July 2002 Roth

A Historical and Theological Context for Mennonite-Lutheran Dialogue


Abstract: Lutherans and Anabaptists first encountered each other in the tumultuous events of the sixteenth-century Reformation. In their struggle to defend their nascent reform movement against threats from within as well as without, the cohort of leaders around Martin Luther agreed that the state had the right to execute Anabaptists for their sedition, if not for their heresy. By the middle of the century, the theological boundaries separating Lutherans from Anabaptists/Mennonites had hardened, reinforced by the Lutheran condemnations enunciated in the Augsburg Confession of 1530 and by the emerging martyr identity within Anabaptist circles. This essay suggests that the theological differences separating the two groups were indeed significant, touching on issues ranging from epistemology and hermeneutics to soteriology, ecclesiology and ethics. Contemporary ecumenical conversations need not be bound by these theological tensions, but neither should they casually minimize them.

In the spring of 1536 Landgrave Philip of Hesse-founder of the University of Marburg and champion of the Protestant Reformation-requested the counsel of several leading German theologians as to whether or not Anabaptists captured in his territories should be subjected to the death penalty. Of the various replies he received, none were as concise and resolute as that written by the highly regarded professor of theology at Wittenberg, Philip Melancthon. “Since Holy Scripture clearly teaches that the noted articles of the Anabaptist are wrong and devilish, and since it is clear and obvious that they are direct destroyers of civil government,” Melancthon wrote, “it follows without a doubt that the magistracy is obligated to counter such false and seditious teachings . . . and to apply punishment, mild or severe, as it sees fit.” The punishment he favored was quickly made apparent. “Whoever blasphemes God,” Melancthon insisted, quoting from the book of Leviticus, “is to be killed.”[1]

In the broader history of the Reformation, Philip Melancthon is almost always described as an irenic person-a moderating influence on the more impassioned and impulsive rhetoric of his co-worker Martin Luther.[2] Yet in the struggle to consolidate the Reformation against the distractions of radical dissent, Melancthon’s counsel found widespread assent. Indeed, one of the very few points where Protestants and Catholics found themselves in agreement during the course of the sixteenth century was their mutual antagonism to the Anabaptist movement. Their shared concern for political stability and religious orthodoxy led to the deaths of several thousand dissenters.

This short essay, which offers a brief summary of Lutheran-Anabaptist relations during the first half of the sixteenth century, attempts to put within a broader historical and political context the theological polemics that divided the two groups. The differences that separated Lutherans and Anabaptists at the time of the Reformation were significant, not easily bridged by the rhetoric of theological debate or by general appeals to good will. With the passing of time, the polemical tone of the sixteenth century hardened into a set of simplistic and dismissive formulations, preserved in theological treatises and the emerging historiography of the Reformation, that defined Anabaptists and their descendants at best as sectarian eccentrics of little consequence to the main currents of church history and, at worst, as a cancerous source of doctrinal heresy and political insurrection.

By the early nineteenth century, however, signs of a new ecumenical spirit are evident, at least among some Mennonites in southwest Germany. Tired of second-class citizenship and eager to claim a new identity within a tolerant political climate, Mennonites living west of the Rhine began to jettison their distinctive religious practices and to reformulate their theology in terms amenable to Protestant assumptions. In this essay I will suggest that both historical examples of Mennonite/Lutheran interaction-the violence of the sixteenth century and the assimilation of the nineteenth century-are patterns to be avoided as representatives of the two groups enter into ecumenical dialogue in the opening decades of the twenty-first century.


Despite the fierce hostility that came to define the two groups in the Reformation era, Lutherans and Anabaptists share many of the same historical and theological origins. Both groups were forged in the early sixteenth century within a cauldron of powerful and explosive economic, political and social forces. Deteriorating economic conditions in the German territories fueled rising tensions between peasants and artisans on the one hand, and feudal lords and princes on the other. A growing sense of regional nationalism vis–vis Rome-especially among the German Imperial knights and princes-fanned the flames of religious unrest, blurring political and theological interests as tensions with the Roman pontiff began to mount. New technologies such as the printing press were revolutionizing the nature of communication, making possible the rapid dissemination of new theological ideas. And resentment against rising ecclesiastical tithes and growing corruption in the sacerdotum fostered a deeply seated sense of anti-clericalism across nearly all the sectors of early modern German society.

When Luther and his cohort of reformers made their decisive break with the Catholic Church between 1517-1521, many of the early Anabaptist leaders were among those caught up in the reforming zeal of the times. Although the broader Anabaptist movement also owed deep theological debts to the more conservative impulses of Christian humanism, Anabaptism in south and central Germany shared many of the central concerns of the early evangelical/Protestant reformation, among them:

1. A rejection of the Catholic sacerdotum and the authority of medieval tradition.

2. An appeal to the authority of scripture alone, and a desire to make scripture more accessible to the laity.

3. An anti-clericalism that emphasized the power of the Spirit to transform the individual without the intermediary of a priest.

4. A rejection of the traditional Catholic understandings of the sacraments.

The tensions that came to separate Lutherans and Anabaptists emerged only gradually in the opening years of the Reformation-less a result of cleanly argued differences in theological doctrine, than as an evolving process of group formation within the complex, sometimes confusing, dynamics of religious convictions, political self-interest and a basic struggle for survival.[3]

For Luther, the early years of the Reformation were decisively shaped by a series of battles that unfolded on two fronts. Luther’s struggle against the ecclesiastical authority of the Roman Catholic Church is well known; and certainly this consumed the greatest part of his energies. But at the same time that Luther was trying to articulate an “evangelical” theology against the established consensus of medieval Catholicism, he was also forced to define his emerging theology against those within his camp who were pushing his central ideas in ways more radical than he had intended or foreseen. This latter group became the seedbed for the Anabaptist movement.

In 1521, shortly after his dramatic break with the temporal and ecclesiastical authorities of the Holy Roman Empire at the Diet of Worms, Luther was confident that the power of the gospel-unleashed from bonds of tradition in the form of the pure and unfettered Word of God-would persuade all Christian believers to affirm an understanding of salvation grounded solely in the outworking of God’s grace. Almost immediately, however, it became clear to Luther that the principles of sola Scriptura and sola gratia upon which he had grounded his new movement could work themselves out in a disturbing variety of ways. Already in 1522, Luther looked on in dismay from the Wartburg, where he was being held in protective custody, at the preaching of his colleague and fellow Wittenberg theologian Andreas von Karlstadt. Taking to heart Luther’s conviction that salvation was an inward act of grace, completely separate from any external rituals or forms, Karlstadt had roused the evangelical believers in Wittenberg to frenzied acts of iconoclasm in which books were burned, religious statuary destroyed, paintings defaced and altars overturned. Shortly thereafter, Thomas Mntzer-whom Luther had recommended for a pastorate at Zwickau in 1520-began to spread teachings concerning the End Times and to gather around him a group of armed peasants to help inaugurate the reign of the righteous and, eventually, the Second Coming of Christ. In 1524 such teachings, combined with Luther’s own insistence that the true Christian is “free from the law,” helped to spark the so-called Peasants’ War of 1525. Armed with pitchforks and scythes, thousands of artisans and peasants throughout the German territories demanded a series of dramatic economic, political and religious reforms, basing their claims (as had Luther!) on the authority of scripture over that of tradition.[4]

Like many other reformers, Luther looked on with horror as the “law of unintended consequences” began to unfold. He quickly wrested control of the Reformation in Wittenberg away from Karlstadt, denounced Mntzer as a “scourge of Satan” and angrily dismissed the peasants who were using his arguments on Christian liberty to justify their insurrection against feudal lords. In the spring of 1525 Luther wrote a pamphlet Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants in which he fulminated against political sedition and called on the princes to spare no violence in restoring order. Shortly thereafter some 5000 peasants were killed at the Battle of Frankenhausen, and the uprising was soundly defeated.

In the historiography of the Radical Reformation, Luther’s response proved to be a decisive moment for the future direction of the Reformation. In the aftermath of the tumultuous events of 1525, the Reformation ceased to be a popular reform movement and, instead, came fully under the political control of the German princes and Imperial City councils. Within a decade the conservative nature of Protestantism became increasingly evident. In Lutheran territories the prince emerged as the summus episcopus of the church-a kind of secularized version of the Catholic pope-with the right to determine the nature and form of religious life within his territory. A new Protestant clerical estate emerged, claiming a monopoly on the interpretation of scripture. And the sacrament of infant baptism continued to fuse membership in a religious community with the political obligations and allegiances to a territorial lord.

The Anabaptist movement emerged within this dynamic, highly charged context.[5] Sharing fully with Protestant reformers in the complex mix of theological zeal, anticlerical frustration, apocalyptic fears and the struggle for survival, most Anabaptist leaders would have described themselves as embracing all of the essential convictions of the early Reformation. It was not that they had suddenly become “radical,” but rather that Luther, Zwingli and the other so-called “magisterial reformers” had lost their theological nerve in 1525 and had capitulated to political interests and the desire for self-preservation.


For Luther and most of his fellow reformers, the Anabaptist movement would forever be linked inextricably to the political unrest associated with Karlstadt, Mntzer and, of course, the Peasants’ War. Long after the consolidation of sober-minded Anabaptist groups in Switzerland and South Germany-groups explicitly committed to biblical pacifism and ready to suffer martyrdom rather than to lift the sword of self-defense-the caricature of Anabaptists as wild-eyed fanatics intent on uprooting political order (Schwrmer) persisted.[6]

Luther himself had only a limited personal familiarity with the Anabaptists. Although he wrote two brief treatises against them, he apparently did not know any of them personally and derived most of his information about the movement from others, especially from Justus Menius-an evangelical preacher in Eisenach who developed a strong case for the execution of Anabaptist leaders based on his contact with Anabaptists in a pastoral setting.[7] In addition to Luther and Menius, other major Lutheran polemicists against the Anabaptists included Urbanus Rhegius, who came to know the Anabaptist group around Stuttgart and wrote several treatises against them; and Philip Melanchthon, who devoted four pamphlets against them and was the major author of the Augsburg Confession.[8]


John Oyer, the scholar who has devoted the most systematic attention to Lutheran-Anabaptist relations, has summarized the arguments made by these Lutheran theologians against Anabaptism into three general themes:[9]

1. The Anabaptists are sectarian: they undermined the essential unity of society by defining the church as a body clearly separate from society itself. The Anabaptists arrogantly claimed to have established the true church. Their rejection of infant baptism, their practice of church discipline and their emphasis on good works created a new form of monasticism-what they called a new Monkerei.

2. The Anabaptists are excessively subjective: at the heart of this charge was the question of faith. In their emphasis on moral living, the Anabaptists turned the reconciling work of God into a subjective human response to God’s initiative. Voluntary baptism, premised on a conscious decision and an act of human volition, was a blasphemous act in which humans usurped the role of God. The Anabaptists’ egalitarian practice of the “priesthood of all believers” and their habit of worshipping in secret further underscored the subjective nature of their understanding of spiritual authority.

3. The Anabaptists are seditious: this was clearly the most consistent and worrisome charge. In their clandestine preaching, their rejection of the oath, their espousal of nonviolence, and their suggestion that a Christian could not serve as a magistrate or judge-in all these teachings the Anabaptists undermined the stability of the social order and threatened to unleash political anarchy and social chaos.

The most systematic presentation of the Lutheran argument against the Anabaptists found expression in the Augsburg Confession of 1530. In Melancthon’s original draft, the Confession formally damned the Anabaptists on six issues. The final statement, a bit more moderate in tone, “damned” the Anabaptists only twice, while “repudiating” them three times and “rejecting” them once.

Specifically, the Augsburg Confession stated:

Art. 1, Faith: the Anabaptists were damned for teaching that the Holy Spirit came to humans by one’s own work and preparation, without external works.

Art. 8, Church: the “Donatists” were repudiated for teaching that the ministry of impious clergy was of no effect.

Art. 9, Baptism: the Anabaptists were repudiated for rejecting the baptism of infants.

Art. 12, Repentance: the Anabaptists were rejected for teaching that after baptism one cannot sin again.

Art. 16, Civil Government: the Anabaptists were damned for teaching that a Christian could not hold magisterial office, use the sword, swear a civic oath or participate in war.

Art. 17, Christ’s Return and Judgement: the Anabaptists were repudiated for teaching universalism-that even the devil will be saved.[10]


From an Anabaptist perspective, the theological debate with the Lutherans looked somewhat different. Rarely, if ever, did they present their arguments with the same systematic rigor or formal sophistication as did their Lutheran counterparts; but in dozens of disputations, court interrogations and solicited statements of faith from the first half of the sixteenth century, the outlines of a coherent Anabaptist theology emerge whose emphases and assumptions differed from those of the Lutheran reformers at several key points.


At a foundational level, the Anabaptists disagreed with their Lutheran opponents in the way they framed theological questions. The favored method for engaging theological differences in the sixteenth century was the disputation. Through a systematic presentation of arguments, counter-arguments, rebuttals and summation, each side demonstrated the errors of their opponents and made a rational defense of their own cause. As the Reformation unfolded, various groups quickly began to assemble an arsenal of nuanced and precisely worded confessional statements that summarized their distinctive convictions and formed the boundaries of their ecclesiological identities.

The Anabaptists, however, generally resisted such an approach to theological identity formation. In part, their reticence to frame theological convictions in the abstract, formal language of disputations and confessions was a result of persecution: virtually all of the educated Anabaptist leaders in the German-speaking territories who might have had the theological training necessary to produce such documents were dead by 1528, most of them at the hand of the executioner’s sword. For the remainder of the century, led mostly by unlettered laypersons, Anabaptists were forced to do their theological reflection in rather inauspicious circumstances: as fugitives from the law, as defendants in one-sided disputations, and under the constant threat of persecution, lacking the patronage of princes or the leisured reflection of university study.

But there were also deeper and more principled reasons for the relative absence of highly formal statements of faith among sixteenth-century Anabaptists in the German territories. From the very beginning of the movement, Anabaptists of all stripes shared a deep suspicion of the so-called Schriftgelehrten-the university-trained scholars who, they claimed, confused theological disputation with lived faith while artfully dodging the clear, simple teachings of Jesus by appealing to elaborate syllogisms, complex arguments and carefully crafted statements of doctrine. No doubt part of this disdain for the learned doctors was fueled by a residual anti-clericalism and by the willingness of these learned doctors to explicitly sanction persecution in the confessional literature of the day. But at a more profound level, Anabaptist hesitance to engage in theological debates reflected a deeper Anabaptist concern for ethics-what they called discipleship (Nachfolge Jesu). For the Anabaptists, Christianity was primarily a way of life exemplified by the teachings and example of Jesus and the Apostles. And the truths about that way of life were more properly cast into admonitions touching on matters of morality and piety (orthopraxis) than on rational assent to formal doctrinal statements (orthodoxy).

Repeatedly in court testimony and in formal disputations, one can hear the exasperated voices of the theologians trying to coax the Anabaptists out of a stubborn, literalistic adherence to scriptural prooftexts and into the arena of theological or doctrinal discourse-usually to no avail. Although frustrating to their interlocutors, the Anabaptists maintained at the heart of this position a profound epistemological claim stated succinctly in the oft-repeated aphorism of Hans Denck: “No one can truly know Christ, unless he follows him in life.” Knowledge of Christ is inseparable from a life of discipleship.


Almost from the beginning, Luther’s insistence that all matters of faith could be settled by an appeal to “scripture alone” became a Pandora’s box. Clearly, Luther did not anticipate the emergence of people like Karlstadt, Mntzer and a host of Anabaptist radicals who would also claim to defend their distinctive-and, in his view, heretical-teachings on the basis of “scripture alone.” As the unsettling consequences of this possibility became clear, the magisterial reformers like Zwingli, Calvin and Luther quickly retreated from their initial argument that scriptures should be available for interpretation to all believers and reinstated a clerical model of the pastorate that reserved the right to teach and interpret scriptures to those who had been formally trained and properly ordained into that task.

By contrast, the various Anabaptist groups resisted these new restrictions on the hermeneutical office and continued to defend a more egalitarian approach to scripture. To be sure, most Anabaptist congregations had teachers (more commonly called “readers”) who led in the reading of scripture; and they appointed “shepherds” and “deacons” who held specific tasks in the maintenance of congregational life. But Anabaptists understood the interpretation of scripture to be a dynamic and open process-the responsibility of all baptized members, not just the prerogative of those with university training or ordination. Moreover, the radical reformers insisted that scripture could be properly understood only if the letter of the text was informed by the active illumination of the Holy Spirit. Their stubborn insistence that the Spirit-available to all believers-was a necessary key to unlock difficult or hidden meanings in the text further extended their egalitarian approach to hermeneutics.[11]

In practical matters of interpreting scripture, most Anabaptist groups developed a loose set of principles that guided their approach: for example, assume that the teachings of Christ-including the so-called “hard sayings” in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere-were actually meant to be lived; trust the simpler interpretation over the more complex reading of scripture; read the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament, and especially through the life and teachings of Christ; if teachings from the Old Testament ever are in conflict with those of the New Testament, give the latter priority as the highest revelation of God’s will for humanity. Such principles, combined with the emergence of concordances, a rich devotional literature and a sense of historically rooted identity gave Anabaptist hermeneutics a cohesion and stability that could effectively mute the radical egalitarianism implicit in the doctrine of “the priesthood of all believers.” But at the same time, a long tradition of lay leadership and a legacy of divisive renewal movements helped to ensure an on going openness to new interpretations of familiar scriptures.


On the tendentious question of soteriology, the Anabaptist position seemed frustratingly ambiguous to Lutheran theologians. And, as Luther made clear in his writings against Erasmus on The Bondage of the Will, ambiguity on this question was tantamount to heresy.[12] For the mainline Reformers, the question of soteriology was foundational to all other theological considerations: human beings are saved by Christ’s sacrificial death in faith and through God’s grace and election, not by any human effort or merit.

On the one hand, Anabaptists generally embraced the soteriological themes of grace and faith. But they disagreed with the Lutheran argument that the effect of God’s grace was primarily a change in one’s “legal” status before God (forensic salvation). Christians, Luther had argued, are simul justus et peccator-simultaneously justified, yet sinners. The Anabaptists, by contrast, insisted (though frequently in indirect and round-about ways) that such a view of salvation ultimately led to a justification of ongoing sin. To argue from the outset that humans are “simultaneously justified, yet sinners” suggested that the church should expect very little change in the actual moral behavior of the individual; and it opened the door to an understanding of salvation that was ultimately private, subjective and internal-completely disassociated from a transformed way of life. By contrast, the Anabaptists emphasized the enabling power of grace to transform believers, making it possible for the new Christian to lead a life that was qualitatively different from that of the unbeliever.

Most controversial of all, perhaps, they also taught that the believer in some way (though they were not always very clear about the precise manner) participated in this saving process by making a conscious choice to accept or reject God’s grace and, in the believer’s subsequent commitment, to lead a “new life in Christ.” Naturally, these teachings opened Anabaptists to the persistent charges of Pelagianism-a false charge since no Anabaptist taught that human beings could move salvifically beyond sin by dint of human effort. But, as historian Arnold Snyder has recently argued, they did hold that “human beings could, by the power and grace of God and the Holy Spirit, be remade in their human natures so that they would at least be on the path to sanctification in this life.”[13] God’s grace opened up the possibility of choice for the sinner: grace enables sinners to choose freely the path of salvation or perdition.


This understanding of soteriology had direct consequences for the Anabaptist understanding of the church. If humans needed to respond in some conscious way to the offer of God’s grace, and if the gift of grace had concrete consequences for ethics, then the ritual of infant baptism no longer made theological sense, since infants were capable of neither making a decision to accept God’s grace nor of living a “regenerated” life.

Thus, in contrast to both the Christendom of medieval Catholicism and the newly established territorial church of the Protestant reformers-which regarded the church, state and society as inextricably fused-the Anabaptists assumed that the church and world were fundamentally separated, divided along the lines of the decision to accept God’s gift of grace and by the ritual of baptism that symbolized a life of committed discipleship.

In contrast to the church of the reformers, the Anabaptist church was emphatically visible. Its hallmarks included public worship, active discernment of scripture, sharing of possessions, the exercise of biblical discipline (in accordance with Matthew 18) and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper with those who were committed to following in the path of Christ. Though never perfect, the church in its life and worship was a concrete, political reality that pointed toward the inauguration of the Kingdom of God. Its members offered their primary allegiance to Christ-not a temporal prince, or a cultural ideal, or set of doctrinal principles. And that allegiance could not be separated from a commitment to a regenerated life of witness to the fallen world.


At the heart of the Anabaptist understanding of the new life were Christ’s teachings in the gospels, most distinctively those in the Sermon on the Mount. In that sermon Christ called his believers to a pattern of morality that transcended mere justice or common sense or even the Golden Rule. Perhaps no point is more foundational to this new orientation than Christ’s admonition to love one’s enemies. To love only our neighbors, or to love those who are kind to us, or to love those who share our basic values, requires no special calling. Even the Pharisees can do that. But Christ taught his disciples to love even those who persecuted them, who mistreated them, who were their enemies. The Anabaptists did not regard the teaching to love one’s enemies as the heroic gesture of the “ethically gifted.” Instead, the call to love the enemy was basic to Christianity itself-the obvious extension of the evangelical principle of grace. Just as God extended his love and forgiveness to us while we were yet sinners-enemies of God and undeserving of God’s favor-so too are we, as recipients of that love, to extend it in the same way to our enemies. Pacifism is therefore not some denominational eccentricity or a peculiar teaching to be introduced as an “add on” to some other, more basic, set of core doctrines. Rather, it is the very heart of true evangelical faith, the essence of the gospel.

From an Anabaptist perspective any sort of ecumenical conversation would need to address the basic question as to whether or not their conversation partners hold that Christians can kill others-Christian or non-Christian-in defense of self or national interests, without doing violence to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Historically relations between Anabaptists and Lutherans (as well as all of the major confessional groups) have become most problematic on this specific point. In the absence of any conception of the church as separated from the state, the magisterial reformers regarded Anabaptist ecclesiological separatism as a challenge to state sovereignty and an invitation to religious and political chaos. Although Luther and Melancthon both took pains to argue that no one should be executed for wrong belief, they quite readily called on the civil government to execute those who threatened the social and political stability of the state.[14] Between 1525 and 1574 some 4000 European Anabaptists were executed by civil authorities, slightly more in Catholic territories than in Protestant lands. Of those Anabaptist executions at the hands of Protestant princes, some 25% took place within Luther’s own territory of Electoral Saxony.[15]

The stories of these martyrs-told and retold in word, hymn and visual image-were to become a defining theme in the later identity of Anabaptists and Mennonites, reinforcing an Anabaptist view of the world as inherently violent and an Anabaptist understanding of faith as inevitably linked to humility and suffering.


Three centuries later the nature of Mennonite-Lutheran relations in Europe had changed decisively. For most of those intervening years, Mennonites had lived at the fringes of European religious and political centers of power-occasionally praised for their moral rectitude and agrarian industriousness, but more often condemned as theological deviants and as threats to political and social stability.

In the aftermath of the French Revolution and subsequent Napoleonic reforms, however, the context for Mennonites and other religious minorities underwent a sudden and fundamental change. Now equal under the law with their Catholic, Protestant and Jewish neighbors, Mennonites living in the German territories west of the Rhine river had become full citizens, free to worship exactly as they pleased. In 1818 the Lutheran and Reformed denominations of the region had celebrated this new era of religious toleration by setting aside several centuries of enmity and joining their two confessions in the so-called Protestant Union.

In this context of warm ecumenism Leonhard Weydmann-pastor of the Monsheim congregation and one of the first seminary-trained and salaried Mennonite ministers in the Palatinate-announced, in the summer of 1835, his intention to compose a new catechism for Mennonites in the region. The traditional catechism, he wrote to a friend in 1833, was “outmoded” in its restrictions on such matters as exogenous marriage, divorce and church discipline. After more than a century of usage, he argued, the time had come for a fresh formulation. In the interests of devising a catechism better suited to the theological insights and political realities of the day, Weydmann announced his intention to draw heavily on the counsel of Protestant (evangelisch) clergymen from several neighboring villages, a gesture fully in keeping with the ecumenical spirit of the times.[16]

In 1836 Weydmann’s catechism appeared, entitled Christliche Lehre, zunchst zum Gebrauch der Taufgesinnten in Deutschland. In subsequent years, his contacts in local Protestant circles intensified. In the 1830s and 1840s Weydmann aggressively promoted the Protestant mission movement, encouraging young Mennonite men to attend evangelical mission training schools in Basel and Barmen; and in 1850 he published a glowing biography of Luther entitled Luther: Ein Charakter- und Spiegelbild fr unsere Zeit.[17]

Other indications from the first half of the eighteenth century offer clear evidence that Mennonites in the Palatinate were undergoing a fundamental reorientation in terms of their relations with the broader Protestant world. Some began attending Protestant church services, they borrowed heavily from Protestant hymnody, they redesigned their churchhouses on Protestant models, they read deeply in Protestant devotional literature, and some young people began attending Protestant seminaries and mission institutes.

From a theological and historical perspective, however, the fruit of that flurry of ecumenical engagement remains rather ambiguous for Mennonites. In Weydmann’s reworked catechism, for example, the differences separating Mennonites from Protestants, long a source of uneasy tension, had nearly disappeared altogether. Weydmann retained passing references to the traditional Mennonite themes of nonresistance and adult baptism, but because he consciously dropped the principle of church discipline, these distinctive themes became preferred options for individual discernment, no longer a test of church membership. The fundamental organizing principle of Weydmann’s new catechism was now the doctrine of forensic salvation. Teachings on moral regeneration had virtually disappeared, and instruction regarding the nature of the church had become generically Protestant.

Not surprisingly, within a generation or so, the principle of nonresistance had virtually disappeared from the German Mennonite vocabulary, and the cemeteries of most congregations are now filled with the graves of those who “died for the Fatherland” in deadly combat with fellow Christians from France or England or North America.


The rather sobering consequences of Mennonite efforts in the nineteenth century to assimilate into the mainstream Protestant churches of their day should not undermine the importance of on going ecumenical conversations or keep contemporary believers from celebrating points of common conviction. Anabaptists and Lutherans alike can be grateful that confessional differences are no longer the occasion for violence. Respectful conversation among Christians about matters of faith and life is a gift from God to be celebrated. And theological differences-great or small-should not cloud the possibility of identifying common objectives in service to a needy world.

Mennonites and Lutherans are free to enter ecumenical conversations today in ways that would have been unimaginable in the sixteenth century. Freed from the threat of violence, those conversations should move forward, with each side ready to listen carefully to the insights of the other and to offer a full account of their own faith. And they should do so in the confidence that such exchanges can become the occasion for genuine renewal and transformation.

But at the same time, the clear formulations of the Augsburg Confession of 1530 (the most enduring historical legacy of the sixteenth-century debates), the enduring centrality of that confession to the theological identity of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the theological distinctives of both the Anabaptist and Lutheran traditions, and the cautionary example of Leonhard Weydmann should inject a note of sober-minded caution into contemporary ecumenical exchanges that seek to surmount the historical and theological differences that have characterized the two groups.

[1]. Das weltliche Oberkeitt den Widertaufferen mit leiblicher Straff zu weren schuldig sey (Wittemberg, 1536), Aiii, Avii.
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[2] See, for example, the recent biographical sketch by Heinz Scheible, “Philip Melanchthon,” in Carter Lindberg, ed., The Reformation Theologians: An Introduction to Theology in the Early Modern Period (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002), 67-82.
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[3]. The literature on emergence of the so-called Radical Reformation is vast. The most encyclopedic treatment can be found in George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation 3rd ed. (Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1992); the most insightful concise summary of the events is that of James Stayer, “The Radical Reformation,” in Handbook of European History, 1400-1600, eds. Thomas A. Brady, Jr., Heiko Oberman and James Tracy (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmanns, 1995), 2:249-82.
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[4]. The classic text on the fusion of the religious and political in the Peasants’ War is Peter Blickle, The Revolution of 1525: The German Peasants’ War from a New Perspective. Trans. Thomas A. Brady, Jr. and H. C. Erik Midelfort (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1981).
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[5]. For a helpful summary of these events see Denny Weaver, Becoming Anabaptist (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1987) and C. J. Dyck, An Introduction to Mennonite History, 3rd ed. (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1993).
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[6]. In all fairness to Luther, during the years following the Peasants’ War his energies were directed-quite understandably-to the tasks of fending off attacks from the Catholic church, defining Lutheran doctrine vis–vis Reformed theologians, and consolidating a new church order.
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[7]. By far the most systematic treatment of Luther’s understanding of the Anabaptists is that of John S. Oyer, Lutheran Reformers Against Anabaptists: Luther, Melanchthon and Menius and the Anabaptists of Central Germany (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1964). For his detailed examination of Luther’s contacts with the Anabaptists, see pp. 114-39.
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[8]. Ibid., 140-78. Some of the most sustained theological arguments against the Anabaptists came from the Reformed tradition-especially from Heinrich Bullinger in Zurich. Although there are important nuances in Reformed polemics against the Anabaptists, on the central theological themes they are largely compatible with arguments developed by the Lutheran reformers.
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[9]. John S. Oyer, “They Harry the Good People Out of the Land”: Essays on the Persecution, Survival and Flourishing of Anabaptists and Mennonites (Goshen, IN: Mennonite Historical Society, 2000), 3-16.
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[10]. “The Augsburg Confession (1530),” The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 30-105.
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[11]. The magisterial reformers, of course, regarded this as an opening into the sort of “interpretive anarchy” that would lead inevitably to social and political instability (e.g., the Peasants’ War, or Mnster).
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[12]. For example, cf. Erasmus-Luther: Discourse on Free Will, trans. and ed. Ernst F. Winter (New York: Continuum, 1961), 104.
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[13]. Arnold Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology: An Introduction (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 1995), addresses many of these questions in an insightful way. For a discussion of Anabaptist understandings of salvation, see especially p. 44.
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[14]. They also developed an argument justifying the execution of Anabaptists on the basis of blasphemy, though this point was always more muted.
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[15]. Gottfried Seeba, “Luther’s Stellung zur Verfolgung der Tufer und ihre Bedeutung fr den deutschen Protestantismus,” Die Reformation und ihre Aussenseiter. Gesammelte Aufstze und Vortrge zum 60. Geburtstag des Autors Gottfried Seebass, eds. Irene Dingel and Christine Kress (Gttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1997), 271-82. Seeba says that Luther’s influence in Electoral politics would have been sufficient to resist this if he had so chosen.
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[16]. Cf. John D. Roth, “Context, Conflict and Community: South German Mennonites at the Threshold of Modernity, 1750-1850,” in Anabaptists and Postmodernity, eds. Susan and Gerald Biesecker-Mast (Telford, PA: Pandora Press US, 2000), 120-44.
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[17]. (Hamburg: Friedrich u. Andreas Perthes, 1850).
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
A Context for Mennonite-Lutheran Dialogue
*John D. Roth is Professor of History at Goshen College and Editor of the Mennonite Quarterly Review.