IN THIS ISSUE
Although many contemporary Mennonites participate vigorously in the economics, culture and politics of modern life, memories of an identity defined by their separation from the “world” persist, fueled by stories of persecution and an on-going theological commitment to believer’s baptism and the church as counter-cultural community. In the essay that opens this issue of MQR, Keith Sprunger, professor emeritus of history at Bethel College, reminds us that already in the eighteenth-century Dutch Mennonites were engaging the culture of their day in ways that sound surprisingly modern. Focusing primarily on the publishing career of Frans Houttuyn, a Mennonite bookseller from Amsterdam, Sprunger traces the biographical contours of a fascinating personality whose career illustrates the creative interplay of church and culture typical of Dutch Mennonitism. Houttuyn was a Mennonite pastor; but his primary passion was publishing books, especially the so-called “spectatorial” journals that helped to popularize Enlightenment knowledge and to promote the virtues of science, toleration and rationality. Sprunger’s essay complicates stereotypical understandings of Mennonites and culture while helping an English-speaking audience gain a fresh entre into the complex and fascinating world of Dutch Mennonites in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
In the essay that follows, Mark Jantzen focuses our attention on a defining moment in the history of the Mennonites in Prussia. In 1812, the French revolutionary army retreated from Russia in defeat. But Napoleon may have had the last word, since the nationalism and militarism he fostered continued to play a formative role in the political discourse of early nineteenth-century Prussia. By envisioning a social order based on constitutional law rather than princely fiat and comprised of individual citizens rather than feudal subjects, the rhetoric of nationalism challenged traditional Mennonite ways of relating to the state, particularly their collective exemption from military service. Although conservative impulses in the Prussian state eventually held these reform impulses in check, the nationalistic sentiments dominant in the early decades of the nineteenth century forced Mennonites to rethink their relationship with the state. Their encounter with nationalism in the 1820s pointed toward an erosion of the authority of Mennonite leadership and an attenuation of their nonresistant convictions.
In a very different context, New Testament scholar Reta Halteman Finger continues this theme of Anabaptist-Mennonite engagement with culture by tracing historical patterns of interpreting Acts 2 and 4-scriptures that have traditionally grounded the Anabaptist (and especially Hutterite) commitment to a community of goods. Finger reviews the long hermeneutical tradition regarding these passages-from medieval times to the present day-highlighting the persistent impulse of biblical scholars to minimize the revolutionary economic implications of these passages. Not surprisingly, interpretations of the economic themes outlined in Acts 2 and Acts 4 have generally reflected the social and cultural location of the scholars putting them forward. If we are to make sense of the passages in a more responsible way, Finger argues, scholars must pay closer attention to the attitudes toward wealth and resources in first-century Palestine, the context within which the early church emerged.
Tripp York contributes to the on-going ecumenical conversation between Mennonites and Catholics by critically engaging Catholic scholar Jon Sobrino on the definition of a true martyr. In a recent issue of Concilium, Sobrino argued that those who die on behalf of the poor, weak and oppressed are rightfully called “martyrs” regardless of the content of the faith. York challenges this conception of martyrdom, arguing that true martyrdom requires confession of the Triune God and is understandable only within the context of the church.
Since its appearance in 1957, English-speaking scholars have relied heavily on The Complete Writings of Menno Simons for their understanding of the theology of Dutch reformer who lent his name to the Mennonite church. During the second half of the twentieth century, the volume became a standard reference work on the shelves of all those interested in Anabaptist studies. Yet few people know the story of Leonard Verduin-pastor, scholar, and translator of this volume who spent much of his academic life defending the Anabaptist tradition to his Calvinist colleagues. In this issue, historian Gerlof Homan introduces MQR readers to this colorful character focusing especially on Verduin’s efforts to persuade the Christian Reformed Church to emend the language of their confessions that explicitly “condemned” the Anabaptists.
Finally, we are pleased to publish an extended exchange between James M. Stayer and church historian Andrea Strbind focused on Strbind’s recent book, Eifriger als Zwingli: Die frhe Tuferbewegung in der Schweiz (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 2003). Strbind’s lengthy narrative, grounded firmly in primary sources, poses a sustained critique of the “polygenesis” school of Anabaptist history for which Prof. Stayer has been a leading spokesman. While we do not intend to make author responses to book reviews a standard feature of the journal, we trust that readers will find this exchange both interesting and informative.
– John D. Roth, editor
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
The Mennonite Quarterly Review