Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

The Development of a Transnational "Mennonite" Identity among Swiss Brethren and Dutch Doopsgezinden in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

The Development of a Transnational "Mennonite" Identity among Swiss Brethren and Dutch Doopsgezinden in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

Article excerpt

Abstract: In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Dutch Mennonites and Swiss Brethren created a trans-European, Anabaptist identity that united the divergent groups into a common tradition. This article argues that the formation of that tradition largely grew out of the Dutch efforts to intervene on behalf of persecuted groups in German lands. In addition to their financial support, the Dutch grafted baptism-minded groups across the continent into their own reputations, confessions, and martyrologies. And those same groups, recognizing the significance of the Dutch historical, social, and theological identity to arguments in favor of religious toleration, adopted aspects of this identity as their own.

In 1713, Dutch poet Pieter Langendijk published a poem recounting the observations of a Swiss refugee girl named Simplicity upon her arrival in the Dutch Republic. (1) Langenciijk's readers of "Swiss Simplicity, Lamenting the Corrupted Manners of Many Dutch Doopsgezinden or Defenseless Christians" would have understood that the refugee represented a member of the Swiss Brethren refugees who had recently arrived in the Republic. Thanks to the financial and lobbying efforts of the Dutch Doopsgezinden (baptism-minded), (2) around 450 Swiss had managed to flee religious persecution in the Reformed canton of Bern. (3) The Swiss Brethren were spiritual "cousins" of the Doopsgezinden, both heirs of the Radical Reformation, or Anabaptists, of the sixteenth century. In the face of persecution throughout the second half of the seventeenth century--and especially in 1710-1711--the Doopsgezinden had provided their Swiss coreligionists with significant financial, material, and political assistance.

The purpose of Langedijk's poem, however, was not to praise the Dutch for their charity, but to satirize their wealth, moral laxity, and social pretensions. Through the character of "Simplicity," Langedijk critiqued the Doopsgezinden by comparing their luxurious lifestyle to the simple manners of the Swiss Brethren now in their midst. For example, Langendijk contrasted the prison that was Simplicity's dress and the chains that were her lace with the fine silks and plunging necklines of her Dutch coreligionists. He then described the Swiss girl's reaction:

  When she came here on ships down the Rhine [She] looked with shock at
  the splendour of the Amsterdam brethren, A wanton splendour that
  brought tears to her eyes And with two streams, moved her to lament:
  "Is this the same land for which I longed When I lay bound in
  shackles and fetters? Do my eyes deceive me? Are these the same
  brethren, my helpers in need? Who, with God, were my people's
  protectors?" (4)

Simplicity grants that Dutch generosity was the singular "ray of virtue" that shone through the cloud of inter-confessional disputes, unbridled consumption, lewd behavior, lascivious dress, and stuck-up airs of the Dutch. And she admonishes the Dutch:

  Consider a time one hundred and fifty years ago, Examine yourself,
  and think about how your forbearers lived. They laboured for a
  treasure, an eternal award; They valued splendour less than the
  heavenly martyr's crown. Generosity, it is true, is easily found
  in you, But a single virtue does not wash out all other sins.

Langendijk's poetic critique of wealth and assimilation reinforces a longstanding caricature of the Dutch Anabaptists--still common among some North American scholars--as a warning about the dangers of acculturation. The true inheritors of the Anabaptist legacy, by contrast, are the agrarian, simple Mennonites and Amish. (5) Although the satire oversimplifies the historical development of Anabaptist relations, its bite rested on the assumption that a trans-European Mennonite identity joining Swiss and Dutch actually existed. However, before the seventeenth century, the Swiss/South German Brethren and Dutch Doopsgezinden did not always accept that a clear connection existed between the various groups that scholars now gather under the descriptive canopy of "Anabaptists and their descendants. …

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