On the Theological Uses of Anabaptist History: A Conversation

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

By Christina Moss and Ben Goossen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dispatches from “Crossing the Line”: The Universal Boundaries of Silence and Voice

The Universal Boundaries of Silence and Voice

Panel 21: Saturday 1:30-3

“Expected Decorum/Silence and Speaking Out: Experiences from KMT”

By Esther Mugahachi, Kanisa la Mennonite Tanzania

  • Esther Mugahachi, director of Grace and Healing Ministry and a bishop’s wife, talked about her experiences in the Tanzania Mennonite Church and the struggle of Mennonite women in Tanzania to find a platform.
  • She identified several boundaries the Mennonite women in Tanzania face, both cultural (inside and outside the Church) and personal. Culturally, women are expected to be submissive and to keep quiet in order to protect their husband’s reputation and ministry. Personally, they often struggle with low self-esteem and discouragement.
  • She shared changes that have already happened in the Tanzania Mennonite Church: women (including Esther) have begun to receive theological education, to work with children and people with HIV/AIDS, and to offer pastoral Sister Care workshops to other women. She also shared changes that still need to happen: women need to be heard, not only seen, men need to learn gender sensitivity, and the Constitution of the Tanzania Mennonite Church needs to officially recognize women’s ordination.

 

“Empowering Girls and Women with Education”

By Pamela Obonde, Kenya Mennonite Church

  • Pamela Obonde, the coordinator of women for Kenya Mennonite Church, spoke about her own experience as a Mennonite woman in Kenya and the ways in which she is using her NGO skills to empower women in the Kenya Mennonite Church.
  • She spoke of the boundaries Kenyan Mennonite women face, including traditional cultural and biblical narrative of women’s inferiority, lack of access to education, limited economic opportunities, underrepresentation in church leadership, and a lack of older female mentors.
  • She also spoke of the work that needs to be done to transcend those boundaries, work she has already begun to do: training workshops to teach women their constitutional rights, workshops to train women for participation in the Church, and engagement with the scriptural texts that have been used to subdue women. She also spoke of the comprehensive educational efforts she has begun, through which women learn literacy, entrepreneurial skills, and their inherent worth and dignity.

 

“Ages and Ages Hence: A Conservative Mennonite Woman’s Hidden Desire for Education”

By Hope Nisly, Fresno Pacific University

  • Hope Nisly’s paper, delivered in her absence by Anne Hostetler of Goshen College, spoke of Nisly’s mother Edith Swartzendruber Nisly, the education she received as part of her conservative Mennonite community, and the further education she wished she could have received.
  • Edith’s community decided that she had to stop high school after grade nine. Ultimately, Edith remained within her community, but she eventually admitted to her children that she wished she could have gone on to college and studied mathematics. In her later life, this wish manifested as a recurring dream, in which Edith began college as a senior and was always pleased to finally attend.
  • Nisly notes that stories of women who leave to pursue new opportunities are told, but those of women like Edith, who chose to stay but the lost opportunities, come to light more rarely.

See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.

“Overcoming Barriers and Building Empowerment: Stories of Anabaptist Women in India” by Cynthia Peacock

Cynthia Peacock, Banquet.jpg

Cynthia Peacock, the second keynote speaker at Crossing the Line, gave a warmly received talk on the achievements and challenges of Anabaptist women in India. Cynthia spoke from her decades of ministry experience in India, first with Mennonite Central Committee in India and then with the Mennonite World Conference. She began her talk by describing a challenge faced during her work: how could she, and the women she worked with, build bridges across the boundaries they encountered?

She shared stories of two women in India who served as role models early in her work. The first, Pandita Ramabai, was a high-caste Hindu woman who converted to Christianity and became a Bible translator and worked to uplift women of lower caste. The second, Mother Teresa, was someone Cynthia worked with personally, as part of her work with MCC in Calcutta. Cynthia shared stories of how Mother Teresa fearlessly overcame boundaries and asked government officials for support of her relief work.

Cynthia then went on to tell stories of some of the setbacks she and other Indian Anabaptist women encountered as they tried to take on more active roles in their churches and denominational structures. For example, she and a group of women spent three years working on a constitution for an independent women’s group within the Anabaptist church hierarchy in India. They had received some support from male church leaders, but when the leadership changed they were completely unsupportive of the endeavor, and even physically destroyed the copy of the constitution the women had brought to the meeting.

She also spoke of her efforts to provide Anabaptist women in India with theological training. These efforts did not always have the full support of male church leaders. In one instance, Cynthia and other women tried to organize a women’s conference, and the male official in charge of a final logistical detail failed to fulfill his responsibilities, which caused the conference to be postponed indefinitely.

In addition to stories of setbacks, she told of women’s successes as they played more active roles in churches. Cynthia’s own church grew from a five-member house church to a much larger church with a Sunday School serving over a hundred children, in large part because the women of the congregation were free to use all their gifts in service of the church. The women in her church organize programs, preach, lead worship, and have an important voice in matters of church governance.

She ended by sharing how she had overcome barriers in her own life. God’s help, and the help of supportive friends, have strengthened and empowered her through the difficulties she has faced over the course of her own life. With God’s help, she overcame fear and shyness and began to share her story as she ministered to other women. She gave glory to God for all that has happened in her life. Indeed, she concluded, John 5:5 and Philippians 4:13 have proved true in her life. Apart from God, she could do nothing, but she can do all things through Him who strengthens her.

See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.

Mathilde Monge’s Des communautés mouvantes: Les «Sociétés des frères chrétiens» en Rhénanie du Nord: Juliers, Berg, Cologne vers 1530-1694: A Review

In the historiography of early modern Anabaptism, the imperial city of Cologne and its surrounding areas have long been understudied. The multivolume Quellen zur Geschichte der Täufer  series, a valuable repository of reprinted primary sources on sixteenth-century Anabaptist topics, contains no volumes on Cologne, and the 2007 Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism, 1521-1700 included only four references to Cologne, slight attention compared to that paid to nearby Amsterdam or Strasbourg.1 Sigrun Haude’s In the Shadow of Savage Wolves contains a chapter on the Cologne authorities’ response to religious dissenters2  before and after the Anabaptist takeover of Münster, but much work remained to be done on the history of Anabaptist and Anabaptist-adjacent communities in Cologne.3 Mathilde Monge’s 2015 monograph Des communautés mouvantes: Les «Sociétés des frères chrétiens» en Rhénanie du Nord: Juliers, Berg, Cologne vers 1530-1694 (Community in Motion: The “Societies of Christian Brothers” in the Northern Rhineland: Julich, Berg, Cologne Circa 1530-1694), published in Geneva by Droz, goes a long way towards filling that lacuna.des-communautés-mouvantes

Monge’s book is wide in scope, both geographically and temporally. She looks not only at the city of Cologne and its territories, but also the adjacent duchies of Jülich (Juliers) and Berg, and her research covers the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, rather than stopping in the mid to late 1500s. In fact, this wider geographical focus enables the longer time scale, since dissidents with Anabaptist leanings residing in Cologne proper had virtually disappeared by the beginning of the seventeenth century.4

The monograph is divided into eight chapters; Monge deals with accusations of heresy as a means of exclusion, the prosecution of heresy as a pastoral task, the practice of denunciation by heretics’ neighbors and associates, how the Christian Brothers fit into sixteenth-century Christianity, the local and international networks to which Anabaptist and Anabaptist-adjacent persons in the Northern Rhineland belonged, the rituals and practices they used in worship, the ways in which they were integrated into the broader social fabric, and finally the groups’ eventual dissolution by the end of the seventeenth century.

Monge grapples, as all historians of early modern Anabaptism must, with the complications inherent in studying a religious group (or rather, groups) whose label was not freely chosen, but was rather imposed on them by governing authorities. Even sixteenth-century Christians who received baptism as adults did not self-identify as Anabaptists—the subjects of Monge’s study simply referred to themselves as Christian brothers and sisters—and a far larger number of Christians questioned the practice of infant baptism, even if they did not go so far as to undergo believers’ baptism themselves, or even refuse to baptize their children. The question of identifying which sixteenth-century Christians were “truly Anabaptist” is thus fraught with difficulty, and Monge sidesteps it altogether. She treats Anabaptism in early modern Cologne not as a religious group with clearly defined boundaries and membership requirements, but rather as a relational phenomenon; those designated Anabaptist received their label as a result of their relationships with the governing authorities and with other heretics. 5

While Anabaptist and Anabaptist-adjacent groups in the early modern Northern Rhineland did not have a single uniform theology and practice, Monge nevertheless uncovers several recurring themes in inquisitorial records: refutation of infant baptism (this rejection, Monge argues, was of greater importance to the Cologne authorities than the act of re-baptism itself), rejection of Catholic sacraments (with the exception of modified forms of baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and belief in a Melchiorite celestial flesh Christology among them.6 Monge’s work on the Societies of Christian Brothers of the Northern Rhineland is an important addition to the historiography of sixteenth-century Anabaptisms and other non-Magisterial Protestantisms, and I can only hope that an English translation, which would make it accessible to a greater number of North American undergraduates, will be forthcoming.

Footnotes:


  1. John D. Roth and James M. Stayer (eds.), A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism, 1521-1700 (Leiden: Brill, 2007), passim. 
  2.  In the Catholic imperial city, this was a label that encompassed not only Anabaptists but also Lutherans and Sacramentarians as well. 
  3. Sigrun Haude, In the Shadow of Savage Wolves: Anabaptist Münster and the German Reformation during the 1530s (Boston: Humanities Press, 2000), 39-69. 
  4. Mathilde Monge, Des communautés mouvantes: Les «Sociétés des frères chrétiens» en Rhénanie du Nord: Juliers, Berg, Cologne vers 1530-1694 (Geneva: Droz, 2015), 48; 223. 
  5. Monge, 7. Melchior Hoffman taught that Christ had not received his human flesh from Mary (since her flesh, like all human flesh, was corrupted by sin), but rather brought his own flesh from heaven. For more information on Melchiorite celestial flesh Christology, see Sjouke Voolstra, Het woord is vlees geworden : de Melchioritisch-Menniste incarnatieleer (Kampen: J.H. Kok, 1982.) 
  6. Monge, 112; 115; 120. 

“They Hear and Believe [Her] As They Do God”: Barbara Rebstock and the Strasbourg Melchiorites

In April 1534, Strasbourg’s Wiedertaüferherren, a committee of magistrates charged with investigating the city’s Anabaptists, questioned and ultimately expelled the Flemish Anabaptist Franz von Hazebrouck. Von Hazebrouck revealed that, while in Strasbourg, he had stayed in the home of a pious woman; in fact, this woman had drawn him to the city in the first place. Rumours of her had reached von Hazebrouck’s home in the Low Countries. She was a prophetess and was even said to work miracles, and he travelled to Strasbourg to meet her for himself. The woman in question was Barbara Rebstock, the wife of the weaver Hans Rebstock and a prominent figure among the followers of Melchior Hoffman who lived in Strasbourg (on the Kalbsgasse, known today as Rue des Veaux). 1

Kalbsgasse

The street in Strasbourg where Barbara Rebstock once lived,  as seen today via Google Street View.

Unfortunately, we know far less about Barbara Rebstock’s life, ministry, and prophetic utterances than we might wish to. Unlike her counterpart Ursula Jost, another prominent Melchiorite prophetess (and, along with her husband Lienhard, the subject of my own doctoral dissertation), Rebstock did not leave behind a corpus of prophetic writings. The records that do survive, however, most of which are gathered in the four volume Alsace subseries of the Quellen zur Geschichte der Taüfer, suggest that Rebstock filled a highly influential leadership role among the Strasbourg Melchiorites. In 1533, when the disgraced Anabaptist Claus Frey left his wife and declared Elisabeth Pfersfelder to be his true spiritual spouse, Rebstock (along with Melchior Hoffman and Veltin Dufft, another Melchiorite leader) chastised him and condemned his infidelity and bigamy.2 In June 1533, while discussing possible sanctions against the recently imprisoned Hoffman and his followers, the Strasbourg city council noted that Rebstock led an Anabaptist meeting in the city, and, as Lois Barrett notes in her chapter on the Strasbourg prophetesses in Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers, Barbara was even called an “elder in Israel.”3

Perhaps the clearest evidence of Rebstock’s influence in Melchiorite circles come from the writings of the Dutch Anabaptist David Joris. After the fall of Münster, the Melchiorites were in disarray and, since Hoffman’s imprisonment prevented him from actively leading the far-flung Melchiorite groups, a series of men attempted to take on the mantle of leadership in his stead. Joris arrived in Strasbourg in 1538 and met with a group of local Melchiorites, including Barbara Rebstock, Lienhard Jost, Peter Tasch, and Johan Eisenburg, in an attempt to convince them to accept his leadership. Joris’ efforts were unsuccessful, in large part due to Rebstock’s intervention. For most of the debate, she seems to have merely listened to the men, but when she did speak the Strasbourg Melchiorites paid attention. In the middle of the debate, she asked for permission to speak, since she felt compelled by the Spirit to voice a word of caution; “some who are here desire to pluck the fruits of our tree before they are ripe,” she warned, “therefore the Lord warns us that no one speak further, for they will account for it.”4 Joris rebuked her and argued that she had not properly understood his message, and the Strasbourg Melchiorites immediately came to Rebstock’s defense, praising her piety and ability to hear from God.5 The conversation stalled, and ultimately Joris’ overtures toward the Strasbourg Melchiorites did not produce the result he desired. In the introduction to his account of the disputation, Joris noted, somewhat bitterly, that the Strasbourg Melchiorites listened to the words and prophecies of Barbara Rebstock “as they do God,” possibly an exaggeration but nevertheless a testament to her influence.6

Rebstock’s visions and prophecies must have been numerous, but very few of them have survived. When the Strasbourg city council questioned her in 1534, she mentioned recurring visions of cataclysmic weather involving large amounts of snow and rain.7 Indeed, cataclysm and impending judgment appear to have been prominent themes in her visions—a 1537 collection of several visions by Strasbourg Melchiorites included Rebstock’s prophecy that, if Strasbourg did not better itself, it would be reduced once again to a village.8 The fullest account of visions possibly by Rebstock occurs in Obbe Phillips’ Confession, an account of his experiences as an Anabaptist written shortly before 1560, after his recantation. Phillips’ account describes the rise of the prophetesses Ursula Jost and Barbara Rebstock in Strasbourg, who “dealt with many remarkable visions…and could predict what deception would arise.”9 He also described a few visions by one of the two prophetesses: a vision of a swan swimming in a river, which was interpreted to legitimize Melchior Hoffman’s identification with Elijah, one of the two witnesses of Revelation, and a vision of a youth serving a chalice to an assembly of Melchiorites, which was interpreted as evidence that Cornelis Poldermann was Enoch, the second witness of Revelation.10 However, there are inconsistencies in Phillips’ account that cast some doubt on this attribution. He also attributes another vision to the same prophetess, a vision of Melchior Hoffman’s severed head on the Strasbourg wall, when in fact this was one of Lienhard Jost’s visions from the 1532 Deventer edition of Lienhard and Ursula’s prophecies.11

Historians of early Anabaptism have repeatedly noted the expanded role of women in Melchiorite circumstances, which was in many ways a remarkable phenomenon. Hoffman enthusiastically defended the ability of women as well as men to hear from God, and pointed out that there was a long and storied history of biblical women filling prophetic roles.12 The surviving details of Rebstock’s life, while scant, point to the importance of her role. However, they also showcase its limitations. Whether the visions Obbe Phillips recounted were Barbara Rebstock’s or not, they illustrate one of the central functions of the Melchiorite prophets: legitimizing Hoffman’s own apostolic role (and, to some extent, that of his associate Poldermann). Ultimately, it was Hoffman and other male apostles who decided which prophets, male or female, had truly heard from God.

 

Footnotes:


  1. 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), 300. 
  2. Krebs and Rott, Elsass II, 13. 
  3. Krebs and Rott, Elsass II, 110; Lois Y. Barrett, “Ursula Jost and Barbara Rebstock of Strasbourg,” in Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers, edited by C. Arnold Snyder and Linda A. Huebert Hecht (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1996), 282. 
  4. David Joris, “The Strasbourg Disputation, 1538” in The Anabaptist Writings of David Joris, translated and edited by Gary Waite (Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 1994), 198. 
  5. Joris, 198-199. 
  6. Joris, 185. 
  7. Krebs and Rott, Elsass II¸ 304. 
  8. Marc Lienhard, Stephen F. Nelson, and Hans Georg Rott (eds.), Quellen zur Geschichte der Täufer. Vol. 15. Elsass III. Teil: Stadt Straßburg 1536-1542 (Gütersloh: Gerd Mohn, 1986), 111. 
  9. Obbe Phillips, “A Confession” in Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, edited by George Huntston Williams and Angel M. Mergal (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1957), 211. 
  10. Phillips, 212. 
  11. Phillips, 212. 
  12. Melchior Hoffman, introduction to Ursula Jost, Eyn Wore Prophettin zu disser Letzsten Zeitt, edited by Melchior Hoffman (Deventer: Albert Paffraet, 1532), fols. F 4 r-v. 

Perception, Reality, and Anabaptist-Muslim Solidarity

In a 2016 multinational survey Ipsos MORI, a United Kingdom and Ireland-based market research company, examined the disconnect between perception and reality in forty different countries in six different continents. The survey asked respondents to estimate figures such as the percentage of their nation’s inhabitants who report being happy, the percentage of homeowners, the percentage of their GDP that the country spends on health, and more.1 One particular aspect of the survey caught the attention of the Guardian: the respondents’ perception of the percentage of Muslims in their country. The respondents greatly overestimated how many Muslims lived in their country; European respondents were often off by a factor of as much as 4 (France’s average guess was 31%, compared to the actual figure of 7.5%), while North American respondents’ guesses were even further from reality (in the U.S., where Muslims represent 1% of the population, the average guess was 17%).2 These inflated perceptions of the size of the Muslim population in Western countries likely both fuel and are fueled by alarmism surrounding the so-called “Muslim takeover” of the West, though the actual statistics lend no credence to the narrative of a takeover.graphic-for-anabaptist-historians-article

As a historian of sixteenth-century Anabaptism, the idea of a misunderstood and oft-maligned religious minority, whose numbers are thought be much larger than they actually are and whose rise is thought to pose a demographic threat, is very familiar to me. It is far more difficult to make an exact demographic breakdown of Europe in the sixteenth century than in the present day. Moreover, religious identification is further complicated by the fact that Anabaptists operated largely underground in the sixteenth century, and the term Anabaptist itself was used primarily as an epithet rather than a form of religious self-identification. Nevertheless, while Anabaptists formed significant clusters in several regions, their overall numbers in German and Dutch-speaking lands (where the movement primarily took root) were undoubtedly relatively small. In his 1972 monograph Anabaptism: A Social History, Claus-Peter Clasen analyzed the numbers of reported Anabaptists in early modern Switzerland, Austria, and South and Central Germany, and concluded that they were numerically insignificant; even in the city of Ausgburg, which had the largest Anabaptist congregation in the Holy Roman Empire in the 1520s, the Anabaptists comprised only 1.2% of the city’s population.3 On the basis of his quantitative analysis, Clasen concluded that “the Anabaptist movement was so insignificant that it is misleading to use the term Reformation at all” and that “[the Anabaptist movement] cannot be called more than a minor episode in the history of sixteenth-century German society.”4

Clasen’s analysis drew criticism from other Reformation scholars. The accuracy of his numbers is difficult to gauge, and he omitted the Netherlands entirely from his quantitative analysis, despite the presence of a vibrant Anabaptist movement in the region. However, regardless of the accuracy of his numbers, Clasen forgot to account for the fact that the historical significance of religious minority groups rests less on their actual numbers than on their perceived numbers and the threat their contemporaries believe them to pose. As Sigrun Haude persuasively argued in In the Shadow of Savage Wolves: Anabaptist Münster and the German Reformation during the 1530s, “numbers are only part of the story…[Anabaptists] had a bearing on the era through their sheer existence and perceived menace.”5 The numerous anti-Anabaptist edicts issued at both the imperial and the municipal level from the emergence of the Anabaptist movement in 1525 and throughout the sixteenth century attest to how seriously Protestant and Catholic authorities took the threat of Anabaptist growth.

Other parallels between the experience of sixteenth-century Anabaptists and twenty-first century Muslims in the West come to mind. Both groups are and were far from ideologically homogeneous, yet members of both groups are and were frequently conflated with their most radical and dangerous co-religionists. Critics such as Lambertus Hortensius, whose Tumultus Anabaptistae (Anabaptist Tumults) circulated in various Latin, Dutch, and French editions well into the seventeenth century, printed and disseminated lurid tales of Münsterite violence and sexual excess long after Anabaptist groups with revolutionary impulses had largely disappeared.6 Then as now, feared religious minorities faced the difficult challenge of attempting to assimilate while still staying as true as possible to their religious values, even as the general public often made false assumptions about these values.

It is a lonely and at times dangerous path to be a visible part of a religious minority that members of the public and even lawmakers perceive as a threat to the status quo. The many stories of early modern Anabaptist martyrs attest to this, as do examples of modern Islamophobic laws and acts of violence. As people who are intimately acquainted with their religious forebears’ history of persecution and marginalization, modern-day Western Anabaptists are in a unique position to empathize and stand in solidarity with other religious minorities as they face public suspicion and hostile political administrations. This is already happening in many ways, as the Mennonite Central Committee in the United States and Canada works to welcome Syrian refugees in partnership with local Mennonite congregations and even Hutterite colonies.7 2017, with the new incoming administration in the United States, the upcoming federal elections in Germany and France, and a contentious Conservative leadership race underway in Canada, poses new challenges for Muslims and other religious minorities in the West. Particularly in light of the events of the last week, including Trump’s executive order on refugees and immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries and the tragic shooting at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec by far-right nationalist Alexandre Bissonette, solidarity with Muslims and other religious minorities is needed more than ever. It is my hope that more and more Anabaptists will commit to standing in the gap and becoming the sorts of allies their forebears might have wished for.

 

Image Source:

Duncan, Pamela. “Europeans Greatly Overestimate Muslim Population, Poll Shows.” Theguardian.com.

https://www.theguardian.com/society/datablog/2016/dec/13/europeans-massively-overestimate-muslim-population-poll-shows (Accessed 10 January 2017)

 

Footnotes:


  1. Ipsos MORI, “Perceptions Are Not Reality: What the World Gets Wrong,” Ipsos-mori.com, https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3817/Perceptions-are-not-reality-what-the-world-gets-wrong.aspx, accessed 10 January 2017. 
  2. Ipsos MORI; Pamela Duncan, “Europeans Greatly Overestimate Muslim Population, Poll Shows,” Theguardian.com, https://www.theguardian.com/society/datablog/2016/dec/13/europeans-massively-overestimate-muslim-population-poll-shows, accessed 10 January 2017. 
  3. Claus-Peter Clasen, Anabaptism: A Social History (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972), 27. 
  4. Clasen, 29; 428. 
  5. Sigrun Haude, In the Shadow of Savage Wolves: Anabaptist Münster and the German Reformation During the 1530s (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 150. 
  6. See, inter alia, Lambertus Hortensius, Tumultuum Anabaptistarum Liber Unus (Basel: Johannes Oporinus, 1548); Lambertus Hortensius, Oproeren der Wederdoperen: Geschiet tot Amsterdam, Munster, en in Groeningerlandt (Amsterdam: Samuel Imbrechts, 1660); Histoire des Anabaptistes: Contenant Leur Doctrine, Les Diverses Opinions qui les divisent en plusieurs Sectes, les Troubles qu’ils ont causez et enfin tout ce qui s’est passé de plus considérable à leur égard, depuis l’an 1521 jusques à present (Amsterdam: Jacques Desbordes, 1702). 
  7. Meghan Mast, “Hutterite Help: A Refugee Sponsorship Story,” MCCCanada.ca, https://mcccanada.ca/stories/hutterite-help-refugee-sponsorship-story, accessed 17 January 2017. 

Current Research on Early Modern Anabaptist and Spiritualist History: A Report from the 2016 SCSC

Bruges.jpg

Every year, scholars of the European Reformations gather to present papers at the annual meeting of the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference. The most recent annual conference was held in Bruges, Belgium, with over 1000 scholars in attendance. As it did at the 2015 conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, the Society for Reformation Research sponsored three panels on the Radical Reformation, and the papers presented at these panels showcased exciting new research on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Anabaptist and Spiritualist topics and challenged established historiographical norms and categories.

The first panel, entitled New Approaches to the Radical Reformation, featured papers from James Stayer, Mary Sprunger, and me. I opened the panel by presenting a paper on Melchior Hoffman and the prophecies of Lienhard and Ursula Jost. The paper detailed the North German/Dutch Anabaptist founding father’s reverence for contemporary prophecy as equal in value to biblical prophecy and his approach to prophecy both scriptural and contemporary, which served to bolster his own authority in Melchiorite circles as its ultimate interpreter.1 James Stayer, professor emeritus at Queen’s University, presented a paper on The Blasphemy of Jan van Leiden, a work which first appeared in print in 1627 and was attributed to Menno Simons. Stayer outlined the controversy between Willem de Bakker and Helmut Isaak (both of whom accept Menno’s authorship) on the date the work was first written and suggested that the document was a forgery, as Christiaan Sepp had argued in the nineteenth century.2 Mary Sprunger of Eastern Mennonite University closed out the panel with a paper on the migration of Flemish (in the geographic rather than religious sense) Mennonites to Amsterdam following increased religious persecution in the Spanish Netherlands and their economic impact on Dutch Mennonite and Doopsgezind congregations, particularly in the area of trade.3

The second panel, entitled Religious and Social Radicalism in the Early Years of the Reformation, featured presentations from Geoffrey Dipple, Emese Bálint, and Roy Vice. Dipple, of the University of Alberta, revisited the question of who baptized South German Anabaptist founder Hans Denck. Dipple argued that Denck’s focus was far less on baptism than on the Lord’s Supper, and that if he himself was baptized at all, he was not baptized in Switzerland. Rather, as the polygenesis paradigm suggests, Denck’s form of Anabaptism was distinct from that of the Swiss Brethren.4 Bálint, of the European University Institute, presented a paper coauthored with Christopher Martinuzzi of the Scuola Normale Superiore on exchanges between Anabaptists and Saxon reformers in the early years of the reformation. The paper emphasized the widespread exchange of ideas in the early years of the Reformation and the fluid nature of religious identity, calling into question the divide between magisterial and Radical Reformations and arguing that given the multiplicity of influences that shaped every surviving sixteenth-century creed, the religions that began in the sixteenth century are best understood as composite religions.5 Roy Vice presented a third paper on the mockery of the sacred in the Peasants’ War. He particularly detailed the peasants’ frequent desecration of consecrated hosts, an action that evinced both anticlericalism and a denial of the Real Presence.6

The final panel, entitled Spiritualist Currents in the Radical Reformation and Their Long-term Impact, featured papers from Theo Brok, Gary Waite, and Michael Driedger. Theo Brok, of the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, presented a paper on Anabaptism in the Lower Rhine from its origins to the 1550s. Brok maintained that the region developed a unique form of Anabaptism influenced by Johannes Campanus and a network of bishops unconnected to Menno Simons and Dirk Philips.7 Gary Waite, of the University of New Brunswick, gave a paper on the long-term impact of the Spiritualist hermeneutic, in which he traced relationships between Amsterdam’s seventeenth-century religious dissenters and argued that the Spiritualist emphasis on the inner word and distaste for dogmatism paved the way for a historical-critical approach to Scriptural revelation adopted by figures such as Baruch Spinoza.8 The panel’s final presenter, Michael Driedger of Brock University, challenged the very category of Radical Reformation, which had served as an organizing principle for this series of panels. Driedger argued that the idea of an essential unity between Anabaptists, Spiritualists, and other dissenters was an idea propagated not by members of these groups themselves, but rather in polemical literature written by their opponents.9

The complicated and interconnected currents of sixteenth-century religious thought continue to resist simple categorization, whether by academics seeking to present historical material in an accessible fashion or by religious groups seeking a neat and tidy origin story. Ongoing research on Anabaptists and other marginal sixteenth-century religious figures reveals both important distinctions between individuals and groups and the exchange of ideas both within and beyond confessional and sectarian boundaries. For those of us, Anabaptist or otherwise, who belong to a religious tradition, these findings offer an opportunity to reflect on the complicated and multifaceted nature of religious identity. Our forebears may not be our ideological twins, but nevertheless we, like them, are shaped not only by our upbringing—both the parts we reject and the parts we accept—but by the people and ideas we interact with over the course of our lives.

 

Works Cited

Bálint, Emese  and Christopher Martinuzzi. “Composite Religions: Encounters Between Early Saxon Reformers and the First Anabaptists.” Paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016.

Brok, Theo. “Johannes Campanus (ca. 1500–1575) and Early Anabaptism in the Lower Rhine.” Paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016.

Dipple, Geoffrey. “Who Baptized Hans Denck?” Paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016.

Driedger, Michael. “The Origins of the Radical Reformation in the Republic of Hateful Letters.” Paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016.

Moss, Christina. “‘Worth as Much as Jeremiah and Isaiah’: Melchior Hoffman and the Prophecies of Lienhard and Ursula Jost.” Paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016.

Sprunger, Mary. “The Impact of Flemish Mennonite Migration to Amsterdam in the Late Sixteenth Century and Early Seventeenth Century” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016).

Stayer, James. “‘The Blasphemy of Jan van Leiden’ (1627) by Menno Simons?” Paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016.

Vice, Roy. “Mocking the Sacred During the German Peasants’ War.” Paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016.

Waite, Gary. “The Spiritualist Hermeneutic and Its Long-Term Impact: From David Joris to Baruch Spinoza?” Paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016.


  1. Christina Moss, “‘Worth as Much as Jeremiah and Isaiah’: Melchior Hoffman and the Prophecies of Lienhard and Ursula Jost” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016). 
  2. James Stayer, “‘The Blasphemy of Jan van Leiden’ (1627) by Menno Simons?” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016). 
  3. Mary Sprunger, “The Impact of Flemish Mennonite Migration to Amsterdam in the Late Sixteenth Century and Early Seventeenth Century” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016). 
  4. Geoffrey Dipple, “Who Baptized Hans Denck?” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016). 
  5. Emese Bálint and Christopher Martinuzzi, “Composite Religions: Encounters Between Early Saxon Reformers and the First Anabaptists” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016). 
  6. Roy Vice, “Mocking the Sacred During the German Peasants’ War” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016). 
  7. Theo Brok, “Johannes Campanus (ca. 1500–1575) and Early Anabaptism in the Lower Rhine” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016). 
  8. Gary Waite, “The Spiritualist Hermeneutic and Its Long-Term Impact: From David Joris to Baruch Spinoza?” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016). This paper is related to an ongoing research project on religious dissent in England and the Low Countries entitled Amsterdamnified and helmed by Waite and Michael Driedger. See more at http://amsterdamnified.dutchdissenters.net/wp/
  9. Michael Driedger, “The Origins of the Radical Reformation in the Republic of Hateful Letters” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, Belgium, August 18-20, 2016).