Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

The Persistence of Anabaptism as Vision

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

The Persistence of Anabaptism as Vision

Article excerpt

Anabaptist movements and their chroniclers have frequently used metaphors associated with vision to account for Anabaptist beginnings. Such an emphasis on sight and light is one way Anabaptist historians have sought to explain the spiritual dimension of Anabaptist social nonconformity. The rise of polygenesis historiography in the 1970's challenged the spiritual unity of Anabaptism, seeking instead to stress the varied local conditions of Anabaptist emergence, as well as the diversity of convictions associated with Anabaptism. In recent years, however, numerous scholars have sought to exceed polygenesis paradigms by identifying common convictions held by different Anabaptist groups, highlighting differences and commonalities with Catholic and Protestant theology, critiquing the ideological assumptions of polygenesis historians and analyzing the rhetorical conventions that shaped Anabaptist argument. The essay concludes that Anabaptist movements were shaped by spiritually guided practices of persuasion and that those who seek to understand Anabaptism should give attention to the visions seen and articulated in such practices.


From the very beginning Anabaptism was experienced as an invasion of perception, whether as a shadow that provoked fear or a light that brought freedom. An event that reordered the known world, both the visible and the invisible, for those who embraced it Anabaptism burst onto the social landscape of early sixteenth-century continental Europe as the dawning of a new day, the rising of "the morning star" and a leaving of "the shadows of this world." (1)

"Children of the light" they called themselves, when they gathered at Schleitheim to forge a "Brotherly Union" that witnessed to the unity of the Spirit these Swiss brothers and sisters had discovered among themselves. "The almighty eternal and merciful God," they affirmed, "has made His wonderful light break forth into this world ... in this dangerous time ... whereby we have been called into his fellowship." (2)

What exactly Anabaptist communities did see, in the breaking forth of the light, remains the question for us, whether we are historians seeking understanding of the past, or spiritual descendants seeking renewal by that same light, or both. The earliest accounts of the Christendom-shattering believers baptisms on January 21, 1525, establish the landscape of early Anabaptist sight. The account in the Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren maintains that "because God wanted one united people, separated from all other peoples, he brought forth the Morning Star, the light of his truth, to shine with all of its radiance in the present age of this world so that his holy work could be recognized by everyone." (3) Among those who recognized this work, according to that account, were a small circle of seekers that included Huldrych Zwingli, Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz and George Blaurock. In a process of discussion and disagreement, which included estrangement between Zwingli and other members of the circle, this gathering of inquirers "came to unity" about questions of faith. Specifically, "they agreed that from God's Word one must first learn true faith, expressed in deeds of love, and on confession of faith receive true Christian baptism as a covenant of a good conscience with God, serving him from then on with a holy Christian life and remaining steadfast to the end, even in times of tribulation." (4)

Accounts such as this one stress the extent to which Anabaptism was a restoration of sight--a revealing of "the foundation of divine truth," an "awakening" and an occasion to make God's "holy work" recognizable. (5) This restoration is narrated as a recovery from blindness, present since the church imposed unity with the sword when Christianity became the protected official religion of the Roman empire. "Here the pestilence of deceit that stalks the darkness swept in with force, abolished the cross, and forged it onto the sword. …

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