Can a collection of essays on historical themes be charming? This one charmed me. The late professor John Oyer will be a familiar name to those who read in the areas of Mennonite or Anabaptist history. He was a regular contributor to Mennonite Quarterly Review, of which he was editor from 1966 to 1992. His earlier book, Lutheran Reformers Against Anabaptists (1964) is well-known and respected. His more recent book, Mirror of the Martyrs (1990), a collaboration with Robert Kreider, has been received widely, as has the exhibit on Anabaptist and Mennonite martyrs that they produced and that the book accompanied.

This book is not a history of Anabaptists, Mennonites, Amish, Reformers, or others. It is an eclectic collection of fourteen essays and addresses written by a careful historian who was generous toward his enemies and objective about the merits and faults of his friends. Readers not familiar with Anabaptist, Mennonite, or Amish history generally may wish to consult one of the standard historical accounts, among which Arnold Snyder’s book probably ranks as the best general introduction from a specifically Anabaptist/Mennonite perspective and the monumental work of George H. Williams as the most thorough.

John Roth, editor of this posthumous collection, sets the volume up well in a four-page Foreword. His biographical and bibliographical information is helpful, and his promise holds true: scholars of the radical reformation will discover here new insights into the nature of Anabaptist leadership, congregational life, hymnody and recantations; other historians will appreciate his thoughts on the historical transition from Anabaptism to Mennonitism, his careful study of Amish theology, and his memories of CPS work in Poughkeepsie, New York (p. xii).

Professor James Stayer, himself an important historian of the Anabaptists and Mennonites, provides an Introduction that is a useful synopsis of the contents and the context of these essays. Indeed, his introduction could easily serve as a review in and of itself. If Stayer’s own work is an indication, he would no doubt have historiographical quibbles with Professor Oyer here and there, but Professor Stayer does not take advantage of his Introduction to point these out, as many writers might. He is to be commended for resisting this temptation--if there was one--and for using his historiographic and substantive expertise instead to highlight for the reader how, in comparison to other possibilities, Oyer approaches his subject matter, how this approach is illustrated in Oyer’s treatment of the materials, and how Oyer thereby opens up new perspectives for the reader concerning what was occurring, say, among the Anabaptists in southern Germany in the sixteenth century, the Dutch Mennonites in the seventeenth, or the American Amish in the twentieth. Professor Stayer’s introduction is most helpful in every respect.

The presence of college professors and professional historians may dissuade the lay reader from picking up this book. It shouldn’t. Even at his most technical, which occurs seldom, Professor Oyer has a highly accessible style that always clarifies, never obfuscates. If these essays are any indication, he must have been a very effective classroom teacher. The range of topics, moreover, will include something for nearly everyone. Alongside the 130-page essay, The Anabaptists in Esslingen: A Viable Congregation under Periodic Siege, which itself spans a wide variety of topics and which could stand as a book alone, there are essays on Amish Religious Thought and Practice, on the experience of being a CO in New York State during the Second World War, on how Anabaptists responded to persecution, on anti-Anabaptist writings and hymns, two essays on Jan Luyken (a talented Dutch Mennonite engraver of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries who is best remembered for his illustrations in Tieleman van Braght’s Martyrs’ Mirror), an essay on Menno Simons, and yet others. Two essays, including the more personal Why I am a Mennonite, have been previously published: the rest appear in this volume for the first time, but the majority were presented in the form of public speeches and addresses during the last decade of Oyer’s life. Professor Oyer, the editor tells us, reviewed the essays for the purposes of a published collection before he died, and the editor has intelligently arranged them into five sections.

Three features of Oyer’s work displayed in these essays particularly stand out to this reviewer as noteworthy and praiseworthy. First is the attention to detail. This attention is not the smallish, archival and nearly bureaucratic nitpicking one sometimes finds in specialized monographs and essays, the point of which seems simply to be a combing of minutiae for the sake of finding something new or previously unknown, no matter how trivial. Rather, Oyer is a careful historian whose precision translates not into small change, but into enlightening insights for his readers. These insights are the result not merely of a fine mind, which Oyer displays, but also of an ability to present complex and contentious material accessibly by dividing it into clear categories for the reader to understand. Accusations of reformers against the Anabaptists, for example, are classified into several kinds based on subject matter and target, while Amish theology, which can only be discovered implicitly, is clarified by considering how Amish regard and use Scripture, what they say about salvation, the place of Jesus Christ in their understanding, and their stated beliefs about the church, the Holy Spirit, and non-resistance, along with their treatment of so-called heresy. Similar classification schemes occur in the essay on Bernese Mennonites and on anti-Anabaptist hymnology. This kind of classificatory analysis, not to be taken for granted, helps the reader to see both the forest and the trees at the same time. Oyer’s classificatory approach does not lay too heavy an interpretive grid on the materials at hand. Certainly, his open-source way of treating the evidence gives the reader an opportunity to ponder alternative ways of reading Oyer’s findings. While some readers may wish for more theoretical analysis, those thus inclined will not find, I think, that the materials have been covered up in such a way as to prevent them from performing themselves what they might find lacking.

Second there is Oyer’s fair-mindedness. Consider, for example, his brief review of the Reformers’ condemnations of Anabaptists. Whereas he rightly finds much to fault in the Reformers’ accusations, he also points out that they were not all entirely mistaken. For example: There is some degree of truth, or so it seems to me, in Luther’s charge against the Anabaptists of excessive subjectivity. Mennonites indeed have demonstrated an excess of subjectivity in their numerous and continual divisions, a subjectivity expressed in interpreting Scripture individualistically and on many different issues. When I first studied Luther and the Anabaptists, I thought he was completely erroneous in making this charge. Living subsequently through Mennonite divisions, and studying some other divisions, convince me that his charge had substance (p. 11). Similar kinds of comments grace many of these essays, revealing a scholar who loves his subject-matter not because it serves as a tool for self-identity formation, but because in it we read a story of God at work with His people, in their weakness, selfishness, and intemperance, as well as their patience and faithfulness.

This passage also reveals another of the positive features of the present collection: Oyer’s personable approach. Professor Oyer combines close historical study of published texts and neglected archives with a reservoir of personal experience and personal sympathy toward the human objects of his study that adds a layer of interpretive insight to his work that is especially attractive. Consider as another example this disclaimer, which introduces an informative essay on Amish theology: There is something foolish, even arrogant, in a Mennonite writing about Amish theology. . . . Can any Mennonite find out what it is? Can a non-Amish person have sufficient empathy to understand and describe it? (p. 111). With this beginning, Oyer takes us through a delightful consideration of how to think about and understand Amish religious thought and practice. Does he pull it off completely? Not being Amish, I can’t be sure, but I can be sure that I at least seem to understand a good deal more about what Amish people are doing in communal worship and everyday life than I did twenty-two pages earlier. Or consider his essay on Why I am a Mennonite. It becomes clear on the final page of that essay that what the reader suspects from reading among the other the essays is true: being a historian in the way that Oyer was a historian was, for him, part and parcel of being a Mennonite.

So, why charming? Clarity, care and a fine mind, sympathy, fair-mindedness, and grace. In a collection of historical essays, one could hardly ask for more.

Thomas Heilke
Associate Professor
University of Kansas