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Fall 2017 · Vol. 46 No. 2 · pp. 252–255 

Book Review

Martyrs Mirror: A Social History

David L. Weaver-Zercher. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016. 414 pages.

Reviewed by Nina Schroeder

David L. Weaver-Zercher’s new social history of the Martyrs Mirror addresses the production and reception history of this martyrology among Anabaptist groups from the early modern period to the twenty-first century. Intellectually rigorous and engagingly written, this new book is a valuable contribution to the field of Anabaptist studies.

Using a clear three part structure to organize his book, Weaver-Zercher’s study effectively supports his opening thesis that the Martyrs Mirror has had a significant part to play in providing a historically rooted model for Anabaptist faithfulness (x). Weaver-Zercher begins by reviewing the context for production of the first Anabaptist martyrologies in Europe, up to and including Thieleman Jansz van Braght’s 1660 martyrology. He then turns to the later publication and reception of various editions, translations, and abridgements. Finally, he identifies and explores contemporary views on the Martyrs Mirror, including the ongoing spiritual benefits and theological challenges that different groups and individuals have perceived in Van Braght’s text and the martyr theme.

Important strengths of Weaver-Zercher’s book are its breadth in historical scope and its integration of methodologies from the fields of book history, church history, and Mennonite studies. As a specialist in American religious history, Weaver-Zercher particularly contributes to the establishment of a historiography for the most recent publication history and social perspectives on the Martyrs Mirror in North America. This is valuable since many of these later editions have not yet received the same degree of scholarly study as the Dutch editions of 1660 and 1685.

Weaver-Zercher’s study makes it clear that the Martyrs Mirror editions were not simply collections of stories. The martyrologists like Van Braght took on the roles of “historian, memory shaper, prosecuting attorney {253} and preacher” all at once (21). The writers and editors offered curated accounts of the Anabaptist martyr heritage, which, from the time of Dutch Mennonite minister Hans de Ries’s 1615 martyrology forward, were already clearly defined according to the criteria of adult baptism and nonviolence. Subsequent editors of Van Braght’s text likewise claimed the powerful testimony of the martyrs to defend and advance particular theological and social viewpoints as the true Anabaptist way. Weaver-Zercher attentively provides the contours of the most important theological debates and sociopolitical issues that played a role in the production of new editions of the Martyrs Mirror. He draws on a rich array of primary source materials and pays particular attention to the martyrology prefaces written for new editions as these often directly identify the aims of the particular editors or publishers.

The catalysts for the Martyrs Mirror publishing projects generally prove to be times of internal disagreement and schism among Anabaptist groups, and times of abundance or war when community leaders perceived heightened external pressures to abandon their distinctive Anabaptist position of nonresistance. There also appears to be a perennial concern among older generations that the younger generations’ lifestyles evidenced signs of spiritual decay.

Throughout the historical overview in parts 1 and 2, Weaver-Zercher recognizes the importance of treating the Martyrs Mirror editions not only as textual sources, but as storied material objects. He describes the visual characteristics of each of the editions and analyzes the pictorial elements of the different editions; most notably, the 104 illustrations by the prolific Dutch printmaker Jan Luyken, which were commissioned by the group of Reformed entrepreneurs who produced the second Dutch edition of 1685. Weaver-Zercher identifies the practical challenges, financial risks, and profit opportunities that have always been part of the production of this large and complicated book. He highlights cultural practices surrounding the book as a valuable object, like the gifting of the Martyrs Mirror to newlyweds, which still persists in some Anabaptist groups today. He also incorporates memorable anecdotes about the history of the Martyrs Mirror as a physical book, such as the “landmark and eventually legendary event” when soldiers seized unbound Martyrs Mirror pages printed for the Ephrata German edition of 1748–49 and used them for musket cartridges and cannon wadding during the Revolutionary War. His account highlights peoples’ dismay at the thought of these revered pages being used in support of violence—“forced into military service” (144–45), as he puts it. Thus Weaver-Zercher effectively highlights the place of the Martyrs Mirror as a book of important symbolic stature among Anabaptists. {254}

In part 3, Weaver-Zercher considers the ongoing cultural and theological importance of the martyr tradition in Anabaptist collective identity today. Here, he is to be lauded for his evenhanded attention to Anabaptist voices from both “tradition-minded” and “change-minded” Anabaptist groups within America. For “tradition-minded” groups, the Martyrs Mirror retains a position of importance as a spiritual resource second only to the Bible. Weaver-Zercher describes the use of the Martyrs Mirror for family devotions and for church sermons among Old Order and conservative Mennonite and Amish communities. He also notes the important role of abridged and paraphrased versions of the stories for both adults and for school-aged children. Weaver-Zercher then carefully traces various positions among the “change-minded” Mennonites. He demonstrates that there are many who continue to have a high regard for aspects of the Martyrs Mirror message. However, Weaver-Zercher also identifies the concerns of assimilated Mennonites who find Van Braght’s worldview too celebratory of victimhood, too vilifying of Catholics, Lutherans, and Reformed, and too Eurocentric for the present composition of the global Mennonite church. Furthermore, he notes that efforts to emphasize a martyr identity can come across as self-righteous, or even incendiary, in light of recent and ongoing ecumenical reconciliations.

Another strength of part 3 is the author’s attention to the legacy of the Martyrs Mirror as it extends into social life, visual culture, and creative work among contemporary Anabaptists. He identifies poetic works and literary projects that reflect both meditatively and critically upon the martyr legacy, and he highlights newer multimedia initiatives, like “The Mirror of the Martyrs” touring exhibition (1990), now based at Bethel College’s Kauffman Museum (Kansas). He also devotes a chapter to the now pervasive and widely recognized image of Dirk Willems, who turns back to save his pursuer from drowning. Weaver-Zercher explores a variety of factors that made Willems the “most usable martyr” in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; among these, the “family friendly” quality of the Luyken image, which emphasizes an act of selfless love rather than gruesome suffering (281).

Weaver-Zercher’s study concludes with a chapter demonstrating that he is attuned to the concern for global inclusiveness that has increasingly shaped Anabaptist discussions on the role of the martyr legacy and the scope of the martyr “canon.” He draws attention to a 2012 gathering of Anabaptists in Goshen, Indiana, in which the attendees considered the possibility of reopening the canon of Anabaptist martyrs to incorporate the names and stories of more recent Anabaptist martyrs from around the world. The resultant web database, “Bearing Witness: Martyrdom and Costly Discipleship in the Anabaptist-Mennonite Tradition,” does indeed present a more diverse cross section of present-day global Anabaptist {255} identity, and it also allows for the addition of stories about those who faced religious persecution in the more recent past in the Soviet Union.

Weaver-Zercher’s study provides an engaging and navigable account of the history of a book with a complicated printing history and an equally complex social and intellectual history. He combines primary sources, publication details, and information on past and present cultural contexts to achieve a thoughtful analysis of a book that continues to be deeply enmeshed in present-day Anabaptist identity. Well-researched, yet presented in an accessible style, this book will be a helpful resource for both academic specialists and those with a personal interest in the Martyrs Mirror.

Nina Schroeder is a PhD candidate at Queen’s University (Kingston, Ontario). She specializes in seventeenth-century Dutch art history and the representation of Anabaptism in early modern visual culture.

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