a choice that publicly confirmed their break with Rome. Of the women profiled in the Germany section of Roland Bainton’s 1971 Women of the Reformation in Germany and Italy, fully half were reformers’ wives, and many of these women, particularly Katharina von Bora and Katharina Schütz Zell, have also been the subject of full-length biographical treatments.1

In early Anabaptism, pastors’ wives were less prominent. While Anabaptists likewise rejected clerical celibacy and some of the most prominent sixteenth-century Anabaptists—among them Michael Sattler and Menno Simons—were former monks and priests, the pressures of persecution often relegated marriage and family life to secondary theological concerns. Of the women whose stories were included in the 1996 volume Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers, edited by C. Arnold Snyder and Linda Huebert Hecht, only a few were married to Anabaptist leaders (most notably Katharina Purst Hutter, Anna Scharnschlager, and Divara of Haarlem), and many were not married to Anabaptists at all.

The story of Katharina Purst Hutter (the wife of Jacob Hutter, founder of the communitarian Hutterite Anabaptists), however, offers an interesting comparison with that of more prominent magisterial reformers’ wives such as Katharina von Bora or Katharina Schütz Zell. Like her fellow Katharinas, she developed a strong faith of her own, even as the man who became her husband was instrumental in her conversion story. As Katharina Schütz had first been stirred by the preaching of Mathis Zell and Katharina von Bora by the writings of Martin Luther, so Katharina Purst first learned of the Anabaptist faith while working in South Tyrol in the household of Paul and Justina Gall, who hosted Jakob Hutter and other Anabaptist leaders.2 Katharina made a confession of faith and Hutter baptized her.3

Persecution, however, was a far more present reality for Katharina Purst Hutter than for her magisterial counterparts. While the Luthers and the Zells undoubtedly faced opposition, they also enjoyed the protection of Frederick the Wise and the Strasbourg city council respectively. Jakob and Katharina’s situation was not so secure. In 1533, authorities in the Tyrol arrested the Galls and all the members of their household, including Katharina. The Galls and Katharina recanted in exchange for release, only to flee to Moravia in hopes of finding a place to practice their faith more freely. Paul was captured and executed, but Justina and Katharina arrived safely in Moravia where they joined Hutter and his followers.4

Gedenktafel_Jakob_Hutter

A plaque at the Goldenes Dachl in Innsbruck, Austria, commemorating the execution of Jakob Hutter. Source: Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gedenktafel_Jakob_Hutter.jpg)

Katharina married Jakob Hutter two years later, in the spring of 1535, and the couple soon left Moravia and returned to the Tyrol, where they traveled from town to town visiting Anabaptists and making converts. Jakob, however, was too notorious to evade the authorities indefinitely and, in late November of 1535, he and Katharina were arrested in Klausen, at the house of a family named Stainer.5 After months of torture and interrogation, Jakob was burned at the stake in February 1536, but the authorities elected to keep Katharina alive despite the fact that she had not kept the terms of her previous release and had returned to Anabaptism after her recantation. The authorities sent for priests to convince her to return to the Catholic faith, but this time she refused to make even a pretense of recantation.6 In a statement made shortly after her arrest, Katharina explicitly rejected the mass, the Eucharist, the church building, and infant baptism as useless, abominations before God, and from the devil.7 Katharina escaped from prison in 1536 and evaded the authorities for two years, but, in 1538, she was arrested in the village of Schöneck and executed.8 Unlike her husband, no memorial plaque marks the site of her execution, but Katharina, like so many other sixteenth-century Anabaptist women, proved that she took her faith seriously enough to risk everything for it, without thought of recognition from anyone but God Himself.


  1. See, inter alia, Elsie Anne McKee, Katharina Schütz Zell: The Life and Thought of a Sixteenth-Century Reformer (Leiden: Brill, 1998); Ingelore Winter, Katharina von Bora: Ein Leben mit Martin Luther (Düsseldorf: Droste, 1990). On pastors’ wives in the Reformation more generally see Marjorie Elizabeth Plummer, From Priest’s Whore to Pastor’s Wife: Clerical Marriage and the Process of Reform in the Early German Reformation (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2013). 
  2. Elfriede Lichdi, “Katharina Purst Hutter of Sterzing,” in Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press), 179. 
  3. Katharina Hutter, “Testimony of Katharina Hutter, Given before December 3, 1535, at Klausen (1535)” in Sources of South German/Austrian Anabaptism, edited by C. Arnold Snyder (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2001), 194; Grete Mecenseffy (Ed.), Quellen zur Geschichte der Täufer, Österreich III Teil (Gütersloh: Gerd Mohn, 1983), 300. 
  4.   Lichdi, 179. 
  5.   Mecenseffy, 302. 
  6.   Mecenseffy, 323. 
  7.   Hutter, 195; Mecenseffy, 301. 
  8.   Werner Packull, Hutterite Beginnings: Communitarian Experiments during the Reformation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 256. 

A Song for Brother Julius, Revisited: On Growing Up On the Community Farm of the Brethren

My father turned 60 this past year, and my husband and I were tasked with sorting through pictures of his life to create a slideshow for his surprise party. As I sorted through the photos, particularly the few we were able to gather from his childhood, I was reminded again of how foreign his upbringing would have been to many of his contemporaries. My father, John Entz, was born in Big Bend Colony, a Lehrerleut Hutterite Colony near Cardston, Alberta, and spent most of his growing-up years in the Hutterite-adjacent Community Farm of the Brethren near Kitchener, Ontario.1 The Community Farm of the Brethren was founded in 1939 (and established at its present location in 1941) by Julius Kubassek, a Hungarian communist turned Nazarean, who became fascinated with the Hutterites’ communal lifestyle and commitment to apostolic Christianity. He and his followers lived for a year in West Raley Hutterite Colony in Alberta before leaving (with material support from the Hutterites) to form a new community in Ontario.2 Although the Hutterites formally severed ties with Kubassek in 1950, my father and his family, who joined the Community Farm of the Brethren a decade later, continued to view themselves as part of the Hutterite tradition. The Community Farm was the subject of a 1967 CBC documentary by filmmaker Chip Young entitled A Song for Brother Julius.

The Hutterites, like their Anabaptist counterparts, the Amish and Old Order Mennonites, are a fairly separatist group, although their degree of engagement with the world, uses of technology, acceptable education levels, and other such details vary somewhat from colony to colony. Unlike the Amish and Old Order Mennonites, the Hutterites practice a form of Christian communism; they hold lands and most goods in common as a community, they share communal meals, and they divide the labor of running a large farm amongst themselves. The Hutterites have not generated the same level of cultural fascination as the Old Order Mennonites or, in particular, the Amish—there is no cottage industry of Hutterite romance novels—but in recent years a few memoirs, and documentaries have brought attention to aspects of Hutterite life in North America.3 In the interest of adding to this growing genre, I asked my father to share memories and reflections on his upbringing and the lessons he learned as a child about Anabaptist identity and practice.

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My father (left) with his Uncle George and his cousin Helen in Big Bend Colony in Alberta, taken c. 1959, before my father and most of his family left for the Community Farm of the Brethren in Ontario. In Hutterite colonies, all infants under the age of two wore dresses at the time, regardless of gender.

On his family’s move from Big Bend Colony to the Community Farm of the Brethren

I was born into a Lehrerleut Hutterite colony near Cardston, Alberta. (The Hutterites were the longest-lasting of the communal Anabaptist groupsthe foundation of the movement was the description of the community of goods in the earliest church in Acts 2 and Acts 4 and 5.) Uncle John had entered into a dispute with the leadership of the colony, calling into question their faithfulness to Hutterite teachings, which resulted in his complete excommunication (Ausschluss). When his father and brothers (my grandfather and uncles) objected that they ought to have taken my uncle’s concerns seriously instead of resorting to excommunication, they also were excommunicated, together with their wives and children. Our family was in a slightly different position, as my mother was Uncle John’s sister; she was married to a man who had not associated himself with Uncle John, as was my aunt Sarah. When Mom and Aunt Sarah were tainted by their family ties, which they refused to renounce, they were also put into Ausschluss, but their husbands were not. This made for a very uncomfortable situation in the colony, as there was a large segment of the colony under excommunication but refusing to leave. At that point, my grandmother’s sister and her husband, both members of a colony near Kitchener, Ontario composed mostly of people who were not from a Hutterite background (my great-aunt Elizabeth was the exceptionthe Hutterites basically bought the land for them in Ontario to get them out of the way) approached my uncles and grandfather and extended an invitation to them to move to Ontario. In order to get out of a very difficult impasse, they accepted. My Dad and Uncle George, Aunt Sarah’s husband, remained behind with the three oldest boys (then six and seven years old), while Mom with her daughter and the four youngest boys (the youngest less than one month old) and Aunt Sarah with her two daughters and a few months pregnant with another child went to Ontario, to Community Farm of the Brethren.

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Students at the Community Farm of the Brethren School, which ran until eighth grade. My father is seated in the middle, reading. Taken c. 1962.

On Economic Activity at the Community Farm of the Brethren

Community Farm, as it was commonly known, had originally been about half a dozen farms with a combined area of around 1,500 acres or 7 sq. km. About 1/3 was river bottom or bushland. On the remainder, 120 people (with the influx from Alberta, and including close to 50 children of school age or younger) ran several farm-related industries. Uncle Joe and Uncle John, together with a couple of teenagers, ran the dairy barn, with a milking herd of close to one hundred Holsteins. They also took care of the beef herd, mostly Holstein steers. Alex Bago, Great-Aunt Elizabeth’s husband, ran the large market garden with the help of the women and school-age children (we had regular weekend chores during the school year and a daily routine 6 days per week in the summer from the time we were 9 or 10). Many men worked in the normal routine of planting and harvesting crops, cutting hay, plowing, cultivating and fertilizing the land (we used almost exclusively “natural” fertilizer from our extensive barns). Another man was in charge of the mechanical repairs of all the machinery, with a few younger men to help him as needed. Still another man, with help from a couple of teenagers, was responsible for the industry for which the farm was probably the best-known in the area, the large goose herd, with around 1500 laying birds and another 10 000 or so young meat birds; during the late summer and throughout the fall, all available hands would slaughter the geese and any other meat birds (ducks, chickens, turkeys and the like) in the large abattoir on the Farm. The meat would then be stored in a massive walk-in freezer, as big as a small house with two or three large rooms. The “greaseless geese” (so called because large quantities of fat were removed during the killing process, to be used for other things, like cooking) provided the staple of the well-known stall of the Brethren at the Kitchener Farmers’ Market for many years. They also sold seasonal fruits and vegetables, baked goods, pillows and comforters made from goose down and feathers (although most of the comforters were made to order and sold directly on the Farm), and anything they could think of that would sell. Still another man ran the massive water boiler which provided steam heat for all of the buildings on the main farm, and some steam power in a few places. He also ran the massive backup generator in case of a power failure, making sure it was cleaned and fueled up in case of need. Since that was not really a full-time job, he was also responsible for the one hour of religious instruction before the school day started and another hour after the school day ended for all of the school-aged children. The women mostly worked on a six-week rotation, one week in the kitchen in teams of about 4 or 5 providing the meals, one week where they baked several days to provide the Farm with fresh-baked goods as well as a substantial part of the Market sales, and the other four weeks doing whatever work was in season: gardening, slaughtering birds, canning, regular large-scale cleaning, as well as running their respective households. The Farm secretary, chief cook, chief baker, child-care providers (daycare was provided from a very early age by three or four young unmarried women), and the running of the Salesroom for feather and down products by the wife of the Farm’s Chief Operating Officer were more or less permanent positions. This gives a good, though not necessarily exhaustive, idea of the daily economic running of the Farm.

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Children’s mealtime at the Community Farm of the Brethren. Taken c. 1962.

On Religious Observance and Daily Life at the Community Farm of the Brethren

We were first and foremost a religious community, and, for all of us, our life centred around religious observance. We had two preachers, a father and son, both named Fred Kurucz, though we called the older one Nander Bacsi (Hungarian for Uncle Fred), whose task it was to look after the community’s spiritual life. The day would begin with a loud steam whistle calling the adults to breakfast, which began and ended with prayer (and you had better make sure you ate when you had the chance, because the second prayer signalled the end of the meal); all meals, by the way, were gender segregated, except for the preschoolers. Then the men and most of the women would go to their work, and the children came in to eat. (With the adults, mealtime silence was largely habit and necessity, with children, it was enforced with corporal punishment—you were not allowed to talk between prayers except to ask for food in the rare case when it was not within reach). Then the children went off to one hour of religious instruction before school, followed by the morning school routine. In mid-morning, the steam whistle would call all of the adults who could come to a coffee break, still segregated, the only “meal” where you could chat with your neighbours and workmates. At noon, lunch was served to the adults first, then to the children, followed by a rest break. At 1 o’clock, the routine would continue, with adults going to work and children to school. At 3 o’clock, the steam whistle would call the adults in to an afternoon coffee break, then back to work. Shortly after, school would finish for the day, followed by another hour of religious instruction for the kids. Then at 5, the children would eat supper, followed by the adults just before 6. After supper and some time to clean up from the day’s work, there would be a church service from 7 to 8 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

The weekday church service routine was invariable: a song from the Zion’s Harp, the sanctioned hymnbook, a lengthy sermon, a lengthy prayer on your knees (the preacher did the praying), followed by a second hymn, then dismissal. Funny story here: because Uncle Joe was the dairyman, his day began early, and he was often tired in church. He sat with his oldest son, who also worked in the dairy and struggled to stay awake, and each one had a pin with which he had to poke the other if he fell asleep. Of course, not infrequently, both would fall asleep at the same time, to the great entertainment of the kids sitting nearby. Saturday afternoon was bath time, so Sunday would find you reasonably clean and in your best clothes. After breakfast, around 9:30, the steam whistle would call all except the cooks and maybe a couple other essential workers to church. There the routine was slightly different: one song, followed by a long sermon by the younger Fred Kurucz, followed by prayer, also by Fred, followed by a second sermon by Nander Bacsi, long but not as long as the first, followed by a second hymn and dismissal, about 90 minutes all told. The younger Fred was the usual preacher; he was also the man in charge of the mechanical shop. Nander Bacsi preached more rarely, but we children liked him because his sermons were shorter and followed a fairly regular pattern. Then dinner, followed by a quiet afternoon, where we were not allowed to play any games, but were expected to sit quietly and rest, and, most importantly, allow our parents to rest. After supper, there was a second service, which involved one hour of singing songs from the Zion’s Harp, or, very occasionally, a second hymnbook, called the “Red Hymnbook” because the cover was red, most noteworthy for its shorter songs (some songs in the Harp ran to fifteen or twenty verses). That was the religious life. It centered very much on the fact that we were a visual representation of the community of goods, but as you may have gathered, the day to day life was very bland and monotone. Of course, this description centers around the early days (basically until I was in eighth grade); there were MANY changes during my teen years, as we moved further away from our roots. But this was the community we moved to when we left Alberta.

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My father (left) on a trip to Austria in 1986, in search of his Hutterite roots.

On the Lessons He Learned, Implicitly and Explicitly, about Anabaptist Faith and Identity

As to the absorbance of Anabaptist teaching from the Hutterite perspective, the lifestyle had a lot to do with that. I will start with something very negative that I struggled with for a very long time. We saw ourselves as the TRUE people of God. Everyone else was on a somewhat lower level, as far as holiness and Christian living were concerned. As Uncle John put it, we were the “new Israel.” God had become somewhat dismissive of His first covenant people Israel, and modern Christianity in general, and had set us up as the new covenant people. From my reading of at least the early Hutterite teachings, this was often more or less implicitly assumed, if not actually explicitly taught. Our visible communal life was, we were convinced, God’s ideal for His Church. I am still convinced in my heart that this is His ideal, but not just as a visible outward expression. He intends us to “be members of one another”; two of the strongest images of the Church for us were the one-body ecclesiology most fully developed by Paul, and the family of God. And in our interdependent lifestyle and in the sharing of goods, that is what we were living out. And yet, in an ironic way, we were just as individualistic as the culture around us, except our “individual” was the community we belonged to. This was exacerbated by our isolation, both from the culture immediately around us, and, by our physical distance and by the makeup of outsiders in the membership of our particular community, from the broader Hutterite context. Being a part of a larger community than just our own microcosm would perhaps have mitigated somewhat our unconscious and unquestioned sense of superiority. Then again, it may have made it worse.

(An aside here: in one way, I think the Mennonites probably exemplify body life in the Anabaptist sense, probably better than any group I know. The Mennonite Church is truly international in a way that the Hutterites are not. And the ties that bind them together are much more extensive and sensitive than those among the Hutterites. I used to say that if a Mennonite in Honduras stubs his toe, a Mennonite in Ontario winces. Witness the immediate response of Mennonites, across the entire spectrum from very conservative to liberal, to any large disaster. This, I think, expresses the true ideal of community expressed by the early Anabaptists better than the more “colonized individualism” of the Hutterites. But I think that there too, especially in the more conservative branches, there is an innate sense of their special place in God’s heart.)

The other aspect of Anabaptist life among that branch of the movement was a strict devotion to pacifism (they called it non-violence, but there were some aspects of corporal punishment being practiced among us that went sort of over that line). We were very strict about that. I remember once playing at cops and robbers behind the school, pointing a stick at other kids and yelling “bang, bang!” I was so intent on the game that I never noticed the sudden silence of the other players, which should have warned me of the presence of an adult. I was grabbed from behind and “whupped good,” an ironic form of discipline for enforcing non-violence. One of the young men from the Community, the son of the older preacher and brother of the younger one, left the Farm and joined the Kitchener Police (this was before we arrived in 1960); he was permitted to visit his family, but they were kind of uncomfortable with his choice. We imbibed our commitment to pacifism with our daily bread—I am still very uncomfortable holding a gun, even for hunting. It was so deeply ingrained that for a while when I was teaching on the Base, I was somewhat uncomfortable with the fact that I was working for the Canadian Defense Force, even though the military engineers I was teaching were involved in the Construction trades.

Another thing we taught very strongly was that only adults could get baptized and become Church members. This was so strongly ingrained that Grandma and Katie Basel had to get special permission from the head elders of the Hutterite Church to join a baptism class and be baptized at age 19. The usual age for girls was between 21 and 24, and for guys between 23 and 26. Some of the guys would likely have waited longer, but baptism and membership were required for marriage eligibility (that’s why Grandma and Katie Basel jumped the gun, since baptisms were only performed once a year and they did not want to wait another year).4 One of the things we thought rather odd in the conservative Mennonite congregation attended by Carol Grove, my teacher for grades 6 to 8 in the Farm school, was that they regularly baptized teenagers.

We took very seriously the call to be “separated from the World” (by which we meant anyone outside of our community); it is ironic that the word “Pharisee” means “the separated ones.” We were, in the eyes of the people around us, the epitome of the idyllic Christian life, to the extent that CBC even filmed a documentary on the Farm in 1967, while the fuse that shortly after exploded the Farm was already lit. We hid it so well from the people outside that we could even convince ourselves that the conflict was not really there, or could be easily resolved while remaining hidden. One of the aspects of especially conservative Anabaptism, is that the “holy life” can easily be codified and lived entirely apart from a real relationship with God. The hunger and thirst after righteousness that Christ promised to fill cannot be filled apart from a relationship with Him. Anything outside of that quickly becomes a stagnant cistern rather than living water springing up inside us. There is real beauty in Anabaptist thought and practice, but aside from God, it rapidly dies! There are some places where it is alive and really connected with its source; if you can find a community that embodies that, latch onto it.

My father left the community in the early 1980s to study mathematics and education at the University of Waterloo. Today, he works as a substitute teacher in New Brunswick and attends a Baptist church. As for the Community Farm of the Brethren, after several splits, only a very few members of the community remain, and most of my family has left. Most of the buildings, however, are still standing, and the community still maintains some very minimal farming operations as well as the gift shop my father mentioned.


  1. On Big Bend Colony, see David Decker and Bert Friesen, “Big Bend Hutterite Colony (Cardston, Alberta, Canada),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Big_Bend_Hutterite_Colony_(Cardston,_Alberta,_Canada)&oldid=156842, accessed 26 July 2018. On the Lehrerleut, see Harold S. Bender, “Lehrerleut,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Lehrerleut&oldid=117584, accessed 26 July 2018. 
  2. On the Community Farm of the Brethren, see John A. Hostetler, Hutterite Society, 2nd edition (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 279; Rod Janzen and Max Stanton, The Hutterites in North America (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 253. 
  3. See, inter alia, Mary-Ann Kirkby, I Am Hutterite : The Fascinating True Story of a Young Woman’s Journey to Reclaim her Heritage, updated edition (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), the 2013 BBC documentary How to Get to Heaven with the Hutterites, and the controversial 2012 National Geographic reality television series American Colony: Meet the Hutterites.
     
  4. Basel is a Hutterite German term for Aunt, used to refer to mature women in Hutterite colonies.