Donate to RNS

Did the Anabaptist reformers ‘win’?

If the book is now to be closed [on commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation], has anything truly significant been overlooked? The answer is yes.

Amish Farm in Cooktown, KY | Photo Credit: Michael Vines/Flickr (cc)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sightings is sponsored by the Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Sign up to get Sightings in your inbox twice per week (on Mondays and Thursdays). You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

Theologian Karl Barth, a supreme definer of Christianity in the twentieth century, continues to influence Christian thinkers, notably with his admonition, “The church must always be reformed.” Not many worldlings, though secularly molded, would disagree. While Christianity is not their game, they applaud when the church is reformed—as when it promotes positive human actions: for peace, justice, equality. But what does “being reformed” mean, and how does it work in the world?

Now, at the end of this month in which celebration of the Reformation has inspired its heirs for an every-five-hundred-year-style commemoration, many are ready to admit that they are wearily “over-Reformationed,” or ready to urge, “get over it.” Here is a word of caution, however, to those who are too eager to turn the page and be done with it all for the immediate future. It is time to ask whether Protestants & Co. have given due attention to sundry versions and meanings of churchly reformation, and whether some of the overlooked styles have something to say to church and world in the next half-millennium. The case for this?

Certainly not overlooked in the year past was the Lutheran Reformation, which conveniently gave a name to a complex set of reform movements. To be fair, partners in these movements reminded publics that Reformed (Calvinist) Protestantism brought its own style and effects, as did the Anglican Reformation. Where the ecumenical spirit prospers, some even saw that Catholic change deserves attention. This was not the old “Counter-Reformation” as Protestants called it but, simply, a “Catholic Reformation.”

If the book is now to be closed after mention of those four, has anything truly significant been overlooked? The answer is yes. It is sometimes called the “Radical” or “Left Wing of …” or, more properly, the “Anabaptist” version and vision.

In a worthy article in Plough, Anabaptist Peter Mommsen claims that the Anabaptist Reformation not only “matters,” but “won,” and tells why. He knows that it is very unbaptistic to make extravagant claims that “we’re number one.” But he does point to three reforms, neglected or disdained when Anabaptist movements were formed in the sixteenth century, whose teachings and practices made them look like “losers,” or made them to be losers when the hangmen from the other four versions defeated or even killed them.

Mommsen and his fellows rightfully can claim that no other part of the sixteenth-century eruption did so much for religious freedom as did the irritating Anabaptists. (An inserted footnote here: Mommsen lists modern-day church versions of these as Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites, Church of the Brethren, the Bruderhof, and others who make up a towering column of 0.1 percent of the 2.2 billion Christians worldwide.)

We look up from statistics to point to victory number two, however partial it is, championed by Anabaptist radicals and their kin: non-violence. Mommsen notes how heritages such as those represented by exemplars like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Dorothy Day, in the peace-church tradition and spirit, get hearings in Protestantism and Catholicism in our time.

The Anabaptist vision also favored and helped produce forms of community which did not and do not depend upon the power of imposed communities ruled by empires, political states, and autocratic church bureaucracies and managers. Against all odds, many believers are promoting what Mommsen calls “thick” (but not isolationist) communities. While they may not convert all to their experiments, their witness does not go unnoticed and is often positively heeded.

Is this boasting? At the end, Mommsen acknowledges some specialty weaknesses that do not deserve to be praised or copied. This cluster of Protestants did not “win,” as Mommsen’s article claims. But its witness is heard and its effects are still seen where religious freedom, non-violence, and community are present in fresh ways.