Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

"They Are to Be Pitied and Wept over, Not Envied": Hutterite Responses to Persecution in the Chronicle

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

"They Are to Be Pitied and Wept over, Not Envied": Hutterite Responses to Persecution in the Chronicle

Article excerpt

Abstract: This essay explores the Hutterite responses to persecution by examining martyr stories recorded in their Chronicle. On the one hand, many of these martyrologies end not with the heroic death of the martyr, but with the well-deserved and violent death of the persecutor by God's judging hand. The deployment of this rhetoric of divine vengeance has a long history in the Christian West and is based on the belief that God justly punishes those who persecute God's Church both in human history and in the afterlife. On the other hand, these martyr stories in the Chronicle also emphasize the Hutterites' concern to call their persecutors to repentance and reconciliation. The Hutterites did not simply narrate an avenging God of retributive justice; they also pitied those who held traditional offices of secular authority because those offices made their holders complicit in their own damnation. Above all, the Hutterites sought to lead those authorities to a true awareness of their unenviable role in salvation history, a role that could be avoided only by repentance and conversion to the true Church.


For historians of sixteenth-century Anabaptism, accounts of persecution are familiar. The violence inflicted upon many Anabaptists by hostile secular authorities in early modern Europe during the Reformation and post-Reformation era led to the death of over 2,000 Anabaptist martyrs in the Holy Roman Empire and the Low Countries. (1) Scholars have approached the "bloody theater" of Anabaptist martyrdom from a variety of perspectives and have analyzed different kinds of sources, including letters, (2) hymns, (3) court records, and other literary and archival evidence. (4) Martyr stories printed in pamphlet or book form, often on the basis of testimony from eyewitnesses and supplemented with letters and hymns, are especially compelling. They demonstrate how the different Anabaptist groups responded to persecution and elevated their fallen as witnesses of the true Church of God in a corrupt world of sin, death and the devil.

Anabaptist martyrologies often legitimated their martyrs by linking them to those of the Scriptures, the early pre-Constantinian Church and the "righteous remnant" of true Christians that witnessed to God's truth over the centuries in the midst of the lamentable collusion between the Church and the World. (5) In this, they shared the Protestant dilemma of having to construct a counter-ecclesiology to that of the Roman Catholic Church whereby proto-Protestant or proto-Anabaptist martyrs, often the heretics of the Roman narrative, took the place of Rome's most hallowed martyr saints from late antiquity and the Middle Ages. (6) Besides the Hutterite Chronicle (or Great Chronicle),7 the Martyrs Mirror (1660) of Thielemann J. van Braght is perhaps the most commonly cited Anabaptist source that embeds martyr stories within this kind of genealogical framework. (8) To this end, the Hutterite Chronicle devotes an entire section to the history of the world from creation until 1517, while the Martyrs Mirror contains a lengthy account of those who suffered for their faith between the first and fifteenth centuries. (9) The Hutterites comment on the devilish marriage between the Church and secular power achieved under Constantine the Great as follows: "here the pestilence of deceit that stalks in darkness and the plague that destroys at midday swept in with force, abolished the cross, and forged it onto the sword. All this happened through the old serpent's deceit." (10) For the Hutterites, the calling of the true Church was to separate themselves (Absonderung) from that fallen world of the sword, even if it meant losing their lives for the sake of their faith.


It makes sense that Anabaptists such as the Hutterites would privilege the history of the Church before its ignominious fall. …

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