Reading documentary history vis-á-vis interpretative history is a big step closer to the primary events. These 34 documents were written by the actors themselves in the German language between 1524 and 1590 in the beginning decades of the Anabaptist movement in Europe. They were co-published in English as volume 10 in the Classics of the Radical Reformation series (Institute of Mennonite Studies, Elkhart, Ind./Herald Press, Scottdale, Pa.) and were supplementary to an earlier volume published by the Institute of Anabaptist and Mennonite studies at Conrad Grebel University College, Waterloo, Ont. The huge task of selecting, translating and editing these source documents was a labor of love, and we are grateful to the editor and three translators for this achievement.
This collection is characterized by a number of factors in addition to its geographical source. The editor refers to "the role played by late medieval mysticism in shaping the spiritualism visible in early South German/Austrian Anabaptism—a connection to an earlier spirituality that is less clearly evident in other branches of Anabaptism" (pp. xv-xvi). This factor is more specifically emphasized in Packull's earlier book, Mysticism and the Early South German-Austrian Anabaptist Movement 1525-1531 (Vol. 19 in the Studies in Anabaptist and Mennonite History series, Goshen, Ind.).
The view of mysticism portrayed in both books is in contrast to that of Ernst Troeltsch in his two-volume work, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches. Troeltsch defined mysticism as a third type distinct from his sociological types, church and sect, the latter modeled he thought especially by the 16th century Anabaptists and the former by Catholicism and the Protestant state churches of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin. Mysticism, he believed, represents the unrealistic desire to have the values of both without the pitfalls of either. It does this by a rugged individualism which evades opposition and has no ecclesiastical organization, thereby seeking the free spirituality and adapability of the church type without the binding strictures of the sect with its radical lack of culture and conventicle-like narrowness. Not so the mysticism of the south German Anabaptists, writes Snyder, which links "a greater role for the direct action of the Holy Spirit" (p. xix) with a firm commitment to the church as the disciplined, suffering body of Christ. Thus, unaware of Troetsch's definitions, these primary writers merged the rugged individualism of the medieval mystics with the otherworldliness of the sectarians.
They also contributed much to Anabaptist martyr theology. Six of these writers were beheaded for their faith and two, including one of the four women in the collection, were executed by other means. The lay reader must wonder what kind of human mentality could sanction the torture and horrible killing of persons because of their nonconformed faith. The necks of six of these pious, zealous Anabaptists were pressed to a block and their heads severed by the sword of the executioner upon the order of a magistrate. Snyder tries to interpret this enigma by explaining, "The fundamental political assumption in the sixteenth century was that order in the social-political sphere could only be maintained by a unified religious confession in any given political territory. A ‘separation of church and state' was virtually inconceiv-able….Civil enforcement of a uniform religious confession and the persecution of religious dissenters had a long, if inglorious, political history reaching back to the christianization of the late Roman Empire. The persecution of Anabaptists in the sixteenth century followed this bloody, time-honoured model….What was surprising was that the coming of the Protestant Reformation changed so little in this regard."
For this reader, Snyder's perspective cannot fully explain the motives of such violent persecution, and a behavioral perspective is also needed. Mass hysteria is a form of collective behavior, illustrated by witch-hunts of many kinds in human history involving widespread and contagious anxiety, usually caused by some unfounded belief. Abusers typically enjoy the power exercised over their victims while they are being tortured and killed. A revealing illustration from the book at hand is the torture and death of Hans Hut: "The Hutterite Chronicle…states that after being tortured, Hut was left in his cell like a dead man; a light accidentally set the straw on fire, which killed him. Augsburg officials, apparently frustrated at not being able to execute Hut, tied his body to a chair, officially sentenced him to death, and burned his body on December 7, 1527."
Another characteristic of the collection is the inclusion of five anti-Anabaptist documents, plus three by Anabaptists who recanted, and one about false or flawed Anabaptist leaders. Document #9 specified the appropriate recantation procedures required by the magistrates, and document #18 was an effort to justify the prosecution of Anabaptists. In the vein of Snyder's historical perspective, Urbanus Rhegius' main argument was the alleged need to "compel" persons to return to the "one holy apostolic Christian church." For a twisted biblical support, Rhegius cited Jesus' parable of the great banquet, "Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled." (Luke 14:23, italics added).
The best review of this book is the one given in the editor's introduction, citing the Anabaptist spokespersons on such themes as the following:
Suffering and the body of Christ. "All who become attached to Christ through his divine word are his members, that is, hands, feet or eyes…. To such members Christ, true man in the flesh, is the head through whom the members are governed."…"Those are the exiled of whom all prophets write, who can have no place to stay but must be ever chased and driven from one city into another…. In brief, there must be suffering, whether here or there. We must all be purged in water or fire." (Ambrosius Spitelmaier, 1527, pp. 56-57, 61).
The new life. "O dearly-beloved brothers and sisters in the Christian gathering: Let us note well the first plank of this house, as Christ teaches us: 'Refrain from sin' (Matt. 3). For sin has no place in this house. If we build with sin we are not building the house of God, but rather the house of darkness. But when we refrain from sin, we will not dishonour the name of God, but praise, extol and honour it, and begin to love him with our whole hearts, as he first loved us." (Eitelhans Langenmantel, 1527, p. 113).
Scripture and the Holy Spirit. "The scriptures give only an outer witness of a true life, but they cannot create a new being in me….Some think that one must believe the dead letter of Scriptures without the experience of God's illuminating power, but that would mean nothing less than inventing delusionary truth. Such a person accepts the Scriptures without having the inner experience to which they witness." (Hans Hut, 1527, pp. 18-19).
Nine of the last eleven documents were written by Paul Glock between 1563 and 1573. During the nineteen years of his imprisonment, he experienced the whole range of persecution from painful torture to a six-months period when he was allowed to leave the prison during the day to seek gainful employment and witness to fellow workers. He always returned to his cell for night and remained steadfast and clear-minded in his faith and witness. But in spite of the temporary tolerance of the warden and his wife, who supplied him with paper and ink, he was most critical of his captors and wrote things about them that were "not calculated to win him friends" as our editor put it. On one occasion the warden, three clergymen, and several theologians, came to interview him and another Anabaptist prisoner, explaining that "they came with good intent and desired that their imprisonment should end. The prisoners were only to obey and answer well." In his response Glock said to them, "Your teaching, preaching, church and assembly is a mob and an assembly of fornicators, adulterers, liars, blasphemers, drunkards, proud, usurers, and all unclean spirits in whom the devil has and does his work" (pp. 309, 315). This kind of polemic raises a question I dared to raise in my critique of Conrad Grebel, "Have Mennonite scholars tended to overlook the provocations of their Anabaptist forebears in order to lay the entire blame on the Magisterial reformers for their resort to violent prosecution?" (The Conrad Grebel Review, Spring 1989, p. 143). My answer there was two-fold: If we are talking about the breakdown in communication, the answer is "Yes," but if we are talking about equal responsibility for persecution and murder, the answer is surely "No." As Glock put it, "The devil forces people into his kingdom using arrests, stocks, dungeons, prison, expulsions and murder. Such things Christ and the apostles never did."
I'll end with a minor complaint about the production of this book. Even before I finished reading everything the first time through, it started coming apart and whole sections fell out. This important collection of source documents deserves a better binding.
North Newton, KS