An Anomalous Defense of Anabaptist Mobility

The Zurich government’s efforts to end the long-term presence of an Anabaptist minority in their territory in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries focused on the control of nonconformists’ physical mobility. The council’s anti-Anabaptist decrees, provoked in part by the movement of Hutterite missionaries in the city’s lands, obliged middling officials to collaborate in a project to segregate, enclose, or banish local dissidents from parishes across rural jurisdictions.1 Periodically, Anabaptist community members were barred from using the commons, incarcerated, or expelled. By imposing these sanctions, Swiss Reformed authorities joined governments across early modern Europe who saw in the restriction and control of movement a means to force members of religious minorities and other marginalized groups to conform.2 Their stated objective was the restoration of subjects’ obedience and communal wholeness. The violence inherent in this approach marked the everyday lives of Anabaptists living in the region over a period of decades. The more systematic implementation of this punitive regime in the 1630s and 1640s helped to permanently eliminate an Anabaptist religious culture from Zurich’s territory.

Plague Image

The burial of three victims of plague in the church yard of Zurich’s Grossmünster, 1582. From the chronicle of the Zurich canon Johann Jakob Wick, Zentralbibliothek Zürich, Handschriftenabteilung, Wickiana, Ms. F 30, Fol. 11r.

In this context, it is difficult to imagine that these same authorities would forward an argument in favor of the free movement of Anabaptists through imperial territory. Yet, in a November 1612 letter to Ernst Georg, the Duke of Hohenzollern residing in Krauchenweis, this is precisely what Zurich’s burgomasters and council did.3 This piece of incongruous reasoning stemmed from the arrest and incarceration of a group of five travelers traveling east between Mengen and Rüdlingen in the duke’s jurisdiction, among them one citizen and one subject of Zurich, one of them a barber surgeon, and three Anabaptist men from Moravia, who were journeying home.4 After being held for several days, the Swiss officials reported, the party’s members had been relieved of a significant sum of money, more than two hundred ducats, before being expelled from the German territory upon the swearing of an oath not to return. The travelers’ misfortune was regrettable, the Zurichers explained, because they had only had cause to traverse Ernst Georg’s lands after being summoned by the doctor Bastian Herber to aid in his efforts to treat victims of an outbreak of plague, which had devastated the city’s territory over the previous year.5 Herber—and, putatively, the assistants he had called for—had “behaved kindly towards us,” using his God-given medical arts and enduring great personal danger. His collaborators were now returning home along a familiar route connecting Zurich and Moravia, carrying with them significant monies bequeathed to them by grateful patients.

The letter’s authors expressed some understanding for the punitive instincts of the duke’s agents. The Swiss officials themselves had been dismayed when circumstances had forced them to welcome wrong-believing adherents of Anabaptism into their territory, where they were not usually tolerated. They also knew the content of the Constitutiones of the Holy Roman Empire, under whose stipulations they assumed that the travelers had been detained and relieved of their possessions. Nevertheless, under the same legal code, the officials contended, if an Anabaptist were to pass through a German territory without spreading error, without coercing those with whom he came into contact, without transporting his property, while remaining quiet (sich still haltend), there was no cause to judge him an evildoer. Under such conditions, even a Jew or Turk could not be treated as the travelers had been. Thus, the officials requested that the confiscated money be returned to the Anabaptists and sought assurances that citizens of Zurich would have no more reason to submit further grievances.

This curious episode warrants attention, first, because it provides yet more evidence of the deep integration of Anabaptists into professional networks of medical practitioners in Swiss territories.6 These networks included local nonconformists and those living well outside the region, whose reputation and ability warranted temporary toleration of their presence in Zurich during times of desperation. Long-distance connections within this network remained viable, it seems, because of the groundwork laid by Hutterite missionaries and Swiss migrants’ ongoing need to settle outstanding financial concerns.7

Second, this case shows that authorities had no obligation to restrict and control the mobility of nonconformists. A variety of options between hospitality and open hostility remained open to them. Under certain circumstances, officials drew on available legal resources to make countervailing arguments, even in an environment in which their coercive approach, and the justifications that buttressed it, appeared to have ossified. Repeated determinations to segregate, enclose, and expel were made deliberately, despite the variety of other paths open to the territory’s governors.


  1. See, for example, “Verbot des Täufertums (1585 [1612]),” in Zürcher Kirchenordnungen, 1520-1675, ed. Emidio Campi and Philip Wälchli (Zurich: Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 2011), 429-35. Astrid von Schlachta has argued that concerns raised by the activities of Moravian missionaries shaped the 1585 mandate. Hutterische Konfession und Tradition (1578-1619): Etabliertes Leben zwischen Ordnung und Ambivalenz (Mainz: Von Zabern, 2003), 352-53. 
  2. For a broader study of this phenomenon, see Nicholas Terpstra, Religious Refugees in the Early Modern World: An Alternative History of the Reformation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016). 
  3. The following account draws from this missive, found in Staatsarchiv Zurich, B IV 71, 519-22. 
  4. Leonhart Rützensdorffer was the citizen of Zurich and Conrad Bentz, from the Rumstal west of Winterthur, the city’s subject. The scribe did not record the names of the Anabaptist travelers. It is possible that the party included a man referred to as “one of our doctors” in the Hutterite Chronicle. The Chronicle reports that in 1612 an unnamed medical practitioner “had been in the city of Zurich and Swabia for over a year. God had blessed his work, and he had rendered good service to many prominent people with his medicines, especially during the epidemic in Zurich when eight thousand people died within a short time.” The Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren, Volume I, ed. and trans. Hutterian Brethren (Rifton, N.Y.: Plough Publishing House, 1987), 598. 
  5. Otto Sigg’s study of records from the rural parish of Ossigen in Zurich’s lowlands suggests that between 35-44% of the population perished in the twelve months preceding the authorities’ letter. “Die drei Pestzüge in Ossingen, 1611/12, 1629/30 und 1636,” Zürcher Taschenbuch 99 (1979): 107. 
  6. For more on this phenomenon, see Hanspeter Jecker, “Im Spannungsfeld von Separation, Partizipation und Kooperation: Wie täuferische Wundärtze, Hebammen und Arzneyer das ‘Wohl der Stadt’ suchten,” Mennonitica Helvetica 39 (2016): 21-33; Roland Senn, “Wer war (Hans) Jacob Boll? Die Geschichte Zweier Täufer aus Stein am Rhein,” Mennonitica Helvetica 37 (2015): 11-44. 
  7. Given the location of the travelers’ arrest, it is likely that they were following a path well-established by Hutterite missionaries and the hundreds of migrants they recruited in Zurich’s territory. Travelers left Zurich’s territory through the northern lowlands, skirted Schaffhausen to the east, walked overland to Ulm, and then contracted water transportation downriver on the Danube. For more on this route, see von Schlachta, Hutterische Konfession, 355-56. Long after they left for Moravia, Swiss migrants returned to Zurich to address outstanding debts and claim inheritance. The Chronicle’s account of Hutterite participation in the provision of medical care highlights the fact that, because of their doctors’ faithful service to the Swiss citizenry, “the lords at Zurich [allowed] more than usual of the money inherited [by the brothers from Switzerland] to go out of the country to the church [in Moravia].” Chronicle, 598. 

Re-Shaping the Chaco

In early 1930, 1500 Russian Mennonite refugees arrived in the Gran Chaco—a semi-arid, lowland region of dense bush on Paraguay’s western frontier.  While their new home may have seemed far-removed from the conflict that had characterized their lives in post-revolutionary Russia, only two years later these pacifist Anabaptists found themselves at the center of the largest inter-state conflict in twentieth century Latin American history. 

Anabaptist Historians readers are invited to read the complete article, “Reshaping the Chaco: Migrant Foodways, Placemaking and the Chaco War,” which explores the strategies that these Russian Mennonite settlers employed to solidify their tenuous claim to an unfamiliar and highly-contested landscape (Instructions for accessing the article are available at the bottom of this post).

Mennonite colonists engaged in a range of seemingly contradictory place-making practices—from the agro-environmental and the political, to the spiritual and the cultural.  Ideas of food security, seen in terms of both production and consumption, linked these diverse exercises. In the Paraguayan Chaco, these former Russian wheat farmers experimented with new crops and foodways. Although pacifists, they supplied the Paraguayan military efforts and provided food aid to wounded soldiers even as they also sent symbolic shipments of their new crops to Nazi Germany. Finally, as an ethnic group practicing endogamy and seeking isolation from their neighbors, they unexpectedly initiated a campaign to evangelize the Chaco’s indigenous population centered, in part, on reforming the latter’s ‘deficient’ diet.

These diverse practices are evident in the pages of Mennoblatt, the small German-language newspaper that colonist Nikolai Siemens published and distributed to his fellow settlers in Fernheim colony.  In Mennoblatt, colonists debated issues from the mundane to the dramatic.  An article advocating for bread produced from varying portions of sorghum or manioc flour would appear next to a reflection on Mennonite’s place in the global Volksgemeinschaft.  A discussion of the Chaco’s intense heat and the recent cotton or peanut harvest might follow an account of military troops passing through the colony or a report on the status of Mennonite’s new mission work among the Enlhet, a local indigenous group.

Published in the Journal of Latin American Studies, this article also seeks to bring the experience of Latin American Mennonites (a rapidly growing community of over a quarter of a million) into greater dialogue with Latin American history. Mennonites arrived in Latin America at times, and in places, that provide a compelling window on agro-environmental change, food security and state formation. Over the last century, they settled in frontier zones like the Gran Chaco on lands that governments considered of ‘marginal’ agricultural value. While the Russian Mennonites in question arrived in Paraguay immediately prior to the outbreak of the war, Canadian Mennonites settled the frontiers of Mexico and Bolivia in the wake of national revolutions and along Belize’s contested border with Guatemala as that small nation gained independence.

In those regions, Mennonites formed endogamous, isolated and ‘traditional’ colonies, but also became ‘model producers’ for domestic economies. In doing so, they consolidated and successfully leveraged a form of agricultural citizenship to sustain a conspicuous autonomy characterized by religious, educational and military exemptions. By turns considered ‘Russians’, ‘Canadians’, ‘Dutch’ or ‘ethnic Germans’, Mennonites benefitted from a racialized ideology of immigration as ‘whitening,’ even as their settlement was conditional upon a legally sanctioned refusal to assimilate into national society. They also maintained strong connections to their brethren throughout the Americas and Europe. This simultaneous engagement with a dispersed diaspora and distinct national identities might have represented an untenable paradox for earlier scholars of an assimilationist paradigm. Recently historians have adopted a more fluid approach to the complex, but often complementary, transnational–national negotiations among Latin American migrant communities. Finally, as one of the earliest Mennonite settlements in Latin America, the experience of Chaco colonists remains critical to understanding this evolving state–settler bargain as Mennonites—and their accompanying foodways—expanded across Latin America.

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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.