October 1979 · Vol. 8 No. 4 · pp. 39–40 

Book Review

Mysticism and the Early South German-Austrian Anabaptist Movement, 1525-1531

Werner O. Packull. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1977. 252 pages.

Reviewed by Marlin Adrian

With the publication of this work, Werner Packull, assistant professor at Renison College, University of Waterloo, Ontario, has firmly established himself as a major spokesperson on the subject of Anabaptism in Southern Germany and Austria. Packull’s thesis is clearly built upon the work of the school that is fast becoming the dominant source of new studies in Anabaptist theology and history. Packull, along with Klaus Deppermann and James M. Stayer, presented the major presupposition of this school in an article, “From Monogenesis to Polygenesis: The Historical Discussion of Anabaptist Origins” Mennonite Quarterly Review, XLIX:2 (1975), 83-121. This article attacks the assertion that Anabaptism was “monolithically sectarian,” having its origins in Zurich, and proposes that “the history of Anabaptist origins can no longer be preoccupied with the essentially sterile question of where Anabaptism began, but must devote itself to studying the plural origins of Anabaptism and their significance for the plural character of the movement.” Packull’s book can best be approached as a study of one of these “plural origins.”

What Packull has to say concerning the origin of South German-Austrian Anabaptism is of tremendous interest. Formerly, scholars who took Swiss Anabaptism as the model to interpret Anabaptism as a whole saw the German group as a radical form of reformation theology, in the same sense as the Swiss were a radical wing of Zwingli’s movement. Out of this group of historians came labels for the entire Anabaptist movement such as “radical reformation” and “left wing of the Reformation.” According to Packull, this model does not fit South German-Austrian Anabaptism. He demonstrates that the theology of early South German-Austrian Anabaptism represented a “medieval mystical legacy within the Reformation context” and possessed a history that can be traced back through Muentzer, Denck, and Hut, or even more directly through the Theologica Deutsch to Tauler and even Eckhardt.” In fact, “on many of the crucial doctrinal issues they stood in opposition not only to the hierarchical Church of Rome, but also to the teachings of the Reformation.”

Beyond the question of origin, Packull provides a reassessment of three figures who have always stood as points of contention among {40} historians, Thomas Muentzer, Hans Denck, and Hans Hut. The picture drawn of the theology of Denck defies all attempts of “revisionist” historians to create out of him a sectarian “Evangelical” Anabaptist. Among the teachings which Packull illuminates in Denck, whom he calls “The Ecumenical Anabaptist,” the one which he identifies as pivotal is “the immanence of God.” Denck’s universalism, his logos Christology, his view of justification as being the same “process” as sanctification, as well as his emphasis on the “inner Word” all grow out of the immanence of God, and all are directly opposed to Luther’s teaching on the same subjects. Denck was firmly “grounded in mystical assumptions about the relationship between God, creation, and man.”

The reassessment of Muentzer and Hut go hand in hand. Packull, building on the work of Gottfried Seebass, places Hut as the major influence on early South German-Austrian Anabaptism. He firmly denies Hut’s alleged conversion to the evangelical model of Anabaptism and asserts that Hut’s acceptance of adult baptism did not mark a decisive break with his Muentzerian past. Seeing Hut as a disciple of Muentzer and characterizing him as a “foiled revolutionary,” supports the conclusion that Muentzer left more than a passing impression on this part of early Anabaptism.

The final part of Packull’s book is concerned with the “devolution” of Hut’s movement. He identifies three reactions to the failure of Hut’s apocalyptic predictions: (1) the Dreamers, a sect built on a fantasy; (2) sectarianism, which eventually joins the “mainstream” of Anabaptism; (3) the mystical spiritualists, those who could neither escape into fantasy nor accept the rigidity of sectarianism. It is this third group which, according to Packull, “continued the mystical humanist tradition of Denck.”

The strength of Packull’s work lies in the way that the work of many scholars has been brought together to produce a very cohesive and readable history of a movement. The methodology of “polygenesis” is consistently applied throughout, and the handling of sources is masterful within this context. All in all, Packull has provided a convincing case. The disregarding of any major influence of the Swiss anabaptists on early South German-Austrian Anabaptism is bound to raise loud objections from proponents of the evangelical model of Anabaptism, but the more profitable reaction will be from those who follow Packull’s lead.

Marlin Adrian, Archivist
Tabor College
Hillsboro, Kansas