Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Present at the Inception: Menno Simons and the Beginnings of Dutch Anabaptism

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Present at the Inception: Menno Simons and the Beginnings of Dutch Anabaptism

Article excerpt

In 1941 Johan Huizinga, the eminent Dutch cultural historian, posed a question in his Dutch Civilization in the Seventeenth Century which--although probed often enough--has never been satisfactorily answered. "How is it," he asked:

   that a religion whose zealots were responsible for fanatical
   excesses in Amsterdam and Munster should have subsided so gently
   into decorous piety, and that many disciples of Menno in the
   northern provinces, in Haarlem and in Amsterdam, became the most
   peaceful citizens of all? (1)

Perhaps the cultural historian, a somewhat self-conscious descendant of Anabaptist forbears, (2) should have looked for an answer in the history of Christianity. Had he done so, however, he could well have encountered obstacles of another nature, like the tendency to interpret the Christian past from the perspective of one's own current beliefs. (3) That even a Huizinga had absorbed some of the Liberal/Rationalist religious prejudices of his age and country is reflected in his assertion that sixteenth-century Anabaptism possessed "neither a creed nor a clear-cut organization." (4) Johann Lorenz von Mosheim, the great eighteenth-century historian of Christianity who noted the same startling transformation of Dutch Anabaptism in his panoramic study, did attempt to answer the question from within the discipline of church history. Though relatively impartial for his time, Mosheim's attitude toward the Reformation radicals was less than friendly, which also kept him from providing a satisfactory analysis. For, on the one hand, he credited Menno's "eloquence" and "moral probity" for the change; on the other, however, he ascribed it to the "ignorance and simplicity" of Menno's disciples. (5) From the time of the venerable church historian to that of the eminent cultural historian--and beyond--greater as well as lesser historians from nearly every branch of the historical discipline have arisen to proffer their solution to the question so succinctly formulated by Huizinga. Not surprisingly, the answers have been at least as varied as the arguments in defense of pedobaptism that Menno himself encountered when he sought a justification of the practice after hearing of Sicke Freerk's execution for "rebaptism" in 1531. But as in Menno's case, so in ours: varied answers invariably prove unsatisfactory and only spur us on to our own inquiries-biblical in Menno's case; historical in ours.

In the present inquiry, Mosheim's answer may yet prove useful, for it points clearly to the two major components of the problem: the man Menno; and the transformation of a revolutionary movement to a peaceful one. Mosheim recognized that the two stood in some kind of relationship to one another, but he could not seem to clarify with any precision what that relationship was. Others who have sought for a solution to the problem have sensed this relationship as well. For this reason the more particular--and much more vexing--question of Menno's relationship to the Munsterite and Melchiorite movements has stood at the center of virtually every discussion of the broader issue. And the solutions proffered for this larger problem have then been imposed, retroactively, upon Menno. Therefore, to clarify the relationship between the two, it may initially prove more profitable to separate entirely the one from the other and treat each as an individual phenomenon. A concept borrowed from Renaissance Platonism may help in this endeavor, for the two components of the problem appear to be related--not simply or even necessarily as cause and effect, (6) but rather as microcosm to macrocosm. (7) Were the historical evidence to support the above working hypothesis, then the resolution of the question of Menno's development could well point us in the direction of a solution to the broader problem. Since the focus of Huizinga's formulation of that question was on the transformation of Dutch Anabaptism, a parallel focus on Menno's own transformation from Catholic priest to pacifist Anabaptist reformer would seem to be our first order of business. …

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