The Anabaptist Revision

This afternoon we’ll pick up our series examining the critique of Pietism bound up in the “Anabaptist vision” promoted by Harold Bender and like-minded Mennonite scholars in the mid-20th century. Last time I noted that Bender’s critique (as substantially developed by Robert Friedmann) continued to influence neo-Anabaptist scholars like the young Mennonite Brethren professors who articulated the “Fresno Pacific College Idea” in the mid-1960s, in conscious rejection of that school and church’s Pietist-Fundamentalist roots.

However, in the 1970s revisionist historians called into question some of the founding assumptions of the Bender “Anabaptist Vision” approach to Anabaptist history (sometimes called the “Goshen School,” after the Indiana college where Bender taught and where the Mennonite Historical Library is housed). The first and most significant revisionist was James Stayer. In 1972’s The Anabaptists and the Sword, Stayer contended that 16th century Anabaptists held a variety of positions on the use of force, not all of which rejected “the sword.” Then in 1975 Stayer co-wrote a landmark article in the Bender-founded Mennonite Quarterly Review in which he argued for a “polygenesis” approach to the study of Anabaptist origins. While Bender had focused entirely on the Swiss Brethren arising around Conrad Grebel in 1520s Zürich, Stayer and other revisionists pointed to other origins (e.g., Hans Hut‘s millennialist sect) too unsavory to suit Bender’s “vision.” A second strand of revisionism stressed continuity with late medieval anticlericalism and treated the various Anabaptists’ theological convictions (e.g., about discipleship, the church as gathered community) as “mere epiphenomena—products of expediency and survival strategies rather than religious convictions based on biblical convictions or Christian faith.” (John D. Roth, in a September 2002 historiographical essay for Church History, p. 526)

As Roth points out, much of this revisionist impulse came from outside Mennonite churches and colleges, yet despite the attempt of scholars like John Howard Yoder to defend Bender, revisionism influenced even avowedly Anabaptist historians enough that “by the 1980s the once comfortable notion of ‘evangelical Anabaptism’ as a clearly defined, normative standard against which other sixteenth- (or twentieth-) century expressions of faith might be judged had given way to a view of Anabaptism whose boundaries were exceedingly fluid and whose theological core defied easy summary” (527).

Memorial to Thomas Müntzer, Stolberg
Memorial to Thomas Müntzer, Stolberg – Creative Commons (Ralf Lotys)

For example, in a 1987 talk at Elizabethtown College, Brethren historian Donald Durnbaugh agreed that the “the Goshen school was too selective in its interpretation of the radical reformers of the 16th century,” excluding Anabaptists “of the sword” like Balthasar Hubmaier and millenarian revolutionaries like Thomas Müntzer and the participants in the Münster fiasco. “To their critics, this approach could be compared to a modern family seeking to establish a genealogy that conveniently omits mention of some questionable ancestors.”

A new generation of scholars emerged from the 1980s as what scholars in my field of training would call “post-revisionists”: accepting the corrections of the revisionists, but still finding much to be worthy of the original “Anabaptist vision” project. Durnbaugh points in particular to J. Denny Weaver’s influential Becoming Anabaptist (1987, revised in 2005); Weaver drew on the scholarship of the 1970s and 1980s but, like Bender three decades before, sought “to make the heritage productive to current church life. His final chapter on ‘the meaning of Anabaptism’ is a frank attempt to restate the Anabaptist vision in ways which are accessible to the present.”

What did this all mean for the Bender/Friedmann critique of Pietism?

First, it’s important to recognize that, concurrent with the revisionists reshaping Anabaptist historiography, German scholars like Hartmut Lehmann were painting a much richer, more complex picture of Pietism than the one Friedmann presented (basically, Spener/Francke vs. Zinzendorf), and Pietist history reached new levels of interest among English-speakers thanks to the work of scholars like F. Ernest Stoeffler and Dale Brown.

So when Cornelius J. Dyck wrote the “Pietism” article in the 1987 revision of The Mennonite Encyclopedia, he acknowledged Robert Friedmann’s pioneering research into the Pietist-Anabaptist relationship, but concluded quickly that “Friedmann’s thesis that Pietism represented a weakened Anabaptism which survived the era of persecution through quietism and withdrawal from society, cannot really be sustained.”

Given more nuanced understandings of both Anabaptism and Pietism, it became impossible to accept Friedmann’s rigid dichotomies. Dyck found that Pietist emphases on conversion, repentance, “the desire for a deeper, more genuine spirituality,” Bible study, ecumenism, and missions were all shared with Anabaptism—and even revived by Pietism where they had languished after “Tradition and relative tolerance had institutionalized Mennonite church life.” Similarly, Goshen professor Theron Schlabach rejected the notion that “Anabaptist” and “Pietist” were anything like polar opposites:

All in all, Friedmann surely set Pietism and Anabaptism too much against each other. Cannot Christians combine bold work for the reign of Christ with interest in individual justification? Cannot obedience and suffering on the one hand, and devotionalism and quest for personal salvation on the other, actually reinforce each other? And might not a sense of confidence and pleasure in one’s personal salvation actually free a person to work fearlessly for “radical world transformation”? Certainly our present-day radical Christians, such as those in the Sojourners community of Washington, D.C., believe so. (Schlabach, in a July 1983 article in Mennonite Quarterly Review, p. 225.)

Theron SchlabachSchlabach agreed with Brethren historian Dale Brown, who “faulted Friedmann for doing what religious polemicists so often do: compare the pristine, idealized version of one’s own faith with the cruder actual practice, and even caricatures, of one’s opponents.” Reflecting the influence of the revisionist critique, Schlabach suggested that Friedmann’s image of Anabaptism was too simplistic—and too inclined to blame others for its own problems. In particular, Schlabach identified five “native dilemmas and disequilbria, some of them going back even to the Swiss Anabaptism Friedmann so idealized” and none of which could be blamed on Pietist influence:

  • Anabaptists’ “perennial” struggle “to [re]produce the original movement’s quality and intensity of commitment” (226)
  • The “grimness of original Anabaptism, in Friedmann’s idealized version, preoccupied as it was with suffering and the ‘bitter Jesus'” and not capturing the entirety of “God’s will for humans” or of his shalom (226)
  • The assumption that genuine Christians “will agree on the practical meaning of scripture for life and faith” (226)
  • “Two-realm” separatism, which “tended to cut natural bonds with fellow humans” and “often separated Amish and Mennonites from the very neighbors and errant members whom, according to ‘Anabaptist’ ideals, they should have been winning with love” (226-27)
  • Inclinations to legalism and to the setting of “artificial” boundaries (227)

Neither Dyck nor Schlabach entirely rejected Friedmann’s wariness of Pietism. Dyck lamented how Fundamentalism had “reinforced negative Pietistic tendencies among [North American] Mennonites, e.g., a datable conversion experience, a tendency to biblical prooftexting, premillennialism, a negative attitude towards group social action but a tendency to nationalism.” And Schlabach accepted that several of Friedmann’s dichotomies had some historical basis: most Pietists did not base their ethics on nonresistance, or separate from established churches. And some did incline towards quietism rather than Friedmann’s “radical world transformation.”

Still, there has been a revised appreciation for Pietism among Anabaptist scholars. See, for example, the 1997 collection of essays entitled The Dilemma of Anabaptist Piety, whose editor (Stephen L. Longenecker) asserts that “Pietism and Anabaptism overlap”; the only question being, “how much?” John Roth, Goshen CollegeEpitomizing the long way that Anabaptist views on Pietism has come since the 1940s is the first essay, “Pietism and the Anabaptist Soul,” by John D. Roth—a Goshen College historian who now (like Harold Bender before him) directs the Mennonite Historical Library and edits Mennonite Quarterly Review.

Starting with some words from Menno Simons that could easily be mistaken for those of a 17th or 18th century German Pietist (“My heart trembled in my body. I prayed to God with sighs and tears that he would give me, a troubled sinner, the gift of his grace and create a clean heart in me…”), Roth proceeds to note points of overlap between Anabaptism and Pietism, then challenge several of Friedmann’s assumptions about both movements. His critique centers on three arguments: that spirituality was central to Anabaptist self-understanding; that there was no “coherent set of core Anabaptist convictions”; and that the ideal of separation does not match the historical reality, since “Non-Mennonite ‘interlopers’ [including Pietists] consistently participated in the on-going conversation regarding Mennonite identity and faithfulness, sometimes as interrogators, sometimes as allies, and often as open enemies.” (p. 24)

And, like Schlabach before him, Roth calls on Anabaptists to recognize that “many of the themes that gave coherence to the Anabaptist movement also carried within themselves a number of inherent tensions or contradictions” (25), several of which recall Schlabach’s list:

  1. The tension between the Inner and Outer word: leading Anabaptists away from spiritualism after Münster, Menno Simons revived the literalist hermenutic already preferred among the Swiss Brethren and Hutterites. “But divorced from any link to the inner word, claims to a literalist approach to Scripture can become wooden, formal, and legalistic” (26)
  2. While not neglecting justification, Anabaptists were “generally quite uneasy with the [Lutheran] notion of simul justus et peccator [at once saint and sinner] as a means of defending a fallen church,” and tended to stress sanctification and discipleship, pushing themes of forgiveness and personal salvation to the side and making it easy to “drift toward a theology of works-righteousness” (26)
  3. Stressing a highly egalitarian model of the “priesthood of all believers” and retaining a “deep suspicion about authority based primarily on intellect or personal charisma,” Mennonites often found themselves stuck with “mediocre or unwilling leaders” and open to the influence of more charismatic ‘outsiders’ (26-27)
  4. Treating the church “as a visible gathering of the redeemed,” Anabaptists combined an emphasis on discipleship with the “conscientious exercise of church discipline,” but that proved hard to do well: “Over time, practical issues surrounding the quest for the pure church could easily overshadow the ideal itself, resulting in legalism, an emphasis on outward form, a misuse of power in exercising the ban, and a preoccupation with the letter of the law at the expense of the spirit” (27)

All of these tensions tended to “point toward the larger question of how sectarian groups maintain the quality and intensity of commitment over time.” After three or four generations, they produced “heavy-handed Biblical literalism, a spiritless emphasis on works, uncreative leadership, and a joyless legalism” (27). So “when European Mennonites in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries [the rest of Roth’s piece consists of a case study of Peter Weber, a late 18th century Mennonite minister in southern Germany] encountered various expressions of Pietism, they discovered in these contacts an important source of church renewal” (27).

In our next post, we’ll consider how Brethren historiography suggests a fruitful “dialectic” between Anabaptism and Pietism, in which each corrects and renews the other.

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