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Spring 1998 · Vol. 27 No. 1 · pp. 87–88 

Book Review

Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers

ed. C. Arnold Snyder and Linda A. Huebert Hecht. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1996. xxii + 438 pages.

Reviewed by Abraham Friesen

This is a book that contains vignettes of women in the “Anabaptist movement” from the various regions of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. As individual portraits, the various profiles give us an insight into both the diversity of the “movement” and the role of women the like of which we have not seen before. The variety of personality, social status, importance, and even belief—perhaps especially belief—is considerable.

At times the description is limited by the dearth of historical evidence. But whatever the nature of the source material, the individual profiles are always carefully done. Now and then the writer’s own perspective colors the interpretation, but this is seldom oppressive. On the whole, therefore, these are very important descriptions of the roles women played in the Radical Reformation during this period.

But whereas the various profiles are generally satisfying, the larger context into which they are placed in the introductions to the various segments is not. For it is here that the attempt is made to contain the sometimes nearly bewildering diversity of the individual portraits within a unifying concept. But it does not come off successfully.

The editor speaks of a “shared core of beliefs” as though Thomas Müntzer’s Platonic view of the soul—shared by virtually all mystics and Renaissance humanists—can be reconciled with the Christian view. Hans Denck, who shared this Platonic view of the soul and who espoused the universalist views of Origen, cannot be said to be an “Anabaptist” with respect to his view of the soul; this understanding has profound implications for his soteriology. Nor did everyone take this “shared core of beliefs” from “the reform principles outlined first by Martin Luther” (p. 2).

For the Swiss Anabaptists, Erasmus’s paraphrase of the New Testament—especially the manner in which he explained the “Great Commission”—was decisive. As a matter of fact, as the author dealing with the women around Caspar Schwenckfeld clearly points out, there was no “common core of beliefs” between Schwenckfeld and Pilgram Marpeck. The latter attacked the mystical perspective in Schwenckfeld in an uncompromising fashion. Indeed, confrontation between the various groups is much more common than any “shared core of beliefs.”

There are additional aspects of the introductory material that one {88} could take issue with, such as the argument that Dutch Anabaptism was restored by the Obbenite faction. I have come to a very different conclusion from a preliminary study of Menno Simons to be published shortly. Indeed, the approach that is adopted here forces one to simply ignore differences and focus on similarities. I regard such an approach as untenable; the historian must take the differences, indeed the confrontations that result from these differences, into account as well. Not to do so is to ignore much of the evidence.

This is not to say that the individual studies are not valuable; to the contrary. What it does say is that the reader should pay very close attention to the way in which the individual profiles fit—or do not fit—into the larger interpretive scheme presented in the introductions to the various segments.

Abraham Friesen
Prof. of Renaissance and Reformation History
Univ. of California, Santa Barbara

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