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Recent Currents in the Historiography of the Radical Reformation

  • John D. Roth

There can be no question but that the great principles of freedom of conscience, separation of church and state and voluntarism in religion, so basic in American Protestantism and so essential to democracy, ultimately are derived from the Anabaptists of the Reformation period.

With these confident words, Harold S. Bender introduced the main theme of his presidential address at the fifty-fifth meeting of the American Society of Church History, held at Columbia University on 28 Dec. 1943. In the decades that followed, Bender's speech—which he titled.

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1. Bender, Harold S., “The Anabaptist Vision,” Church History 13 (Mar. 1944): 324, quotation on 4.

2. Bender, Harold S., “The Anabaptist Vision,” The Mennonite Quarterly Review 18 (Apr. 1944): 6788. The Mennonite Publishing House (Scottdale, Penn.) has republished the speech in several different formats, and it still remains in print today.

3. The phrase comes from Kurtz, Johann, Lehrbuch der Kirchengeschichte für Studierende, ed. (Leipzig: Neumann, 1885), 148 ff. For similar assessments, see also Holl, Karl, “Luther und die Schwärmer,” (1922) in Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Kirchengeschichte (Tübingen: Mohr, 1948), 1:420–67.

4. See, for example, Keller, Ludwig, Zur Geschichte der altevangelischen Gemeinden: Vortrag, gehalten zu Berlin am 20. April 1887 (Berlin: Ernst Siegfried Mittler und Sohn, 1887); Troeltsch, Ernst, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, trans. Wyon, Olive (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981; rpt. of 1931 ed.), 2:703 ff; Muralt, Leonhard von, Zum Problem: Reformation und Täufertum (Zürich: Zwingliverein, 1934); Köhler, Walter, “Wiedertäufer,” Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 2d ed. (Tübingen, 1931), 5:1918.

5. Littell, Franklin, The Free Church (Boston: Beacon, 1957); Bainton, Roland, The Travail of Religious Liberty: Nine Biographical Studies (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1951); Hillerbrand, Hans, A Fellowship of Discontent (New York: Harper & Row, 1967).

6. Williams, George H., The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962); a revised edition of Williams work has since appeared in Spanish, and a third edition with still more revisions in now available in English as The Radical Reformation, 3d ed. (Kirksville, Mo.: Truman State University Press, 2000).

7. In fact, the inaugural issue of the journal included an essay on the Anabaptists: Schaff, Harold H., “The Anabaptists, the Reformers and the Civil Government,” Church History 1 (1932): 2746. The almost complete cessation of articles on the radical reformation in Church History after the 1970s seems to coincide with the departure of Hans Hillerbrand from the editorial board.

8. These assumptions are made quite evident in Bender's biography of Grebel, Conrad: Conrad Grebel, c. 1498–1526, Founder of the Swiss Brethren, Sometimes Called Anabaptists (Goshen, Ind.: Mennonite Historical Society, 1950).

9. Stayer, James M., Anabaptists and the Sword (Lawrence, Kans.: Coronado, 1972).

10. Stayer, James M., Packull, Werner O., and Depperman, Klaus, “From Monogenesis to Polygenesis: The Historical Discussion of Anabaptist Origins,” The Mennonite Quarterly Review 49 (1975): 83121. “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” (85).

11. A pioneer in this revisionist work was Clasen, Claus-Peter, Anabaptism: A Social History, 1525–1618 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1972); but other seminal works moving in a similar direction include: Haas, Martin, “Der Weg der Täufer in die Absonderung. Zur Interdependenz von Theologie und sozialem Verhalten,” in Goertz, Hans-Jürgen, ed. Umstrittenes Täufertum, 1525–1975 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1975), 5078; Deppermann, Klaus, Melchoir Hoffman: Soziale Unruhen apokalyptische Visionen im Zeitalter der Reformation (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1979); Seebass, Gottfried, “Peasants' War and Anabaptism in Franconia,” in The Anabaptists and Thomas Müntzer, ed. Packull, Werner O.and Stayer, James M. (Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1980), 154-63.

12. For an insight in the methodological approach of the East Germans see, for example, Zschäbitz, Gerhard, “Die Stellung der Täuferbewegung im Spannungsfeld der deutschen frühbürgerlichen Revolution,” in Brendler, Gerhard, ed. Die frühbürgerliche Revolution in Deutschland (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1961), 152-62. The core themes of Peter Blickle's arguments can be found in his From the Communal Reformation to the Revolution of the Common Man, trans. Kumin, Beat (Boston: Brill, 1998); Scribner's many works include The German Reformation (London: Macmillan, 1986) and For the Sake Simple Folk: Popular Propaganda for the German Reformation (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994).

13. See, for example, Yoder, John Howard, Täufertum und Reformation in der Schweiz: Die Gespräche zwischen Täufern und Reformatoren 1523–1538 (Karlsruhe: Mennonitischen Geschichtsverein, 1962) and Fast, Heinold, Beiträge zu einer Friedenstheologie: Erne aus den historischen Friedenskirchen (Maxdorf: Agape Verlag, 1982).

14. The culmination of these efforts is best seen in Stayer, James, The German Peasants' War and Anabaptist Community of Goods (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1991), Goertz, Hans-Jürgen, Pfaffenhass und gross Geschrei. Die reformatorischen Bewegungen Deutschland, 1517–1529 (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1987). For a very fine summary of the methodological debate at the time, see Goertz, Hans-Jürgen, “History and Theology: A Major Problem of Anabaptist Research Today,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 53 (July 1979): 177-88; Stayer, James, “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom and Let a Hundred Schools of Thought Contend,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 53 (July 1979): 211-18; along with other essays in this special issue by Carter Lindberg, Werner Packull, and John Oyer.

15. James Stayer makes this point succinctly and insightfully in “The Radical Reformation,” Handbook of European History, 1400–1600: Late Middle Ages, Renaissance and Reformation, eds. Brady, Thomas A., Oberman, Heiko A., and Tracy, James D. (New York: Brill, 1995), 2:249–51.

16. Goertz, Pfaffenhass und gross Geschrei, passim; Laube, Adolf, “Radicalism as a Research Problem in the History of the Early Reformation,” in Hillerbrand, Hans J., ed., Radical Tendencies in the Formation: Divergent Perspectives (Kirksville, Mo.: SCES, 1988), 128-41.

17. Jecker, Hanspeter, , Ketzer, Rebellen, Heilige: Das Busier Täufertum von 1580–1700 (Liestal: Verlag des Kantons Basel-Landschaft, 1998); Furner, Mark, “The Repression and Survival of Anabaptism in the Emmental, Switzerland 1659–1743” (Ph.D. Diss., Cambridge University, 1998); Gregory, Brad, Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (Harvard: Harvard Universit y Press, 1999); Driedger, Michael, “Mennonites? Heretics? Obedient Citizens? Categorizing People in Hamburg and Altona, 1648–1713” (PhD. Diss., Queens University, 1996), and Packull, Werner O., Hutterite Beginnings: Communitarian Experiments during the Reformation (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).

18. Snyder, Arnold, Anabaptist History and Theology: An Introduction (Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora, 1995).

19. Heilke, Thomas, “Theological and Secular Meta-Narratives of Politics: Anabaptist Origins Revisited (Again),” Modern Theology 13 (Apr. 1997): 227-52.

20. J. Denny Weaver, “Reading Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism Theologically: Implications for Modern Mennonites as a Peace Church,” Conrad Crebel Review (Winter 1998): 37–51.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid., 48. “Simply put, this description of Anabaptist theology is framed by the theology of Christendom which accommodates violence, whatever complimentary remarks it might make about the ideal presented by Jesus' life and teachings” (48).

23. Arnold Snyder, “Anabaptist History and Theology: History or Heresy?” Conrad Grebel Review (Winter 1998): 53–59. Snyder continues, “Those who argue against other people's narratives on postmodern grounds cannot then simply turn around and insist that their own particular narratives should be considered absolute and normative by everyone else. Invoking Jesus does not magically absolutize a particular narrative.... The story stands or falls by the sources in question. The matter of the sword had not been settled in the early movement, even though many other things had been” (57).

24. Gregory, Brad, Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1999), 715.

25. Ibid., 14.

26. “But this is a matter for empirical demonstration, not methodological assumption.” Ibid., 15.

27. Ibid., 11.

28. Ibid., 10.

29. See, for example, Snyder, Arnold, From Anabaptist Seed: The Historical Core of Anabaptist-Related Identity (Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora, 1999), a book solicited by the Mennonite World Conference and now translated into a half-dozen languages as a means of bringing the world-wide fellowship of Mennonites into a common conversation about historical origins. See also a series of recent special issues of Mennonite Quarterly Review on “Mennonites and Postmodernity” (Apr., 1997), “Mennonites and Institutions” (July, 1997), “Mennonites and Conflict” (Apr., 1998), “Mennonites and Architecture” (Apr., 1999), “Engaging Anabaptism: Conversations with a Radical Tradition” (Oct., 2000), and “Mennonites and the Family” (Apr., 2001).

30. See Ricoeur, Paul, Essays on Biblical Interpretation, ed. Mudge, Lewis S. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980).

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