Early Anabaptist Spirituality: History and Response
Was the history of the church to be judged by its sixteenth-century incarnation, or by Christ’s teachings and the apostolic church? This was the big question of the Reformation. Luther, Zwingli, and then Calvin were the theological giants of the age and argued the latter. Ecclesiastical defenders of the status quo argued for the former. Medieval heretics, like the Waldenses, had insisted that the primitive church had been the purest and the apostles’ interpretations of Christ’s teachings the most reliable. Therefore it was to these that one had to return. Rather than see the church as a further perfection guided by the Holy Spirit, these critics saw the church declining from a primitive “golden age.”
Christian spirituality is the Christian’s attention to the continual, regenerating experience of intentional relationship with the presence of God: in solitude, in community, and in service.
Christian humanists adopted this theory, using it to build an interpretation of church history that consciously opposed what they saw as a morally bankrupt church. For them the Bible was the earliest and purest source for Christianity. Erasmus had charged that the further an interpreter stood from the original, the more unreliable the interpretation. Prime examples included the schoolmen of the Middle Ages, “who relied more on Aristotle than on the Bible and were more interested in ‘disputation than piety.’ ” 1
Luther bettered this position with his sola scriptura, rejecting these Church Fathers completely, and going so far as to call the apostolic church only a “tentative norm.” 2 The true church existed wherever the true gospel was purely preached. As John Henry Newman observed in the nineteenth century,
The common complaint of Protestants against the Church of Rome is, not simply that she has added to the primitive or the Scriptural doctrine (for this they do themselves), but that she contradicts it, and moreover imposes her additions as fundamental truths under sanction of an anathema. For themselves they deduce by quite as subtle a method, and act upon doctrines as implicit and on reasons as little analyzed in time past as Catholic schoolmen. 3
Ultimately, Erasmus’s emphasis on sola scriptura went further even than Luther’s, and his emphasis on “free will” became a key component of early Anabaptist thought.
The precedent set in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance—of condemning all of one’s theological opponents—continued, so it should not be surprising that the Reformers adopted the same attitude to their radical offspring (such as the Anabaptists) as the Catholic Church had adopted toward them. And while they often grudgingly acknowledged that some radicals lived good Christian lives, religious animosity and an almost paranoid fear of revolution resulted in condemnation.
Consequently, Anabaptists were branded as children of the arch villain of the Reformation, Thomas Muntzer, with accusations of sedition and revolution. This connection with Muntzer was so strong that Zwingli’s successor, Heinrich Bullinger, strove to convince the world that Zwingli was not the father of Anabaptism and that it had not begun in Zurich. Menno Simons, after whom almost all Anabaptists eventually came to be called, was also accused of being part of the debacle at Münster and in league with the revolutionaries. 4 Early sixteenth-century Anabaptist insiders sought to clear Simons of these charges. 5
However, bad press has followed the Anabaptists because of a religious version of what has been called the “Whig interpretation of history,” i.e., “seeking the origins of one’s own present position and judging the past from that vantage point.” 6
It was the ideology of humanism, then, and especially that of Erasmus, partially mediated by Ulrich Zwingli, which gave rise to Anabaptism. 7 Zwingli, the leader of the Reformation in Switzerland, was a professor and preacher in Zurich. His students participated enthusiastically with him in a series of Bible studies and became even more eager than he was to institute changes in church polity and practice.
Zwingli advocated that orderly changes be made, then wished to wait for the city council to institute these changes which were designed to maintain the Christian character of the city. His students wanted to move more quickly, with reforms based solely on the Bible and independent of the cautious city council. The split between them marked the beginning of Anabaptism in Switzerland. In January 1525, led by the scholars Conrad Grebel and Felix Mantz as well as by peasant and former priest Jorg Blaurock, this radical group began baptizing believing adults on confession of faith and in disregard of their infant baptisms.
Persecution by the state authorities and Protestant leadership was swift. The Peasant Revolt and subsequent war, followed by Luther’s attack on the “peasant hordes,” resulted in brutal suppression. Feeling betrayed, many peasants gave up the cause and returned to Catholicism. Others held onto their ideas, formed their own communities of faith, and, regardless of society, were ready for Anabaptism.
Anabaptism originated somewhat independently in the Netherlands and Northern Germany. Widespread dissent about the doctrine of transubstantiation, coupled with disillusionment about the Catholic church, led to the formation of study and devotional groups separate from organized religion. Melchior Hoffman, an eccentric Lutheran preacher before adopting Anabaptist ideals, began baptizing any who would accept it. He commissioned “apostolic messengers” to spread the news that the kingdom was about to appear and to baptize. Upon his imprisonment, divergent streams of Anabaptists developed, with a revolutionary and apocalyptic stream (to which Hoffman was opposed) leading to the uprising in the city of Münster.
Into this melee stepped a conscience-stricken priest named Menno Simons. Having declared his Anabaptist convictions, Simons devoted his life to calling the scattered and harassed Anabaptists into a peace-loving fellowship, one built on the foundation of Christ’s teaching, example, death, and resurrection.
For Anabaptists, God was totally free. While this was obvious to many in the Reformation, to Anabaptists it meant that God could not be contained by any religious system. God was not confined to any ritual or captured in any sacramental wafer (transubstantiation). God acts from Godself alone, and without consulting human beings. This emphasis led to a questioning of anything physical or material in worship and religion. Images became idols drawing one away from a God who is spirit. No product of nature or humanity had spiritual power of itself. What allowed God to connect with humans was the fact that God loves God’s work. All things were created for God’s pleasure, with the pinnacle of creation, the human, created in God’s image.
God could also not be the supporter of any state or political system. Anabaptists overtly held allegiance to Jesus Christ’s kingdom of peace. As resurrected Lord, Christ was the ruler of all and was to be obeyed above demands of the world. In this kingdom Jesus reigned by persuasion rather than by coercion. The state had neither the authority to establish nor to oppose the kingdom of Christ.
Regional differences emerged. Swiss Anabaptists tended to stress the teachings of Christ as normative without alteration. South German and Austrian Anabaptists drew from German pietism. 8 What mattered to them was the work of God in the depth of the soul. The Word of God was not only the printed page, but also the inner light or spark of God shining in the soul. With God’s help, they expected to succeed in the Christian life.
The paradox was that while God is absolutely free and transcendent, God is also completely available and immanent. Because no particular thing was more like God than any other, God was equally present through all things. If nothing was holy, then everything was holy. After Münster, the spiritual nature of the kingdom was heavily embraced by Menno Simons and his followers. Regardless of regional differences, the clear emphasis was on the working of God in the individual soul, through the work of the Holy Spirit.
For early Anabaptists, humans participated overtly in this process. Humans were free to respond to God’s love and were able to choose whether to know God and do God’s will. Sin was defined as a human tendency for the individual and society to go its own way. Through appropriating the death and resurrection of Christ, the believer was forgiven of sin and empowered by the Holy Spirit to become Christ-like. Anabaptists were almost alone in believing that a consistent Christian life of “discipleship” was a real possibility in this life.
This was later to be defined as Ordnung 9—communal modes of behavior and organizational structure giving form and meaning to daily life. Often legalistic, with harsh consequences if broken, Ordnung provided a strong sense of group identity. There were rules, often prescribed rather than written, and all justified by the Bible. Difficulty and persecution were understood to be the natural result of this discipleship. The “world” with its grasping and possession was in direct conflict with the way of Jesus. Christ’s example was an example of peace and harmony to all, extending even to enemies. Therefore, every individual “brother” or “sister” must take up his or her cross.
Generally, Anabaptism did not attempt to reform the existing church. It was a total break—a rejection of “Christendom” in favor of a new start, independent of any established structures. As such it was based on the teachings of Christ as presented in the New Testament, especially the Sermon on the Mount. No longer was there any distinction between pope, priest, clergy, or layperson. Anabaptists declared that clergy should find useful employment. Each person could and should approach God directly. The priesthood was superfluous because every disciple was a priest.
Opposition ensued. However, the actions which placed Anabaptists most at odds with their political communities were their refusal to defend the state with violence and their refusal to make any legal or loyalty oaths. They were among the first to advocate separation of church and state and to condemn slavery. These beliefs were rooted in their understanding of discipleship.
GOD’S PRESENCE IN HUMAN EXPERIENCE
While optimistic about human potential to respond to the divine will, Anabaptists also felt that the majority of humans would not respond. Their optimistic anthropology was balanced by a recognition that true discipleship would all but inevitably include persecution, suffering, and martyrdom. As many as five thousand Anabaptists were put to death for their faith in this first generation. Martyrdom was elevated to a spiritual level unequaled by any other experience. Christ’s cross was their cross.
But the deepest interaction with God’s presence lay in the corporate nature of the Christian life. While the church as the body of Christ was a metaphor for almost all Christian groups, for Anabaptists it took almost literal form. Christ was incarnate in the gathered assembly of the believers. To participate here was to participate in the body of Christ. This unio mystica (mystical union) was found in the gathered commu-nity. Their contemporaries recognized this and feared it. As Sebastian Franck recounted,
The Anabaptists spread so rapidly that their teaching soon covered, as it were, the land. They soon gained a large following, and baptized many thousands, drawing to themselves many sincere souls who had a zeal for God. For they taught nothing but love, faith and the need of bearing the cross. They showed themselves humble, patient under much suffering; they break the bread with one another as an evidence of unity and love. They helped each other faithfully, called each other brothers, etc. They increased so rapidly that the world feared an uprising by them, though I have learned that this fear had no justification whatsoever. They were persecuted with great tyranny, being imprisoned, branded, tortured, and executed by fire, water, and the sword. In a few years very many were put to death. Some have estimated the number of those who were killed to be far above two thousand. They died as martyrs, patiently, and humbly endured all persecution. 10
For a few, this unio mystica was first experienced in revolutionary solidarity before being transferred into Anabaptism. For some it was first experienced in small Bible study and prayer meetings and then transposed into Anabaptist conversion. For others it was first experienced in the Anabaptist gathering as a replacement or substitute for the entire sacramental system. Regardless, for all the community it represented an “erotic and powerful desire for social connection and confirmation.” 11
This was the root spiritual experience. In contrast to the majesty and tradition of the Roman church and the learning and political power of the Protestant churches, this little band sought to duplicate the apostolic essence. Discipleship took place in community, and while there were continual lapses into legalism, community life was often an expression of genuine love that recognized the interdependence of humanity.
While few Anabaptists accepted the full-blown communism of the Hutterites, in all groups private property was to be placed at the disposal of the group to meet the needs of each individual. In their ideal these communities were places of liberation where religious and social worlds were structured to foster the creative abilities of each person. In these gatherings love for each other was understood as the very love of God, with the possibility of arrest and martyrdom bringing genuine loss to the body.
Menno Simons and Dirk Philips taught that life, experienced in community, would find expression in the social and ethical life of the believer by means of love, peacemaking, service, mercy, and generosity. The inward work of the Spirit was never seen as independent from the Christian’s outward conduct. This dynamic interplay of spiritualism and the community of faith continues for Anabaptists today.
Communal modes of behavior, which gave ultimate form and structure to Anabaptist communities, have become a place of deep longing in our culture. The history of humankind could be structured around the quest, partial achievement, subversion, and loss of this kind of community. It is a quest that attracts us to mystical traditions and disciplines of the past in the face of technology and individualistic capitalism. While it is impossible for anyone, including today’s Anabaptists, to copy this model, the quest remains, encouraged by this witness that human community is possible as a gift of the Spirit through its expression in the individual heart.
Anabaptist spirituality has been deeply embedded in an ethical and communal way of life rather than in exercises such as fasting, contemplation, meditation, rituals, or the keeping of special holy days. Consequently, an exercise of this spirituality, divorced from an ethical and communal way of life, presents a paradox. To really experience it requires a life committed to it. However, this spirituality, in the short term, can be experienced in the imagination and through its writings. Consequently a contemplative time spent with a few etchings and the stories attached to them provided more than enough to engage my imagination regarding the spirituality of these early Anabaptists. One example follows. 12
Adrian Wens, aged about fifteen years, could not stay away from the place of execution on the day on which his dear mother was offered up. Hence he took his youngest little brother, named Hans Mattheus Wens, who was about three years old, upon his arm and went and stood with him somewhere upon a bench, not far from the stakes erected, to behold his mother’s death. But when she was brought forth and placed at the stake, he lost consciousness, fell to the ground and remained in this condition until his mother and the rest were burnt. Afterward, when the people had gone away, having regained consciousness, he went to the place where his mother had been burnt and hunted in the ashes, in which he found the screw with which her tongue had been screwed fast, which he kept in remembrance of her. 13
I was not prepared for this! It was overwhelming! I found myself overcome with horror, grief and pain. This was a real experience, of real people, perhaps my ancestors—part of my collective unconscious. I sat in paradoxical awe and anger at the sometimes dogmatic attitude of both victims and perpetrators. I sat long in wonder at the strength, determination, and faith, seeking distinctives that would make me willing to endure such sacrifices. I tried to live there. I could not! But it did hold me—long!
It also brought me to a place of self-confrontation. Self-confrontation is a hard gift. It begs questions. What within me has a tendency to prejudge and so create distance? How do I respond to those I know have difficulty with me? How can I find new and creative ways to express my true self to my children, spouse, parents, siblings? What is required of me in the light of the persecution and martyrdom that continues in our world? What does it mean to do justice and love mercy? This seems a spirituality that demands actions!
Beyond all the questions came another response: gratitude. Gratitude for the environment and space that my current life and study affords. Gratitude for love’s response and repose. Gratitude for God’s enduring mercy. This too is a miracle of divine grace—a place of rest amidst toil.
I also looked contemplatively at some writings of early Anabaptists. 14 The writings of their early leaders displayed more diversity than I anticipated. There were harsh polemics against fellow Protestant Reformers contrasted with wonderful illustrations of Anabaptist teaching. For example, Hans Hut:
So our new Evangelicals, these soft scholars, have pushed the pope, monks, and priests from their stools. But now that they have succeeded, they begin once again whoring with the villainous Babylonians in all greed, haughtiness, covetousness, envy, and hatred and are building (God have mercy) an even more wicked popery than before. 15
Then reflecting the close affinity the Anabaptists held with creation and a gospel of all creatures, combined with a spirituality of work, Hut also said,
Christ always communicated the kingdom of heaven and the power of God to the common man through the use of parables, pointing to a creature or to different handicrafts or different sort of human occupations . . . he taught and witnessed the gospel to them through their work. To peasants by their fields, seeds, thistles, thorns, and rocks . . . Jesus taught the gospel to the gardener by using trees, to the fisherman by using the catch of fish, to the carpenter by using the house, to the goldsmith by using the smelting of gold . . . to the housewife by using the dough . . . to the vine-keeper by using the vineyards, vines, and grapes . . . to the tailor by using the patch of old cloth . . . to the merchant by using pearls . . . to the body of Christ by using the human body. . . . The thing in all of these parables to note well is that the creatures are made to suffer in human work. It is through this pain that they reach their goals, that is, what they were created for. In the same way no human comes to salvation except through the suffering and tribulation which is the work of God in him. 16
These readings and stories underscored the Anabaptist spirituality of each day as miracles of God’s goodness. The reality of their Gelassenheit (yieldedness and humility) is overwhelming, especially in the face of persecution and martyrdom. This is a covenantal spirituality in which each one is called to personal faith, to accountability in Christian community, and to suffering love in relationship to the world. What a reminder to not always look “out there” for a sense of spirituality, but to see it in every aspect of every function of every day. “Tis a gift to be simple!” But are there connections for my sense of spirituality?
COMPARISONS AND CONTRASTS
I will pass over the details of my own spiritual journey and how that has resulted in a revised appropriation of early Anabaptist spiritual practices. Gelassenheit may easily become—I do not necessarily say it did become for early Anabaptists—an attempt to effect God’s love and grace. But I rather choose to emphasize the openness of Gelassenheit to receive God’s good things as gift: I can notice what God has given, open it, and recognize it in all aspects of life. This is the overriding image of my own spirituality. It embodies what significantly remains from my Anabaptist tradition.
This yieldedness is not a passive giving up, deferring, surrender, and compliance to what life brings my way. Rather it is a yieldedness that says that what God says about me is more true than what people or experience tell me. It is the yieldedness Christ experienced while being tempted in the desert (Matt. 4:1-11).
Likewise with Ordnung I choose to reject its potential for legalistic bondage. For me, Ordnung remains only in vestigial forms, yet I see it as having close parallels to the Benedictine Rule as a mode of communal spiritual formation. My challenge is to find effective ways to introduce these paradigms into an Anabaptist context.
For example, most modern Anabaptists, often lumped together by the term Mennonites, have little conceptual notion of spiritual direction or spiritual formation. Many who have a mild awareness of the terminology dismiss it as Catholic, with responses varying from anathema to indifference. A new sense of Ordnung, coupled with the historical Anabaptist sharing of material goods in mutual aid and service to others and experienced within the historic realities of Anabaptist Gelassenheit, opens the door for spiritual formation and spiritual direction as additional paradigms of nonconformity. A new form of an old distinctive becomes available through the “setting apart” experienced in solitude and spiritual direction.
This is my vision: to find effective, palatable ways to introduce spiritual formation and direction as a new impetus for a spirituality already focused on an ethical and communal way of life. Properly introduced, self-conscious practices of piety such as meditation, fasting, contemplation, rituals, and keeping holy days will enhance the historic impetus of pacifism, separation, community, and service as hallmarks of Anabaptist distinctiveness. This is a spirituality grounded in Scripture. Our history as Anabaptists is foundational for our current cultural realities.
I conclude with a definition and attending practices. Christian spirituality is the Christian’s attention to the continual, regenerating experience of intentional relationship with the presence of God: in solitude, in community, and in service.
- Christian: Centered in Christ’s example and a relationship mitigated by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
- Attention: Being where I am, knowing that the infinite tenderness of God is living within me. The “false self” wants to take me away from being present.
- Continual: Daily and day after day. This is a steady journey over a long period of time, “a long, loving look at the real.”
- Regenerating: There is a change towards “Christ-likeness” over time. This is a connection with “true self” and rejection of “false self.” It frees me to give back whatever I truly am.
- Intentional: Doing what I do (spiritual practice, relationship, or service) because the love of God connects me with the divine presence. “The will willing God actually enters into union with God.” 17 I seek to understand and notice my conscious and unconscious motivations.
- Relationship: A safe place. God does not just love me, God really likes me. I have a few brief years to say, “I love you too.” This intimate interaction is nurturing, sustaining, and provides a gentle gift of self-confrontation. In this confrontation I am invited to respond beyond this intimate interaction.
- Presence of God: Awe and wonder—God is infinitely more and less than anything that can be said, experienced, or comprehended. The more I discover, the more I discover mystery (and love discovering it). I seek to know because I am totally known and loved.
The following are three important practices of my newly-defined Ordnung:
- Solitude: I ultimately stand alone in the divine presence. Having mourned my losses, I hear that I am loved. Here I discover my “true self.”
- Community: Solitude greets solitude, a mutual perceiving, receiving, and enjoyment. Worship and awe are expressed and shared.
- Service: Compassion for the “other.” Response to all the above in the light of the pain, suffering, and evil in the world. 18
- Erasmus, Enchiridon Militis Christiani (1503), 24.
- Abraham Friesen, Erasmus, the Anabaptists, and the Great Commission (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 10.
- Ibid., 13, quoting John Henry Cardinal Newman’s, Christian Doctrine (ca. 1878), 54.
- A violent uprising in the town of Münster was brought on by a revolutionary minority within the larger Anabaptist framework.
- Friesen, 14. The sixteenth-century Hutterite Chronicle and seventeenth-century Martyrs’ Mirror clearly trace the origins of the movement to Zurich and the Swiss Brethren, but then also strongly reject the Münsterites. See A. J. F. Zieglschmid, ed., Die aelteste Chronik der Hutterischen Brueder (New York: Cayuga, 1943), 144.
- Friesen, 11, quoting Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (London, 1950).
- It is this premise for which Abraham Friesen argues in Erasmus, 19.
- For a broader and more nuanced discussion of spirituality among the Swiss, German, and Austrian Anabaptists, see Daniel Liechty, trans. and ed., Early Anabaptist Spirituality: Selected Writings, The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist, 1994), 17-134. Also included are similar discussions of the Hutterian (137-196) and Dutch Anabaptists (199-272).
- German, which may be translated “order.” The word was first used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and referred to the content of God’s order which provided prescribed ethical behaviors and structured the whole way of life according to “God’s will,” as interpreted by the church leaders. For an example of an Ordnung, see J. Craig Haas, Readings from Mennonite Writings: New and Old (Intercourse, PA: Good, 1992), 52.
- Franck, quoted in Liechty, 12.
- Hans Hut, On the Mystery of Baptism (1526), cited in Liechty, 12.
- Also see the Appendixes for letter excerpts and etching.
- Story told by Thieleman Jansz van Braght, The Netherlands, 1660, quoted in Haas, 165-66.
- Haas, Readings, contains 365 writings from various Mennonite authors in thirty-two countries. Ninety are from the first generation of Anabaptists.
- Hut, On the Mystery of Baptism (1526), cited in Liechty, 66.
- Liechty, 68-69.
- Thomas Keating, “The Practice of Attention/Intention,” The Contemplative Outreach News 10 (spring 1996), 3. Keating uses the phrase “will willing God” when describing centering prayer as a liberation from the false self, with its programs for happiness, success, and over-identification with our cultural conditioning. When our will is “willing God,” we are honoring our intention by bringing it into closer union with our experience. Keating calls this gift “centering,” a place where we are invited to discard the emotional debris of our false self and to enter the true self as a place where we are doing what we are doing for the love of God. For a full discussion of the contemplative Christian practice of centering prayer, see Keating’s, Open Mind Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel (New York: Continuum, 1992).
- It is interesting to note that since 1998 there has been a Catholic-Mennonite dialogue initiated for the healing of old memories. See Howard John Loewen, “The Mennonite Tradition: An Interpretation for International Catholic-Mennonite Dialogue (Toward the Healing of Memories),” essay presented at the Catholic-Mennonite Consultation, Strasbourg France, 14-18 October 1998.
My Last Adieu
Excerpts of letters from Anabaptist martyr Maeyken Wens, The Netherlands, 1573, written from prison to her son.
My dear child Adriaen, my son, I leave you this for a testament, because you are the oldest, to exhort you that you should begin to fear our dear Lord, for you are getting old enough to perceive what is good or evil. Think of Betteken, who is about as old as you are. My son, from your youth follow that which is good and depart from evil: do good while you have time and look at your father, how lovingly he went before me with kindness and courteousness, always instructing me with the Word of the Lord. Oh, if I had so followed after him, how light would be my bonds! Hence, my dear son, beware of that which is evil that you will not have to lament afterwards: “Had I done this or that”; for then, when it is as far as it now is with me, it will be too late.
Join yourself to those that fear the Lord, and depart from evil, and through love do all that is good. Oh, regard not the great multitude or the ancient custom, but look at the little flock, which is persecuted for the word of the Lord, for the good persecute none, but are persecuted.
The doctrine of Christ is mercy, peace, purity, faith, meekness, humbleness, and full obedience to God. My dear son, yield yourself to that which is good; the Lord will give you understanding. I give you this as my last adieu to you. My dear child, heed the Lord’s chastening; for whenever you do evil, He will chasten you in your mind. Desist then, and call to the Lord for help, and hate that which is evil, and the Lord will deliver you, and good will come to you.
My dear son, I hope now to go before you. Follow me thus as much as you value your soul, for besides this there shall be found no other way to salvation. Thus, I will now commend you to the Lord; may He keep you. I trust the Lord that He will do it, if you seek Him. Love one another all the days of your life; take Hansken on your arm now and then for me. And if your father should be taken from you, care for one another. The Lord keep you one and all. My dear children, kiss one another once for me, for remembrance. Adieu, my dear children, all of you. My dear son, be not afraid of this suffering; it is nothing compared to that which shall endure forever. The Lord takes away all fear. I did not know what to do for joy, when I was sentenced. Hence cease not to fear God because of this temporal death. I cannot fully thank my God for the great grace which He has shown me. Adieu once more, my dear Adriaen. Ever be kind, I pray all of you, for what I write to the oldest, I also mean to say to the youngest. Herewith I will commend you to the Lord once more. I have written this after I was sentenced to die for the testimony of Jesus Christ.
Sons of Maeyken Wens searching for her tongue screw among her ashes, Antwerp, 1573.
Used by permission of The Martyrs Mirror Trust: Kauffman Museum, Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas; Mennonite Historical Library, Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana.