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October 1975 · Vol. 4 No. 4 · pp. 372–77 

Interpreting Anabaptism

Abraham Friesen

The great Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, once observed that though life must be lived forward, it can only be understood backwards. Erich Frank said much the same thing, though more fully, when he remarked that the situation in which man finds himself is the result of that which he himself, and others before him, have been, and done, and thought. Only by understanding life backwards—that is, historically—can we establish our bearing in the present and chart our course into the future.

We can, therefore, either recognize this as a fact of life and attempt to come to grips with the past—especially our past—or we can ignore that past and be tossed about by historical forces which we will not understand. Philipp Melanchthon himself, early in his career as Luther’s junior partner, recognized the importance of the historical perspective when he remarked that history is the key of all the sciences, not least of all theology.

Some of us—and I am one of those—have come to the study of history, and more particularly to the study of Reformation history, precisely because we wanted to find out who we really were and whether what we were was worth salvaging. I grew up in Manitoba toward the end of the Second World War, the son of immigrant Russian Mennonite parents. German was the only language spoken at home as well as in the church services. At school everyone spoke English and there was a strongly anti-German atmosphere. Somehow, in my childhood mind, the German language and the Mennonite faith were linked together as something to be ashamed of: they were the enemy. Was I a German Mennonite or a Canadian? This inner conflict resulted in an inferiority complex about my Mennonite past, and I would avoid mention of it wherever possible. By 1957-1958, during my first trip to Europe, the simplest solution seemed to be to throw the whole of my heritage, however poorly understood, overboard.

It was my great uncle, at that time already seventy-five years of age but still extremely active in the German Mennonite Church, who told me, as only he could have and gotten away with it, that if it were my intention to shuck off my heritage I should at the very least understand what it was I was rejecting. His admonition haunted me until I eventually turned to the study of Anabaptist history.

To discard the past, then, without having understood it, is foolish; it is an act whereby we shortchange ourselves as well as those who follow after us. To let our heritage slip away from us because of ignorance is equally foolish. To accept it uncritically and unhistorically {373} is also fraught with danger. And of all the major Mennonite groups, I think it must be said that we Mennonite Brethren have ignored our Anabaptist heritage the longest. Nor, until recently, have any Anabaptist scholars emerged from our ranks—be they historians or theologians—to interpret our Anabaptist heritage to us. It is with all this in mind that I would like, in the next few minutes, to suggest how we might most profitably proceed in making that heritage fruitful for our twentiety-century Mennonite lives.


In order really to understand ourselves, then, we must understand our past; and for those of us who are Mennonites, this means first and foremost understanding our Anabaptist heritage, for it was in the Anabaptist movement that we had our beginning. There are, of course, other important milestones, especially in our Mennonite Brethren history—nor do I wish to detract from these—but nothing will substitute for a knowledge of that central Anabaptist core which all Mennonites have in common.

More specifically, however, why should the study of Anabaptist history be so important to us? I think, first of all, because it can give us a sense of identity with a truly remarkable tradition. This, I believe, is all the more important since many of us suffer or have suffered from an inferiority complex and an identity crisis. Here are some few examples of the remarkable nature of this Anabaptist tradition: they began the “free church” tradition in the Reformation, a tradition that has had a profound impact upon the world; they resurrected the idea of the separation of church and state; they renewed the concept of the “believers’ church” and the church as a brotherhood in contrast to the view of the church as Volkskirche containing both the “wheat” and the “tares”; they were the first to practice believer’s baptism in the sixteenth century; they uniquely stressed discipleship and the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount as applicable to all Christians; and it was they who wanted to restore primitive Christianity in all its vitality. I had no idea of all this until I began to study Reformation history and especially the history of Anabaptism.

Having become aware of the impact the Anabaptists have made upon Christianity, we need, secondly, to look at the Anabaptists themselves, at their character. St. Paul, in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, enumerates for his readers some of the great heroes of the faith. He then continues: “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin that doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith.” In this passage, Paul confronts us with two pillars of our Christian faith: Jesus Christ, the author of our {374} faith, and a cloud of witnesses. On the one hand, the Word of God as the source of our faith, and on the other, the great men of faith as our inspiration.

During the Reformation period, about five thousand Anabaptists became martyrs for their Christian faith. Some of them, like Felix Mantz and Michael Sattler, were important leaders of the movement. But literally thousands were ordinary men and women who had the courage to stand up and pay the ultimate price for what they believed. Read the pages of the Martyrs’ Mirror and compare their defence of Christianity to our often open conformity and quiescence. Here were men and women of great courage, simple faith, and steadfast Christian resolve. They are a part of that great cloud of witnesses that compass us about, and they are uniquely ours! From them we can gain inspiration, courage, and example. They have not failed us; but if we neglect them, if we forget them, we fail them and will be the poorer for it.

Furthermore, even though we accept, with Luther and the Protestant Reformation the principle of scriptura sola, and must therefore constantly refer all questions of faith back to the Scriptures as the one infallible source of Christian authority, it is also true, as we heard Melanchthon point out, that even theologies are mostly the result of historical developments. This is true of Protestant as well as Catholic theology. A historical understanding of our own theology is therefore of real significance in gaining a clearer picture of ourselves and the meaning of the Word of God.


Samuel Butler once said that “though God cannot alter the past, historians can; it is perhaps because they can be useful to Him in this regard that He tolerates their existence.” I believe that the first generation of Mennonite Anabaptist scholars—both historians and theologians—has done something akin to this.

The Anabaptists and their Mennonite descendants were vilified and discredited by the mainline Protestant reformers and by the Catholics. And because the writings of these men were viewed by subsequent generations of followers as nearly infallible, their biases, forged in the heat of battle, were passed on from generation to generation. It was only gradually that these biases were broken down. Not until 1850 did more favorable interpretations begin to appear.

But Mennonite scholars, with the exception of the Dutch, did not seriously turn to a study of their past until early in the twentieth century. Then, building upon a new self-conscious Mennonite awareness, these sought to reinforce their current beliefs by turning to their Anabaptist past. No better example of this phenomenon could be given than simply to remind us that the most important essay on Anabaptism, written by one of our greatest Anabaptist {375} scholars, Harold S. Bender, was entitled “The Anabaptist Vision”; and the collection of essays presented to him on his sixtieth birthday was called The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision. Undoubtedly, this kind of work has had a very positive and salutary effect in creating a more positive and inspiring self-image for those contemporary Mennonites who have become aware of this heritage. And we do need to recover that Anabaptist vision. But we cannot stop at this level of historical scholarship. It would be dishonest to celebrate the vision while ignoring some of the reality.

As any student of the Reformation knows, the attempt by the descendants of Reformation churches to make their past relevant to the present has led to apologetics rather than history. And this is true also of much Mennonite Anabaptist scholarship. It seems to be necessary, therefore, that we must all come to a renewed realization of our obligation as Christian scholars. Permit me to exemplify my meaning by referring to the Old Testament history of David. In The Old Testament Interpretation of History, Professor A. T. Olmstead has written about the author of that history:

His complete objectivity is uncanny. David is to be sure, his hero and we realize why he stole the hearts of all with his winning ways, but he paints David’s weaknesses as unsparingly, the banditry of his early life, his repeated lies, his flight to the enemy of his people, his forgetfulness that Michael had saved his life, his intrigue with Bathsheba and its terrible consequences in his family, his degeneration through success and luxury. The other members of the court, even the Zadok who supplanted Abiather as chief priest, are treated with equal objectivity. Whether Abiather or not, he is our first great historian.

What induced this historian, despite that fact that David was his hero, to treat his subject matter of objectively? I think the answer to our question lies in the Old Testament historian’s great awareness that the God he served was the embodiment of justice, and that he required the same kind of impartial justice on the part of this scholarly servant. What purpose, after all, was to be served by glossing over the weaknesses or outright errors of perhaps the greatest Hebrew king when, as the Hebrew prophets never tired of pointing out, there was no hiding from God? And what purpose is to be served by embellishing Anabaptist history or ignoring the troublesome parts of that story? Surely we should have achieved enough maturity by now that we can look at our weaknesses and those of our forefathers with some equanimity before God, and admit our errors.

It seems to me, therefore, that we have a threefold obligation in this regard: first, we have an obligation to God to be as honest as possible in our scholarship; secondly, we have an obligation to ourselves, {376} because we fool ourselves at our own peril; and, thirdly, we have an obligation to our forefathers, because they would want us to learn from their mistakes, not repeat them out of some misguided sense of loyalty. As Garrett Mattingly once observed: it does not matter at all to the dead whether they receive justice at the hands of succeeding generations. But to the living, to do justice, however belatedly, should matter. We need to heed this admonition particularly with regard to Thomas Muentzer and his circle; with the Muenster uprising; with the relationship of Anabaptism to the Reformation; and with regard to the divisions in early Anabaptist history—to name a few of the more important.


Having arrived at this stage, I believe we must then broaden our intellectual and Christian perspective to include the entire world of the Reformation. There is much we can learn from others: from Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, the English reformers, and from the Catholic Church. This has certainly been true in my own case. When I arrived at Stanford University in 1963 I had read a good deal on the Radical Reformation but little on Luther. Lewis W. Spitz, my mentor there and a Lutheran himself, helped me to break down many prejudices I had against the great reformer. Gradually I acquired a tremendous admiration for the man. In Germany, from 1965 to 1967, the great Roman Catholic Reformation scholar, Joseph Lortz, had very much the same effect upon me. We must approach this wider world of the Reformation with an open mind, always seeking, under an all-observing, just God, to do justice to all men.

At the same time, we can and should learn from them; for as we read their writings we cannot help but become aware of their own sincere desire to serve God. It cannot be that they were perverse and the Anabaptists alone right. And if we should become convinced in our Christians hearts that they were right in some respects, and we wrong, it behooves us to change our ways and to modify our thinking. This will require a willingness on our part to expose ourselves, to become vulnerable Christians, and it will inevitably be a humbling experience. At the same time, however, it takes a great deal of strength to admit error and to change. It also takes a great deal of strength to acknowledge truth and greatness in others who may be very different from us. But we must acquire, sooner of later, both the humility and the inner strength to deal justly with others, even those who may have attempted to vilify our progenitors.

All of this may at first be difficult; but once we have set our ship on course, it becomes easier all the time. And, rather than detract from our Anabaptist heritage by taking such an approach, we would add to it and make ourselves worthy heirs of our Anabaptist forefathers. Let us therefore join the ranks of those who are seeking {377} truth, no matter where, but always under the auspices of a just God who has not seen fit to gather all of His children under any one denominational umbrella.

Abraham Friesen is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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