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Spring 2018 · Vol. 47 No. 1 · pp. 17–30 

Apologia Pro Vita Sua

Abraham Friesen

1 The believer and his profession. I had never given this problem much thought as I was getting my university education. History was, in any case, the story of the children of God, whether children in rebellion or children of obedience. Could one not serve God equally well doing secular history, whether Canadian, American, or European? Or even Asian history for that matter? What had really turned me on to history was, after all, not some segment of the human story, but the study of the historical method, the “science” of history: how one analyzed a historical document; how one transformed a series of seemingly unrelated documents into a coherent story; whether one could write impartial history; whether it was true, as postmodernists were beginning to tell us, that there was no really overarching human story, only individual stories, individual truths. Truth with a capital T was a figment of the human imagination.

I cannot believe Shakespeare’s Macbeth when he says history is just a lot of “sound and fury signifying nothing” . . . it would mean renouncing my faith in a providential God who entered history to redeem us

In the field of Reformation studies this postmodernist tendency manifested itself in the so-called “polygenesis” theory of Anabaptist origins, that political revolutionaries were just as much Anabaptists as the pacifists and nonviolent were. {18}


Since one had to have an actual “field of history” in order to get a job—historical method was useful but not marketable—I fell into studying Canadian and American history. But then, as providence would have it, I went to Germany on a scholarship in 1957 and met a great-uncle of mine, a man of seventy-five years who had expended his entire life serving his fellow believers in Germany. One day in conversation I told him I had little use for the contemporary brand of Mennonites. Perhaps, he responded, contemporary Mennonites were no longer the real thing. Was I not a historian? Did I not know that movements lose their original purity and vigor over time, that faith cannot be passed from one generation to another, that it must always be experienced afresh by each generation? If I really wanted to know what Anabaptism/Mennonitism was all about, I should do what every good historian would do: study it at its source, its origin.

That conversation not only changed the direction of my studies, it changed the direction of my life. I turned to the study of the Renaissance and the Reformation, with its rich history of intellectual and religious issues, not least of all the birth of Anabaptism. Little did I know that I was embarking not only upon a new field of studies more closely related to my faith, but also upon a lifelong quest to understand myself in light of the history of Christianity.

Shortly after arriving to teach at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in the summer of 1967, I initiated a new lecture course titled “The Development of History as a Discipline.” The course covered the various approaches historians had taken to their discipline from the Greeks to the twentieth century. While studying the Old Testament approach to history, I encountered the story of Nathan and David. I was struck, for here was the prophet Nathan, God’s servant, having to confront Israel’s hero, King David, with his adultery. Could he have done so as impartially as he did without being aware that his God, the God of justice, was looking over his shoulder? At that point I realized that Christian historians have no option but to deal honestly with the material; they must deal with it as under God. They dare not be partial, biased, or blind to the truth. Postmodernists were wrong—there was a larger human story, and it was guided by the hand of Providence. I learned this lesson so well that, even though my students knew I was a Christian, they could not tell which of the characters who came up in my lectures I favored. Invariably they wanted to know where I came down in the Reformation conflict.

About ten years into my tenure at Santa Barbara, I also began, with a Catholic colleague, to teach the history of European Christianity from 1300 to the present. Together with my Renaissance and Reformation courses, I could deal with the great issues of the faith: reason and revelation; free will and predestination; church and state; war and peace; the Christ of faith and {19} the Christ of history, and others. In my large Western Civilization class of around eight hundred students, I always gave a major lecture on Luther’s conversion experience. But whether it was a religious personality or a secular revolutionary, I always allowed the person to speak for him- or herself. Everyone was entitled to a fair hearing. My faith in a just God demanded that I treat everyone fairly and truthfully. In any case, Luther and the Anabaptists made a much better case for Christianity than I could ever have done. No one could accuse me of proselytizing. The Marxists on the faculty proselytized, but I, a Christian, did not. The content of my courses spoke for me. Thus, there was no inconsistency between what I was as a Christian, how or what I taught in my profession, or how I appropriated what I learned for myself.


One other important matter in my development both as a Christian and as a historian has to do with my conversion at the age of fourteen, long before I ever contemplated a career in history. On a hot Manitoba summer evening in 1948, revival services were held in our small country church in Springstein, Manitoba, about fifteen miles outside the city of Winnipeg. The evangelist was Dr. G. D. Huebert, the father of my future good friend, Helmut Huebert. I no longer recall what his text was, or the message based upon it. All I remember is that the Holy Spirit was in that little church that night and did what the Scriptures say is his main function: “When he [the Counselor, the Holy Spirit] comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8 NIV 1984, passim). He convicted me of my sins that night.

However, I had no intention of following Peter’s advice in Acts 2 and repenting of those sins. Instead, I rose from my seat and, with a heavy heart, headed for the exit. But when I got to the threshold of the door, leaving the sanctuary, I was halted in my tracks by an invisible but immovable force. At this point Peter’s advice was the only alternative left to me, so I turned around, went to the front of the sanctuary, confessed and repented of my sins, and accepted Christ as my Redeemer and Lord. Though I did not know them at the time, Luther’s words from his 1545 retrospective on his own conversion had become mine. He stated, “At this I felt myself straightway born afresh and to have entered through the open gates into paradise itself.” 2

Over the long haul, this experience convinced me of the truth of what Paul said: “But we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength” (1 Cor 1:23–25 NIV, emph. {20} added). My experience of God that night taught me to have a healthy skepticism as I encountered “man’s wisdom” in my academic career. As a historian, I never uncritically accepted human interpretations of historical events, especially those relating to Christian history. And my initial historiographical studies reinforced the conviction that there was nothing infallible about them. God’s Truth was eternal, unchanging, and apparent to the believing mind, but human truth was finite, ever changing, and distorted by an unbelieving heart.

Martin Luther spoke of this divine-human difference in his discussion of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation in On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520). Menno Simons later drew on this discussion when he explained why the teaching of Scripture is always to be preferred to the opinions of scholars and clever philosophers:

Yet every reader should know that however learned the before-mentioned scholars, and however ignorant I am, yet our opinions are all worth about equally much before God, for without the command of the Holy Scripture nothing righteous can be done and nothing pleasing to God can be practiced, let him be whosoever he may. The holy Scriptures do not refer us to them nor to any other learned person, but to Christ Jesus alone. Matt. 17:46. Whenever such highly renowned men by their subtle acuteness and clever philosophy try to take from us and pervert the plain ordinances of Christ Jesus and His apostles, we must consider their doctrine in that respect the doctrine of men and false; for Christ Jesus is not below them, but above them. Neither has He received His holy doctrine from them, but from the wise Father. John 7:24. 3

Though I was just a “little ol’ Mennonite country boy” from an immigrant family of twelve children with few prospects for a higher education, in the eyes of God my educated, evidence-based opinion was as good as anyone else’s, especially if done with the prophet Nathan’s integrity.


If not fully germinated when I began graduate school at Stanford University in the fall of 1963, the seeds of these concepts had nonetheless been planted. They were nurtured by my Stanford mentor, Lewis W. Spitz, whose father had been church historian at Concordia Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. In the introduction to our very first seminar with him, this scholar of Luther and Christian Humanism in Renaissance and Reformation told us we were entering not only a noble profession but a calling. We were there not just to exercise our human reason—God was in the mix. And on a scale of values, reason ranked considerably below {21} God. Furthermore, if it was God who “called” us, humility as well as obedience was in order.

I completed my dissertation, “The Marxist Interpretation of the Reformation,” at the Institute for European History in Mainz, Germany, in the spring of 1967. In fall of that year, I found myself at the University of California, Santa Barbara, starting my academic career as an assistant professor of Renaissance and Reformation history. My interest in Marxist interpretation had begun with the first seminar paper I wrote at Stanford, “Thomas Müntzer in Marxist Thought.” 4 The topic came to me by a chance remark from visiting professor George L. Mosse in his lecture course on modern European intellectual history.

Unbeknownst to me, the larger topic of Marxist interpretation of the Reformation was being hotly debated between West and East German scholars. Indeed, even this topic was part of a much larger research project documenting Western and Eastern (Communist) interpretations of a wide range of topics. Essays on those conflicting interpretations were to be published in the multivolume encyclopedia, Sowjetsystem und demokratische Gesellschaft. 5 On the basis of my Church History essay and the recommendation of my mentor, I was asked to write the essays dealing with the conflicting interpretations of my fields of study, the Reformation and the Renaissance. 6 These were vast topics, but I was given limited space to treat them. Being a prolix writer, confining myself to the space allotted not only taught me a very valuable lesson, it dramatically changed my writing style. In fact, a friend who had earlier complained about my loquacity subsequently complained that my prose had become “very dense.”

The essays I wrote for this project were historiographical, that is, they traced opposing interpretations. My larger study of the Marxist interpretation of the Reformation was also a historiographical study, but with a difference—it sought the origins of the interpretation. In researching its origins, I stumbled upon the work of Wilhelm Zimmermann, a mid-nineteenth-century Württemberg radical whose 1841–43 three-volume history of the 1524–25 German Peasants’ War served as the sole “factual” source for Friedrich Engels’s classic, The Peasant War in Germany. 7 Engels’s book served as Marxist orthodoxy. What Engels and his Marxist followers did not know, however, was that to make his peasant war study relevant to the pre-1848 revolutionary movement in Germany, Zimmermann had glorified Thomas Müntzer. He had done so by plagiarizing from the unreliable work of others, by fabricating details of Müntzer’s life, and by exaggerating his social justice concerns while discounting the religious motivation of his rebellion. Engels and his followers had unwittingly based their interpretation of Müntzer as a {22} pre-Marxist revolutionary on lies. When I revealed what Zimmermann had done in my 1974 book, Reformation and Utopia, the Marxist Interpretation of the Reformation and its Antecedents, the Marxist interpretation began to crumble. 8 Nor did Marxist historians know how to answer the evidence. As late as 1989 Max Steinmetz, dean of East German Reformation scholars, wrote in an essay that someone needed to “answer Friesen” from their perspective. But no one ever did. The Berlin wall came down one year later and with it, a political purge of East German universities.


One year after the publication of Reformation and Utopia, Hans Hillerbrand organized a conference at the Graduate School of the City University of New York on those clashing interpretations of the Reformation. As one of the American presenters, my book quickly became the focus of discussion. It was at this conference that I first became aware of the “polygenesis” theory of Anabaptist origins developed by James Stayer, Werner Packull, and Klaus Deppermann. The theory was that Anabaptism had multiple origins and, in good postmodern fashion, the authors asserted that one kind of Anabaptism was as valid as any other. Value judgments were to be eschewed in the writing of history. As Hans-Jürgen Goertz put it on one occasion, “Which Anabaptism is the real, genuine, normative one: the Bible-believing, free church type, or the apocalyptic-vengeful type, the pacifist or the militant-revolutionary? Historically this question is unanswerable. The entire project of using the authority of the past for present purposes in this manner was an illusion of the older Anabaptist historiography.” 9

For a number of reasons, I immediately rejected this interpretation. First, the writers’ conclusions were based on a historiographical study, and I knew that

[historiographical studies] can at best be used to trace the development of an interpretive tradition; it cannot, however, in and of itself confirm an interpretation. The latter must always be done on the basis of the historical evidence. Therefore, all that the Stayer, Deppermann and Packull study proves is that there were in fact three major interpretive traditions of the Radical Reformation. Most scholars already knew this. But what is more disturbing about that study is the fact that all three historiographical traditions end in one or the other of the three authors’ own studies! This is a development worthy of the great Hegel himself. The individual studies, therefore, serve to determine both the point of departure as well as the culmination of each tradition. Should such authors be so critical of the “Bender School”? 10 {23}

What needed to be done, I decided, was an investigation into the intellectual origins of each of the persons/movements involved in the three traditions at their beginnings: Thomas Müntzer for the Saxon movement; Menno Simons for the Dutch movement; and the early Swiss Anabaptists for the Swiss/South German movement.

In researching and writing the study on the Marxist interpretation of the Reformation I was forced to deal with all aspects of Reformation history. It was probably the best thing I could have done early in my career for it gave me a passing familiarity with virtually every aspect of the field. Nonetheless, that study also convinced me that if I was ever to get a handle on the Radical Reformation I had to come to grips with Müntzer, because ever since the sixteenth century the enemies of Anabaptists, and now Marxist and social historians, had argued that Müntzer had been the father of Anabaptism. But Mennonite historians like Harold S. Bender and his father-in-law, John Horsch, had arbitrarily decided that Anabaptism had to be freed from any taint of revolution (Müntzer) on the one hand, and any taint of humanism (Erasmus) on the other.

But arbitrary decisions, like historiographical studies, did not satisfy me; I had to have hard documentary evidence. So I turned to a study of Müntzer himself, having already familiarized myself with all the conflicting interpretations of this controversial figure. (I must say that I have always had a not-so-secret interest in revolutionaries, hence my move from the Marxists to Thomas Müntzer.) My own life had been redirected by a few words from my great-uncle in 1957, so I knew the kind of impact words could have at critical moments. The Leipzig Disputation between Luther and John Eck in July 1519 was such a moment for Thomas Müntzer. Before leaving the city, he ordered three books, each of them dealing with one of the three main issues discussed at the debate: the Acts of the Council of Constance (1414–18), Eusebius’s Church History, and Augustine’s sermons and letters. Müntzer had recently read the sermons of John Tauler, the great fourteenth-century mystic who described a mystical conversion through the power of the Holy Spirit—a conversion Müntzer probably believed he had himself experienced. Now he drew three major lessons from his reading.

First, from the Acts of the Council of Constance (where the Czech reformer and Luther forerunner, John Hus, had been burned at the stake), Müntzer came to believe that Hus’s attempt to reform the church in the fourteenth century had lacked one major factor: the power of the Holy Spirit. He therefore traveled to Prague in 1521 to proclaim his “Prague Manifesto” in which he expressed his intention to fill the air with the “new song of praise of the Holy Spirit.” {24}

Second, Eusebius taught Müntzer that the apostolic church had remained a “virgin, pure and undefiled” until the death of the apostles, after which “godless error” had begun to enter her. The godless men who intruded these errors had forced the Holy Spirit out of the church, allowing it to be corrupted, for the Holy Spirit and tares (weeds) could not coexist. The “new apostolic church” Müntzer had proclaimed in his “Prague Manifesto” could therefore only come into existence once the tares had been removed and the Holy Spirit had returned.

Müntzer’s third lesson came from reading Augustine’s interpretation of Jesus’s parable of the tares (Matt 13:24–30), or, more accurately, his falsification of that parable. For contrary to the plain meaning of the parable, Augustine argued that the “field” in the parable was the church, not the world, as Christ tells his disciples in Matthew 13:38. Augustine’s interpretation invited the church to resign itself to having unrighteous men and women in its midst until the Last Judgment when Christ’s angels would come and remove them. His motive was to reconcile a fourth-century church that claimed holiness as one of its attributes with its own practice of opening its doors to those with no faith or morals to speak of. And now, one thousand years later, Augustine’s reading of the parable was still being used to defend the church’s tolerance for immorality among its lay adherents. Still, Müntzer accepted Augustine’s interpretation as an accurate description of the empirical church over the centuries. And he was also prepared to accept that the church would remain in its sorry Spirit-deprived state until some future time.

None of this would have led Müntzer into revolutionary activity had it not been for Luther’s proclamation as early as 1520 that the pope was the Antichrist and they were already living at the end of the age, the parable’s “time of harvest.” Müntzer soon saw the implications of that proclamation. If these really were the final days, then was the Last Judgement not upon them? Was this not the time for tares to be pulled up? Was this not the dawning of that “new apostolic church”? Müntzer believed it was. A pure and undefiled, Spirit-empowered church was now just around the corner. It was just a matter of time before the angels (lit., messengers) of the Son of Man would come to yank out the tares and throw them into a fiery furnace. At some point it dawned on Müntzer that he was called to be one of those messengers.


The findings of my study of Müntzer were published in 1989 11 and led to an invitation to deliver the Menno Simons Lectures at Bethel College (Kansas) in 1992. For a reason I no longer recall, I had already been looking into the college’s collection of Ludwig Keller letters and had noticed his {25} wide-ranging correspondence with German and Dutch Mennonite scholars and churchmen after the publication of his Hans Denck biography in 1882. I became fascinated by Keller’s subsequent attempt not only to influence Mennonites’ interpretation of Anabaptism but also to get them to reject Menno Simons in favor of Denck. Thus, I delivered the lectures on Keller’s influence on three major themes in Mennonite history: the Waldensian origins of the Dutch Mennonites, which Keller revived; the influence of Medieval Mysticism on Anabaptism in the person of Denck; and Keller’s influence on John Horsch and through him on Mennonite historiography in general.

The lectures became the basis of my History and Renewal in the Anabaptist/Mennonite Tradition (1994). 12 In the early 2000s, this book inspired the research for my 2006 book, In Defense of Privilege: Russian Mennonites and the State Before and During World War I. 13 These studies, however, were mere interludes between the studies that really mattered in my life: the search for the intellectual origins of the three wings of the Radical Reformation. I had read and admired Erasmus’s writings since my undergraduate days at the University of Manitoba, and I regarded him as the ideal scholar, one who had sought to remain independent of the various religious factions in the early sixteenth century in order to maintain his impartiality. I had intended to write a dissertation on “Erasmus and the Anabaptists.” I even spent a week at the Goshen College historical library in the summer of 1963, researching the topic in preparation for doctoral studies at Stanford University. But my initial preoccupation with Müntzer and the Marxists diverted my attention.

Nevertheless, I continued to read Erasmus and came to see many similarities between Anabaptist thought and his Enchiridion (1503), War is Sweet to the Inexperienced (1512), and his Complaint of Peace (1517). But in 1992 I had not read any of his biblical scholarship. This changed when Nelson Springer, curator of the Goshen College Historical Library, allowed me to take home Leo Jud’s 1542 translation of Erasmus’s Paraphrases—for an entire year! As I read that book, I especially noted Erasmus’s paraphrases on Matthew 28:18–20, what was then called “Christ’s command to baptize” rather than the “Great Commission” as it has been called since the great missionary movements of the late eighteenth century. I became convinced that Erasmus had influenced Anabaptist thinking on baptism. And indeed, as I progressed to his paraphrase of Acts, I saw a pattern emerge, a pattern in which Erasmus interpreted Christ’s command to baptize (Matt 28:18–20 and Mark 16:15–16) through the baptismal passages in Acts (in chapters 2, 8, 10, and 19). I recognized the pattern because I had seen it repeatedly in the writings of Anabaptists. Anabaptists could only have gotten it from Erasmus because he was the only person in the history of the Church ever to interpret the Great {26} Commission in this manner. I began to scour the writings of the Swiss Anabaptists and found the pattern everywhere, and on occasion found direct references to Erasmus as the source. I had discovered the intellectual origins of the Swiss Anabaptists and they had nothing to do with Thomas Müntzer. I published my findings in Erasmus, the Anabaptists, and the Great Commission (1998).

Invited by Paige Patterson, President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, to deliver the Day-Higgenbotham Lectures in 2008, I explored some related topics. But then in Reformers, Radicals, Revolutionaries, I expounded my findings on Erasmus and the Anabaptists in a lengthy essay entitled, “Erasmus, Reformers, and the Anabaptist ‘Third Reformation.’ ” 14 In the same year, I delivered the keynote address at the Fort Worth campus in a conference on Anabaptism and Contemporary Baptists. I titled it “Erasmus, the Reformers, and the Birth of Swiss Anabaptism.” 15 Together with my earlier Erasmus book, these writings constitute my scholarly conclusions on the subject. But I am not yet done. I have written eight chapters of a study that will look at the Swiss Reformation in the light of Erasmus’s biblical scholarship. The results will speak for themselves.

The other element that separates the Swiss Anabaptists from Thomas Müntzer is Augustine’s conscious falsification of Christ’s parable of the tares. It is astonishing to find that not only Thomas Müntzer but virtually all magisterial reformers parroted Augustine’s misinterpretation, even though they were fully aware that Christ’s interpretation clearly contradicted it. But whereas Müntzer used the misinterpretation for revolutionary purposes, the reformers used it to justify a corrupt church, even after their vaunted reforms. Their view of the church made it impossible to institute the ban commanded by Christ in Matthew 18. Anabaptists were the only ones to challenge them on their interpretation and reject Augustine’s falsification. By doing so they signaled that they had nothing whatsoever to do with the revolutionary removal of the tares in “the time of harvest.” Philip Melanchthon’s argument that, “given the opportunity,” all Anabaptists would turn out to be Müntzerites was a lie.


But I knew that the acid test of my emerging interpretation of the Radical Reformation was Menno’s relationship to the revolutionary “Anabaptists” of Münster. Just as the intellectual development of Thomas Müntzer was a key to understanding the Radical Reformation, so was Menno’s relationship to Melchior Hoffmann and the Münster Revolution of 1534–35. I had dealt with these three poles of the Radical Reformation as early as 1983 in a series of lectures at the University of Winnipeg entitled, “The Radical Reformation Revisited,” subsequently published in the Journal {27} of Mennonite Studies. 16 But it was not until 1990, when I was invited to participate in a Menno Symposium in honor of Irwin Horst at Eastern Mennonite University, that I decided to tackle the problem of “Menno and Münster” head-on. In an essay entitled “Menno and Münster: The Man and the Movement,” I decided to forego the general scholarly assumption that Menno was somehow connected to the Münsterite movement and see what happened if I assumed the opposite—that Menno, the man, had not initially been influenced by that revolutionary movement.

It immediately became clear to me that Menno’s intellectual quest, which had begun well before Hoffmann’s arrival in the northern Netherlands in 1529, had to have a separate origin and content. I developed that theme in a 1998 essay entitled, “Present at the Inception: Menno Simons and the Beginnings of Dutch Anabaptism.” 17 But it was not until my Menno Simons book in 2015 that I laid out the sources of Menno’s intellectual development. 18 There I demonstrated that aside from some very powerful influences derived from the young Luther—especially his On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church of 1520—the central core of Menno’s theology came from the same Erasmian sources used by the Swiss Brethren. And in part 2 of that study I argued for a very different source for the intellectual development of Hoffmann and the Münsterites. Theirs was a revolutionary source that had its apocalyptic message and mystical overtones from Luther, its revolutionary context from Augustine’s falsification of the parable of the tares, and its baptism (the mark of the cross on the forehead) as the apocalyptic sign of the 144,000 elect who would survive the day of God’s wrath. This theology of baptism was completely unrelated to Menno’s theology of baptism, which he based on Erasmus’s interpretation of Christ’s Great Commission. To clinch the argument, I pointed out that whereas Augustine’s misinterpretation of the parable of the tares lay at the heart of the Münsterite revolutionary kingdom of God, Menno stood by Christ’s nonviolent interpretation. 19

What is yet to be done is to pull all these studies together and organize them as I have sought to do very briefly in the present essay. But already it appears to me that there are two major intellectual lines of development in the Radical Reformation. The first is the “Erasmian/Swiss Brethren/Menno Simons” line that develops an authentic Anabaptism emphasizing conversion, believers baptism, discipleship, a church of believers, church discipline, and the separation of church and state. The second line embraced Augustine’s reinterpretation of the tares parable with its anticipation of a last-days purging of the church, along with Luther’s teaching that the end of the age was imminent. These together encouraged revolutionaries like Müntzer and Hoffmann to consider violent action as legitimate if done in the service of God’s pre-ordained plan. Their confidence in the inner {28} voice that called them for this purpose was at least in part encouraged by the mysticism of Luther’s German Theology, published in 1516-18. Müntzer’s follower Hans Hut was clearly in this second line of development as he welcomed an apocalyptic interpretation of baptism and was ready to destroy the tares in the “time of harvest.” Such violent apocalypticism was rejected by the Swiss Brethren and, later, Menno Simons. In 1525, we find Andreas von Karlstadt (who had affinities for the Swiss Brethren) saying, “Dr. Luther is one of the false prophets who frightened and scared us for a whole year with the coming of the Last Judgment. But now we see that he proclaimed lies and the visions of his own heart.” 20 The two intellectual lines of development are clear and—although some individuals crossed over from one to the other—quite distinct from one another.


But my work is not yet done. At the moment I am completing a lengthy study to be called “Rendering to Caesar What Belongs to God,” an investigation into the conflict between church and state in the early Swiss Reformation. It will take into account all of Erasmus’s writings in the context of their appearance. At the same time I have completed some eight chapters of another study, perhaps the most important of my career, on the Nuremberg Imperial Edict of 6 March 1523. This edict politicized the early Reformation and the Magisterial Reformers, who decided to cooperate with the political powers and were forced, as a consequence, to modify or even reverse their earliest positions. Hence we find the argument of the Swiss Anabaptists in “A Short, Simple Confession” that “We would be most happy if the authorities would allow us to live in accordance with the earliest writings of their own reformers.” 21 It was the Nuremberg Edict that divided the Radicals from the Reformers. I have been working and collecting materials on this edict since about 1993. The book will be called, “Imperial Law and Holy Gospel: The Political Limits of the Protestant Reformation in German-speaking Lands.” A last related study deals with Luther, revolution, and the apocalyptic tradition in Germany. The book will be entitled, “Luther, the Apocalypse, and the Papal Antichrist.”


Historians sometimes speak of seeing patterns in history, and looking back upon my body of work as a whole I think I can see a pattern emerge, though it may not be obvious when my studies are read individually. That pattern will hopefully provide a better understanding of Anabaptism and the Radical Reformation as a whole. And, perhaps in some indirect way, it might suggest the meaning of Anabaptism for the larger world. I cannot {29} believe Shakespeare’s Macbeth when he says history is just a lot of “sound and fury signifying nothing.” Accepting such nihilism would undercut the confidence that sustains most responsible historians—that history matters because it teaches us lessons that can guide us to a more humane future. For me as a Christian historian, it would also mean renouncing my faith in a providential God who entered history to redeem us. And that I cannot do without also renouncing my life and work, my true self.


  1. Latin for “a defense of one’s life.” The phrase gained currency after the publication of John Henry Cardinal Newman’s 1864 book by that title, in which he defended the convictions that led him to leave the Church of England and join the Catholic Church.
  2. Ernest G. Rupp and Benjamin Drewery, eds., Martin Luther (London: Edward Arnold, 1970), 5–6.
  3. Menno Simons, “Christian Baptism, 1539,” in The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, ed., John C. Wenger (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1956), 242.
  4. Abraham Friesen, “Thomas Müntzer in Marxist Thought,” Church History 34, no. 3 (1965): 306–27.
  5. Sowjetsystem und Demokratische Gesellschaft: Eine Vergleichende Enzyklopädie, 6 vols., ed. Claus Dieter Kernig (Freiburg: Herder, 1966–1972). This encyclopedia was published in English as Marxism, Communism and Western Society: A Comparative Encyclopedia, ed. Claus Dieter Kernig (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972–73).
  6. My essays “Reformation” and “Renaissance” appeared in the fifth volume of Sowjetsystem und Demokratische Gesellschaft, on pages 306–27 and 562–73.
  7. Friedrich Engels, The Peasant War in Germany (New York: International, 1926).
  8. Abraham Friesen, Reformation and Utopia: The Marxist Interpretation of the Reformation and Its Antecedents (Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1974).
  9. Hans-Jürgen Goertz, “The Confessional Heritage in Its New Mold: What is Mennonite Self-Understanding Today?” in Mennonite Identity: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Calvin Wall Redekop and Samuel J. Steiner (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1988), 8 (emph. added).
  10. Abraham Friesen, Erasmus, the Anabaptists, and the Great Commission (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 170n71.
  11. Abraham Friesen, “The Intellectual Development of Thomas Müntzer,” in Reformation und Revolution: Beiträge zum politischen Wandel und den sozialen Kräften am Beginn der Neuzeit, ed. Rainer Postel and Franklin Kopitzsch (Stuttgart, W. Germany: Steiner, 1989), 121–37.
  12. Abraham Friesen, History and Renewal in the Anabaptist/Mennonite Tradition (N. Newton, KS: Bethel College, 1994). {30}
  13. Abraham Friesen, In Defense of Privilege: Russian Mennonites and the State Before and During World War I (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred, 2006).
  14. Abraham Friesen, Reformers, Radicals, Revolutionaries: Anabaptism in the Context of the Reformation Conflict (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 2012), 11–78.
  15. This address was published in The Anabaptists and Contemporary Baptists: Restoring New Testament Christianity, ed. Malcolm B. Yarnell III (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2013), 183–214.
  16. Abraham Friesen, “The Radical Reformation Revisited,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 2 (1984): 124–76.
  17. Abraham Friesen, “Present at the Inception: Menno Simons and the Beginnings of Dutch Anabaptism,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 72, no. 3 (1998): 351–88.
  18. Abraham Friesen, Menno Simons: Dutch Reformer between Luther, Erasmus, and the Holy Spirit (Xlibris, 2015).
  19. In fact, I had already traced the apocalyptic/parable-of-tares theme through the early years of the Reformation in a 2012 essay entitled, “Visions of the End of the Age, the Parable of the Tares, and Sixteenth-Century ‘Anabaptist’ Movements” (ch. 4 in my Reformers, Radicals, Revolutionaries, 147–93).
  20. Andreas von Karlstadt, in The Essential Carlstadt: Fifteen Tracts, ed. E. J. Furcha (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1995), 360.
  21. Quoted in Friesen, “Anabaptist Origins and the Early Writings of the Reformers,” in Reformers, Radicals, Revolutionaries, 115 (emph. added).
Abraham Friesen is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he taught for thirty-seven years. He received his BA and MA from the University of Manitoba (Winnipeg), and his PhD in history from Stanford University (Stanford, California). Before beginning his doctoral work at Stanford, he taught for three years at Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute in Winnipeg.

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