A New Paradigm in Anabaptist/Mennonite Historiography’
JAMES M. STAYER*
Eifriger als Zwingli. Die frhe Tuferbewegung in der Schweiz. By Andrea Strbind. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot. 2003. Pp. 617.
Andrea Strbind describes herself as a church historian and Baptist theologian linked to the historical Anabaptist tradition. She sees church history as not merely one topical area of the historical discipline but as having an intrinsic link both to history and to theology. The church historian has the task not only to describe the church as it actually was in the past but also to judge how adequately it fulfills the mandate of Jesus Christ, its founder. The church historian has the duty, as church historian, to promulgate the word of God, as found in the Bible, and, at the same time, to produce real historical knowledge, taking full advantage of theoretical and critical advances in history and the social sciences. She says the church historian has to take an ecumenical approach-which she succeeds in pretty nicely when discussing Reformed and Anabaptists; she is allergic (as am I) to Lutheran claims to exclusive possession of the “reformatorisch” and the Catholic opponents of the Reformation are really outside her purview, so hers turns out to be a qualified Protestant ecumenism, which serves the purposes of this particular study very well. She identifies with the warning of John S. Oyer that “there is a grave danger that secularism might soon erode and distort the religious core of Anabaptism as much as theologians of a previous generation have distorted historical reality” (59). Hers is a voice raised against what she sees as the secular university’s tendency to define the rules of academic discourse in such a way that people of faith must confine their beliefs within a strictly private sphere if they are to obtain a hearing.
She describes the development of modern Anabaptist historiography as beginning with the religious sociology of Ernst Troeltsch early in the century, flourishing among North American Mennonites and taking a form that she describes as “the normative-typological view of Anabaptism” (22). This current dominated the field until the end of the 1950s; then after a transitional decade it was replaced in the 1970s by “the revisionist-social historical Anabaptist research” (26), which has silenced all opposing voices until the present time. Strbind’s critique is directed primarily against recent historians of Anabaptism, virtually all of whom come under attack at one place or another in her book; but she is clear that she has no ambition to achieve a full return to the “nave” older view of Anabaptism. She seems to see herself as the herald of a third wave of Anabaptist historiography, which returns the topic to its proper place in church history, without surrendering the critical and contextual insights of the intervening generation. The three generations, as she portrays them, have a sort of dialectical relation to each other.
The major weakness of the study is its unending historiographical polemic against virtually all recent research in the field. No one is spared, not even historians explicitly sympathetic to Anabaptist-Mennonite theology like Kenneth Davis, Arnold Snyder and Walter Klaassen. In some respects this approach displays a refreshing frankness about weaknesses of scholarship and questionable interpretations; but it is hard to take seriously the coherence of Strbind’s historiographical target-the “revisionist-social historical research” on Anabaptism. This dominant paradigm supposedly reduces all theological or religious expressions to their “real” social causes; and for Strbind social causation is narrowly construed as political or economic causation. “In social history interpretations the religious element is only the concealment of the ‘real’ motive, the discovery of which is the task of the social historian” (394). No self-respecting Marxist historian would recognize herself in this description, not to speak of the non-Marxist theologians and historians lumped together as “revisionist-social history” scholars. (Cf. pp. 393-95 for the book’s polemical nadir.) One of the curiosities of the group described in these terms is how few genuine social historians it contains. Claus-Peter Clasen is a social historian without interest in theology; but he does not come under Strbind’s gun sights because the two of them agree about keeping Anabaptism separate from the Peasants’ War. Martin Haas, Hans-Jrgen Goertz and Klaus Deppermann use social history methodologies but also deal very competently and respectfully with theological material. Werner Packull and I began styling ourselves as historians of ideas, and now would simply call ourselves historians. When responding to the arguments of a particular scholar, Strbind can be depended upon to conscientiously describe the interpretation she is dealing with; but when describing the “revisionist-social history” scholarship en bloc polemical distortion is common. The past generation of Anabaptist scholarship cannot be fairly characterized as reducing the religious expressions of early Swiss Anabaptism to anticlericalism and social revolution. But to be fair to Strbind, she puts a strong emphasis on laicism (the flip side of anticlericalism) among the early Swiss Anabaptists and acknowledges that there are connections and overlappings between the Swiss Anabaptism of 1525 and the Peasants’ War. It seems to me specious argumentation to continually compare one’s own carefully nuanced conclusions with distortions of the standpoints of other scholars. None of the scholars Strbind groups together as “revisionist-social historians” of Anabaptism can be fairly described as reductionists or positivists. There is a considerable spectrum of religious faith and philosophical skepticism among these people; these are private matters and their scholarship should be judged in its own terms. The historians Strbind attacks have in most respects a methodology very much like her own. For all of us Anabaptist religious writings are central source materials, and all of us interpret these religious writings against the background of the specific historical situations in which they emerged. For all of us religious motivation is exactly that, not reducible to something more basic; and I think all of us would agree that religious ideas can, and sometimes do, affect people’s behavior. It is regrettable that Strbind does not treat her scholarly contemporaries with the same evenhandedness that she brings to her presentation of Zwingli and the first Anabaptists.
Possibly, however, the relentless suspicion that Strbind directs at previous scholarship has a positive heuristic value, for she has, in fact, produced a study of importance that neither can, nor should, be ignored. Her area of particular focus is the “prehistory” (Vorgeschichte) of the Swiss Anabaptist movement to which she devotes more than 200 densely argued pages, more than one-third of the book. Almost 100 additional pages are devoted to the early development of Swiss Anabaptism, from January to March 1525 in Zurich and Zollikon. This is the central core of the book, following about 100 pages of methodological and historiographical discussion, and preceding a section of about 150 pages that follows the early Swiss Anabaptist movement in Zurich and its territories, as well as in the town and rural environs of St. Gall, from 1525 to 1527, and the composition of the Seven Articles of Schleitheim. The last section is researched more lightly, but serves as an essential anchor for her thesis that the Schleitheim Articles did not mark the beginning of a new “sectarian” second phase of Anabaptism following the suppression of the Peasants’ War, but were the outcome of a continuous religious and theological development of the movement of Conrad Grebel and Felix Mantz in Zurich.
Like me in 1975, Strbind begins her study of the proto-Anabaptists in Zurich and its territories by building on the important article of 1969 by J. F. G. Goeters, “Die Vorgeschichte des Tufertums in Zrich,” which she describes as “an important new impulse in the study of the pre-history of Anabaptism” (353). This means that, unlike earlier scholars such as John Howard Yoder and Robert C. Walton, she locates the beginning of the break between Grebel and Zwingli in the summer of 1523, and says that it arose because of the dispute over the collection and allocation of tithes in the rural villages outside Zurich. More important, she locates the beginning of the lay impulse in the Zurich Reformation in a humanist sodality led by Zwingli in 1520-1521 and including persons like Grebel, Mantz and Simon Stumpf, who met to instruct each other in the languages of the Bible in an atmosphere of basic equality. Sometime in late 1522 or early 1523 this group evolved, says Strbind, into the informal Bible study “school” led by the book seller Andreas Castelberger; it included ordinary craftsmen who were of a lower educational level than the members of the sodality. She sees in the Castelberger school, or ones like it, the foundation of the lay challenge to the clerical leadership of the Zwinglian Reformation.
Strbind questions any distinction between townsmen and villagers among the proto-Anabaptists, because she argues that there was no tension between a centralizing Zurich government and villages aspiring to congregational autonomy. She regards previous scholars as having been overly impressed by Peter Blickle’s thesis of “communal Reformation,” which, whatever its applicability to Upper Swabia, fails to give the Zurich government sufficient credit for its leadership of the Reformation in the villages. This is a complicated topic demanding careful examination. Even by Strbind’s own account, the Zwinglian Reformation was carried out in such a way as to benefit the town, to the detriment of the villages. Later, in 1525, when peasant upheaval did touch the Zurich dependency of Grningen, and the peasant leaders promptly became Anabaptists, Strbind resorts to the explanation that these erstwhile rebels were transformed by a religious conversion at the time of their baptism. The villages’ distrust of the Zwinglian Reformation, as is well known, resulted in threats of secession in 1532 in the wake of the defeats in the Second Kappel War. It does not seem at all implausible, as Matthias Hui has argued, that similar discontents connected with peasant upheaval in 1525 worked to the benefit of the Anabaptist movement. Nevertheless, in a situation where the sources will probably not provide certain answers, these are proper matters for scholars to advance contending interpretations.
The great value of Strbind’s work rests in her meticulous examination and interpretation of the major documents of the Zurich Anabaptist movement: the letter of Conrad Grebel and associates (she regards it as a collective statement) to Thomas Mntzer in September 1524, Felix Mantz’s Protestation to the Zurich government in December 1524, and the extensive concordance on faith and baptism attributed to Conrad Grebel and found in the possession of Hans Krsi at the time of his arrest in June 1525. To this can be added the shorter, but still valuable, discussion of the Seven Articles of Schleitheim at the end of her text. All of these sources are carefully placed in their historical context. They are regarded not as theological documents of permanent validity but as way stations in the developing self-understanding of the early Swiss Anabaptists.
In her treatment of the letter to Thomas Mntzer, the earliest and most important of these documents, Strbind emphasizes the stress upon matters of practice and observance that had been so important in the Zurich Reformation since the original fast-breaking episode in Lent 1522, subsequently highlighted in acts of iconoclasm and demonstrations against the Mass, leading to the October 1523 disputation about the scriptural status of images and the Mass. Emphasizing the proto-Anabaptists’ insistence on applying the Biblical standard to all church practices, she sees them as, above all, guided by the dictum of Andreas Karlstadt, that whatever the Scripture did not explicitly sanction was to be regarded as forbidden. By this measure Thomas Mntzer, with his rather conservative liturgical reforms, his singing and erection of tablets in the church, was by no means a satisfactory role model for the Grebel group. Strbind regards Mntzer’s Protestation, narrowly interpreted by the Zurichers as a tract against infant baptism, as the basis of their special regard for him. In the treatment of the Lord’s Supper she finds a combination of the Zwinglian insistence on the communitarian significance of the ceremony, together with the effort to recover the circumstantial details of New Testament observance as outlined in Karlstadt’s writings. The issue of Christ’s presence in the Supper, real or spiritual, is simply not considered by these proto-Anabaptists. The dominance of impulses coming from Karlstadt and Zwingli over the real impact of Mntzer in this letter is completely convincing. More speculative is her argument for the influence of Jacob Strau, also mentioned in the letter to Mntzer, upon the group’s conception of ecclesiastical office through a writing of 1523: “Das nit herren, aber diener eynen yeden Christlichen Versammlung zugestellt warden (That not lords but servants should be installed in every Christian assembly)” (234).
In interpreting Mantz’s Protestation Strbind is unimpressed by the High German linguistic elements in the writing (she suggests that Karlstadt’s usage may have exerted an influence); and she rejects the hypothesis of Calvin Pater that a lost baptismal tract by Karlstadt was inserted into its text. She basically accepts the contention of Alejandro Zorzin that the anonymously published Dialogus of 1527 is the lost tract of Karlstadt. While she finds borrowings from the Dialogus in Mantz’s Protestation, she finds it is structured as a response to Zwingli’s writings in defense of infant baptism, and makes an impressive case for this interpretation. She also comments on Mantz’s ineffectual response to Zwingli’s equation of circumcision and baptism, hence the covenant with Abraham and the covenant of Christ. He attempts a refutation with Old Testament ceremonial episodes; clearly the notion of a New Testament hermeneutic has not yet set in among the proto-Anabaptists. It is interesting to compare Strbind’s approach with that of John Howard Yoder, who researched some of the same issues and sources a generation ago. Although the political considerations of Zwingli and the Zurich government are clearly described, they are not assumed to be illegitimate in Yoder’s manner. Further, the distinction between Zwingli’s Erasmian spiritualism and the Grebel group’s focus on correct ceremonial detail is not presented in such a way as to assume automatically that the proto-Anabaptists are in the right. Zwingli is conceded honest theological motivation, and his superior knowledge of Scripture is pointed out, although his haughty and supercilious attitude is not glossed over.
In treating the first believers’ baptisms in Zurich of January 1525, Strbind adopts the thesis of H. W. Meihuizen that the earliest in-group account was a letter supposedly written in Klettgau in 1530 and only preserved in a Dutch text. This idea was continued in an English language source book, The Sources of Swiss Anabaptism, published in Classics of the Radical Reformation in 1985. She was obviously unaware that Heinold Fast demolished the notion of an independent pre-Hutterite account in an article in Doopsgezinde Bijdragen of 1978. The letter was composed much later than 1530. Accordingly, her title, Eifriger als Zwingli (more zealous than Zwingli), comes from a Hutterite source that she describes as containing “legendary glosses” (357).
Treating the history of the first Anabaptist congregation in Zollikon in the early months of 1525, Strbind thoroughly explores the sources, most of them judicial interrogations, and shows that the baptisms there took place amid highly charged emotions by both baptized and baptizer, that these baptisms were performed by a considerable number of individuals, not just a few leaders, and that they were connected with expectations of ethical renewal. Furthermore, she gives evidence that far from everyone in Zollikon was involved with Anabaptism, that although it was a sizeable group, it was probably a minority of the villagers. The meetings customarily took place in households, sometimes in open air, occasionally in the church. They spread from Zollikon to neighboring villages-they often took the form of lay-directed Bible readings. Normally, but not always, the Anabaptists avoided contact with pastors, and increasingly the lay leaders called on their followers to avoid the pastors, who would lead them astray. Strbind complained that the “revisionist social historians” had little to say about the Zollikon congregation. To judge from Martin Haas’ brief remarks in 1975, it was because they found little to revise in Fritz Blanke’s earlier, classic account. The thoroughness of Strbind’s presentation is exemplary, but she really does not advance the interpretation of Zollikon.
The issue that Strbind tenaciously pursues is the idea that a separatist ecclesiology inspired Anabaptism from the “beginning,” and that this was the true meaning behind the believers’ baptisms of January 1525. She takes offense, above all, that Martin Haas and I decided to challenge this idea in 1975 (I should add, for whatever it may be worth, that we came to this conclusion independently of each other.) For this motive of establishing a “gathered church” as we later encounter it in the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition, we did not substitute the hypothesis of some political or economic “social” motive, but rather suggested that the first Anabaptists aimed to restore the correct ceremonial practice of baptism described in the New Testament. No one has argued more persuasively than Strbind for the importance to the Zurich proto-Anabaptists of Biblical ceremonial correctness. This, of course, was due to their full acceptance of Karlstadt’s dictum that anything not explicitly mandated in Scripture should be regarded as forbidden. It was in line with the “nave” approach of the older historiography that church historians of Harold Bender’s generation automatically accepted Zwingli’s accusation that the institution of believers’ baptism had the intention of creating a “sonder kilch,” a “separate church.” After all, this was the Anabaptist/Mennonite church to which many of them belonged. Troeltsch’s recent definition of the value-neutral “sect type” further confused the issue for scholars of the early twentieth century. In the sixteenth century a “special church” meant a “schismatic church”-this was the legal justification for the execution of Felix Mantz, rending the body of the faithful. For everyone in the Reformation era the church was one. Zwingli’s other deadly accusation against the Grebel group was that they initiated the rebaptism of adults already baptized in their infancy “without bringing the matter before the church.” At the beginning of the movement interrogated Anabaptists never affirmed that they initiated believers’ baptism in order to establish a “special church,” of people living in sinless perfection, as the standard Reformed accusation continues. There is never a doctrinal statement of separation from the Anabaptist side until the promulgation of Article 4 of the Schleitheim Articles-only a malicious accusation from the Reformed side. Therefore, Haas’ statement perfectly expressed the logic of Conrad Grebel’s situation, especially given his patrician connections with Schaffhausen and St. Gall: “Grebel and Hubmaier appear to have intended a dominant Anabaptist Reformation that could wrest the leadership from the Zwinglian orientation.” Strbind’s most cherished thesis-that the earliest Anabaptists were intentionally separatist in their ecclesiology from the beginning-is also her weakest thesis.
When Strbind treats the early Anabaptist movement in St. Gall and its rural environs in the latter part of her book, she becomes very cautious in her assertions. She clarifies that she is not insisting that there was no connection there between Anabaptism and the peasant upheavals of 1525; she acknowledges that Haas was right to insist on the various currents and possibilities present in early Anabaptism in eastern Switzerland. Nevertheless, she insists on a fundamental theological continuity between Zurich Anabaptism and that of the St. Gall region, and, as she later argues, this continuity is demonstrated in the Seven Articles of Schleitheim. She establishes important personal connections between the leadership in the St. Gall area and the movement in Zurich and Zollikon, and she shows the same mood of religious awakening, the same insistence on ethical transformation of life following baptism as occurred in Zollikon. This was indeed a religious mass movement, as Haas contended, but Strbind rejects his suggestion that the mass character of eastern Swiss Anabaptism led to less rigorous behavioral standards. She shows some of the same avoidance of churches, meetings in houses, guild halls or in the open air as in Zollikon. She acknowledges that in the St. Gall area the shunning of churches may have been due to their not yet being “purified” of the traditional church art and decorations.
Much attention is paid to the case of Hans Krsi, an Anabaptist leader active in the rural environs of St. Gall, where he was chosen by “ainer gantzen gemaind (a whole Gemeinde)” at Tablat to read from the Bible, baptize and administer communion. Krsi definitely used one of the churches in this locality, which he and his followers purified of “idols.” Strbind makes the point that “Gemeinde” has many meanings, and that he could have been installed as well by an assembly of his followers as by a mass meeting representing the village population. That Krsi received a pledge of protection from rural villagers, in case he was endangered by the Catholic Swiss authorities in the Abbey of St. Gall, did not mean that he was leading or even encouraging peasant rebellion against the government. Strbind does not try to draw fine distinctions, as Paul Peachey once did, between peasant rebels and nonresistant Anabaptists; but she does insist that a figure like Krsi was a man of religion, ultimately hunted down and executed for his opposition to the old Catholic religion, not for social or political rebellion. She further insists on his connection to Grebel, whose concordance was found in Krsi’s possession at the time of his arrest. Strbind’s careful textual analysis of the Grebel-Krsi concordance is an especially valuable part of her book; it is in my opinion an advance on the earlier work of Heinold Fast. It argues convincingly that this version of the concordance could not have been composed in 1524 at the time of the Mntzer letter, but was clearly brought up to date to meet the needs of a missionary Anabaptist working in the rural St. Gall region in the first half of 1525. It is very important that the section of the concordance devoted to “faith” is weightier than the section on baptism (thirty-seven texts, as opposed to sixteen). Strbind describes this first part of the concordance as suited to winning people to the Reformation, rather than dealing with a doctrinal dispute internal to the Reformation, which was the function of the section on baptism. She also speculates that the willingness of peasants to defend Krsi had to do with his being perceived as a preacher of the Reformation, rather than particularly as an Anabaptist. All of this is very enlightening. It underscores, however, Strbind’s failure to confront my arguments and those of Martin Haas where our evidence was strong. We contended that in the circumstances of the peasant uprisings of 1525, which brought about a breakdown of traditional governmental authority in rural St. Gall-and the adjoining areas of rural Schaffhausen and neighboring Waldshut-the Reformation first reached people in the form of Anabaptism, supported by a mass following. In this region, as Haas said, for the time being a dominant Anabaptist Reformation was established; and it is entirely reasonable that it regarded itself as a competitor of Zwinglianism. But Strbind breaks off her study without treating the early Anabaptist movement in rural Schaffhausen or Waldshut.
Instead, she winds up her book-except for her concluding statement-with a short chapter on the Schleitheim Articles, beginning with scornful dismissal of hypotheses that attempt to link them to the Peasants’ War. Her chief thesis is that the Schleitheim Articles are an entirely logical development (although not a simple restatement) of the emphases of the preceding Anabaptist movements in Zurich, Zollikon and St. Gall. Schleitheim does not signify the beginning of a second phase of Anabaptism following the defeat of the Peasants’ War. Strbind’s analysis of Anabaptist texts is the strong quality of her book, and her treatment of the Schleitheim Articles is stimulating. She points to the questions in the long articles on the sword and the oath as possible points of contention in the discussions leading up to the formulation of an agreed upon common standpoint. Drawing upon the recent study of Edmund Pries, she acknowledges that the article on the oath is completely new, almost without precedent in earlier Anabaptist statements and practice. The article on the sword is interpreted in a way I consider sensible (as opposed to the older view of Yoder or the recent one of Gerald Biesecker-Mast)-temporal power is just as “devilish” in Article 6 as in Article 4. Against George Williams, the fifth article on the “shepherd” is not a departure from an earlier lay Anabaptism; there had always been a pastoral element in the movement, going back to the function of the “reader” in the Castelberger Bible school; but in Jacob Strau’s terms the pastor was always the servant, not the lord, of the congregation. On separation she admits the obvious: “Article 4 on separation has no analogy to other Anabaptist sources in its thoroughness and its central importance” (557). But she sees a great deal in the practice and writings of the earlier movement in Zurich, Zollikon and St. Gall that pointed in this direction. Hence Schleitheim, although it did sharpen separation into an explicit command in Article 4, and motivated it by the apocalyptic dualism that was Michael Sattler’s personal contribution, was not the beginning of a second, post-Peasants’ War phase of Anabaptism, but an authentic continuation of the impulse of the Zurich founders.
Readers should be warned that the theses in Strbind’s final chapter, “Ertrag” (Findings), are not a balanced representation of the results of her research. They continually exaggerate both the importance of her findings and their polemical importance over against previous scholarship. In discussing “‘Anticlericalism’ as an Interpretive Category” she crosses the line into personal polemic in a way that she avoids elsewhere in the book. Here the target is Hans-Jrgen Goertz in his use of the category of anticlericalism: “May one, as a church historian, venture the polemical suggestion that here we see an expression of the longing for a unified history of histories, a structuring ‘center of history,’ if not a secularized substitute for the Christian faith'” (585). My response is that an accusation of that kind tells us more about the person who makes it than the person against whom it is directed.
It remains to register a doubt as to whether “paradigm change” and the clash of warring perspectives is the best way to understand the course of Anabaptist studies. The gentle openness of Mennonite historians like John Oyer and Walter Klaassen at the time of the generational change in the 1970s spared the field of much of the abrasiveness of comparable disciplines. John Oyer once assured me, that had Harold Bender lived longer he would have continued to learn and broaden his views in dialogue with the new researchers, because he genuinely wanted to increase his understanding of the Anabaptist founders. Given time, researchers of my generation have developed a greater appreciation of some of the insights of our elders-for instance, the importance of “discipleship” or personal holiness in Anabaptism; and we have come to acknowledge that, although there was an injection of Thomas Mntzer’s influence into Anabaptism through Hans Hut and Hans Denck, it was absorbed surprisingly quickly into the wider current of Swiss-South German Anabaptism.
With Andrea Strbind we have a new, combative, somewhat abrasive voice entering into our discussions. Her emphasis on the primarily religious motives of the Anabaptist leaders, as contrasted perhaps with the mixed motives of some of the Anabaptist followers and supporters, is worth careful consideration. Bob Scribner once said that in the sixteenth-century Reformation everyone was, no doubt, religious; but that did not mean that religion was of equal importance to everyone. There is much that we can learn by sifting through Strbind’s arguments in order to enlarge our understanding of our common subject. She is to be welcomed by us aging “revisionists”; she is deserving of the same forbearance with which John Oyer and Walter Klaassen, then editors of The Mennonite Quarterly Review, greeted us in the 1970s.
James M. Stayer, “A New Paradigm in Anabaptist/Mennonite Historiography'” A Response
(Translated by John D. Roth)
I want to preface my response with a sincere thanks to James M. Stayer for his nuanced and careful discussion of my book. His review promises to stimulate an ongoing academic conversation, which, in my judgment, is the ideal outcome of a book review if it is to be more than merely an academic obligation. That is certainly the case here. Thus, I am very grateful to The Mennonite Quarterly Review, and especially to Editor John D. Roth, who has made it possible to publish an initial response alongside the review itself.
To begin, Stayer calls into question the “ecumenical” character that I claim for my methodological approach inasmuch as my framework does not give sufficient consideration to the “orthodox” (altglubige), or Roman Catholic, position. This observation is true to some extent although my discussion of the reform movement in Zurich would not have been thinkable without continual reference to Catholic doctrine and its tradition of piety. Despite all of the divergences and conflicts in its various currents, the Reformation was nonetheless united overall regarding the need for reforming the existing church. By appealing to the primacy of Scripture (Schriftprinzip), the Reformation developed an explosive internal dynamic that drew church structures, theology, piety and the whole of medieval society into the process of reform. Bernd Hamm has correctly described the Reformation as a “transformative movement challenging the entire system of religion, church and a religiously infused society.” In my opinion, a description of this “transformative movement” in its Anabaptist form will inevitably highlight precisely the discontinuities with the orthodox position and the potential for something new. I agree with Stayer that for the sake of ecumenical and methodological integrity we should not use the Roman Catholic position for our own purpose of reinforcing confessional distinctions, as has sometimes been the case in the writing of church history. In the methodological preface of my book I have clearly outlined my own theological orientation and thus it would be proper to assess and review my findings within this stated frame of reference.
Stayer formulates his sharpest critique of my work in reference to my engagement with the methodological controversy, specifically the shift in historiographical paradigms within Anabaptist studies. He regards both my survey of the phases of historical research as well as my persistent challenge to the conclusions of “revisionist” research directions as polemical and exaggerated. Here he protests especially against my consolidation of a range of researchers as social-historical oriented “revisionists,” which, he claims, lacks a more nuanced analysis of the various initiatives, results, motivations and personalities. In this regard, he charges me with a desire to call attention to my own research as a “third way” within the historiographical approaches to the Anabaptists. I wish to kindly refute this accusation by describing the way in which I encountered this material. The paradigm change within Anabaptist research-and the classification of earlier findings as “normative” or “apologetic” in the sense of an ahistorical self-affirmation of the churches relating to Anabaptist tradition – was certainly not introduced by me into the discussion. Rather, it owes its terminology and substance to a circle of scholars-to which my esteemed reviewer also belongs-who have identified themselves as “revisionists” (p. 26ff). The lumping together of various scholars that Stayer criticizes is therefore a result, not primarily of a general judgment on my part, but of their own interpretations in light of shifting research directions, as I believe I could demonstrate with an abundance of references. It was not without a certain passion and self-conscious sense of mission that various protagonists (among them Hans-Jrgen Goertz and Werner Packull) announced a new “epoch” of Anabaptist studies, which, with considerable polemic flair, clearly came out against the newly superseded “confessionally informed” school of interpretation.
This self-understanding and the consequences of the repeatedly affirmed “paradigm shift” for the later scholarship that built on it emerged as the point of departure for my methodological reflections. Along the way I tried to honor fully the many valuable and insightful results of the individual scholars. My reading of the sources and the secondary literature that interpreted them, however, led me to the growing awareness that the so-called “normative” depiction of Anabaptism was being replaced by a new, equally “normative,” sociohistorical version of Anabaptism in which important historical developments (for example, the events in Zollikon) were given less consideration and the theological principles as a whole were, in my judgment, not sufficiently appreciated. My study attempts to address this trend by reinterpreting the sources as precisely as possible within a historical frame of reference that was clearly explained from the outset and decidedly theological in orientation.
Stayer laments that I employ little nuance when contrasting my findings with other scholarly perspectives, and occasionally even present a distorted perspective. In this sense, he wishes that I would engage my colleagues with the same care that I bring to the subjects of my historical research. Here I can only attest that I never intended to caricature, falsely represent or depreciate any of the research findings that were contrary to my own. It is indeed the case that I clearly and sometimes even pointedly, challenged descriptions of historical events that were colored by a particular methodological approach. I have already expressed my respect for the generation of scholars who have preceded me in the sense that they have been valued conversation partners in every phase of my work, as my repeated references to other published opinions or research findings clearly demonstrates. Progress in knowledge will not occur without discourse from divergent perspectives. I have consciously set myself to this task, knowing that even the sheer abundance of studies on the history of the Reformation makes the task far from simple. Furthermore, I regard it as absolutely crucial that the ideological premises and interests that drive our research be disclosed and, if possible, explored in light of our respective findings. This openness to historiographical scrutiny is absolutely essential for intellectual discussion and leads first and foremost not to a deepening of ideological ruts but rather to mutual understanding (cf. 70).
Recognizing the complexity of the theme, Stayer calls for further research regarding the nature of the relationship between the Peasants’ War and Anabaptism, but he does so without engaging sufficiently with the substance of my arguments. In the course of my study I have devoted numerous passages specifically to this question: in my critical discussion of the Peter Blickle thesis regarding the “Gemeinde-reformation,” in the analysis of various peasant articles of grievance from 1525, and in the question regarding the personal entanglement of Anabaptists with the peasant unrest in the countryside surrounding Zurich. Along the way, I attempt through use of source material to work out the growing, virtually symbiotic, relationship of the city of Zurich to its rural villages, which led ultimately to the peaceful resolution of the peasant unrest through legal channels. On the basis of these findings I brought into question the construct of a mass movement of violent peasants that has been the basis of numerous recent studies of the Anabaptist movement. I have not thereby tried to explain, as Stayer claims, the overlapping of personnel in the peasant revolt and Anabaptist movement in the Grninger Amt with a blanket assumption of the subsequent religious conversation of the leaders at the time of their baptism. I simply asked whether the mere membership in the Anabaptist movement by two spokespersons for the peasants in Rti constituted in itself sufficient proof for a definitive correlation between Anabaptism and the social revolutionary interests of the rural villages. In light of the paucity of sources I warned here against an over-interpretation that would too quickly characterize the Anabaptists as the initiators and spiritual leaders of the peasant protests. In this connection, one might indeed take into account my analysis of the petition of the Grninger Anabaptists to the Landtag in 1527, which gives clear evidence of numerous parallels to earlier Anabaptist writings (e.g., use of scripture, teaching on baptism, church discipline, ecclesiology), but no analogies whatsoever to the demands of the peasants.
Stayer ascribes the “revisionists” lack of interest in the events at Zollikon to their tacit recognition of the classic study of Fritz Blanke, whose findings could not be cast in doubt. In my book, however, I tried to demonstrate that it is very difficult to fit the developments in Zollikon within a “two-phase” framework of Anabaptist origins, which is why Zollikon has moved completely to the background in recent research. By contrast, my own characterization of early Anabaptism as a genuinely “religious” movement makes a thorough analysis of the events in Zollikon extremely important. In this sense my interpretation clearly draws on Blanke’s work while, at the same time, challenging the consensus of current scholarship.
This is not the place to substantiate fully my main arguments, which follow from the teaching position of early Anabaptism that focused on the visibility of the church and the corresponding reformulation of sacramental practice that made “separatist tendencies” inherent in the Anabaptist movement from the beginning. For this I refer readers to the book and the conceptual argument of the entire project. However, I do want to refute Stayer’s assessment that this basic conclusion of my research is based simply on a historicizing of Zwingli’s polemical judgments rather than on genuinely Anabaptist sources. I agree with Stayer that the Anabaptists adopted Karlstadt’s radical principle of scriptural primacy as their own, which they then sought to implement as quickly as possible through church reforms-including the details of worship.
Corresponding from the outset with the demand for consistent application of the principle of scriptural primacy (Schriftprinzip) was an ecclesiological orientation that regarded the church as a visible fellowship of believers, which, on the basis of the Reformation appeal to the priesthood of all believers, was already developing within the milieu of proto-Anabaptist reading circles. It surprises me that Stayer pays little attention to my sociological and theological line of argument here regarding the process by which sodalities and reading circles formed into Anabaptist congregations. The innovative power of the principle of scriptural primacy (Schriftprinzip), strictly applied, and the pressure for concrete reforms cannot be fully understood in terms of their fundamental significance within the early Anabaptist movement apart from the parallel process of congregational formation that was given theological resonance by the principle of the “priesthood of all believers.” Here, too, I would point to Bernd Hamm, who has characterized the return to Scripture as the path-breaking “formal principle” (Formalprinzip) of the Reformation, which conformed to the material principle (Materialprinzip) of the doctrine of justification as well as the communal principle (Gemeindeprinzip) as the concrete reality of the Reformation locally. This internal relationship is especially true for the early Anabaptist movement, which, from the very beginning, attempted to transform the authority of Scripture and the priesthood of all believers advocated by the Reformation in general into a free, egalitarian organizational structure (reading circles, gatherings, congregations). The ecclesiological statements in foundational texts-as well as the self-understanding, repeatedly documented in the hearings and letters of those affected-of belonging to a “fellowship of brothers” (and sisters) correspond with this formation of community (Gemeinschaftsbildung) (cf. p. 463f).
My study of the Anabaptist movement in eastern Switzerland (Ostschweiz) did not intend to remove the Anabaptists out of the peasant unrest of the time but to highlight the parallels in personnel and theology with the developments in Zurich. In my estimation, the far-reaching claim that the Anabaptists in St. Gall and the surrounding region held to an ecclesiological understanding deviating from that of the Zurich Anabaptists is clearly refutable. Rather, the sources make it clear that there were profound congruencies in theological principles between the two movements. In this context it can prove helpful to distinguish among the dominant leaders or theologians, the published writings and the rank-and-file members of the Anabaptist movement, which I have attempted to do. The questions of the reception of Anabaptist theology via specific channels of communication and within the daily life of the members, however, requires further intensive research and promises to offer new perspectives even in eastern Switzerland.
I regret very much that my reviewer regarded my discussion of the interpretative category of “anticlericalism” as purely polemical due to its sharply worded formulation and, in so doing, ignored its informative value. Nonetheless, I do regard as fateful the historiographical development that promoted anticlericalism as “the” innovative driving force as well as the most significant unifying factor of the diverse reform movements of early Modern Europe. Here I see a danger that the complexity of historical change, as well as the diversity of religious motivations and their reception among various groups, will be oversimplified by a single explanatory model. In order to call attention to false determination and the ever-present impulse to historical reductionism, it is occasionally necessary to resort to a verbal sharpness that should, however, not be confused with a personal attack. Especially in regards to the study of the early modern era-a period whose system-transforming potential is completely incomprehensible apart from a framework of radical alternatives-it can be difficult to maintain a moderate and even-tempered tone in the debate over appropriate historical interpretations.
Stayer asks in conclusion whether my book actually contributes to a change in paradigms or promotes rather a plurality of methodological approaches that will ultimately lead to a fuller understanding of Anabaptism. Despite my critical posture vis–vis what I identify as a narrowing of recent Anabaptist scholarship, I do indeed wish to appeal both for a methodological pluralism as well as for integrated historiographical approaches that appropriately combine the significance of theological motivations with the findings of social-historical research.
I want to thank Prof. Stayer for the invitation expressed at the conclusion of his review for further dialogue. I look forward very much to a continuation of this discussion. My reviewer, who is fair in all of his objective concerns, repeatedly refers to my work with the adjective “abrasive”-a description that in English, as I discovered in my lexigraphical research, seems to be related to the effects of grinding or polishing. May our shared dialogue serve precisely this function so that the contours of our understanding of the Anabaptists will become sharper and their distinctive qualities will be brought into clearer relief.
. Martin Haas, “Der Weg der Tufer in die Absonderung. Zur Interdependenz von Theologie und sozialem Verhalten,” Umstrittenes Tufertum 1525-1975 – Neue Forschungen, ed. Hans-Jrgen Goertz (Gttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 1975), 63.
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[*]Andrea Strbind is Professor of Church History at the Ruprecht-Karls University, Heidelberg. She is currently a visiting Professor of Theology at the University of Lneburg.
2. Berndt Hamm, “Einheit und Vielfalt der Reformation-oder: Was die Reformation zur Reformation machte,” eds. Berndt Hamm, et al. Reformationstheorien. Ein kirchen-historischer Disput ber Einheit und Vielfalt der Reformation (Gttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1995), 57-127.
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The Mennonite Quarterly Review
A New Paradigm in Anabaptist/Mennonite Historiography?
*James M. Stayer is Professor Emeritus of History at Queens University, Kingston, Ontario.
MQR 78 (April 2004)