Hutterite Beginnings: Communitarian Experiments during the Reformation

By Peachey, Paul | The Catholic Historical Review, April 1998 | Go to article overview

Hutterite Beginnings: Communitarian Experiments during the Reformation


Peachey, Paul, The Catholic Historical Review


Hutterite Beginnings: Communitarian Experiments during the Reformation. By Werner 0. Packull. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1995. Pp. xi, 440. $59.95.)

At the 1943 annual meeting of the American Society of Church History, Harold S. Bender delivered the presidential address entitled "The Anabaptist Vision," thereupon published in the Society's journal, Church History (13 [March, 1944]) 3-24, and in The Mennonite Quarterly Review. That paper reflected the sporadic but growing interest over the immediately preceding decades in what was later called the "Radical Reformation," and now in the present volume "communitarian experiments," during the sixteenth-century split in Western Christendom. The vehicle of that interest was the publication of sixteenth-century archival materials, hitherto suppressed or ignored.

The story of that split, the Protestant Reformation, had been told, and told polemically, by the principals, the once dominant Roman Church and the reforming dissenters, Martin Luther and his peers. Though the gap between the two establishments, the Catholic and the Protestant, proved unbridgeable, they both, and for the same reasons, ruthlessly suppressed the "radical" and "communitarian" ferment, then known as Anabaptist. Meanwhile, as Western history unfolded over the next few centuries, "bottom-up" stirrings were increasingly to challenge the "top-down" legacies in church and polity alike. In that context, Bender's "Anabaptist Vision" became both a benchmark and a catalyst in ways that he could not have foreseen.

Compared to the trickle of sixteenth-century Radical Reformation sources and studies preceding Bender's presidential address, in the half-century that followed that trickle has grown into a flood. Even so, that flood has been relatively confined to the ivory tower. And perhaps it is just as well. As Werner Packull points out in his superb study of Hutterite Beginnings, at that stage of historiography, the "dialectic between religious convictions and social situation had been decided in favor of the former." While Bender's vision meanwhile has been criticized for that reason, and the story that he told has meanwhile been recast, both his earlier account and subsequent revisions reflect trends in historiography more broadly.

Hutterites, by far the most durable of the religiously-grounded communal (as distinct from monastic) "experiments" in the post-Reformation West, along with Mennonites and Amish are the extant groups descended from the original Reformation era. …

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