The “essence” of Anabaptism

Ted Grimsrud—July 22, 2014

[On the evening of July 20, I spoke as part of a panel of four on theme of the meaning of Anabaptism, at Morning View Mennonite Church. I was assigned two general questions and given first five minutes and then ten minutes to speak. It was a great experience. It was challenging because it was a rural, quite conservative congregation (having split from Virginia Mennonite Conference because the conference was too “liberal” about the same time my congregation split from Virginia Conference because it was too “conservative”). I focused on finding common ground with other panelists—I was the only one who is now part of Mennonite Church USA. It’s a good exercise, I think, to reflect on our core identity.]

What are the core elements that define historic Anabaptism?

The Anabaptist movement emerged in the 1520s as part of the Protestant Reformation and, because of its radical call to return to the gospels, came to be known as the Radical Reformation. Anabaptists built on the work of mainline reformers such as Martin Luther who taught a direct appropriation of biblical teaching over church tradition. They took things a step further, though, and zeroed in on the message of Jesus. They affirmed following that message for all Christians—no matter what the cost. So, the core of the core in naming the essence of Anabaptism, I would say, is recovering Jesus’s way as the heart of Christian faith.

To say more than that gets complicated. There were many early expressions of the Anabaptist movement—some branched off the first group in Zurich, Switzerland. Some sprang up spontaneously—a revolution in the understanding of Christian faith was in the air. The Anabaptist movement was decentralized. When we talk about historic Anabaptism, we should acknowledge quite a bit of diversity. But I believe, in contrast to the recent generation of academic historians, that we may still affirm a sense of coherence in the movement—even if it didn’t take the form of a centralized organization or official creeds and dogmas.

Anabaptists believed Jesus to be more central than church tradition, the nation-state, institutional hierarchies, or top-down operated rituals. Because of this, Anabaptists got into trouble—to the point that thousands were killed for embodying their convictions. So I suggest if we want to flesh out our sense of the essence of Anabaptism in the 16th century—and of a usable Anabaptist vision—we should look at why all these diverse Anabaptists got into trouble (recognizing of course, that each group had its own distinctive way of embodying these core convictions). Continue reading “The “essence” of Anabaptism”