October 2006 Responses

Responses to Snyder


Confessionally and theologically based arguments have recently challenged the dominant historiography of Anabaptism. Since the 1970s, the prevailing interpretation of Anabaptist beginnings has emphasized, in a word, its “polygenesis.” On this view, Anabaptism arose from a variety of separate sources and initially included various religious ideas and theological emphases, not all of which were compatible. The diverse thinkers and groups who contributed to Anabaptism lived in differing concrete situations and confronted a variety of specific challenges. A “normative” Anabaptism, according to the polygenesis interpretation, emerged gradually and in part as a response to shifting socio-political realities. In recent years, some theologians and historians (e.g., Denny Weaver and Andrea Strbind) have challenged this interpretation on the grounds of its alleged confessional deficiencies. That is, they argue this account downplays the authentically theological, as opposed to socio-political, foundations of Anabaptism, minimizes the degree of doctrinal unity found among early Anabaptists, and dangerously undermines the sense of identity that history should provide those who belong to peace churches.

Arnold Snyder’s essay on the birth and evolution of Swiss Anabaptism during the 1520s addresses this historiographical controversy, but largely in an indirect and muted way. He opens his account by referring to the thesis of Andrea Strbind’s Eifriger als Zwingli[2] that Swiss Anabaptism’s origin was primarily a theological phenomenon and that, when thus viewed, it is evident that the Anabaptists from the outset opposed political participation and the use of the sword. Snyder refers to Strbind’s densely argued monograph at several key points in developing his own account, and it is clear that his overall interpretation differs markedly from hers. But he is by no means obsessed with presenting a detailed refutation of her work, and on a number of occasions he generously acknowledges the contributions of her research to his own views.

One of the charges recently leveled against the proponents of the “polygenesis” view should be dispensed with at the outset-the notion that they neglect a realm of purely theological concerns, entirely lacking social or political implications. Snyder shares the view presented in the studies of Goertz, Stayer, Blickle, Packull, and others, who have recast the history of Anabaptism by studying it in the context of social and political history and by linking religious and political ideas. “There was no separating religious and social or political issues in Zurich . . . ,” Snyder writes concerning the appeal to scriptural authority; and what was true for Zurich obtained for every polity. Religious values, beliefs, and ceremonies infused public life. Conversely, religion, including calls for religious reform and renewal, had implications for social and political life. The Protestant Reformation did not end the notion of Christendom-of Europe as a civilization defined by its faith-and it is anachronistic to separate religion and socio-political reality in sixteenth-century Europe.

Snyder’s account of the origins of Swiss Anabaptism in the division between Zwingli and the more zealous of his followers illustrates this connection. The split within what had previously been a unified reform movement in Zurich began in 1523, between the first disputation in January and the second in October. Various issues occasioned the division. In June, several villages in territory under Zurich’s control requested the city council to excuse them from paying the tithe, but Zwingli supported the Zurich council’s insistence that the payments continue. The issue of tithe payments and the related issue of the community’s right to install and support pastors also concerned politics: rights of local autonomy that Blickle stressed in his concept of communal reformation (Gemeindereformation). By the second disputation, the break with Zwingli was evident. The more zealous of his former followers, especially the nucleus of the future Anabaptists’ leadership, called for the immediate abolition of the Mass and the removal of images from churches. On the basis of Romans 13:1-2, however, Zwingli held that God had ordained the power of the city council and only they had the authority to decide these matters. Snyder argues convincingly that the theological differences between Zwingli and his dissenting followers may at this point have been negligible. But these events opened a division between a more conservative and elitist group, headed by Zwingli, who put the reform program in the hands of the city’s central government, and a more populist and radical group, who rejected the authority of city council in deciding religious matters. Again, religious reform and politics were inseparable.

The parallels between events in Zurich in 1523 and what occurred somewhat earlier at Wittenberg are striking. At Wittenberg, too, a more radical movement, headed by Karlstadt, broke with Luther over questions of the Mass, the retention of images, and the proper use of parish economic resources. In the case of Wittenberg, Karlstadt and those around him were even able, briefly, to persuade the city council to adopt their reform program-only to have Luther reject it when he returned from the Wartburg in the spring of 1522. Luther’s claim that the radicals were turning the freedom of the gospel into a new law was a red herring. What he objected to was their willingness to contravene the will of the Saxon elector’s central political authority, just as Zwingli objected to the radicals’ eagerness to go beyond what the central government of the city favored. Regarding Zurich, Snyder and Strbind are in apparent agreement insofar as it was primarily the zealous insistence of some among Zwingli’s followers that reforms be immediately instituted, without delaying for the weak or accommodating the wishes of the central government, that produced the break between moderates or magisterial reformers and radicals.

If one component of Synder’s interpretation of Swiss Anabaptism’s origins is the inextricable connection between religion and politics, another is the evolutionary character of what later became the hallmarks of the Anabaptist group of the Swiss Brethren. That is, Snyder persuasively argues that the principles of separating from the established church and the larger civil society and of rejecting all use of the “sword” (i.e., coercion or violence) evolved during the early years of Swiss Anabaptism. These principles and their positive counterparts-that of a gathered church based on voluntary commitment, of discipleship as entailing suffering and martyrdom, and of the use of the ban as the only appropriate tool of church discipline-were not there from the start. These principles emerged over time as various leaders and their followers engaged in dialogue with one another and responded to the increasing repression that radicals experienced, especially that resulting from the massive insurrection of the Peasants’ War.

Synder’s interpretation of the events that preceded the first adult baptisms in Zurich-in particular his take on the radicals’ letter to Thomas Mntzer of September, 1524-illustrates this evolutionary aspect of his study and his differences with Strbind. Contrary to Strbind (and to Zwingli!), Snyder argues that the radicals’ break with Zwingli in 1523 did not mean they intended to establish a sectarian, separated church. Rather, he argues that they sought a church that would not be coterminous with the citizenry but would include a majority; it would have the support of the political authorities, at least in the sense that they would not interfere as the church independently instituted necessary reforms. It must be said, however, that the evidence for this ecclesiastical model is scanty. At several points, Snyder describes Anabaptist ecclesial aims in terms of establishing a non-separatist church of the “majority.” But it is doubtful whether the radicals were willing to put their convictions and aspirations to a vote.

By 1524, the Zurich radicals had come to reject infant baptism. Snyder says the letter to Thomas Mntzer, in which this rejection was articulated, was “the first major surviving writing of what would become the Anabaptist movement” and that, as a result, it has been “over-analyzed.” As both Snyder and Strbind agree, Conrad Grebel and the other co-signers had read Mntzer’s Protestation, which argued against infant baptism. Snyder acknowledges his indebtedness to Strbind’s treatment of this issue but rejects her characterization of the letter as a “consensus” statement. His reasons for this are unclear. It may well be that various sources (Zwingli, Mntzer, Karlstadt, Jakob Strauss) influenced the Zurich radicals’ rejection of infant baptism, and the letter may have included notions not held by all the signers. But Snyder’s description of the letter as a “Mulligan stew” seems equally inappropriate. The letter expressed a core of shared theological and ecclesial ideas-that Christian practices should strictly follow New Testament norms; that the congregation or community, not interest payments and tithes, should provide a livelihood for ministers; that images have no place in worship; and so on. Hans-Jrgen Goertz has characterized the letter as an attempt to initiate a dialogue with someone the Zurich radicals viewed as a potential conversation partner. This implies that their own voice was not an incoherent cacophony, even if the letter expressed convictions that only some of the signatories held. Snyder, for example, regards the letter’s condemnation of Mntzer’s willingness to use the sword in defense of the gospel as incompatible with at least the subsequent practice of some emergent Anabaptist communities in Switzerland.

Snyder does convincingly demonstrate his larger point: the Zurich radicals and the early Swiss Anabaptists who evolved from them took various positions on such key issues as a separatist church and nonresistance. A particular strength of his study is its careful examination, not just of literary texts, but of what can be inferred about the actual practice of Anabaptist communities as the movement spread in 1525-to Schaffhausen, Hallau, Waldshut, St. Gallen, Grningen and elsewhere. Snyder, in fact, regards separatist and nonresistant Anabaptism, commonly taken to be the norm, as a minority stance. He accuses Strbind, who argues for a continuous tradition of separatism in Anabaptism, of misrepresentation. For Snyder, Michael Sattler’s Schleitheim Articles (1527), with its radical division between Christ’s church of the baptized and the outside world of Satan, and its emphasis on persecution as the mark of the true church, was a new departure for Anabaptist ecclesiology. The increasingly intense persecution that Anabaptists suffered after 1525 resulted for many (but by no means all) in a view of Christian discipleship that stressed separatism, nonresistance and martyrdom.

Snyder defines Anabaptism simply and, in terms of religious anthropology- from the standpoint of ritual rather than myth: Anabaptism is the water baptism of adults. The simplicity of his definition allows him to construct an interpretation of the origins of Swiss Anabaptism that draws its strength from its inclusiveness. He does not use theological criteria derived from confessional issues of current significance to exclude certain thinkers or groups from the history he narrates. The Anabaptism of Balthasar Hubmaier, for example, who believed that Christians could legitimately hold political office and wield the sword, and that Christian subjects were obligated to assist them, merits inclusion as much as an advocate of nonresistance and separatism such as Michael Sattler. The upshot of including Hubmaier, however, is to make plain that some who advocated the water baptism of adults, held views on other key issues that were indistinguishable from those of the magisterial reformers.

Snyder’s inclusiveness also comes at an organizational price. The overall presentation of the essay is chronological, with three main divisions-a “prehistory” in Zurich running from 1520 (actually from the Wurstessen of 1522) to the first adult baptism in January, 1525; second, the events of the key year 1525, which saw the initial baptisms of adults in Zurich and the spread of the movement to outlying towns and villages in the context of the great insurrection of the Peasants’ War; and a third period extending from 1525 to 1530, which Snyder describes in terms of “repression, consolidation, and migration.” In the third section he examines not only developments in Zurich and its environs, but also elsewhere-in other parts of Switzerland, in South Germany, especially Augsburg and such free imperial cities as Esslingen and Strasbourg, and in Moravia. In this third section, the straightforward chronological narrative inevitably breaks down in favor of geography. The result is a certain amount of discontinuity and overlap as Snyder traces the careers of various Anabaptist leaders and groups in a variety of places and as these leaders and groups migrated from place to place. Snyder also deals with how Swiss Anabaptism came into contact and interacted with other varieties of Anabaptism arising from different sources. The resulting picture is a complex one, in which the clarity of Snyder’s original aim-critically testing the hypotheses of Strbind-is somewhat obscured. But the various forms that the Anabaptist movement took in the period 1525-1530 do serve as a warning. They warn against any simplistic attempt to read history through the lens of faith and to regard the history of the Anabaptists as a straightforward story buttressing current theological concerns. The peace churches that evolved from the first Swiss Anabaptists made central the doctrines of separatism and nonresistance. Snyder’s study presents a convincing account of a very different point of departure for this sectarian development.



Arnold Snyder’s masterful essay “The Birth and Evolution of Swiss Anabaptism” is a gift and a delight. It is a gift because it provides a painstaking summary of research on the origin and development of the early Swiss Brethren, including complicated historical details that have been uncovered over the years by Snyder and other historians of the Radical Reformation. It is a delight because the essay makes a provocative and stimulating argument about the interpretation of Anabaptist origins that sends us back to source texts that we already thought we knew in order to see if Snyder’s interpretation of the data is plausible.

Snyder’s essay persuasively describes at least three significant features of early Swiss Brethren words and deeds that contrast with some earlier historical accounts. First, baptism, economics and ecclesiology provide the discursive context for the emergence of separated nonresistance at the beginnings of the Swiss Brethren. Second, nonresistance was not a settled conviction among many of the early Swiss Brethren, even in the Zurich circle. Third, the sword-accepting Balthasar Hubmaier was a central, rather than marginal, figure in the early development of Swiss Brethren convictions and practices (although I remain convinced that Hubmaier’s views on the sword contrasted with the emerging nonresistance of the Zurich circle).

The question I want to address in this response is how these understandings of Swiss Brethren origins impact our interpretation of the role of separated nonresistance in the Anabaptist story. For Snyder, the conclusion seems to be that nonresistance plays a minor role in early Anabaptist conviction. For me, a rereading of the sources and an alternative view of history suggest a different conclusion.


The sources do seem to provide evidence that Felix Mantz was the most vocally and thoroughly nonresistant member of the circle that sent letters to Thomas Mntzer, but it is not quite correct to claim, as Snyder does, that “the strongly nonresistant phrases” of the Letter to Mntzer “mirror the known views of only one of the signatories to the letter.” Given the limited data in the historical record about the members of this circle, I suggest that their signatures on this letter, along with the available evidence of statements and activities that are consistent with (even if not exactly replicating word for word) the convictions stated therein, constitute adequate proof that “known views” are reflected in the letter. During his home Bible studies, for example, Andreas Castelberger is on record as saying “much about warring, how the divine teaching is so strongly against it and how it is a sin.”[4] In his remarks, Castelberger focused his concerns on the mercenary system that sent Swiss soldiers to foreign wars; yet, given Castelberger’s signature on the Letter to Mntzer, it is not unreasonable to assume that his opposition to war was universal.

Castelberger was clearly influenced by the same Erasmian humanistic pacifism for which Grebel had also expressed enthusiasm. In a letter to Vadian, Grebel claimed he had read Oswald Myconius’s dialogue “on not going to war,” which, he wrote, “by reason of its truth deserves to become a classic.”[5] This Erasmian pacifism was more focused on the humane peaceableness of the Gospel than on the sacrificial defenselessness of the cross.[6] The Zurich circle, originally under Huldrych Zwingli’s leadership, had clearly come to recognize the contradiction between the Gospel of peace and the horrors of war via the works of Erasmus.[7] But neither Zwingli nor Erasmus was prepared to renounce defensive warfare altogether, even though Erasmus was critical of the just war paradigm by which much “defensive war” was validated by Christian rulers. Yet, the humanist antiwar polemic of Erasmus can be taken up as easily within the framework of the cross-bearing defenselessness advocated by Mantz as it can be qualified with the magisterial and nationalistic sword-bearing eventually advocated by Zwingli.

Snyder accuses Heini Aberli and Hans Brtli of contradicting their signatures on the Letter to Mntzer with their subsequent actions. If Aberli responded positively to the letter he received from Waldshut asking for “about forty or fifty well-armed fellows,” he may have done so as an antiwar humanist who had not yet become as nonresistant as Felix Mantz.[8] However, the historical record does not indicate how Aberli responded, so it seems just as plausible (if not more so) to accept his signature on the Letter to Mntzer as evidence that he agreed with its contents at the time it was sent.[9] As for Brtli, his protection (along with that of Wilhelm Reublin) by armed Hallauers seeking to save their pastors from arrest by troops from Schaffhausen is hardly grounds for claiming that he contradicted the nonresistance proclaimed in the Letter to Mntzer. As James Stayer has noted, there is no evidence to suggest that either Brtli or Reublin supported the violence of the Peasants’ War, even though they perhaps sought to turn the revolutionary moment to the advantage of their movement.[10] Moreover, Brtli is on record as having renounced violence and vengeance the year before he signed the Letter to Mntzer. He did so in a letter in which he acknowledged that he had changed his mind about this topic and that he no longer agreed that it was right to “drive out violence with violence.”[11]

Snyder emphasizes the absence in the sources of any challenge by Grebel to the Hallau pastors who neither refused armed protection nor offered any critique of “armed Anabaptist Waldshut.” Of course there is no evidence of any explicit critique of the Hubmaier-led Anabaptism of Waldshut or Hallau by Felix Mantz, either, but this doesn’t mean he supported armed Anabaptism. Even Jakob Gross and Ulrich Teck, who refused to kill on behalf of Waldshut, do not appear to have “corrected” Hubmaier in his program of magisterial Anabaptism; in fact, they appear to have made an effort to accommodate Waldshut’s requirement that they carry arms on behalf of civil defense, though their refusal to use them got them expelled from the city.

Nothing in the historical record, as far as I can tell, contradicts the obvious conclusion that Grebel and his friends who signed the Letter to Mntzer were in agreement with its contents, even if none of them except Mantz subsequently reaffirmed in the same way the specifically nonresistant statements of the letter (at least in the available historical record).

Furthermore, none of the signatories ever repudiated the nonresistance expressed in the letter. Grebel, for example, had the opportunity to do so during his Zurich trial with Mantz, George Blaurock and Margaret Hottinger in November 1525. At this trial, Zwingli accused the Grebel circle of wanting to do away with government and specifically attributed to Mantz the rejection of the sword (an attribution that Mantz affirmed in his testimony).[12] In Grebel’s testimony, he insisted that he had never said that government should be abolished nor that he had ever taught that “one should not be obedient to the authorities.”[13] This testimony makes clear that Grebel did not agree with the revolutionary violence of the peasants; rather, his view here is fully consistent with the subordinate nonresistance expressed in the Letter to Mntzer (Snyder implies that his testimony contrasts with the letter). If Grebel had disagreed with Mantz about the rejection of the sword, this trial would seem to have been a prudent place to note the disagreement. Yet Grebel said nothing in his testimony that was inconsistent with the subordinate nonresistance that Mantz took every opportunity to proclaim. Furthermore, Grebel’s offer (testified to on July 12, 1525, by Hans Mller, Jacob Falk and Hansliss Uli) for a debate with Zwingli, in which losing would mean execution for Grebel but not for Zwingli, can be seen as a nonresistant response to Zwingli’s use of the sword to protect his view of the Gospel.[14] Moreover, the public nonresistance of people like Gro and Teck-as well as of the Hallau Anabaptist Junghans Waldshuter, who said that “a Christian government should not kill people” and that “no Christian is permitted to kill”-confirm that vocal nonresistance among the early Swiss Brethren was not a peculiar conviction of Felix Mantz.[15]

The historical record therefore would seem to indicate a strong showing for nonresistance amidst an early diversity of viewpoints among the emerging Swiss Brethren on the exact way a Christian should relate to the sword of governance, with opinion leaders such as Felix Mantz and Balthasar Hubmaier making public arguments for contrasting viewpoints with many of the rebaptized either withholding judgment or quietly accepting one or the other perspective. Within the context of this mix of perspectives, and with newly formed Anabaptist communities slow to excommunicate on the basis of disagreements, it is more plausible to read the Letter to Mntzer as a communal letter that articulated viewpoints held by all of the signers in the spirit of Christian unity, albeit by some, perhaps, with greater tenacity or eloquence. The letter was not, in my view, a “Mulligan stew” of disparate opinions with each signatory accepting only that part of the letter to which he subscribed. It was rather an earnest and eloquent offer of solidarity with a Christian brother who had inspired their circle and whom they sought to correct precisely in his apparent willingness to take up arms in defense of the Gospel. Indeed, the acceptance of Mntzer as a brother even while articulating a nonresistant posture that contrasted with his willingness to bear arms is arguably paradigmatic for the subsequent behaviors of all the signatories.


The discussion about what conclusions to draw from the limited information in the historical record about the earliest communities of the Swiss Brethren raises the more fundamental question of historical interpretation and the convictions about social change and historical development that shape that interpretation. For Snyder, it appears that the significance of an opinion that appears in the historical record is determined by: 1) whether a consensus had been reached about the view (or at least a significant number of people had accepted the view); and 2) whether the view reflects the evolution of the movement. On these criteria, nonresistant separation is shown not to be significant or “definitional” since it does not express a “theological consensus” and since it “did not function well” when it appeared that some political authorities might support and protect Anabaptism.

Snyder’s historical convictions are revealed most transparently in the following statement: “Sixteenth-century Anabaptism had to become separatist or invisible (or both) or face eradication. This, however, was the result of external historical developments, not the result of an inevitable separatist logic within original Anabaptist principles themselves.” Snyder here is clearly challenging the deterministic logic of (at least some) intellectual history that posits historical events as mere reflections of grand ideas floating above the fray. But his reaction seems to be to make convictions simply the inevitable reflections of “external historical developments.” I argue that we do not have to choose between Hegel and Marx here, especially if we accept the biblical claim that the Word has become flesh.[16] The social text of human history moves through both words and deeds. Conrad Grebel’s Letter to Mntzer (or at least his signature on it) was as much a deed as was his baptizing of Wolfgang Uliman. And both letter-writing and baptism are without doubt acts of communication.

On my reading, then, the possibility of Anabaptist nonresistance occurred partly because someone, perhaps most notably Felix Mantz, and then later Michael Sattler, became convinced of its truth and sought to persuade others of that truth. Might we even venture that such arguments were made under the guidance of the Holy Spirit? Such a view explains why there were nonresistants like Jakob Gross and Ulrich Teck in Waldshut, even if it would have been more expedient for them to accept Hubmaier’s magisterial Anabaptism at the moment. And such a view also explains why sword-bearing Anabaptism died out eventually, even though there were ongoing social, economic and religious resentments in Europe for violent versions of Anabaptism to exploit-as they did periodically in a variety of places (post-Mnster Batenburger terrorism comes to mind). Anabaptist nonresistant separation won the day, to the extent that it did, because people in that time and place became convinced it was the most truthful articulation of the Gospel to their circumstances and anxieties, hopes and desires.

This is not to say that the argument was convincing from the very beginning, or that everyone who accepted it came to consistent conclusions about how to live according to nonresistant principles. Indeed, many in the Zurich circle may have initially responded to arguments for nonresistance with what Kenneth Burke called incipient action-an attitudinal shift that did not immediately bear fruit in external and visible behaviors.[17] Conrad Grebel may have agreed with Felix Mantz that true Christians “employ neither worldly sword nor war,” and have repeated his arguments in the Letter to Mntzer without having conceptualized fully what kinds of nonresistant actions should follow from such a commitment. Perhaps it was not until the drowning of Felix Mantz or the burning of Michael Sattler that a persuasive model for public and active nonresistance became available to Anabaptists who were sympathetic to the arguments increasingly being made for separation from worldly offices of sword-bearing governance. The options are not, in other words, complete consensus about nonresistance or relative absence of nonresistance.

From the very beginning of Anabaptism there was an argument for nonresistant separation from the worldly alliance of Christendom and political authority. That argument persisted in a variety of settings, within and beyond Swiss Anabaptism-including peaceful Stbler inside armed Anabaptist cities from Balthasar Hubmaier’s Waldshut to Jan of Leiden’s Mnster; including the alienated communities who signed on to Schleitheim; and including the Hutterites during their golden years under the tolerant rulers of Moravia.[18] It was not inevitable that this argument would be accepted by increasing numbers of Anabaptists and become the primary stance adopted by Anabaptist communities such as the Mennonites, the Amish and the Hutterites. As John H. Yoder has pointed out, the cover letter to the Schleitheim Brotherly Union calls attention to that agreement’s witness to a unity that had not been previously present in the movement and to the capacity of dialogue and discussion to change people’s minds.[19]

The perspective from which I have been considering these earliest of Swiss Brethren sources assumes that neither a controlling idea nor an overpowering context determines historical outcomes (although both ideas and contexts participate in the shaping of historical choices). Rather, historical developments occur as the result of attitudes cultivated and actions taken in response to rhetorical practices-words and deeds that convincingly provide descriptive and normative accounts of the world in which audiences find themselves and within which they are constrained to act.

Separated Anabaptism did not survive, in my view, because it was somehow best suited to the evolving social and political landscape of continental Europe, though it may have been that in some times and places. It survived because seekers of God’s truth came under the influence of spirit-led persuasion. At least that is the story of which I have been persuaded, and which I believe continues to attract people to the convictions of those stubborn sixteenth-century radical reformers some of us choose to call our forebears.



With this new account of the beginnings of Swiss Anabaptism Arnold Snyder has provided an important service not only to scholars in the field of Anabaptist studies, but also to anyone interested in the history of early Anabaptism. Consequently, the appearance of his work in The Mennonite Quarterly Review is especially valuable. As Snyder indicates in his introduction, this topic has been the subject of much disagreement among scholars in recent years. While lively debate in academic circles often encourages valuable research into a topic and innovative interpretations of the results of that research, it also too often deteriorates into petty wrangling over minor points of interpretation. In the process, events at the center of dispute are often lost. Professor Snyder has brought us back to those events with a clear narrative that engages central interpretive issues.

Snyder’s goal is to produce a new description of Swiss Anabaptist beginnings that takes into account the research and conclusions of both secular, revisionist historians and more confessionally-committed, post-revisionist historians, most notably Andrea Strbind. His is to be a “balanced account” that addresses the roles of “religious” and “social” factors in the origins and early development of Swiss Anabaptism, and Snyder highlights well the difficulties in isolating purely “religious” and “social” factors in a sixteenth-century context. However, behind this debate are fundamental disagreements about the nature of church history and the picture it yields of early Anabaptism. Revisionist historians have consistently called for a history of Anabaptism written without explicit theological or confessional concerns in mind. Strbind and other post-revisionist scholars have pilloried what they regard as the specious claims to objectivity of secular historians and have called for a church history that serves as a branch of historical theology and provides a usable past for the church. The different approaches of these historians have led them to very different conclusions in identifying the defining characteristics of the early Anabaptist movement. On all of these issues, Snyder’s work has been challenged at different times by both revisionist and post-revisionist scholars.[21]

Both in the past and in the current essay, Snyder tends to come down on the side of the revisionists in disputed cases. This is evident already in his identification of the original Anabaptists as those “who insisted on carrying out a water baptism of adults as the only proper, biblical baptism,” and his argument for a “two-phase” development of a distinctive Anabaptist ecclesiology that included both pacifist and separatist characteristics. But this essay is more than just a rehashing of the revisionist line with post-revisionist window dressing. Snyder puts his own distinctive stamp on this material, and in the process he takes our understanding of early Anabaptism in new directions.

Part of the originality of Snyder’s interpretation comes from his rereading of some of the central textual sources for the history of Anabaptist beginnings, especially Huldrych Zwingli’s comments on his discussions with the Zurich radicals in 1523 and the 1524 letter of the Conrad Grebel group to Thomas Mntzer. Snyder takes us into new territory by moving beyond revisionist challenges to the veracity of Zwingli’s accusations of sectarianism against the Zurich radicals-the basis for claims that they already had developed a separatist ecclesiology in 1523-and trying to tease out of Zwingli’s comments an accurate description of the radicals’ ecclesiology. However, likely more exciting, and in some circles more shocking, are the conclusions he draws from the Letter to Mntzer. Several years ago Hans-Jrgen Goertz challenged the prevailing assumption that this letter contained a programmatic statement of the Zurich proto-Anabaptists and suggested instead that it be treated as an invitation to a fraternal conversation.[22] Snyder takes this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, deconstructing the letter in search of an internal dialogue carried on among its signatories. Revisionist scholars had challenged the claim that the letter lays out a separatist ecclesiology; Snyder goes a step further and rejects the generally held conclusion that its calls for nonresistance reflected a consensus opinion among the Zurich proto-Anabaptists.[23] Snyder’s claim that pacifist statements in the letter may have been an attempt by the Grebel group to reconstruct what they thought was Mntzer’s opinion is a clear indication of how far we have come from the time when all true Anabaptists were pacifists and Mntzer was a murder-prophet responsible for the entire Peasants’ War. No less shocking is Snyder’s claim that the fault lines within early Swiss Anabaptism ran not between Zurich and the countryside as revisionist scholars have claimed, but between the Zurich radicals, especially Grebel and Felix Mantz. This suggestion radically changes both the complexion and the dynamics of early Swiss Anabaptism.

The strength of Snyder’s analysis rests not only on his careful reading of these texts, but also on his detailed reconstruction of the actions and interactions of early Swiss Anabaptists. There has been a tendency in Reformation studies to treat the early Anabaptists as persons of few words, but of momentous acts. Snyder’s demand, then, that the Letter to Mntzer be read in the context of the subsequent activities of its signatories fits in well with a venerable interpretive tradition. Hans-Jrgen Goertz had noted the incongruity between the pacifist statements in the Letter to Mntzer and the later support of insurrectionary movements by Grebel and Hans Brtli.[24] Snyder’s reinterpretation opens intriguing possibilities for resolving this apparent contradiction. His portrayal of Anabaptist reformations largely follows the revisionist line, but here, too, he provides interesting variations on the theme. Especially intriguing are his conclusions about the presence of Spiritualist elements in early Swiss Anabaptism, a movement long regarded as a bastion of Reformation biblicism. No less significant is his emphasis on the importance of Balthasar Hubmaier and Waldshut for Anabaptism. Snyder has been arguing for Hubmaier’s rehabilitation and incorporation into the mainstream of the movement for some time now. His earlier research focused on the importance of Hubmaier’s 1527 catechism for defining the “theological core” of the movement.[25] The present reevaluation of Hubmaier’s ecclesiology and challenge to prevailing assumptions about the place of a separatist ecclesiology and pacifism in the thought of the Zurich radicals opens the door to a much greater role for Hubmaier in early Swiss Anabaptism.

Snyder’s treatment of the Schleitheim Articles and of Swiss Anabaptism after Schleitheim is largely an extension of his ongoing efforts to point out the limitations of the polygenesis model for understanding the development of Anabaptism and to identify a theological core common to the early Anabaptist movements. His argument for the gradual evolution of a distinctly Anabaptist ecclesiology, often in response to changing political circumstances, highlights the importance of Michael Sattler and Schleitheim in unifying and consolidating Swiss Anabaptist positions on the sword, the oath, the ban and separatism. At the same time he downplays the extent and immediacy of the articles’ impact, and in the process erodes assumptions that the history of the Swiss Brethren after 1527 can be viewed exclusively through the lens of Schleitheim. Intriguing here are suggestions that the articles were also intended to discipline the movement in other ways by marginalizing spiritualist manifestations among the Swiss Anabaptists and dictating subordinate roles for women.

This picture of Anabaptist beginnings is a new and exciting synthesis of recent research into the topic. Snyder disentangles and recombines the relationships between individuals and ideas in the early years of the Swiss Reformation. However, Snyder’s account will not be welcomed by all students of Anabaptist history, nor will it be the last word on the subject. Historical writing, like the events of history, is always a work in progress. This synthesis, like earlier narratives of Anabaptist beginnings, will be scrutinized and gradually torn apart. But Arnold Snyder has done us a great service by providing us with a new narrative to tear into.



Anabaptist origins have been examined so minutely from so many angles that one wonders whether any new interpretation is possible or even desirable. Nonetheless, Arnold Snyder, drawing on “revisionist” themes and on his own past and recent work, shapes a Gestalt clear and sharp enough to influence not only historical studies, but also contemporary theology and ecumenical conversation.

While I often work in the last two areas, I find “Anabaptism” understood diversely and diffusely there. This has prompted me to study early Anabaptism intensively and develop my own reading of some of its most significant features.[27] I am intrigued, therefore, by the assumptions and interpretive approaches in Snyder’s reading. After discussing several of Snyder’s arguments, I will conclude by highlighting some possible implications of Snyder’s Gestalt for theology, ecumenism and mission.

In doing historical work it is useful to distinguish between implicit and explicit theology. The latter, found in learned books and articles, is what “theology” usually means. Yet Anabaptists, for nearly 500 years, wrote little of this. This often creates the impression that Anabaptism has no theology. But if so, how could anyone theologize in an Anabaptist perspective today? My answer is that no religious movement could endure, even briefly, without an implicit theology:[28] without basic convictions[29] about the nature of God, human destiny, good, evil and much more. Anabaptist theologians, then, have much historical material available-much implicit theology to explicate in the present.

Implicit theologies play a large role in new religious movements. To be sure, movements can also be guided by explicit claims, such as those which Huldrych Zwingli’s young followers gleaned from his Bible studies. But these only give partial expressions to a more expansive vision.

Further, as theologians today acknowledge, theology both shapes and is shaped by Christian practice.[30] As new movements are launched in various social contexts, many unforeseen responses and questions arise. Their convictions, explicit and implicit, are challenged and revised, and some are abandoned. A movement’s new converts will strongly agree on a few things. But time will show that they disagree on others, because different, sometimes conflicting, theological convictions are operating. Yet it is difficult or impossible to gauge the actual strength of these convictions. Some explicit statements or common practices[31] might seem to represent a whole group when, in fact, many diverse, implicit convictions are present. Conversely, explicit statements or practices might clash despite an underlying, implicit agreement.

Accordingly, in a movement’s early stages it is often difficult to discern what explicit statements or visible practices or actions really mean. Consequently, when a theological orientation (explicit or implicit) eventually gains wide acceptance, it will also be hard to know what earlier steps pointed toward it or in other directions. For these reasons, the shorter the period under investigation, the lower the probability, in my view, that contrasting theological positions or developmental stages within it can be clearly demarcated.

Nevertheless, this application of the implicit/explicit distinction hardly devalues a detailed inquiry into such questions, as I hope my interaction with Snyder’s work will now show.

I find several of Snyder’s methodological procedures very fruitful. He grants both actions and words significant value as evidence. This is appropriate if theology and practice are intertwined and if implicit convictions can be inferred from the latter. Snyder also lends roughly equal weight to urban and to rural situations, and to religious as well as sociopolitical factors.[32]

I would summarize Snyder’s main argument as follows: two primary, differing ecclesiologies operated from 1520 to 1530 in Swiss proto-Anabaptism and Anabaptism. Both opposed governmental involvement in church affairs and prioritized Scripture. One, which I will call “peoples’ church,” was favored by Zurich radicals, appeared in reformed rural congregations and was implemented in Waldshut and Nikolsburg. This ecclesiology, among other things, was open to a variety of members and to limited participation in government, including its punitive functions. It viewed sanctification as a gradual process and promoted economic sharing, buttressed by criticism of usury and compulsory tithes.

The second ecclesiology, explicated at Schleitheim, opposed the church to the world; rejected all violence, participation in government and oaths; and applied the ban for purification. Sanctification was more rapid and thorough, and Christ as model was central. This option emerged only “with the failure of the Peasants’ War” and in the face of “intense political repression. . . .” Snyder argues for this distinction between ecclesiologies in a number of ways.

In the period up to January 1525, Snyder seeks evidence of the first ecclesiology in the Zurich radicals’ conversations with Leo Jud and Zwingli. Though he finds it “less than clear what ecclesiological model, if any,” was guiding them, he implies that it bore similarities to current demands for autonomy and the abolition of tithes in reformed congregations, mostly rural. The only surviving recollections of these conversations, however, come from Zwingli. Snyder infers from Zwingli’s second set of comments (July 1527), though they differ markedly from the first set (November 1525), that the radicals proposed a model that “fits exactly” with those churches or communities later established by them in Hallau, Tablat and Grningen, and by Balthasar Hubmaier in Waldshut and Nikolsburg.

To show that the second ecclesiology had not yet formed, Snyder analyzes the Letter to Mntzer. He concludes that it serves up not a “theological consensus,” but “a Mulligan Stew of views. . . . ” Though strong nonresistant phrases appear there, Snyder attributes these to Felix Mantz. Throughout his article, Snyder repeatedly narrows nonresistant, separatist, perfectionist and Christocentric sentiments before 1527 to Mantz.[33]

Snyder’s careful research shows that various ecclesiological possibilities circulated among proto-Anabaptists. But this, so far as I can see, does not add up to the claim that any clear model, “exactly like” some that appeared about two years later, circulated during this period of rapidly changing circumstances and convictions.[34] We do not have enough reliable information to know exactly what the radicals proposed to Jud and Zwingli, or how definite or fluid any proposals may have been.[35] As for the Letter to Mntzer, it may well express various views in process, not all of which included nonresistance. But narrowing that and other “Schleitheim” emphases to Mantz alone strikes me as unwarranted and overdone.

Moving on to 1525, Snyder shows that as Anabaptist mission spread to new areas, it endeavored, as one would expect from a nascent peoples’ church, “to gain a political space,” or cooperation from rulers. Many converts were peasants. Some of them continued fighting the Peasants’ War and occasionally protected Anabaptist missionaries militarily.

Snyder insists that “the most stable, numerous and important Anabaptist community in 1525 was, without a shadow of a doubt, the church of Waldshut . . . . ” He shows that this was a peoples’ church, not a state church as Yoder claimed, and he critiques champions of Schleitheim ecclesiology like Harold S. Bender and Andrea Strbind for marginalizing Hubmaier. According to Snyder, it was Hubmaier who crafted the first “theologically coherent Anabaptist ecclesiology,” which actually functioned. Snyder claims, further, that Hubmaier’s support of Christian governments that use the sword “reflected the actual practice of the Anabaptist communities founded by the Grebel circle throughout 1525.”

Once again, by emphasizing multiple missionary actions over scattered statements, Snyder shows that the Anabaptists’ behavior could diverge from Schleitheim patterns. But the main question is: can one infer from this that they affirmed, explicitly or implicitly, the kind of ecclesiology implemented in Waldshut (and that this had earlier been recommended by Zurich radicals to Zwingli)?

These Anabaptists had suddenly launched an unprecedented mission endeavor with a very novel message. I find it more likely that whatever ecclesiological convictions they held were being challenged, and so were being revised and adapted to their unpredictable situations. Seeking some government approval does not amount to being “ready to embrace a political majoritarian power. . . . ” Absence of immediate criticism of wars of liberation is not the same as endorsing some forms of violence.[36] Today, many missionaries who teach nonviolence and avoid politics seek governmental approval and, in times of danger, protection.

I agree with Snyder that marginalizing Hubmaier for his political views wrongly narrows historic Anabaptism’s range, and Swiss Anabaptism’s even more so. The bulk of explicit Swiss theology also vanishes along with Hubmaier. This can support the misconception that Anabaptism, at least here, had no theology.[37] However, if Hubmaier is reinstated, does this mean that his “first Anabaptist writings” were fuller developments of the “ideas of the Grebel circle. . . . “? Did the main features of Hubmaier’s peoples’ church ecclesiology originate from them? From my perspective, this is the most important question raised by Snyder’s article.

Before addressing it, let us trace Snyder’s narrative to its end in 1530. The Schleitheim Articles, for Snyder, were unique. The radical church-world polarity (Article 4) was new, perhaps even a creation of Sattler rather than a synthesis of existing views. Snyder surveys much of Switzerland, parts of South Germany and then Moravia. He shows that Schleitheim precepts were sometimes followed, sometimes not. Schleitheim, assuredly, was not adopted everywhere swiftly. But did most other Anabaptists, implicitly or explicitly, endorse a second, peoples’ church option like Hubmaier’s?

To answer, let us consider Snyder’s final account of how these different ecclesiologies emerged. Hubmaier found government and its sword necessary because even Christians did not dwell in God’s kingdom; while on earth, they would always be stuck “right up to our ears” in the worldly kingdom.[38] This crucial church-state relationship was necessitated by Hubmaier’s somewhat pessimistic anthropology and soteriology.

According to Schleitheim, however, Christians already live in God’s kingdom and are being transformed by following Jesus’ teachings. Government and its sword are needed only by those in the worldly kingdom. This crucial church-state separation followed from a more optimistic soteriology with Jesus as the model.

In Snyder’s view, the Zurich radicals also linked anthropology, soteriology and ecclesiology in Hubmaier’s way-except for Mantz, the first one to join these in Schleitheim’s way. Originally, however, both “state affirming” and “separatist” Anabaptisms sprung from “the same Swiss Anabaptist roots.” It was only eventually, and “under the pressure of changing social and political circumstances,” that these divergent soteriologies “bore fruit in significantly different ecclesiologies. . . . ” But was this how it all happened?

Hubmaier’s sanction of the sword did not evolve from his Anabaptist anthropology. He maintained this before he became an Anabaptist and never changed.[39] This trained theologian soon incorporated that view into an explicit ecclesiology. But I find no real evidence that the Zurich radicals adopted such an ecclesiology. And even if they were anthropological and soteriological pessimists, this would not necessarily have led them to endorse government and its punitive functions. They could have concluded that governments also, or especially, are corrupted by sin, and that churches should never participate in or support them.

Consequently, only one early Anabaptist ecclesiology, so far as I can see, endorsed government and its sword, and it did not derive this principle from Anabaptist roots. One cannot hypothesize, either, that pessimistic Anabaptist anthropologies would have led to this position.

In sum, Snyder’s creative, highly informative article demonstrates that various ecclesiological possibilities circulated between 1520 and 1530. He identifies two explicit versions: Schleitheim and a quite different peoples’ church model. But we have no real evidence that any important leader save Hubmaier held the latter view. To be sure, some other Anabaptists, at times, favored various structures and practices consistent with a peoples’ church vision. But we do not know what broader ecclesiologies, if any, they might have held.

If Snyder’s noteworthy Gestalt gains wide acceptance, how might it influence theology, ecumenical conversation and mission from an Anabaptist perspective? To be sure, no view of early Anabaptist history can be directly adopted by any of these fields. They all incorporate many other factors and criteria in forming their views and practices. People who accept Snyder’s historical claims need not favor any of the following possible implications (Snyder himself may not). Nevertheless, interpretations of this history have greatly influenced how Anabaptists understand themselves and what they have communicated to others since at least the 1940s.

Snyder’s Gestalt could well encourage greater interaction with different theologies and denominations, and with more kinds of people in mission and otherwise. Along with this general impetus, it might also prompt some people to assume that a church with limited soteriological optimism or stress on Jesus as model, but one that is engaged in politics and sometimes participate with the police and the military, is a genuine Anabaptist option.

Snyder’s Gestalt might incline theologians to focus less on “Anabaptist distinctives” and more on commonalities with other traditions (currently a debated issue). It will likely encourage ecumenical contacts, both locally and in formal dialogues and organizations. It may well stimulate mission to more kinds of people, but possibly with less stress on becoming counter-cultural-though perhaps more stress on economic sharing.

However, many people are drawn to Anabaptist theology, ecumenical relationships and mission by the desire to communicate and learn about a very special but largely forgotten Christian vision. If people in these fields have something broader but less distinct to share, will more, or less, people be interested? Once again, I do not imply that Snyder intends any of this. People who want to live as Anabaptists need an accurate picture of the earliest years, however much it may or may not correspond with their current beliefs and wishes. Arnold Snyder continues to contribute enormously to that picture.



In the interpretation of Anabaptism as a movement, I wrote back in 1992, it would appear that two different approaches have dominated the field in recent years. Taking a long-term approach and based on the work of Ludwig Keller (who brought his own hidden agenda to the task of interpreting Anabaptism) and Mennonite scholars such as John Horsch, Harold Bender and Robert Friedmann, the first sought to impose a late model, perhaps even a twentieth-century model, upon its origins. In doing so, they reversed the value judgment of those sixteenth-century observers who lumped all the radicals under a common label and sought to uncover a common revolutionary source in Thomas Mntzer. The second, taking a short-term approach and pioneered by a younger, largely non-Mennonite generation of scholars, has stressed the early diversity, the “polygenesis” of the movement, thereby suggesting a rather more chaotic model for the whole. Both of these approaches, however, beg the question of the formation of movements. We need, it would seem, some conceptual model (or models) of how movements develop. At what point is a movement born? At conception, or when it emerges from the womb, having completed the required period of gestation? What role does environment play in shaping it once it has emerged into the light of day, has reached the “age of discretion” and matured to adulthood? In the process of maturation, how does a movement discard those elements that are in latent, if not outright, conflict with it? Indeed, what amount of inner tension can a mature movement tolerate? And is the process of discarding merely a matter of losers falling by the wayside and victors maintaining the field of battle, a kind of survival of the fittest in which we, the historians, cheer on the survivors? Is there an inner logic to this process, or is it all a haphazard, accidental development that defies rational explanation’[41]

Despite this-at least to me-eminently sensible advice, no one seems to have accepted the challenge. Nor does the present author do so. Rather what Arnold Snyder appears to be doing-as he had already attempted in the introductory passages to his and Linda A. Huebert Hecht’s 1996 Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers-is somehow to reconcile the above two interpretive traditions.[42] In the present study, however, there is no larger context within which this is to be accomplished, at least not one apparent to me. In the prior study James Stayer, Werner Packull and Klaus Deppermann’s polygenesis thesis provided the context. The only problem was that many of the specific biographical studies in the Profiles volume gave the lie to the polygenesis thesis that informed the introductory sections.

Now it should have been apparent to all historians, at least since Thomas Kuhn’s books on the Copernican revolution, that the bare facts, even in cause-and-effect sequence, are, by themselves, less than enlightening and easily manipulated. It is only when they are placed into a larger context-what Kuhn calls paradigms, like the Ptolemaic and Copernican cosmologies-that they begin to take on real significance. The same is true for history. Larger contexts are critical, especially for intellectual or religious history. In terms of the history of the Christian church, the struggle for purity versus universality has been ongoing. One can see it at work in the emergence of fourth-century monasticism, as well as in the Catholic Church’s absorption of it. The same forces were at work in the Protestant Reformation in the struggle between reformers and radicals. This can be clearly seen in the critical encounter between Huldrych Zwingli and his radical followers in 1524, where the latter suggested that they do as the apostles in Acts had done: “those who had believed seceded from the others, and then it happened that they who came to believe went over to those who were now a new church.”[43] Zwingli responded with Augustine’s conscious misinterpretation of the Parable of the Tares in his quarrel with the Donatists-the latter defending the purity of the church and Augustine its universality- where Augustine argued that the “field” in the parable represented the “church,” when Christ had clearly stated that it represented the “world.” And Zwingli concluded: “The example of the apostles was not applicable here, for those from whom they withdrew did not confess Christ, but now ours did.”[44] The church had become the world as Augustine had already argued in the 411 Carthage conference; the corpus christianum still reigned supreme. That being the case, the sola scriptura that Snyder claims “was the bedrock on which the Zurich reformation was built,” had to give way to the larger “truth” of the Christian society. It is from this vantage point that the quarrel between Zwingli and his radical followers takes on significance. For whereas both began on that “bedrock,” Zwingli, when he began to see the implications of the specific “biblical truths” he had earlier assented to, was forced to a massive “reinterpretation” to retain the Christian society paradigm. Where now was his sola scriptura? His followers, on the other hand, proceeded to induce an entirely new model of church and society from the very same scriptural truths. This process of clarification was not something that happened overnight; and Snyder is correct in pointing to the gradual evolution of the structure of the Anabaptist church. Indeed, when one reads these early documents, one sees that the Anabaptists were centrally concerned with believer’s baptism, and not necessarily with the concept of the church, though I think Snyder underestimates their concern with the latter.

It is from this perspective that I also have problems with Snyder’s definition of Anabaptism with its sole emphasis “on water baptism of adults as the only proper, biblical baptism.” Without reconstructing the theological frame of reference out of which the emphasis on believer’s baptism arose, indeed became necessary, adult baptism loses in importance. Later in the essay Snyder does mention the biblical passages repeatedly cited by Anabaptists in their defense of believer’s baptism: Matthew 28: 18-20 and Mark 16: 15-16 (the Great Commission), and the apostolic examples of baptism in Acts 2, 8, 10, 19. I dealt with this theme at length in my Erasmus, the Anabaptists and the Great Commission, but Snyder fails to cite my study or to note that it argued that the Anabaptists also interpreted Christ’s Great Commission through the baptismal passages in Acts, especially Peter’s Pentecost Sermon in Acts 2; or that this interpretation can only have been derived from Erasmus’s paraphrases of Matthew and Acts, which appeared in 1522 and 1523 respectively. Certainly Erasmus was a major influence on Zwingli, and his paraphrase of the Acts of the Apostles has been called one long exposition of the “pure apostolic church,” something that may have played an important role in early Swiss Anabaptist thinking well beyond the matter of baptism.

Whereas Snyder does pay attention to the respective local political contexts, he fails completely, once again, to give any attention to the larger imperial context. Though Snyder does not recognize it, that context took the form of the Nuremberg Edict of March 6, 1523. I stumbled across the edict in 1990 in my research for a book on Thomas Mntzer. Ever since, I have been gathering archival material in Europe on the edict, reading the many published documents on the reformations in the cities and the Peasants’ War, and I am now in the process of writing the manuscript. The imperial edict of 1523-a product of Frederick the Wise’s public policy vis–vis Luther’s reform, and shepherded through the Imperial Governing Council by Frederick’s counselor, Hans von der Planitz-defended Luther’s preaching of the “holy Gospel” but prohibited the Wittenberg reformers from introducing any actual reforms in the church until a General Church Council could decide the controverted issues. On March 6, 1523, this policy became imperial law, but the “recess” had already been published as early as January 1523. At the first Zurich disputation in January 1523, and in some of Johann Fabri’s latter comments on that discussion, it is clear that not only did Zwingli and Fabri make numerous references to this law, but Zurich also had its representatives at the diet itself. There are other reasons to believe that it was this edict-which later became the foundation for the Basel and Berne Reformation edicts-that was at the center of the decision reached at the end of that disputation: namely, to mandate the preaching of the Gospel, as interpreted by Zwingli, but not to allow any changes. That is probably why Zwingli turned the matter of reform over to “my lords” of the town council.

If this is the larger political context in which the debates at the time took place, the growing conflict between Zwingli and his followers and the increasing frustration of the latter becomes more understandable. Martin Bucer spoke of the same frustration as lying at the root of the Strasbourg reform, and in the introduction to the Confessio Tetrapolitana of 1530 he remarked that, had the city not proceeded to bring the church service into conformity with the teachings of the Gospel, a revolution would have occurred in the city. Duke Philip of Hesse made the same observation with respect to the Peasants’ War.

This same edict forms the context within which Balthasar Hubmaier sought to introduce his reforms in Waldshut. The exchange of letters between the Waldshut town council and the Innsbruck Austrian authorities concerning Hubmaier’s reform, printed in the appendix to Johann Loserth’s 1891 essay on Hubmaier, makes the case.[45] In Hubmaier’s case the town authorities supported his argument that he was being obedient to the edict; but the Catholic authorities gave a different interpretation to the edict, as Luther immediately said they would once the edict was promulgated. This context puts a very different light on events in that city and has strong implications for the development of Hubmaier’s ecclesiology. This edict, and the public policy it reflects, lies at the roots of the conflict between radicals and reformers everywhere else in the Reformation. It takes some of the edge off of the age-old argument that the radical oppositional figures were simply hotheads.

There are hundreds of volumes of Peasant War documents, and studies that reach all the way back to the Reformation itself. To rely, as Snyder does, only on the volume of documents in translation by Tom Scott and Bob Scribner is inadequate for any study that attempts to establish how Anabaptists and peasants related to one another. Because of the imperial edict’s emphasis on preaching “only the holy Gospel,” the relationship between Anabaptism and the Peasant War is much closer than most scholars have thought.

These larger contexts are of critical importance in interpreting the events of the sixteenth century. And when it comes to the relationship of Thomas Mntzer to the Anabaptists-or their relationship with any other personalities-it is absolutely critical that we understand where these personalities are coming from. Otherwise we can so easily take statements out of context and prove virtually anything we want. I have nothing but skepticism for such a methodology.

It should also be noted that Snyder pays Erasmus no heed whatsoever. But his New Testament (which Calvin said was in everyone’s hands), his paraphrases (which Leo Jud had translated into German by 1535), his magnificent writings on Christian pacifism and his paraphrase on the Acts of the Apostles (which gave the clearest portrait possible of the “pure apostolic church”) must surely have had some impact on the Swiss Brethren, as they did on Menno Simons, according to Cornelis Augustijn.

I will leave to another study my differences with Snyder’s specific arguments. There are many such differences, especially those arising from a different methodological approach to historical evidence. But at this juncture in the development of Radical Reformation studies it may be more necessary to initiate a discussion on methodologies. This concern grows out of my historiographical studies and my years of teaching a course at the University of California-Santa Barbara on “The Development of History as a Discipline.”



“The most stable, numerous and important Anabaptist community in 1525 was, without a shadow of a doubt, the church of Waldshut. . . .”[47]

Arnold Snyder’s essay provides us with a burst of detailed information on the early years of the Radical Swiss Reformation. But when the dust has settled, there are no major breakthroughs. This review is, of necessity, highly selective. It fails to give Snyder credit at certain points where credit is due (e.g., the widespread lay Bible studies in the early years of the Anabaptist movement). But to put the essay in context, it is important to note Snyder’s intent that his essay be a corrective to Andrea Strbind’s study.[48] I am less interested in the vexations of Snyder with Strbind than I am in his depiction of early Swiss Anabaptism.


Snyder pursues here the themes of his earlier survey work, Anabaptist History and Theology.[49] Several of those themes, however, take new directions. I list two previous themes, and then examine a third one, the key theme of Snyder’s current essay.

First, according to Snyder, “spirituality,” more than any other phenomenon, characterizes early Swiss Anabaptism. In his earlier survey Snyder wrote, “It is not an overstatement to say that Anabaptist pneumatology was the sine qua non of the movement.”[50] This spirituality has an “inner/outer continuum” that is seen in the debates of letter versus Spirit, of sword versus nonresistance. The inner dimension has its roots in medieval mysticism and is in tension with an outer dimension included by other Anabaptist scholars under the rubric of discipleship (a category not well developed by Snyder). For Snyder this outer dimension is secondary in emphasis to the inner. His focus is on the “spirit of Christ,” less on the image of Jesus; on personal transformation rather than political.

Second, Swiss Anabaptism as a movement in this era, according to Snyder, was decisively not pacifist. The fundamental dualism of this sword-affirming Anabaptism lies not between church and state, but within the individual; it is in the roles (or office) the individual holds, whether as a member of the church or as a citizen in the militia. What holds all of life together is spirituality.

Snyder’s tour de force is clear. He does not view a “separatist” Anabaptism as historically normative. Nonresistance and pacifism, however, call for “separatism.” The majority will not quickly accept nonviolence-if included in that majority are the magistrates, as is the case in Snyder’s “most important” Anabaptism. Since, as Snyder has concluded, Anabaptism was not separatist until somewhat later (the first clear statement being the Schleitheim Brotherly Union of 1527), conflicting evidence must be carefully reexamined.

The single most significant piece of historical evidence that has led scholars of the past to believe that early Swiss Anabaptism was pacifist are the “Letters to Thomas Mntzer by Conrad Grebel and Friends,” of September 1524, prior to the first baptisms. Without that document, the case for a nonresistant and separatist Anabaptism from the very beginning is gone. The strongly nonresistant phrases-the rejection of all warfare, and the belief that believers are as “sheep for the slaughter”-Snyder claims, “are a recapitulation of a view the radicals believed was held by Mntzer” and “mirror the views of only one of the signatories to the letter, namely Felix Mantz . . . .” Therefore the first half of Snyder’s essay is spent countering all nonresistant interpretations of this letter. Conrad Grebel, Anabaptism’s founder, was not committed to nonresistance.[51] “When actual baptizing communities began to be planted and formed under his [Grebel’s] leadership throughout Switzerland, Grebel’s commitment to a defenseless, separated church disappears from view. . . .”

Third, the key theme and purpose of the essay is the claim for a “majoritarian ecclesiology” for early Swiss Anabaptism as opposed to a “separatist ecclesiology.”[52] This is a direct challenge to Andrea Strbind’s work.[53] This third point dovetails at numerous places with the preceding two above. How Snyder goes on to establish his case and why Snyder prefers the “majoritarian church”[54] are questions that go well beyond this review. Yet, it may be noted that a broad spectrum of Anabaptist scholarship would hold Snyder’s presuppositions regarding a faithful “majoritarian Anabaptism” as defying not merely the teachings of Jesus as claimed by the Anabaptists, but the nature of Anabaptism itself.[55]


Snyder makes it clear that he does not have hard textual evidence to back up the case that the September 1524 Letter to Mntzer did not express Grebel’s opinion on ecclesiology and nonviolence. “The telling evidence is historical, not textual,” says Snyder. But he fails to make clear the nature of his historical evidence. Presumably he means the evidence is between the lines, or circumstantial.[56] In the pages following, Snyder proceeds to line up this circumstantial evidence. Arguing that Conrad Grebel was not himself pacifist, Snyder cites the absence of any evidence that Grebel attempted to “correct any deviance from the nonresistant, separatist ecclesiological understanding such as was expressed in the Letter to Mntzer.” By this logic, however, Michael Sattler could not have been a pacifist either, nor Felix Mantz. Snyder’s case is replete with selective cases based on circumstantial evidence.

Did the majoritarian church at Waldshut use coercion? Snyder says no. Yet later he fills in the historical facts:[57] “Both [Teck and Gro, nonresistant Anabaptists] had been expelled from Waldshut for refusing to kill to defend the city. . . .”[58] The Anabaptist community in Waldshut that was “without a shadow of a doubt . . . the most stable, numerous and important Anabaptist community in 1525,” did not coerce its Catholic town citizens to be baptized against their will. True. But it did drive its own Anabaptist members out of home and town for refusing to bear weapons to kill the Austrian militia and their Catholic co-citizens. Should this Anabaptist congregation (formed through a mass baptismal ceremony in April 1525) that ceased to exist by November because it lost the battle with the Austrian regime be considered the most important Anabaptist community of the time? Or, a most important aberration of Anabaptism until Nikolsburg and later Mnster came along’[59]

Methodological strategies of research aside, Snyder’s essay also raises several historical aspects that are more theological in nature. Snyder anchors his story, particularly Anabaptist ecclesiology, chiefly in the person of Hubmaier. He refers to Hubmaier’s Zwinglian theology, presumably because of the humanist influence the two theologians share. Snyder fails to show, however, that far more significant for understanding Hubmaier are the commonalities he shares with Martin Luther.[60] Hubmaier, more than any other early Anabaptist leader, offers a near-replica of Luther’s two-kingdom theology differentiating between the public and the private spheres of life.[61] Thus Hubmaier, like Luther, sanctions the use of the sword for Christians in public (governmental) activities, while seeking the way of Christ in private matters. Character formation and a communal ethos of love and nonviolence are no longer at the nexus of being and doing. The two-kingdom theology Luther and Hubmaier promoted calls for a “spiritual” basis that differentiated between the inner and outer, not unlike that which Snyder claims as the “Anabaptist core.” Hubmaier, like Luther, prefers to speak of Christ-sometimes a mystical being, sometimes doctrinal and sacramental-rather than of Jesus.[62] By attending to more mystical categories, behavioral inconsistencies with the teachings and example of Jesus are camouflaged-i.e., theologically rectified.[63]

Discipleship for Hubmaier was a formality of obedience to Scripture (outward “spirituality”) undergirded by mysticism (inward spirituality). For Hans Denck, Felix Mantz, and Hans Hut, to mention but a few, discipleship constitutes an epistemology of salvation; discipleship is the way of knowing Jesus that leads to salvation, both individually and collectively. Here is a new way of “knowing” salvation in the disciplined context of living in the world, not as “a church that turned its back upon the world.” With a Hubmaieran/Lutheran understanding, the quality of one’s actions (whether bearing the sword or loving the enemy) does not affect one’s character. Salvation is reduced to a forensic transaction.[64]

Finally, do we determine what is theologically significant about a people on the basis of what they held in common with everyone else? Or, on the basis of what was life-giving, on that which made a distinctive contribution to the times? Why should one bother to write about an Anabaptist “core,” if by core we simply mean that that Anabaptists all had in common was essentially what everyone else, particularly Protestants, also had in common? We should question this all the more as we discover that core to be an inner medieval “spirituality” that cannot be validated on the basis of the life-giving behavior and relationships of those who claim this spiritual possession. Spirituality that is not measured on the basis of the accompanying behavior risks being dangerously deceptive. Spirituality is best identified by its behavioral and relational terms (e.g., love and nonviolence), not by some theologically sanctioned category (e.g., Spirit), assumed to be amorphously present in those who claim it.


How we imagine the forward strides in history to have occurred (i.e., how we envision God to move creatively and redemptively) and how we narrate our history, shapes the way we think about our present world and the world of tomorrow.

What is clear through the life-death-resurrection of Jesus is that “When God advances his story line it begins with the vulnerable.”[65] That part, demonstrated so graphically by our Anabaptist forebears, is settled. Ecclesiology-the shape and nature of the human community embodying the way of Jesus for the world today-is an ongoing quest. Not altogether settled, but not altogether open either. This then leaves me with a troubling assessment of Hubmaier and the direction Snyder’s spiritual “majoritarian,” sword-bearing Anabaptist narrative is taking us.

Snyder has an enviable gift of writing. What he does so very well is pull together a hundred historical fibers and spin them into a continuous thread of considerable resilience. The narrative is fascinating, provocative and captivating. Still, one is left wishing that in weaving the threads together into a cloth, the design of the cloth (the theology) were as carefully executed as the spinning of the fibers.

(Trans. by James M. Stayer)

In 1975 there were ample reasons to write of “Umstrittenes Tufertum” (controversial Anabaptism).[67] Younger historians and theologians no longer found the “Anabaptist Vision” of Harold S. Bender to be plausible. For one thing there were increasing anomalies in the historical sources; and in the second place this generation of scholars no longer found itself under pressure to protect contemporary Mennonites from the twin threats of fundamentalism and liberalism by appealing to the original vision of the Anabaptist founders. Moreover, it was above all nonconfessional, secular historians who initiated the revision of scholarship on Anabaptism. To be sure, Christian discipleship, an ethic of love and gathered congregations of believers-the three pillars of the “Anabaptist vision”-were accents to be found in Anabaptist sources. They did not have enough consistency and weight, however, to justify measuring all Anabaptist movements by these characteristics, and to exclude from genuine Anabaptism everything that did not correspond to this norm.[68] The “monogenetic,” normative origin of Anabaptism became controversial; and it was replaced by the idea of “polygenetic” origins.[69]

The Bender picture was not, despite its claims, an objective presentation of the Anabaptist reality of the sixteenth century. It was an idealization that depicted an Anabaptism that never really existed in this form. But this model was presented with inexorable insistence to the Mennonite congregations as something that had once been achieved and must now be imitated. It was not considered that such an unachievable demand had the potential to throw the existing congregations into a deep depression. That, however, was the experience I had in the 1960s in the pastorate of a venerable German Mennonite congregation (Hamburg-Altona). Theologically I found the “Anabaptist vision” inspiring, particularly in the refined form into which John Howard Yoder had shaped it. But instead of strengthening the congregations it taught them that they lived at an unreachable distance from their confessional origins; so that their predominant impression was of their own inadequacy.

In 1972, when I read Claus-Peter Clasen’s social history of Anabaptism, and above all James Stayer’s Anabaptists and the Sword, I felt myself freed from a great burden.[70] I began to read the Anabaptist sources in a new light, and came to rejoice in the multiplicity, indeed the heterogeneity, of Anabaptist personalities and movements, and to apply the polygenetic beginnings of Anabaptism to the plurality of congregations and churches in the present, to the multiplicity in the world Mennonite movement and the ecumenical scene. Nothing was bound by norms; everything was still tentative, experimental and provisional. In this way, I still hope, congregations can derive consolation and encouragement from Anabaptist research and win renewed trust in the Holy Spirit, who will “lead them into all the truth” (John 16:13).

At a conference on “Mennonite Identity” at Waterloo, Ontario, in 1986 James Stayer voiced his astonishment at how little resistance the “new historiography” that had arisen in the 1970s had encountered from Mennonites. Such resistance as there was had come not from Mennonites but from evangelicals who idealized the early Anabaptists, such as Kenneth Davis and Charles Nienkirchen.[71] And this critique, too, has ebbed away. That does not mean that among Mennonites the polygenetic approach has been fully accepted, or that strong reservations do not continue against any turning away from the Anabaptist vision. In the last ten or twelve years Mennonite scholars, such as Arnold Snyder and John Oyer, have published work that reemphasized the theological component of early Anabaptism and softened the sharp divisions between Anabaptist groups that had been a mark of the revisionist scholarship of the 1970s. But then, the work in the 1990s of some of the revisionist scholars such as Stayer and Werner Packull tended in the same direction; and there were no partisan fronts dividing confessional Mennonite historians and those who identified themselves as “post-confessional” historians.

It was only with the publication in 2003 of the Heidelberg Habilitationsschrift of the Baptist church historian Andrea Strbind that the historical interpretation of the whole generation of Anabaptist scholars who emerged in the 1970s was called into question. She called for “a critical revision of the revisionist interpretation of Anabaptism of recent scholarship.”[72] Specifically, she disputed the unclear ecclesiology and the undefined relation to temporal authority that current scholarship attributed to the early Anabaptists, as well as their oscillation between militancy and peacefulness. To summarize, she opposed the standpoint that there was more discontinuity than continuity between the Zurich Anabaptists of 1525 and those who wrote the Seven Articles of Schleitheim. Strbind tended to lump together all working scholars in the field, including confessional Mennonites like Arnold Snyder, as persons who regarded early Swiss Anabaptism as a “social” movement and therefore not a “genuinely religious” movement.[73] This misunderstanding of the varied perspectives and allegiances of the current generation of Anabaptist scholars assured that Strbind’s findings would not long go unchallenged. Appropriately, the challenge has been posed by Arnold Snyder, who writes about Anabaptist history and theology, and who shares Strbind’s commitment to both.

Snyder’s findings confirm the revisionist model of interpretation even more than I would have guessed. I will comment only on three points, which perhaps I can sharpen somewhat.


Snyder quite self-consciously places himself among the revisionist historians and theologians who worked for a rehistoricizing of Anabaptism, in that he conceives of the religious motives and theological statements of the Anabaptists as they were expressed in their social context. That does not mean that such motives and statements were produced by their social context, a Marxist way of thinking. Who conceives contextually of the religious concerns of the Anabaptists, as Snyder does, never loses sight of the religious character of the movement. On the contrary, he seeks to determine the meaning of what Anabaptists do and say in each situation, whether it is theological, political or social. He has very successfully portrayed the confrontations of the proto-Anabaptists and Anabaptists with the clergy of the old religion, with Zwingli and with the Zurich Council. He has shown them in their contact with the rebellious liberation movement in the countryside (the Peasants’ War), as well as in dispersion, suffering severe persecution after the defeat of the rebellious peasants. Snyder’s contextual starting point makes his article a contribution to the contemporary scholarly discussion about the importance of the reception of Reformation insights for the understanding of the Reformation era.


Here we see a confirmation of the so-called “two-phase model,” which Andrea Strbind explicitly rejects. That is, Snyder, in harmony with the revisionist scholarship, asserts that there is no theological continuity between the Anabaptist beginnings of 1523 to 1525 and the “Brotherly Agreement” of Schleitheim in 1527; the development of Anabaptism was in no sense dominated by a separatist-pacifist ecclesiology that attained its full unfolding at Schleitheim. Rather, in the forefront of Anabaptist activities we find a sensitive response to concrete ecclesiastical, political and social situations, in which the aim of the Anabaptists was the purification or renewal of the existing church. Occasionally we encounter references to withdrawal into a small, unresisting congregation, prepared for suffering; but in the earliest period that was nowhere a program that was actively put into practice. In order to place the argument for a not-yet-decided, tentative approach to a renewal of the church on a broader foundation, Snyder expands his purview from the situation in Zurich and its territories to the activities of the Anabaptists in Waldshut, Hallau, Schaffhausen and St. Gallen. (He criticizes Strbind for biasing her results by excluding Waldshut, Schaffhausen and Hallau from her study.) The harmony between the Zurich Anabaptists and Balthasar Hubmaier in Waldshut, who was not reckoned as an “Evangelical Anabaptist” by the Bender school because of his cooperation with the local government, but who played a dominating role in the regions of early Anabaptist expansion, speak in particular against the dominance of a supposedly peaceful “Grebel-Sattler line,” which John Howard Yoder and Heinold Fast regarded as the embodiment of “genuine” Anabaptism.[74] In an important observation, Snyder notes that one of the few representatives of this “line” was Felix Mantz, but on no account did it include Conrad Grebel or Johannes Brtli. The territorial expansion of his account, as well as the temporal expansion to 1530, puts Snyder in a position to considerably reduce the great significance that both the Bender school and Strbind attached to the Schleitheim Confession. The Schleitheim Articles were representative primarily in areas where persecution was severe, or in exile communities, but in areas where some accommodation could be reached between Anabaptists and the governments (e.g. Appenzell or Esslingen) its dualistic categories seemed out of place. The Schleitheim Articles, like the well-known Grebel to Mntzer letter of September 1524, was not a programmatic document but rather a contribution to discussion through which the Anabaptists sought to find their way in a time of crisis.

Beyond that, it is hardly surprising that at first Anabaptism had no ecclesiologically fixed form and pursued no logically worked out strategy. Everything was still in flux. Anabaptism was a movement-and here we use that term with the precision provided by social scientific definition; hence it was a “collective actor” with changing strategies and goals, with symbolically rich agitation slogans (e.g., against the clergy), with a pregnant “we” feeling (“brothers and sisters”) and a loose, penetrable form of organization that permitted the members to move frequently from one movement to another-as they went from the Reformation to the rebellious peasant movement, to Anabaptism, and then often back again, as the frequent recantations show.


In Anabaptist History and Theology, his book of 1995,[75] Arnold Snyder proceeded from the assumption that there was a theology inherent in the Anabaptist movements that only gradually became visible, but which produced an inner unity within the Anabaptist plurality. Basically this view is not far removed from the Strbind thesis that the Anabaptists maintained their theological idea from the beginning on. The difference is that Snyder does not find the basic Anabaptist theological idea in a separatist-peaceful ecclesiology, but rather in a power of the divine Spirit that transforms people and moves them to action; further, he regards this basic theology as developing gradually rather than being present from the start. This theological interest in the spirituality of Anabaptism and its development is expressed with particular clarity in Snyder’s book of 2004, Following in the Footsteps of Christ.[76] Given the lay character of Anabaptism, Snyder now regards it as more appropriate to refer to “spirituality” than to (scholastic or systematic) theology. In this book theological interests dominate the historical material. Snyder chooses Anabaptist sources over an extended territorial area and time period and distills from them a unified concept of Anabaptist spirituality. The individual elements of this spirituality lack historical coloring; they combine to produce a general Protestant religiosity, which hardly betrays its origins in the aggressive nonconformity of the early years of the Reformation.

In the present article, Snyder emphasizes the origin and development of the Anabaptist movement in Switzerland rather than the crystallization of a general Anabaptist spirituality or theology. This process was entangled with the ecclesiological, political and social problems of eastern Switzerland, and it neither had a clearly discernible goal nor a clear structure. Movements, given their provisional, rapidly changing situation, are in principle not easily describable. Hence it is understandable that in the historical narrative of this early Swiss Anabaptism, the spirituality or theology of Anabaptism as a whole recedes into the background-what remains is not a theology but rather theological accents.

These theological accents were the work of Balthasar Hubmaier, Michael Sattler, Wilhelm Reublin and Jakob Kautz, Hans Hut, Hans Denck and Pilgram Marpeck, particularly when they encountered one another, in eastern Switzerland, Moravia and Strasbourg. Observed carefully, the differences between these spokesmen of the early Anabaptists are immense and reflect the polygenetic beginnings of the Anabaptist groups. However, in the concrete debates about the direction of the Reformation, as Snyder’s study clearly shows, the theological affinity to one another and their feeling of mutual solidarity counted for more than precise points of theological difference: “Although there were significant dogmatic differences-Sattler did not share Denck’s Christology of the ‘immanent word of God’ or Denck’s Neoplatonist anthropology-nevertheless in describing what is required for salvation, Denck and Sattler stood very close together indeed, against the evangelical reformers.”

To connect Snyder’s analysis to recent developments in Reformation scholarship, what linked the Anabaptists could be labeled a “discourse” in which similar, yet different, positions were at issue and the “truth” was struggled for. Some conceptions were confirmed, others abandoned; some were brought nearer together; still others underwent a metamorphosis and became something new. This process of discourse was especially exemplified in the case of pneumatology, or the relationship of the inner reception of salvation and the outer signs or ordinances-spirit and letter, inner and outer baptism, faith and works. Snyder seeks a commonality embodied in the discourse and not in a particular theology. To start with, the struggle was over theological accents rather that a theological structure or system. Only what came to the fore in this discourse could be handed on to later generations as the Anabaptist tradition. Snyder, however, misses an important theological hiatus between the early Anabaptist movement and the evolving Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition of later centuries. The movements hardened into confessional institutions. Only then could theological accents be collected into a rounded theological tradition.

The revisionist scholarship on Anabaptism would be ill advised to imagine that it will not one day be surpassed. In some respects it has already undertaken self-corrections, for instance, in the mutual interpenetration of Swiss and South German Anabaptism in Moravia.[77] It is far from as homogeneous as Andrea Strbind has presented it. Nevertheless, we are not at the stage of initiating a revision of the revision. That is the task of a generation of scholars, not of a single book, narrowly focused in theme and period. The achievement of Arnold Snyder’s article can be described in a maxim of Max Weber’s “that through applying well-known facts to well-known viewpoints it has nevertheless been able to create something new.”[78]


I have found this year to be a stimulating one in terms of scholarship on Anabaptist origins and early development. I have read with gratitude the Habilitationschrift of Andrea Strbind[80] and the refreshing work of Arnold Snyder, “The Birth and Evolution of Swiss Anabaptism (1520-1530).” Having devoted myself academically mostly to the Reformation in Zurich in the 1520s, I am grateful to Strbind and Snyder for raising significant issues for reconsideration in this time period. I must allow a disclaimer as I try to respond. First, I have long been an admirer of the work of Arnold Snyder. I remember that he sat for a year in the chair of church history at the Baptist seminary of Ruschlikon bei Zurich. I will also admit delight, if not always complete agreement, with the work of Andrea Strbind, who served as co-pastor of the Baptist congregation in Munich. She is now on the theological faculty of Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg. She demonstrates a breadth of historical research, having also published a study of the Baptist Union of Germany during the Third Reich. The fact that both of these scholars are engaged in their own churches even as they function as scholars for the wider historical community is noteworthy. In acknowledging a confessional background for two fine scholars, I do not dismiss them, but recognize that their scholarship is grounded in religious sensitivities as well as directed by the desire to write according to the canons of twenty-first-century historians.

In Snyder’s essay, the author has demonstrated an awareness of significant issues, especially regarding the sources relative to the beginnings of Swiss Anabaptism. By the conclusion of the first section, Snyder observes, “There is a wide range of interpretation of the historical data documenting the evolving relationship between Huldrych Zwingli to the increasingly visible ‘radical’ elements”-an observation that is nothing if not an understatement. There has been no topic more widely discussed in Reformation studies than the many efforts that have been made to describe the nature and origins of a major sixteenth-century reforming movement in terms of its special character at its beginning. Professor Snyder has the remarkable ability to gather and interpret the significant sources and literature of the origins of Anabaptism. There may be more interpretations and publications relative to Martin Luther, but we know who Luther was and we know the role he played in the birth of “Lutheranism.” With Anabaptism we are still attempting to say who it is we are studying, how we identify them and what we call them. Snyder helpfully describes the object of his study in terms of an ecclesial practice: “the term ‘Anabaptist’ is used to denote those sixteenth century persons who insisted on carrying out a water baptism of adults as the only proper, biblical baptism.” It is a welcome description, useful for limiting his study and for providing a basis for conversation with respect to the origins of Anabaptism.

Snyder reclaims Balthasar Hubmaier as a certain and significant part of the Zurich stream of Anabaptist origins. Leaving Hubmaier out of the equation, as Strbind does, is at least a “glaring omission” leading to “distorted conclusions.” Not only does Snyder include the Waldshut reformer in his essay, but he also demonstrates that “Hubmaier’s primary base of support for the institution of adult baptism was the group of Zurich radicals.” The sources simply make it necessary to include Hubmaier.

I do wish for a more nearly correct term than “adult baptism.” Hubmaier himself did not use the term; nor he did use the label “believers’ baptism.” It is certain that Hubmaier fought against “infant baptism,” but it was faith and commitment to Christ that was his point, not whether one was an adult. It may be a small matter when we are simply trying to distinguish between Zwingli and the baptizers, but the term “adult baptism” is empty of theological and ecclesial meaning.

The strength of Snyder’s essay lies in his careful use and understanding of the significance of the movements he is discussing. As more sources and literature have become available over the last century, it has become possible to understand the complexity of Anabaptist origins as well as that of their opponents. Of course, one cannot read the sources without some interpretation, but it is impressive to note that, for the most part, Snyder’s interpretations are fair as well as stimulating. This is not to say that one cannot disagree with some of his interpretations. But this study is not a composition in which one must establish and defend a thesis in such a way that it overcomes the will to comprehend fairly what was happening in the events under discussion. With a long history of sixteenth-century research to his credit, Snyder is more than equipped for the challenge.

Snyder portrays what was at stake in the discussions, decisions and writings of the 1520s within Zurich and its environs, and beyond to Nikolsburg and Strasbourg. A compelling dimension in Snyder’s treatment is that he does not unnecessarily seek to reconcile differences and disagreements among the baptizers. He helps the reader avoid the temptation to anachronism that is apparent in interpretations wherein later concerns are improperly thrust into earlier settings. Snyder’s respect for and attention to the sources is apparent. I found the assessment and description of early radical Zwinglianism from 1520 to 1523 to be helpful. Snyder effectively describes the close working relationships of Zwingli’s followers to the Zurich lead pastor up to the period when Zwingli’s ecclesial understandings were characterized by a need to move more deliberately in his reforming work. Snyder gives attention not only to the leading Anabaptists but also to the variety of radicals in the Zurich area. The baptizers were not without an influence within the overall reform of the church in Zwingli’s realm. For example, Snyder describes the impact of Wilhelm Reublin in 1523 not only in Witikon but also in Zurich as he subjected the “high-living and immoral clergy” to particular scrutiny. Attention to these concerns became not only a function of being an Anabaptist but also emerged in the reform of the cathedral chapter in Zurich itself.

One of the defining moments in the Zurich reformation is to be found in the second Zurich disputation of October 26-28, 1523. This gathering in which Grebel and Hubmaier participated was the event at which the nature of the Zwinglian and Zurich reformation was defined. Snyder has a tendency to favor the consistency and courage of the radicals over against the character of the Zurich reformer. He concludes that the debates “resulted in a mixed victory for Zwingli’s reforming efforts.” At one point, he refers the reader to “relevant documents” translated in the Harder source collection.[81] Herein he lets the reader down. It is not enough to simply refer to where one might find relevant documents. If I read those documents and others relative to the second disputation I will likely not conclude that Zwingli in any way experienced “a mixed victory.” Yet a few lines later in the same paragraph Snyder notes that “Zwingli was in clear agreement with this policy.” Which was it? If Zwingli experienced less than a full victory in the disputation how is it possible to conclude that he was “in clear agreement”? The role of Zwingli in the reform was recognized by the council in charging him to write the Short Christian Instruction, which was published soon after and sent out to the Zurich territories, the members of the Swiss confederation and the bishops of Constance, Chur and Basel.[82] At this point in the narrative, it is possible to hear earlier discussions by other scholars on the question of whether there was a “turn” in the Zwinglian reformation or whether the baptizers were only carrying to the logical conclusion what they had learned from Zwingli. Strbind actually carries this line of thought to its extreme by naming her volume Eifriger als Zwingli [More Zealous than Zwingli.] As much as I see value in what the baptizers accomplished, it does not help me to belittle Zwingli or his achievements. I hardly think the baptizers were “more zealous.” I am revealing my own bias: for me, both the baptizers and Zwingli were too zealous, or at least, both equally zealous.

To go further, one of my serious caveats with Snyder’s attention to Zwingli is that he is too insistent in consigning the Zurich reformer to being something less than what he understands the baptizers to have been. In his analysis of the October disputation, he describes Zwingli as “deferring to the divinely-instituted governmental authority in the ‘human’ matter of the pace of institutional reform,” clearly a negative assessment. One might “defer” without being understood to be selling out. In the same paragraph Snyder differentiates between the radicals who are a “populist reforming group” and Zwingli who led a “more conservative elitist movement.” No doubt I reveal again my own bias, but I would suggest that the radicals were more elitist. Elsewhere, in the conclusion to part I of his essay, Snyder describes Zwingli as having an “overpowering personality.” We are left with a Zwingli who was simply authoritarian on the one hand or weak in his yielding to the council on the other. Where is the overpowering personality? In addition, there is not much attention to the difficulties that Zwingli and the other lead pastors of the city, Leo Jud and Heinrich Engelhard, had in patiently dealing with the opposition of “old believers” within the council and the city. Zwingli never lost sight of the complexity of a comprehensive reformation as he led deliberately to the reform of Zurich. One might see the baptizers as not quite understanding Zwingli, or of turning away from him when they did not experience success in their approach to reform within the city.

The last suggestion of critique that I will offer is not a major one. A key difference between Zwingli and most of the baptizer leaders, including Hubmaier, is that Zwingli displayed a very Swiss appreciation for the political dimensions of reform. He had an overarching loyalty to the Helvetic Confederation. Clearly, he was considerably more at home than the radicals with the dimensions of life we tend to separate out as being political. Nor would the preponderance of the Zurichers understand there to be such a division between the spiritual and the political. If one remembers that he grew up in a village society in the Toggenburg as the son of the Ammann-the equivalent of mayor in the village-and that he often spoke to political concerns in his work even prior to coming to Zurich, it is easier to understand something of his consistency. Perhaps Zwingli was in error, or perhaps he was still developing his thought when he died, but it is not necessary to describe him as being inconsistent.

In this light, the matter of oaths becomes important. Snyder mentions in a few places an issue that in Zurich’s mind would have been vastly consequential. By the time of Schleitheim, the issue of the oath was sufficiently important to be included among the seven points that the believers would name. In the Bern Disputation of 1538 and on other occasions in central Switzerland, it would be one of the major issues under discussion.[83] The importance of the oath in the establishing of the Swiss Reformation is an issue of loyalty to the commune. The centrality of the oath in Switzerland was one that had developed over many years.[84] The oath was an integral part of the self-understanding of loyal Zurichers, not only in the realm of politics, but also in its ecclesial dimensions. When the church came together to confess and pledge its loyalty to Christ, it was understood that this was an act that formed the community as the body of Christ.[85] The comprehensiveness of the loyalty to both church and community makes the matter of swearing the oath important to Zwingli, the council and the baptizers. Not swearing an oath of loyalty was inconceivable within the city at large even as denying the role of the oath became important to the baptizers. When the Swiss Anabaptists formed a largely separatist movement, they were no longer tolerated within Zurich or elsewhere in the confederacy.

Snyder’s work demonstrates a careful rendering of the manner in which the baptizers became separatist. It makes far more sense to me than the suggestion of Strbind that the radicals were separatist from the beginning. Thereby the work of Snyder emerges effectively as recognizing both the religious or spiritual dimensions of the baptizers as well as the social and contextual factors.


Of particular importance in this meticulously researched essay are the depiction of links between Swiss Anabaptists and the Peasants’ War and the integral role of Balthasar Hubmaier. My remarks in this brief response focus on how questions of methodology and interpretation impact understandings of Anabaptist attitudes toward nonresistance and the sword.


The primary methodology of this account appears to be description. The intent is to discover what appears in the primary sources, and then to structure the narrative on the basis of those sources. The source-based approach is obviously crucial in bringing the sixteenth-century Anabaptist story to contemporary readers, whether they be secular historians or the modern churches descended from the sixteenth-century story. What I challenge is the idea that description is adequate for understanding and defining Anabaptism.

To begin with, description does not remain descriptive. Unavoidably and inevitably what begins as a historical description becomes prescriptive, or normative, and value-based. The shift happens apart from the author’s intent, and in spite of claims of neutrality and the absence of ideological intent on the part of the author. Both subtle and commonplace, the shift is often unrecognized. But the description has assumed normative status as soon as one uses the description to say what Anabaptism is. Recognizing the reality of this shift is important for any group, such as Mennonites, for whom history is integral to group identity.

This account of origins makes note of Swiss Anabaptism’s evolving character. The fact that it was evolving ought not surprise-what movement does not evolve? A historical description freezes that evolution at a “moment” in time-a moment consisting of the time frame adopted by the historian for the project in hand. For the present account, that “moment” is about five years. And the description of the “frozen moment” becomes a normative statement-not normative in terms of universal principles, but normative in terms of defining the character of Anabaptism. The normativeness of the definition is not a matter of intent-it is simply what happens when one uses the snapshot, or description, of the evolution to say what Anabaptism is or is not.

Consider, for example, the emphasis in this account on showing that Conrad Grebel was not a pacifist, and on showing that nonpacifist Balthasar Hubmaier was one of the pivotal actors in the Anabaptist drama. The backdrop for these claims is found in the earlier account of Harold S. Bender and the more recent one of Andrea Strbind. For Bender, Anabaptism had a programmatic beginning as a purely pacifist movement started by the pacifist Grebel. Hubmaier, if mentioned at all, was considered a marginal, nontypical Anabaptist. Reacting to the historians who rejected Bender’s account, Strbind has written that from the beginning Anabaptism had a clear strand of separatist, religiously-based ecclesiology that did not include Hubmaier. Both Bender’s and Strbind’s are considered ideological accounts that do not account for all the historical data. But when Snyder’s descriptive account, which intends to include all the historical data, stresses that many early Anabaptists were participants in the Peasants’ War and thus not pacifists, stresses the nonpacifist theology of Hubmaier as Anabaptist theology, and stresses that except for a few cases pacifism and separatism emerged as a pragmatic aftermath of the failed peasants’ revolt, this account is also making normative statements about the character of Anabaptism. Its point is that the ideology of early Anabaptism differed from the ideology of later Anabaptism. The description of Anabaptism at this moment in time has become an interpretive statement about the character of Anabaptism.[87] The implication is that earlier accounts erred-Anabaptism was not the pacifist movement they depicted. Swiss Anabaptism did develop in evolutionary fashion, as Snyder emphasized. But in my view other dimensions of the story go beyond Snyder’s description.

One question concerns the direction of evolution. Here, Snyder’s description is not inaccurate; but it also is not an adequate characterization of Anabaptism, particularly for the contemporary peace church that has drawn spiritual sustenance from an understanding of Anabaptism as a pacifist movement. The answer is not to abandon description nor to exclude discussion of Hubmaier or the Peasants’ War from the story. Rather the historian should be cognizant of the direction of evolution as well as the description of the movement at the moment of time in question. Quite soon Anabaptists did claim to be pacifists, and eventually they did become known as members of a principled pacifist movement.

It is not possible to escape the shift from descriptive to prescriptive or normative. The only way forward is to acknowledge one’s perspective and be accountable for it. Clearly the sword was not an issue that the early radicals who became Anabaptists led with as a defining, programmatic issue. But there were statements of pacifism present from the beginning-from Felix Mantz, the Letter to Thomas Mntzer, Jacob Gro’s refusal to kill, and Schleitheim’s statement little more than two years after the first baptisms. The development of the idea of defenselessness is not explained solely by the failure of the Peasants’ War and the loss of government support. Anabaptism did become recognized as a pacifist movement. It is an interpretative move to continue to emphasize the nonpacifist dimensions of this early story equally as much as it is an interpretative move to say that Anabaptism was on a path toward becoming a pacifist movement. It is clear that both elements are present.[88] The point of telling the history in this way is not to suppress the nonpacifist elements of the story, but to recognize that the historian’s choice of emphasis is an interpretative as well as a descriptive task.

A new element in Snyder’s narrative is the interpretation of the radicals’ letter to Thomas Mntzer. He calls it a “Mulligan stew” of issues under discussion, with various components added at the behest of individual signers, suggesting their names on the letter do not then indicate agreement with the content as a whole. Snyder argues that the letter’s strong statement of nonresistance came from Felix Mantz, and that other evidence indicates that signers Conrad Grebel, Heinrich Aberli and Hans Brtli did not actually believe in nonresistance. In my estimation, these arguments are overdrawn and the evidence less conclusive than Snyder would have it.

Snyder lowers the commitment behind the letter’s strong statement of nonresistance by showing that some language may have come from writings of Thomas Mntzer. However, lack of originality-that is, paraphrasing Mntzer-does not mean that the signatories did not believe what their letter stated. In the sixteenth century quoting without attribution was a way of showing that a writer affirmed what was copied. Further, the actual parallel usage is quite loose. Where Grebel had written “sheep for the slaughter,” the parallel from Mntzer reads, “as sheep which serve for the kitchen (die schaff, die do dienen in die kuchen).”[89] It appears that Grebel was as aware of the biblical source of the phrase (Ps. 44:11, 22 or Isa. 53:7) as of Mntzer.

The pacifism of signer Heinrich Aberli is challenged by two pieces of evidence. One is a letter written to Aberli, requesting that he send forty or fifty armed men to defend Waldshut. Although there is no record of Aberli’s response, Snyder assumes that he complied. Both James Stayer and Leland Harder recognize that lack of evidence,[90] which makes it as plausible that Aberli agreed with the Letter to Mntzer as that he signed but disagreed. The second piece of evidence consists of alleged threats Aberli made outside a courtroom. The interpretation hinges on a comment Aberli made about efforts of authorities to ban country people from participating in parties in town. Citing a secondary source, Snyder gives Aberli’s reply as “Ja, man htten ihnen den Kopf abgehauen.” Snyder adds that Harder’s translation-“Yes, they had chopped off its head”[91]-“dulls the obvious threat.” The transcription of the testimony from the original source reads, “Ja, man hette demselben den kopf abgehowen,”[92] which Harder’s translation reflects. In this case, then, Aberli remains an agitator, with his words not a threat that belies nonresistance but a statement about the authorities abruptly putting a stop to (i.e., chopped off its head) the participation of rural folks in city celebrations.[93]

Grebel and Mantz appear to come off somewhat differently with respect to the extent to which their activity contradicts their signatures on the letter. After asserting that the letter’s strong statements of passive nonresistance reflect Mantz’s hand and not Grebel’s, Snyder argues that Grebel’s work belies a belief in nonresistance (as though the letter itself does not constitute evidence of Grebel’s view). Snyder’s evidence is a lack of statements by Grebel opposing the sword during his work in such places as Zollikon, Hallau, Grningen or Waldshut. Mantz, however, worked alongside Grebel in areas of peasant unrest-such as Grningen-and Mantz’s commitment to nonresistance is not called into question. But if Grebel is credited with believing what he wrote (“killing has ceased entirely with them”), then Grebel and Mantz are on the same footing, both working to reform baptism but without yet instituting congregations of fully separated and nonresistant believers.

It ought not surprise that the earliest Anabaptist reforming work after the first baptisms did not proceed on the basis of a well-articulated program of separatist ecclesiology with consistent views on the sword. After the first step, they learn by following the path thus begun. They cannot foresee all eventualities and should not be expected to have developed a full theological foundation for what hindsight reveals was the path taken. Applied anachronistically, Hans Denck’s dictum about knowing Christ seems to apply: “But this means is Christ, whom none may truly know unless he follow after him with his life, and no one can follow after him except in so far as one previously knows him.”[94] In other words, only in the doing does one actually discover the meaning of a commitment and what it entails to continue in the way begun. Snyder acknowledged that the Letter to Mntzer contains the seeds of future views on ecclesiology and the sword. The fact that a program was not clearly articulated does not thereby mean that the signers did not subscribe to what the letter affirmed; nor are the embryonic ideas invalidated by the fact that it could develop in more than one direction.


Snyder reports that both the “state affirming” Anabaptism of Hubmaier and the “separatist” Anabaptism of Schleitheim “grew out of the same Swiss Anabaptist roots, but divergent anthropological and regenerationist principles eventually bore fruit in significantly different ecclesiologies, under the pressure of changing social and political circumstances.” I believe, however, that the difference between the theology of the nonpacifist Hubmaier and pacifists such as Felix Mantz or those at Schleitheim is more than a matter of differing views of anthropology and regeneration.

Snyder noted the Christocentric focus of Schleitheim (foreshadowed in Mantz). As Snyder tells the story, in his On the Sword Hubmaier specifically rejects this Christocentric approach because “Christ’s life was unique and cannot be universally binding on all persons in every conceivable social station or ‘office.'” In Hubmaier’s words, Christ’s office was to “save people by the Word,” whereas government has an office from God “to protect and guard the godly and to punish and kill the evil ones.”[95] This view of office builds on Hubmaier’s rejection of the Schleitheim argument that the Christian must choose whether to live according to the kingdom of God or the world’s kingdom. Whereas Schleitheim required a choice between two opposing kingdoms, Hubmaier wrote that “Christ alone can say in truth” that his kingdom is not of this world because “we are stuck in it right up to our ears, and we will not be able to be free from it here on earth.”[96]

In Snyder’s argument, the difference between the views expressed by Schleitheim (also Mantz) and Hubmaier is that Hubmaier had a more pessimistic anthropology that limits the extent of regeneration. Although Hubmaier’s anthropology may be more pessimistic, Snyder has skipped lightly over an important difference. The difference between Hubmaier and Schleitheim concerns more than disagreements about the extent of sinfulness. By appeal to the concept of “office,” Hubmaier rules out in principle and in advance the possibility of living according to the example of Jesus. Defining the “office” of Jesus as beyond human possibility, and arguing that God ordained the office of government with the authority to kill, requires one to begin with presuppositions different from Schleitheim (and the Mntzer letter), which assumes that the believer can make an effort to live according to the example of Jesus. Hubmaier’s approach is not new. It is one of several longstanding ways by which the majority churches of Christendom have rationalized killing in the name of Jesus, whose life exemplifies rejection of the sword. Hubmaier is an Anabaptist theologian. But the haste to recover him from exclusion by Bender or Strbind should not result in overlooking a decisive difference between the ethical orientation of Schleitheim and of Hubmaier. Recognizing these differing beginning assumptions has important implications when one recognizes that defining Anabaptism requires going beyond description to deal with the direction of change in the developing story. These different beginning assumptions also indicate that for some Anabaptists, nonresistance and rejection of the sword did reflect moral commitments, which then calls into question Snyder’s assertion that the emergence of nonresistance as a defining trait for Anabaptism was primarily a pragmatic response to the loss of government support and failed efforts at territorial reform.


Snyder concludes that Swiss Anabaptism had a two-stage development-a congregational stage that was neither separatist nor pacifist, and a second separatist and nonresistant stage, which emerged only after the failure of the Peasants’ War and the failure to achieve reforms supported by government.

I agree generally with the evolutionary character of early Anabaptism, but I have attempted to raise issues related to the adequacy of description in identifying Anabaptism. Depicting Anabaptism in terms of a descriptive snapshot of earliest Anabaptism freezes that evolution at a point where sword-bearers have equal standing in Anabaptism with staff-bearers. If the language is of “stages,” I suggest that the line between the “stages” is less distinct than this narrative allows. That conclusion comes from defending the credibility of the Letter to Mntzer, and from putting the theological assumptions of Schleitheim (and Mantz) on a different footing from Hubmaier’s.

Anabaptism did develop in evolutionary fashion. In fact, I would argue that Anabaptism is still evolving. I hope that the modern descendants of Anabaptism are still developing in the direction of asking how to live out the nonviolent story of Jesus-which is challenged if the story of origins seeks to underscore a lack of consensus on nonresistance as a primary characteristic of earliest Anabaptism.

[1]. Michael G. Baylor is professor of history at Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pa.
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[2]. Andrea Strbind, Eifriger als Zwingli: Die frhe Tuferbewegung in der Schweiz (Berlin: Duncker and Humblot, 2003).
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[3]. Gerald Biesecker-Mast is professor of communication at Bluffton University.
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[4]. Leland Harder, ed., The Sources of Swiss Anabaptism: The Grebel Letters and Related Documents (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1985), 206.
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[5]. Ibid., 118-119.
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[6]. The Complaint of Peace, Translated from the Querela Pacis (A.D. 1521) of Erasmus (Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Co., 1917), 16-25.
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[7]. James Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword (Lawrence, Kan.: Coronado Press, 1972; reprint, 1976), 52-58.
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[8]. Ibid., 104-105.
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[9]. Both Stayer and Harder note that there is no record of Aberli’s response. See Harder, Sources, 527; Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword, 105.
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[10]. James Stayer, “Reublin and Brtli: The Revolutionary Beginnings of Swiss Anabaptism,” in The Origins and Characteristics of Anabaptism, ed. Marc Lienhard (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1977), 99.
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[11]. Quoted in Ibid., 87. For the letter, see Heinold Fast, ed., Quellen zur Geschichte der Tufer in der Schweiz (Zrich: Theologischer Verlag, 1973), 558-561.
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[12]. Harder, ed., The Sources of Swiss Anabaptism: The Grebel Letters and Related Documents, 436-39.
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[13]. Ibid., 439.
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[14]. Ibid., 421-422.
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[15]. Leonhard von Muralt and Walter Schmid, eds., Quellen zur Geschichte der Tufer in der Schweiz (Zrich: Theologischer Verlag, 1973), 208-09. Quoted in Stayer, “Reublin and Brtli: The Revolutionary Beginnings of Swiss Anabaptism,” 100.
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[16]. Gerald Biesecker-Mast, “The Word Made Flesh: The Skin of History in Yoderian Historiography,” Fides et Historia 36, no. 1 (2004).
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[17]. Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1945), 236.
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[18]. For a book-length study of this persistent argument for nonresistant separation, see Gerald Biesecker-Mast, Separation and the Sword in Anabaptist Persuasion, ed. J. Denny Weaver, vol. 6, C. Henry Smith Series (Telford, Pa.: Cascadia Publishing House, 2006).
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[19]. John Howard Yoder, Anabaptism and Reformation in Switzerland: An Historical and Theological Analysis of the Dialogues between Anabaptists and Reformers, trans. David Carl Stassen and C. Arnold Snyder (Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press, 2004), 70-71.
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[20]. Geoffrey Dipple is associate professor of history and chair of the history department at Augustana College, Sioux Falls, S.D.
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[21]. See, for example, the reviews of Snyder’s work by Stayer (Mennonitische Geschichtsbltter 52 [1995], 151-160) and Goertz (Mennonitishce Geschichtsbltter 56 [1999], 161-165). For the generally more critical treatment of Snyder by post-revisionist scholars, see Andrea Strbind, Eifriger als Zwingli: Die frhe Tuferbewegung in der Schweiz (Berlin: Duncker and Humblot, 2003), 549-550 and Gerald Biesecker-Mast, Separation and the Sword in Anabaptist Persuasion, 41-43, 68.
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[22]. Hans-Jrgen Goertz, “‘A Common Future Conversation’: A Revisionist Interpretation of the September 1524 Grebel Letters to Thomas Mntzer,” in W. O. Packull and G. L. Dipple, eds. Radical Reformation Studies: Essays Presented to James M. Stayer (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 1999), 73-90.
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[23]. See, for example, Goertz, “A Common Future Conversation,” 77. Snyder, too, had accepted pacifist statements in the Letter to Mntzer as reflecting Grebel’s position in his Anabaptist History and Theology: An Introduction (Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press, 1995), 57-58.
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[24]. Goertz, “A Common Future Conversation,” 89.
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[25]. See Snyder, “Beyond Polygenesis: Recovering the Unity and Diversity of Anabaptist Theology,” in H. Wayne Pipkin, ed. Essays in Anabaptist Theology (Elkhart, Ind.: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1994), 12-16, and Anabaptist History and Theology, 83-101.
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[26]. Thomas Finger is an independent scholar working mainly in theology, church history, ecumenics and world religions.
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[27]. Especially in my A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2004); see also “Pilgram Marpeck and the Christus Victor Motif” MQR 78 (Jan. 2004), 53-77, and “A Sixteenth-Century Anabaptist Social Spirituality,” The Conrad Grebel Review 22 (Fall 2004), 93-104.
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[28]. The “implicit-explicit” distinction comes from Robert Friedmann.-The Theology of Anabaptism (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1973), 20-22. I do not agree fully with the way he describes either one.-Finger, A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology, 49-50, cf. 95.
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[29]. On “basic convictions” see James McClendon, Systematic Theology: Ethics (Nashville: Abingdon, 1986), 22-24. Basic convictions are so central to persons and communities that they cannot relinquish them without becoming significantly different from what they were before (23).
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[30]. I use “practice” rather than “praxis” to indicate the process generally, since praxis carries a more specific socio-political meaning. The definition of theology as “reflection on practice/praxis” can imply a one-way relation between practice, which is primary, and theology, which is secondary, rather than their mutual interaction. Christian practice, in my view, does not arise in a vacuum, but is shaped by and further shapes theological convictions that are usually implicit. Explicit theology emerges from reflection on this practice/(implicit) theology interaction.
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[31]. Implicit convictions can be inferred from common practices or customary actions, and often must be from movements which lack explicit theologies.
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[32]. Both Snyder and the historian he most often challenges, Andrea Strbind, oppose a one-sided, socioeconomic approach. Strbind does so, however, by contrasting the religious perspective with the latter (which she often calls “revisionist”), while Snyder lays equal weight on both, and accepts many “revisionist” claims.-Strbind, Eifriger als Zwingli (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 2003), 26-31, 41-48.
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[33]. In Snyder’s reading Mantz provides at most “signs of an early separatist stream. . . . ‘rivulet’ would be more accurate . . . running submerged during 1525 and 1526.”
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[34]. I am not, of course, denying that the Grebel circle ever embraced a peoples’ church theology like Hubmaier’s at any time, but that the extant evidence is far from confirming this.
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[35]. It seems clear that the radicals proposed a “special church” narrower than the entire Zurich populace, but politically involved by electing a new council. Yet I do not see how we can know, given the scarcity and slanted nature of the data and the instability of the times, how many proposals they made, how precise these were, whether these were more like Hubmaier’s churches or autonomous churches. Cf. Strbind, Eifriger als Zwingli, 166-175.
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[36]. Even though I think that Snyder draws this implication too often, I favor his description of Hallau Anabaptists as “opportunistic” over Stayer’s “revolutionary.”
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[37]. Snyder notes that Yoder marginalized Hubmaier also for being “too theologically minded to be like other Anabaptists” (Yoder was agreeing with Torsten Bergsten). This claim too removes nearly all explicit theology on some major loci from Switzerland, and makes room for the unnamed assumption that because the Swiss took Scripture seriously, they must have held traditional Protestant views on these topics.
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[38]. Hubmaier in Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder, eds. Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald, 1989), 497.
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[39]. In the second Zurich disputation, where proto-Anabaptists protested the council’s role in deciding the pace of reform, Hubmaier affirmed it.-Ibid., 23. In his appeal to the Schaffhausen council, Hubmaier upheld their right to administer punishment for religious and other offences, including the death penalty.-Ibid., 43, 44, 47; cf. Theses X and XXIV against Eck. This outlook carried into his earliest Anabaptist writings.-Ibid., 91, 98.
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[40]. Abraham Friesen is professor of Renaissance and Reformation emeritus, University of California at Santa Barbara.
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[41]. Abraham Friesen, “Menno and Mnster: The Man and the Movement,” in ed. Gerald R. Brunk, Menno Simons, A Reappraisal (Harrisonburg, Va.: Eastern Mennonite College, 1992), 133-134.
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[42]. (Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1996).
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[43]. Ulrich Zwingli, “Refutation of the Tricks of the Baptists,” in Samuela Macauley Jackson, ed., Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), Selected Works (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972), 132.
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[44]. Ibid., 133.
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[45]. Johann Loserth, Die Stadt Waldshut und die vordersterreichische Regierung in den Jahren 1523-1526 : ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Bauernkrieges und der Reformation in Vordersterreich (Vienna: F. Tempsky, 1891).
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[46]. Ray Gingerich is professor emeritus of theology and ethics, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Va.
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[47]. This quote comes from the essay by Arnold Snyder published elsewhere in this issue of MQR. Unless otherwise indicated, other quotations from Snyder come from this same essay.
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[48]. Andrea Strbind, Eifriger als Zwingli: Die frhe Tuferbewegung in der Schweiz (Berlin: Duncker & Humbolt, 2003).
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[49]. Anabaptist History and Theology: An Introduction (Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press, 1995).
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[50]. Anabaptist History and Theology, 379. Likewise, in a more recent popularized presentation, Following the Footsteps of Christ: The Anabaptist Tradition (Mary Knoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2004), spirituality is the primary motif running through the materials. In the current manuscript, it is at times visibly present, and frequently repeated, and it clearly undergirds Snyder’s entire ecclesiology.
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[51]. “In sum,” claims Snyder, “the ‘Letter to Mntzer’ is a Mulligan Stew of views and not the expression of theological consensus, even though it was signed by several of the Zrich radicals.”
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[52]. “Separatist church” for Snyder, equals “free church” with negative connotations of withdrawal and irrelevancy.
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[53]. Strbind uses the term Freikirche (free church) rather than “believers’ church.” Although Snyder does not elaborate on the usage of his terms, he maintains that the “majoritarian chuch” was voluntary and hence “free.” Furthermore, Anabaptist baptism was on confession of one’s faith and hence, created a church of believers whether majoritarian or separatist.
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[54]. To this Snyder might reply: “I’m only doing history.” But is it not the case that in our postmodern era “objectivity” is an illusion and its presumption is self-deception?
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[55]. For an excellent summary of the scholarship of the past thirty years see Gerald Biesecker-Mast, Separation and the Sword in Anabaptist Persuasion, especially chap. 3, “The Schleitheim Brotherly Union and Swiss Brethren Separation,” 97-132. Although this work was available as early as November 2005, Snyder, unfortunately, nowhere refers to it.
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[56]. Meaning evidence that one accumulates on the basis of surrounding circumstances but which lacks “proof” in the normal courts of reason. It may, or may not, be historical. Some circumstantial evidence may be near proof of a specific historical event; other such evidence may be conjecture and do little more than keep open the possibility.
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[57]. Other facts regarding Nikolsburg equally challenge Snyder’s “no coercion” claim.
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[58]. But applying the Luther/Hubmaier two-kingdom theory, Snyder assures us that “there is no evidence that they were expelled from the Waldshut church; their expulsion appears to have been a strictly [Anabaptist] civil matter.”
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[59]. I am not claiming that Waldshut or Mnster were not Anabaptist in a minimalist sense. I am saying that baptism is symbolic; hence we must always ask what is being symbolized. Not all “ana-baptism” was equally authentic, and not all that is within that historical stream is worthy of being emulated.
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[60]. This is despite Hubmaier’s claim to affirm freedom of the will.
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[61]. Psychologically this may be described as a form of “multiple personality syndrome”; philosophically it constitutes an ontological dualism. To legitimate it theologically does not alter the ethical reality and the problems this doctrine has helped to create in the past century.
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[62]. A distinction far more critical in our usage today than among the sixteenth-century Anabaptists.
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[63]. Mysticism was the traditional medieval form of “spirituality” usually built on neo-Platonism, and everywhere present in the sixteenth century. There is no correlation between this mystical form of spirituality and a higher social ethic. For every historical instance where a positive correlation might be drawn (e.g., St. Francis of Assisi), an alternative negative instance can be found (e.g., Bernard of Clairvaux who blessed the weapons of the Second Crusade but who scripted arguably the highest devotional literature on love within the Christian canon-undoubtedly all done with the same sincerity and certainty of God’s presence).
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[64]. Snyder appears to rely almost exclusively on Torsten Bergsten for Hubmaier’s theology (available in German since 1961). For more on Hubmaier’s theology in the context of Anabaptism, see my unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, “The Mission Impulse of Early Swiss and South German-Austrian Anabaptism” (Vanderbilt University, 1980).
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[65]. John Howard Yoder, “On Christian Unity: The Way from Below” Pro Ecclesia 9 (Spring 2002), 176. This last essay written by Yoder before his untimely death is directly addressed to the issues of finding our gifts (our contributions) as a minority group in our contemporary world.
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[66]. Hans-Jrgen Goertz has recently retired from the Institut fr Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte, Hamburg University.
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[67]. Hans-Jrgen Goertz, ed. Umstrittenes Tufertum 1525-1975. Neue Forschungen (Gttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1975).
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[68]. Harold S. Bender, “The Anabaptist Vision,” MQR 18 (Apr. 1944), 67-88.
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[69]. James M. Stayer, Werner O. Packull and Klaus Deppermann, “From Monogenesis to Polygenesis. The Historical Discussion of Anabaptist Origins,” MQR 49 (Jan. 1975), 83-122.
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[70]. Claus-Peter Clasen, Anabaptism. A Social History 1525-1618. Switzerland, Austria, Moravia, South and Central Germany (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1972); James M. Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword (Lawrence, Kan.: Coronado, 1972).
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[71]. James M. Stayer, “The Easy Demise of a Normative Vision of Anabaptism,” in Mennonite Identity. Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Calvin W. Redekop and Samuel Steiner (Lanham, M.D..: University Press of America 1988), 109.
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[72]. Andrea Strbind, Eifriger als Zwingli. Die frhe Tuferbewegung in der Schweiz (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 2003), 14.
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[73]. Ibid., 61.
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[74]. Heinold Fast, “‘Die Wahrheit wird euch freimachen’. Die Anfnge der Tuferbewegung in Zrich in der Spannung zwischen erfahrener und verheiener Wahrheit,” Mennonitische Geschichtsbltter 32 (1975), 7-33.
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[75]. C. Arnold Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology. An Introduction (Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora 1995), esp. 299-303.
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[76]. C. Arnold Snyder, Following in the Footsteps of Christ. The Anabaptist Tradition (Maryknoll, N.Y.: 2004).
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[77]. Werner O. Packull, Hutterite Beginnings. Communitarian Experiments during the Reformation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 11.
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[78]. Max Weber, “Die ‘Objektivitt’ soizialwissenschaftlicher und sozialpolitischer Erkenntnis,” in Max Weber, Gesammelte Aufstze zur Wissenschaftslehre, ed. Johannes Winckelmann, 7th ed. (Tbingen, 1988), 214.
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[79]. H. W. Walker Pipkin, an independent scholar from Rochester, N.Y., is currently writing a study of Hubmaier to be presented as the J. D. Hughey lectures at the Interna-tional Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague.
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[80]. Andrea Strbind, Eifriger als Zwingli: Die frhe Tuferbewegung in der Schweiz (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 2003).
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[81]. Specifically, to Leland Harder, ed. The Sources of Swiss Anabaptism (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1985), 234-243.
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[82]. For a brief introduction to this important writing in the process of the Zurich reform as well as a translation, see H. Wayne Pipkin, Huldrych Zwingli Writings, Volume II: In Search of True Religion: Reformation, Pastoral and Eucharistic Writings (Allison Park, Pa.: Pickwick Publications, 1984), 43-76.
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[83]. Martin Haas, Quellen zur Geschichte der Tufer in der Schweiz, Vol. 4: Drei Tufergesprche in Bern und im Aargau (Zurich: Theologischer Verlag), 14-19, 200-206, 398-418.
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84. In their several constitutional unions and letters of confederational agreements, the Swiss wrote into the documents the swearing of loyalty by the taking of an oath. See Paul Klui, Freiheitsbriefe, Bundesbriefe, Verkommnisse und Verfassungen, 1231-1815 (Frankfurt: Verlag H. R. Sauerlnder & Co., 1963), 6, 10, 12, 15, 16, 34, 43.
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[85]. The similarity of the understanding of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as oaths of loyalty is close to the citizen’s oath that was often made to the city in late medieval and early modern times. The description of the loyalty oath by Brunner is apropos: “Der Brger schwrt seiner Stadt einen Treueid, in dem er sich verpflichtet, ‘der Stadt getreu, hold und gehorsam zu sein, das gemeine beste zu suchen und allen schaden helffen abwenden.'”-Otto Brunner, Land und Herrschaft (Baden bei Wien: Rudolf M. Rohrer, 1939), 405. One should also notice that the Helvetic Confederation highlighted the swearing of oaths by being careful to note that one must lift the correct fingers of the hand in the moment of swearing.
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[86]. J. Denny Weaver is Professor Emeritus of Religion and the Harry and Jean Yoder Scholar in Bible and Religion, Bluffton (Ohio) University.
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[87]. A parallel description becoming normative occurs when contemporary theologians argue that sixteenth-century Anabaptist use of the classic creeds of Christendom prescribes modern use of those creeds for Mennonites.
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[88]. The formative impact of nonresistance perspectives in this mix without there yet being a consensus is a primary theme of Gerald Biesecker-Mast, Separation and the Sword in Anabaptist Persuasion: Radical Confessional Rhetoric from Schleitheim to Dordrecht (Telford, Pa.: Cascadia Publishing House, 2006).
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[89]. Thomas Mntzer, Schriften und Briefe: Kritische Gesamtausgbe, ed. Gnther Franz, asst. ed. Paul Kirn (Gtersloher: Gerd Mohn, 1968), 223.
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[90]. Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword, 105; Harder, Sources, 527.
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[91]. Harder, Sources, 171.
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[92]. Emil Egli, ed., Actensammlung zur Geschichte der Zrcher Reformation in den Jahren 1519-1533 (Zurich: J. Schabelitz, 1879), 84.
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[93]. Two language experts I consulted agreed that the meaning of Aberli’s statement is confusing, but generally supported Harder’s translation. The statement is hardly conclusive evidence to discredit Aberli’s signing of the Letter to Mntzer.
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[94]. Hans Denck, Schriften, 2. Teil: Religise Schriften, ed. Walter Fellmann, Quellen Zur Geschichte der Tufer, vol. 6 (1956), 45; George Huntston Williams and Angel M. Mergal, eds., Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers: Documents Ilustrative of the Radical Reformation (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1957), 108.
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[95]. Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, trans. and ed. H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder, Classics of the Reformation, vol. 5 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1989), 500.
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[96]. Pipkin and Yoder, Balthasar Hubmaier, 497.
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
Responses to Snyder
MQR 80 (Oct. 2006)