A Response to “On Neo-Anabaptism and Other Like-Minded “Movements”

Menno Simons

Menno Simons (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just recently, someone posted an article that seems to have received the accolades of many but in all honesty, there are a number of things that are inaccurate. The goal of this blog post is not to address every point made but instead to inform readers (I may address some of the significant topics mentioned individually in later blog posts). The author (Hannah Heinzekehr) of the blog post approaches the issues with far too many presuppositions. The first being that ‘change’ in this instance is a good thing. Well change is not always a positive thing especially when change alters the distinctives that a movement initially had which is the case here.

In addition, the author seems to find a direct correlation between Mennonites and Anabaptism proper. I would have to contend with this argument for the following reasons. The Anabaptist movement never had originally any notion of defining itself through uterine kinship. Nor whether one can trace their surname to a certain period in history it is also not defined by a certain type of dress or food that is prepared and eaten yet these are things that many associate with Mennonites in some fashion. 

When one goes back to the initial formation of the movement, they will see something very different from what is present in the majority of Mennonite churches and especially what is labeled as of late Neo-Anabaptism. This is not surprising when you have a movement that was fundamentally destroyed within the span of a few generations following its initiation. Yes, there were people that went by anyone of the names that we associated with Anabaptistica at that juncture but they had lost their zeal and tenacity that was intrinsic to those that came before. A generations in Anabaptist terms was relatively short, one source estimated that the life expectancy of the average Anabaptist was confined within the span of a few years. There was never any intent for there to be a denomination among many, as far the Anabaptists was concerned they were the visible manifestation of the Body of Christ on the earth.

One of the arguments articulated is that “there was no one clear-cut and monolithic Anabaptist movement, even in the 16th century.” I would have to say that this is accurate to a degree; there is more to the story than this. Yes, it has become very popular to adhere to a polygenetic origin for the Anabaptists especially for those that desire to propagate ‘progressive’ or ecumenical designs under the Anabaptist banner. Yet, the truth of the matter is there are no concrete connections between the Swiss and German/Austrian Anabaptists but “there are striking similarities in doctrine and practice. The similarities suggest for more contact and communication between Swiss and South German Anabaptists then the documentation prove.”[1] Yes, some of these assemblies may very well have sprung up through the influence of the writings authored by the Magisterial Reformers and others that was active during that period in history but at some point, we see a convergence of thought.

No one while deny that the initial appearance of what has become known as Anabaptism began with the small group in Zollikon and St. Gallen that went by the designation “Brothers in Christ”, it was not until later they became known as the “Swiss Brethren”. Their evangelistic activities triggered the conjunction of thought amongst the scattered groups (Matt. 28:19-20). The work Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers corroborates this fact. There in fact “was a common core of theological beliefs and church practices that bound together all Anabaptists as sisters and brothers of a related movement.”[2] Even though they were regional divergences and various aspects received greater emphasis depending on the group these teachings could be traced back to the Swiss Brethren. Even though these companies went by different designations, they genuinely had a desire for unity to acquire that monolithic harmony that the ekklesia is depicted as existing in scripture (Cf. Rom. 15:5-6).

The author of the blog did not take into account historic events such as the Martyrs’ Synod. In Augsburg, Bavaria, Germany the hub of Anabaptist, activity during the 16th century on August 20, 1527 a conference was held hosting some 60 delegates from the various Anabaptist sets. This was done in an effort to put their dissimilarities aside (which was relatively small in light of how much they held in common) in order to engage in a united evangelism campaign within and outside of their native lands. Sadly the majority if not all who attended was captured shortly and put to death thus the name we have at present. There were many other attempts at achieving accord but they were generally unsuccessful by the certain celebrity personality lack of compromise at the summits. 

Even the Mennonites are guilty of this outside of the conferences towards the end of the 16th century some elders started to ‘ban’ whole groups for believing differently.

…Mennonite elders…had much more authority, say than Swiss Brethren leaders. This was expressed especially in their power of pronouncing the ban, which called for the shunning of the excluded, even one’s own children, parents or spouse. The aspiration for congregations “without spot or wrinkle” unfortunately soon led zealous Mennonite elders to ban one another. This was more the fault of Menno’s fellow elders Leonard Bowens and Dirk Philips than of Menno himself, but he did not effectively stand in their way. Not only did the Mennonites ban the Swiss Brethren congregations of the south with which they had much in common, they soon began to splinter internally.[3]

Now this practice began earlier on in the history of the movement, this point segues neatly into the next regarding the various confessions of faith. Two differing groups that fall under the umbrella category of Anabaptism devised the Dordrecht Confession of Faith and the Schleitheim Articles or Confession.   A Dutch Mennonite Conference held at Dordrecht, Holland, embraced the Dordrecht Confession on April 21, 1632. Whereas the Schleitheim Articles was adopted by, the Swiss Brethren at a conference held on February 24, 1527 in Schleitheim Switzerland. Two different bodies whose views and goals differed, the Swiss more radical (radix), and the Mennists or Mennonites more settled in the land. There was over a hundred years of time between the two groups so one can hardly see this as an evolution of thought.

The ironic thing is the author also mentions the Münster Rebellion, but the Mennonites have more in common with the fringe Münsterites than the Swiss Brethren among other groups do. Upon examination one will discover that Menno Simons the one in which the Mennonites took their name was initially “a Melchiorite, that is, a follower of Melchior Hoffman, and that he called the Münster Anabaptists “brothers” but broke decisively with them over the use of force to bring in the kingdom of God.”[4] The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology adds after “the fall of Münster, Menno rallied the peaceful Melchiorites as well as the surviving Münsterites disillusioned with violence. Menno replaced Hofmann’s near end time with the idea of a time of peace that had already begun with Jesus.”[5]  Simons also demonstrated his attachment with Hofmann by accepting and propagating “the aberrant “celestial flesh” Christology”.[6]

More can be touched on but this should suffice. 16th century Anabaptists was hardly “just a crew of people gathering together, and discerning what scripture had to say to them in light of their current cultural context and the gathered community of voices who were represented”. They were one of the great manifestations of first century Christianity to date. It is not fair to judge those men and women that sacrificed all and even underwent martyrdom in obedience to their Lord in such a manner. They were far from lost infants groping in the dark in an attempt to become ‘enlightened’ with all our impressive contemporary knowledge of what it means to be a Christian. Their precious lives should not be reduced to a talking point for privileged individuals to forward their agendas. If anything we should learn from them and follow their example as they had faithfully followed Christ (1 Cor. 11:1).

[1] C. Arnold Snyder, Following in the Footsteps of Christ: The Anabaptist Tradition (London: Darton Longman & Todd, 2004), 20.

[2] C. Arnold Snyder and Linda A. Huebert Hecht, Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers (Waterloo, Ont: Published for the Canadian Corporation for Studies in Religion by Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1996), 4.

For a complete list, see my previous post entitled Core Beliefs and Practices of the 16th Century Anabaptists. https://radixthinking.wordpress.com/2013/06/05/core-beliefs-and-practices-of-the-16th-century-anabaptists/

[3] Thomas A. Brady, Handbook of European History, 1400-1600: Late Middle Ages, Renaissance and Reformations: Visions, Programs and Outcomes, Edition ed. (Leiden: Brill Academic Pub, 1995), 2:273.

[4] See: 1990 Article: Current Research

[5] Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic [u.a.], 2001), 56.

[6] Ibid.


10 thoughts on “A Response to “On Neo-Anabaptism and Other Like-Minded “Movements”

  1. In addition, the author seems to find a direct correlation between Mennonites and Anabaptism proper. I would have to contend with this argument for the following reasons. The Anabaptist movement never had originally any notion of defining itself through uterine kinship. Nor whether one can trace their surname to a certain period in history it is also not defined by a certain type of dress or food that is prepared and eaten yet these are things that many associate with Mennonites in some fashion.

    I think in this paragraph, you do a disservice to Mennonites. First of all, I don’t believe Hannah was making that direct correlation. There is a deep connection between Mennonites and the Anabaptist stream and the evolution of Anabaptist thought as expressed and lived out in that Mennonite story over the past 500 years is something that needs to be considered… along with similar stories by the Brethren in Christ and other Anabaptist groups.

    Second of all, while there is a stigma about Mennonites that we all have certain pedigrees, all eat certain foods, and all dress a certain way, as I’ve mentioned MANY times before, while that is my heritage as a Mennonite, I know MANY folks who use the label “Mennonite” for themselves that do not have those pedigrees, cuisine, or fashion distinctives. In fact, I was born on the island of Puerto Rico where there are Mennonites with last names like Ruiz, Colon, and Gonzalez… they eat arroz con gondules and bacalao… they dress in guajavetas (spelling?) and love to drink cafe con leche along with their jugo de tamarindo. And that’s just one example of Mennonites who are not “typical”… even in the USA there are Mennonites of all sorts of flavors, colors, and pedigrees.

    You paint with a VERY broad brush and I think it does a disservice to the very rich church tradition of Mennonites.

  2. Additonal comment: you say “There was over a hundred years of time between the two groups so one can hardly see this as an evolution of thought.”

    And I honestly don’t see where you draw that conclusion… the fact that 100 years of history of Anabaptist martyrdom, study, wrestling, living, resulted in the Dordrecht which has differences from the earlier Schlietheim shows that Anabaptist thought was shifting and changing and growing…

    This is not to say that Dordrecht got it right… there are still places for modification and additional work… and hence we have other confessions later on including “Christian Fundamentals” in 1921 and “Mennonite Confession of Faith” in 1963 culminating in our current confession in 1995. And this doesn’t even begin to touch on the confessional statements being used by the United States Mennonite Brethren, the Brethren in Christ, the many independant Mennonite communities, and so forth.

    Even the current confession of 1995 is even documented as a framework… in it’s own article on Scripture it states:

    “Referring to the Bible as the Word of God therefore means, first of all, emphasizing the richness and scope of “the Word” in the Bible. Limiting the term “the Word of God” to its written form blinds us to the total witness of Scripture. Second, in referring to the Bible as the Word of God written, we are acknowledging its authority for the church. All other claims to represent an authoritative word on matters of faith and life must be measured and corrected by Scripture through the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the community of faith.”

    So, even those confessions of the past and the current confession are subject to measure and correction by Scripture, guided by the Spirit, and discerned by the community.

    So… yes, 100 years of time between the two is 100 years of time… but it is a process that Anabaptists of all stripes, including Mennonites, confess as something that happens over time, that we live out our theology more than we put it in print and anything we put in print is subject to correction… and that includes Schleitheim.

      • To be honest, I’d have to research it… it comes down to a separation based upon how separated one should be from society, IIRC… I could be wrong, not being versed in that aspect of my tradition’s history.

      • Okay, not a “scholarly” source, but the works cited on the Wikipedia article on the Amish seem to be pretty good.

        so… according to Wikipedia:

        [blockquote]The Amish movement takes its name from Jakob Ammann (c. 1656–1730), a Swiss Mennonite leader. Ammann believed Mennonites, the peaceful Anabaptists of the Low Countries and Germany, were drifting away from the teachings of Menno Simons and the 1632 Mennonite Dordrecht Confession of Faith. Ammann favored stronger church discipline, including a more rigid application of shunning, the social exclusion of excommunicated members. Swiss Anabaptists, who were scattered by persecution throughout the Alsace and the Electorate of the Palatinate, never practiced strict shunning as had some lowland Anabaptists.[citation needed] Ammann insisted upon this practice, even to the point of expecting spouses to refuse to eat with each other, until the banned spouse repented. This type of strict literalism, on this issue, as well as others, brought about a division among the Mennonites of Southern Germany, the Alsace and Switzerland in 1693, and led to withdrawal of those who sided with Ammann[/blockquote]

        It came down to a schism between Swiss and German Mennonites on the topics of how strict church discipline should be…

      • Robert

        The author does imply that Mennonites=Anabaptism. This is nothing new, I see Mennonites do it the majority of the time. While your experience may be unique it is apparent that is not the norm. Why all the complaints regarding ethnocentrism?

        It seems as if some view Anabaptism functioning in a capacity along the lines of apostolic succession. But in place of the laying on of hands one needs to inherit it by blood or be marry into it. Also I was speaking from the implied perspective of the author so it was not a generalization in the usual sense. As I mentioned the notion of the original Anabaptists was never to develop any such concepts. This is an example of one of those ‘changes’ that occurred that I was speaking against.

        Regarding the confessions Robert as I mentioned the things changed over a short period of time. Even GAMEO admits that the Mennonites was a different breed of Anabaptist. It states:

        “Menno was not a founder of Anabaptism even in the North. Rather he was above all else an organizer and thus represented the more institutionalized, second generation of Anabaptism. Mennonite, in turn, referred to the less charismatic and more quietist offspring of their frequently vilified Anabaptist parents.”*

        They were more ‘institutionalized’ and this leads me to the reason why I brought up the Amish and Mennonites. You are right in that there was an issue regarding the harsh use of the ban but there is more to the story.

        Another issue that was transpiring was that in Switzerland at that time the state was not killing they they had to become quiet in the land. But in order to get the conveniences of society (there marriages and children recognized not to mention access to adequate places to live) they had to attend the State church. Many began to compromise and didn’t see anything wrong. While Jacob Amman may have displayed a knee-jerk reaction he recognized that things was different.

        Therefore it is not strange for me to say that they did not show any advancement but regression.

        Regarding the latter confessions i.e. 1921, 63 and 95, notice that as time progressed their doctrine started to parallel Protestantism. Nothing close to the implied ‘theology’ of their ‘ancestors’. This began with Dordrecht, the quest for acceptance and recognition is costly.

        * http://tinyurl.com/kbd5jma

      • I DESPISE gotcha questions… you asked a question, knowing the answer you were aiming for, with the intent purpose of showing me to be misinformed, ignorant, and potentially wrong. I’m done here.

      • As discussed offline last night, we’re pax now on the whole gotcha thingie…

        However, I still put forward to you that what you see as “regression” may have been regression in some places in history… but the journey of Anabaptists along multiple threads (remember, Mennonites aren’t the only descendants of Anabaptism… and even Mennonites have multiple “flavors”) has been one of seeking and searching for the best way to live “in this world but not of it”. Sometimes compromises are made…and then later down the road, those compromises are repented and things shift differently. It’s a living, breathing, growing history. If you assume Schlietheim or Dodrecht are the pinnacle of Anabaptism and everything else is corrupt, then yeah, then it is ALL regression…

        But Anabaptists DON’T see either of those documents as “pinnacle” or any of the documents that follow because they are not people who follow a book or written documents, the WHOLE POINT of Anabaptism is living out a life in discipleship to Jesus, informed by Scripture… we don’t follow the book, we follow the man…

        So, what you may see as “progressive” and “hip” and “compromise”, other see as trying to maintain that balance between obedience to the interpreted written word and correction of bad interpretations and applications. It’s a tension that gives and flows throughtout history for any tradition.

        So, again, at the root, at the core of Anabaptism, is not a written code. The guys who risked death to become the first “re-baptizers” did not do so because of some written code, they did so because they saw the need to become radical followers of Jesus as revealed in the Gospels, not religious folks following a set of prescribed actions, forms, and rituals.

  3. Chesterton (of course) said: The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard. There is much more metaphysical subtlety in the word “damn” than in the word “degeneration.”

    With brethren heritage (rather than Mennonite) I have some concerns over the use and re-definition (possibly) of the term anabaptist. I’m trying to figure this out and I’m not sure I follow the implications of what you are putting forward.

    Can you say something like: “I wish Jones to go to gaol and Brown to say when Jones shall come out,”? Or modern use of the term anabaptist or neo-anabaptist by progressives is simply a exercise in covering their apostasy in historical honor. 🙂 (Not that I think that, just an example)

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