In October 2016, I teased a multi-part series sharing some of my research into Anabaptist engagement with the late twentieth century charismatic renewal movement. In that post, I pointed to the dearth of writing on Anabaptist-charismatic influence and to the larger historiographical problem represented by that silence.
Today’s post picks up where that post left off. I want to share at least three reasons why I think this research matters for scholars of the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition.
First, engagement with the North American charismatic renewal movement represented one of Mennonites’ first ecumenical encounters. The last two decades have seen growing rates of participation by Anabaptists in ecumenical dialogue, mostly through Mennonite World Conference. For instance, Mennonite and other Anabaptist media gave significant coverage to the 2010 service in which the Lutheran World Federation formally asked Mennonite World Conference for forgiveness “for the violent persecution of Anabaptists in the sixteenth century and for the way negative portrayals of Anabaptists and Mennonites have been allowed to continue within their communities and theological institutions.” But these high-profile ecumenical encounters of recent decades tend to obscure earlier forms of interchurch engagement, including with the charismatic renewal movement — a movement that, as numerous scholars have pointed out, was often quite ecumenical.
For instance, when charismatic Christians from various denominations—including Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and many others—came together in 1977 for the Kansas City Charismatic Conference, Mennonites were highly involved. Retired (Old) Mennonite church missionary Nelson Litwiller sat on the organizing committee, and hundreds of Mennonite laypeople and leaders were among the 50,000 people who crowded into Arrowhead Stadium for the week-long event. Worshiping alongside and rubbing elbows with Christians across the denominational spectrum would have been anathema to (Old) Mennonites a generation or two beforehand. Yet by 1977, engagement with religious beliefs and practices from outside the Mennonite tradition had drawn these men and women into contact with other believers. As the historian Perry Bush has demonstrated, Mennonites engaged in ecumenical conversations before 1977. But the Kansas City conference had symbolic significance as an ecumenical encounter: Mennonites were known, active participants and partners in a widely-reported, transdenominational religious gathering.
Arrowhead Stadium, the site of the Kansas City Charismatic Conference in 1977 (Wikimedia Commons)
Second, while some Anabaptists cut loose their denominational ties as a result of their encounters with the Spirit, other Mennonites and Brethren in Christ attempted to forge a distinctively Anabaptist variety of charismatic renewal. At the cutting edge of this endeavor was Mennonite Renewal Services, a grassroots denominational agency that formed in the mid-1970s by two Mennonite leaders sympathetic to charismatic expressions. The organization planned conferences and published a magazine, Empowered, in order to promote charismatic renewal within local congregations while simultaneously attempting to stop charismatic Mennonites from seeking fellowship with and guidance from non-Mennonite charismatics.
But perhaps their most enduring contribution emerged in their efforts to promote a distinctively Mennonite “brand” of charismatic renewal. For instance, in the inaugural issue of Empowered in 1983, one writer opined that the baptism of the Spirit was important, but that there were many signs or sets of signs—not just one singular sign—that could confirm it. He wrote that “difficulty, severe testing or spiritual challenge may be a more typical consequence of the baptism” than signs such as glossolalia or prophecy. The writer’s appeal to suffering and “spiritual challenge” spoke directly to the longstanding Anabaptist conviction that hardship and adversity are expected outcomes of Christian discipleship, beliefs that reflect a living memory even among twentieth-century Anabaptists of their ancestors’ sixteenth-century persecution.
The predominantly African-American congregation at Calvary Community Church in Hampton, Virginia, are more open to charismatic expressions than some of their fellow white Mennonites. With about 2,200 members, this congregation is the largest in Mennonite Church USA.
Third, the growing presence of African American, Latino/a, and Hispanic Anabaptists after 1980 helped to sustain charismatic expressions in Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches. Although pockets of resistance to charismatic beliefs and practices continued to exist within some segments of the Mennonite denominations and the Brethren in Christ Church into the 1980s and beyond, by the last decades of the twentieth century most denominational hierarchies relaxed their older, outright opposition to the movement. Such gradual embrace was a boon to Mennonites and Brethren in Christ in the 1980s, as both groups increasingly welcomed African Americans, Latino/as, and Hispanics into their church communities.
For these Anabaptists, charismatic expressions did not necessarily conflict with the tradition’s other beliefs and practices. For instance, as the historians Steven Nolt and Royden Loewen have argued, Latino Mennonites “were [often] puzzled as to why so many white Mennonites seemed surprised by, or even opposed to, dramatic expressions of divine activity,” such as speaking in tongues or divine healing.
A recent demographic study of Mennonite Church USA confirmed these dynamics. Only forty-four percent of white church members claimed that they had “ever personally experienced . . . gifts of the Spirit” such as casting out demons, speaking in tongues, prophesying, or receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit. By contrast, seventy percent of African-American, Latino/a, and Hispanic church members claimed those experiences.
Since we scholars still have much to learn about African American, Latino/a, and Hispanic Anabaptists in North America, paying attention to the emergence of, ongoing presence of, and tensions resulting from charismatic beliefs and expressions within Anabaptist communities may help provide fresh insights into these late twentieth century developments.
Stay tuned for more posts on these “encounters with the Spirit,” as I continue to share insights from my ongoing research into Anabaptist engagement with the charismatic renewal movement.