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The cost of not remembering 1525

6.18. 2018 Written By: Paul Hershberger

Two articles previewing an observance of a 500th anniversary of Anabaptism stressed the importance of “right remembering.” Another way to describe it might be “not remembering.”

In 30-plus pages, in the January 2017 issues of The Mennonite and Mennonite Quarterly Review, there is no mention of three founders present at Anabaptism’s start, nor a brief description of what happened and why on January 21, 1525 – that date didn’t find its way into print either.

Maybe we’re supposed to be familiar with those names and that event by now. On the other hand, can you feature a U.S. bicentennial neglecting George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, or a 100-year observance of Mennonite Central Committee’s beginning with the names of Orie Miller, Arthur Slagel and Clayton Kratz missing?

In the longer of the articles, which includes a discussion of the Protestant Reformation’s anniversary, Martin Luther is referenced a couple score times and Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli a dozen. No mention of Conrad Grebel, Felix Mantz or George Blaurock who, along with a group of colleagues, inaugurated a movement with a baptismal in Zurich. Luther’s posting of 95 theses at Wittenberg, the site of the climax to the Reformation’s 500th celebration in 2017, does get the attention of the writer, John D. Roth.

Perhaps the omission of three Anabaptist founders should not be surprising in that Canadian historian James Stayer noted in his 2008 Menno Simons lecture that “there are prominent voices in the present Mennonite community such as my friend John Roth who think that (Harold) Bender and (Swiss historian Fritz) Blanke misled us with the emphasis on the first baptisms” at Zurich.

In a response to claims that Anabaptists “got it right” in this early period, Roth said a couple decades ago that it “never was clear just when or where the principles of the Anabaptist vision were indeed fully incarnated in human history.” He added that to argue to the contrary “is really ‘ahistorical,’ if not outright anti-historical.”

What was accomplished by a small group, while on the run, with their insistence on baptism and the prerogatives of a congregation of believers, served as a forerunner of the separation of church and state and the free assembly of persons of faith. This was set in motion on a winter evening in Zurich when the group of believers made their intentions clear. Presumably there was divine involvement.

Stayer notes that “modern Anabaptist scholarship has long agreed that Anabaptism began as a schism in the Swiss Reformation that built up to the first believers baptisms in Zurich January 21, 1525.” He adds: “If history is to be made relative to the interests of a contemporary religious denomination, there are no limits whatsoever to its plasticity (in setting an inaugural date).” Roth concurred: “Although 1525 … might seem like the obvious date for a 500th anniversary, planners … settled instead on 1527 because it suggests a more complex story.”

In illustrating that complexity, Roth points to the Schleitheim Confession that was written at a gathering north of Zurich after two years of a turbulent Anabaptism. That same year a meeting to coordinate mission strategy, called the Martyrs Synod, was conducted in Augsburg. Most important, Roth says, the 18th Mennonite World Conference (MWC) assembly is in 2027.

Observations about other inaugurals and anniversaries:

  • The first MWC assembly was held in 1925, 400 years after Anabaptism’s start.
  • Mennonite Central Committee was organized in 1920 in response to civil war and famine in Russia, but it developed its own complexities – refugee resettlement, Civilian Public Service administration, World War II relief in Europe and worldwide aid and development efforts. MCC will observe its centennial with reunions in 2020.
  • The Jerusalem Council, also concerned with mission strategy resulting from outreach to the Gentiles, did not sideline the significance of Pentecost.

The importance accorded by Roth to the MWC assembly in 2027, at a site to be determined in Africa, relates to the predominance of the global South in the present-day Mennonite church and a desire to avoid Eurocentrism in the celebration of an anniversary.

That effort was given an ironic twist in 2017, when MWC president J. Nelson Kraybill reported on an event in Augsburg leading up to Renewal 2027, the name given the anniversary fete: “We stopped by a large house where 88 Anabaptists were discovered in an illegal meeting Easter morning 1528. People arrested were variously deported, tortured or executed. Someone from the global North in our group expressed gratitude that Anabaptists no longer are being persecuted today. Immediately a brother from Ethiopia raised his hand and said, ‘Can I tell you about persecution today?’ ”

Fritz Blanke is among those who have lamented that Anabaptism’s arrival was “before its time,” meaning that people were not prepared to accept its demands. He said: “Such an expression (as Anabaptism) was bound to fail in its first attempt, and the only ‘mistake’ of which we may accuse the men and women of Zollikon would be that they went at their task too early, before the time was ripe.”

Ulrich Zwingli was one of those for whom a radical change was too soon. After Conrad Grebel died, apparently from the plague, Zwingli engineered the execution of the young Anabaptist’s father, even though Jakob Grebel was an esteemed Zurich merchant, diplomat and councilman. It was a more direct route at attempting to erase the Grebel name than that undertaken in a scholarly fashion five centuries later across the sea.

Paul Hershberger is a retired journalist from Goshen, Indiana.

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