Derksen's impressive work is the first book-length study of Strasbourg's sixteenth-century religious radicals since the publication of volumes III and IV of the Täuferakten, Elsass in 1986 and 1988. Previous treatments of Strasbourg's anabaptists, spiritualists and other dissidents have focused on beginnings and developments up to the mid 1530s. Derksen demonstrates how these radicals who wanted to change society in the 1520s became "survivors" in the following several generations.
Chapters One (Strasbourg and the Evangelical Reform), Two (Strasbourg's Radicals to the Abolition of the Mass, 1522-1529) and Three (The Radicals' Zenith and Fall, 1529-1535) are good and helpful summaries of previous research that set the stage for what follows.
By 1532 Strasbourg's religious radicals, at their zenith, were very different from the radicals in 1524. In terms of numbers they had grown from a handful of Anabaptists after the Peasants' War to several hundred in 1528 and perhaps 2000 in 1530-32. In terms of geographic origin, while the radicals of 1524-25 had been Strasbourgers, by 1532 they were overwhelmingly foreign refugees. This helps explain the shifting allegiances within the movement and its rapid decline after 1534; indigenous roots were few. (p. 86)
The Strasbourg Synod of 1533 put an end to the dissidents' zenith, crippled their influence and drove them underground. Surprisingly, in spite of the Synod and the events of Münster, the city council liberalized measures against nonconformists in March of 1535, allowing them to stay if they fulfilled their civil duties and did not criticize the Church in public.
After having previously benefitted from the presence of key people such as Sattler, Scharnschlager and Marpeck, by 1540, non-Melchiorite Anabaptists no longer had any intellectual leaders. Most of them were no longer theologically articulate, leadership fell into the hands of lay people. Artisans and women were actively involved in the life of these remaining communities. Nevertheless, a kind of Anabaptist continuity throughout a several decade period (from 1524 through the 1550s) was assured in the person of Jörg Ziegler of Schiltigheim, the brother of gardener-preacher Clement Ziegler.
Melchior Hoffman's imprisonment and the apocalyptic fervor tied to Münster contributed to a strong Melchiorite Anabaptist component in and around Strasbourg until around 1540, when many joined either the official Church or the Swiss Brethren, a shift which gave the latter new momentum. Numbers remain impressive. "By March 1540 large numbers of Anabaptists were active; one prisoner estimated up to 800 Anabaptists in the Strasbourg area." (p. 126)
The nature of the source material does not allow an extensive narrative of dissident life during this period, except in the cases of some Melchiorites or Schwenckfeldians. As Derksen writes: "Like fish jumping out of a lake at unpredictable times and places, these clandestine dissidents appear from time to time in various contexts. Especially after 1540 the story of Strasbourg's nonconformists is a patchwork of small incidents and brief glimpses." (p. 151) Sporadic sources plus Derksen's organizational methodology leads at times to repetition of names, dates and events in the various chapters.
By the 1560s, second generation dissidence was fairly widespread, while at the same time becoming more passive and expressing itself through acts such as staying away from the official church or from infant baptisms. Opposition came more from church officials than from city officials, who were more pragmatic and cared more about loyalty to Strasbourg's jurisdiction than about theological orthodoxy. In cases when they were living in villages under Strasbourg's authority, dissidents were often capable of playing magistrates, religious leaders and village authorities off against each other, and were thus able to remain.
As already suggested by previous scholars, Derksen perceives a relationship between the presence of dissident communities and their criticism of the official church with Martin Bucer's experimentation with small groups within the larger official parish structure. "…The christlichen Gemeinschaften were Bucer's attempt to remedy ethical failings and silence the radicals' critiques without resorting to a sectarian ecclesiology." (p. 199) Along with the presence of Schwenckfeldians and people such as the Lutheran mystic Johan Arndt (1555-1621) in Strasbourg, Derksen sees a continuing spiritualist tendency that later blossomed in the Pietist movement with Philip Jakob Spener.
Chapter 8 deals with the village of Wangen, from the period of 1532 to 1569. Here it becomes clear that at least in some areas around Strasbourg, religious dissidence "simmered beneath the surface over long periods of time" and that Anabaptists were perhaps more numerous than previously thought. During this period in Wangen, the evidence suggests that "religious dissidents constituted the majority of the population." (p. 220)
Although their numbers always remained small, Schwenckfeldians were the most urban and sophisticated of the various types of religious dissidents in Strasbourg. Several personal portraits of these spiritualist dissidents (lawyers, intellectuals, diplomats, relief workers) make a convincing case that they were useful and valuable citizens, which is probably why they were tolerated by the civil authorities. Derksen also suggests that a longstanding Strasbourg tradition of spiritualism, going back to Meister Eckhart and Johann Tauler, helped paved the way for 16th century tolerance of Schwenckfeldians.
In spite of a major shift from social and religious radicalism to a survival mode, Derksen argues for considerable ideological continuity over several generations, whether it be among Schwenckfeldians or Anabaptists. "…For all its differences, at root the separatist call of 1569 was much like the social-revolutionary call of Clement Ziegler in 1524. Thus the sectarian nonconformity of mid-century may be seen to continue the commoners' revolt in the Peasants' War." (p. 262) Perhaps the main contribution of radicals to the Strasbourg context was their call to freedom of conscience. "But the calls of Strasbourg's …(radicals)….sowed seeds and contributed to a climate of thought that would eventually bear fruit." (p. 264)
This is a necessary book for any scholar or library interested in the history of 16th Strasbourg, as well as 16th century reform movements and religious dissidence. Unfortunately, the high price will dissuade some people from acquiring the book. Starting with chapter two, the page numbers of the text do not correspond with the page numbers of the table of contents.
Director, Paris Mennonite Centre
Saint Maurice, France