It is one of the great ironies of church history that the Christian tradition most closely linked today to the principle of nonresistance had an acrimonious birth and has been the source of contentious debate for nearly five centuries since its beginnings in the early 1520s. Already in December 1524-a full month before the first adult baptisms-the reformer Huldrych Zwingli denounced detractors of the reforms underway in Zurich, focusing most of his wrath on those who were critical of infant baptism and sought "to have their own church." This party, Zwingli complained, is "arrogant," "perverted," "quarrelsome" and "divisive"; they "daily bring forth more silly arguments than Africa produces strange beasts." Zwingli left it to his successor, Heinrich Bullinger, to write a fuller history of the origins of Anabaptism in Switzerland (On the Impudent Rogues ; Anabaptist Origins [1560; 1561]); but the interpretive motif that Zwingli introduced found a deep resonance in the historiography of the Reformation. In the eyes of the reformers and those who followed after them, the Anabaptists in Zurich were disruptive anarchists, driven by self-righteous leaders who promoted a theology that was as dangerous as it was incoherent.
Quite different is the story of Anabaptist beginnings reported in the Chronicle of the Hutterite Brethren. In that account, Conrad Grebel and Felix Mantz-"very learned men, experienced in the German, Latin, Greek and Hebrew languages"-discovered on the basis of their biblical studies that "infant baptism is not necessary." When Zwingli argued that this new teaching would create a disturbance, Mantz and Grebel responded that "one could not ignore God's command because of this." Meeting with other radicals in the home of Mantz's mother, the reformers accepted "true baptism . . . for God's sake," and immediately began baptizing fellow believers.
In the past century, as partisan passions have given way to more sober judgments, the historiography of Anabaptist beginnings has become significantly more nuanced, evincing a much deeper appreciation for the complex political, economic and religious context within which Zwingli and the radical reformers were living. Yet fundamental questions about the origins of Anabaptism in Switzerland in the early 1520s remain unresolved. How those questions are framed, and the conclusions one draws from them, continues to spark lively discussion.
This issue of The Mennonite Quarterly Review offers readers the latest incarnation of this long and fascinating debate. In 2003, Andrea Strbind published Eifriger als Zwingli [More Zealous than Zwingli], a closely argued analysis of the early years of Swiss Anabaptism that challenged-sometimes in polemical fashion-recent readings of Swiss Brethren beginnings. In contrast to the so-called "revisionist" interpretations associated with historians like James Stayer, Werner Packull and Hans-Jrgen Goertz, Strbind insisted that the radical reformers articulated a separatist ecclesiology from the very beginning of the movement. Their primary concerns, she argued, were theological in nature (rather than political or economic); and she underscored the fundamental continuities that linked the disputations of 1523 with the Schleitheim Confession of 1527. Along the way, Strbind called into question the claims of the "revisionists" to greater historical objectivity, implicitly defending the "confessionalist" historiography associated with the "Bender School."
Piqued by Strbind's argument, C. Arnold Snyder went back to the sources once more. Most of this issue of MQR is devoted to Snyder's incisive and well-written reconstruction of Anabaptist beginnings in Switzerland during the tumultuous decade between 1520 and 1530. In his provocative retelling of the story, nonresistance was not an integral theme of Swiss Anabaptism in its earliest phase, Balthasar Hubmaier played a formative role in shaping the movement's theology, and the first congregations were not so much separatist in their ecclesiology as they were believers' churches of the majority. By implication, it was the Schleitheim Articles of 1527-more than the baptisms of 1525-that mark the beginnings of the Swiss Brethren, even though, as Snyder points out, later congregations creatively adapted the principles expressed at Schleitheim to fit a wide variety of settings.
In light of the contested nature of historiography, and the bracing conclusions that Snyder draws from the sources, I invited a dozen scholars of the period to respond to Snyder's article. I am delighted that eight colleagues accepted that invitation. Their commentary immediately follows Snyder's essay. The controversy over Anabaptist beginnings will almost certainly not be resolved in this exchange. Nonetheless, I hope that the sparks from the debate presented in this issue will inspire and illuminate future scholarship.
- John D. Roth, editor
Correction: The biographical introduction to the bibliography of J. Lawrence Burkholder (MQR 80 [July, 2006], 435) stated incorrectly that Burkholder served as dean of the Harvard Divinity School. We regret the error.