J. Denny Weaver first published Becoming Anabaptist in 1987. The second,
revised edition appeared in September 2005. In between, new questions regarding the
polygenesis theory of Anabaptist origins renewed debate concerning the historical and
contemporary significance of Anabaptism. In the second edition of Becoming Anabaptist,
Weaver seeks to retell and apply the Anabaptist story in light of these new directions.
Weaver, the Harry and Jean Yoder Scholar in Bible and Religion at Bluffton University, has published widely on Anabaptist life and thought. His recent contributions include Anabaptist Theology in the Face of Postmodernity: A Proposal for the Third Millennium (2000) and The Nonviolent Atonement (2001).
After a brief introductory chapter, Weaver moves to recount the origins of Anabaptism in Switzerland, southern Germany/Moravia, and the Low Countries. A chapter on the meaning and essence of Anabaptism concludes the book.
Weaver locates the sources of Swiss Anabaptism in Zwingli's radical followers,
pervasive hostility toward Roman clergy, and a groundswell of peasant unrest. All these
elements, he argues, surfaced in a conflict over the tithe, which
precipitated the break
between Zwingli and his radical supporters (35) in 1523. The final break occurred just
over a year later with the first adult baptisms on January 21, 1525. A noteworthy addition
in this second edition is a detailed discussion of the
Communal Reformation of the
sixteenth century. Working with categories supplied by James Stayer and Peter Blickle,
Weaver finds Swiss Anabaptism's distinctiveness in
its rejection of the idea that the
church encompasses the entire social order (54). Furthermore, he writes, the articles
signed at Schleitheim in 1527 similarly reflect various Anabaptist interactions with
Zwinglians, radicals, and peasants with regard to society.
Weaver identifies medieval mysticism, anti-clericalism, apocalyptic expectations,
and the Peasants' War as contributing factors in the origins of South German and
Moravian Anabaptism. Leading figures such Thomas Müntzer, Hans Hut, Hans Denck,
Balthasar Hubmaier, and Pilgram Marpeck were influential in the early years, but
Weaver is quick to point out that
South German Anabaptism died out as a distinct
movement and many of its leaders left no
institutional legacy (158). Moravia, on the
other hand, was home to the Hutterites and their communalistic practices. Community of
goods had already surfaced in the Swiss region, but it became an integral part of the
South German story, especially in Moravia.
Weaver next turns his attention to Anabaptism in the
Low Countries, which
presently correspond to Belgium and the Netherlands. He is aware that any discussion of
Anabaptism in the Low Countries must address the legacies of Melchior Hoffman,
Münster, and Menno Simons. Weaver dates the beginning of Anabaptism in the North
from Hoffman's baptism of almost 300 persons in June 1530. Yet
the most spectacular
and infamous events of the Melchiorite movement occurred at Münster (122). While the
shadow of Münster looms large in Anabaptist history, Weaver is quick to jettison any
association of Anabaptist origins with the 1534 debacle. The story of Anabaptism in the
Low Countries concludes with a summary of Menno Simons's contributions to
Anabaptism, which include a Mennonite movement still seeking to exist as a separated
minority within the social order.
In the final chapter, Weaver assesses and characterizes Anabaptism as a
legitimate expression of the Christian tradition. He characterizes Anabaptism as a
movement which follows the life and teachings of Jesus in a voluntary community. The
result of such a commitment is a believing community
visibly different from the society
in which it lives (174). In contrast to other sixteenth-century expressions of Christianity,
put the Bible in the hands of laypersons and involved every member in
interpretation, making the believing community of voluntary members the locus of
interpretation (172). With Jesus as the norm, Weaver contends that rejection of violence
particular manifestation of discipleship (175). Furthermore, they gave priority to
the narratives surrounding Jesus, thus developing a condensed canon. Weaver concludes
the final chapter by informing the reader of several contemporary Anabaptist
conversations concerning discipleship, ecclesiology, nonviolence, and education.
Despite all that is commendable about Becoming Anabaptist, it could be improved in three areas. First, given the abundance of towns, cities, and locations germane to Anabaptist origins, the general reader would benefit from the inclusion of a map for each region. Second, Weaver abruptly ends the story of Swiss Anabaptism at Schleitheim in 1527. The Schleitheim Confession was an obvious high point of Swiss Anabaptism, but the movement certainly extended beyond that conference. The second edition of Becoming Anabaptist, like the first, fails to include the rest of the Swiss story.
Lastly, and perhaps more importantly, in an appended essay on interpretation,
Weaver critiques the position of C. Arnold Snyder with regard to Anabaptism's essence.
In Anabaptist History and Theology and
Beyond Polygenesis, Snyder identifies a three-tiered theological core of Anabaptism: 1) beliefs held in common with Catholics and
Protestants (e.g. classic creeds), 2) beliefs held in common with Protestants (e.g. rejection
of sacramental theology), and 3) beliefs unique to Anabaptism (e.g. adult baptism).
Weaver disagrees with Snyder and claims that Snyder's thesis
supports rather than
rejects Christian identification with the surrounding social order, thereby contradicting a
plain theological-ethical commitment of Anabaptist dissent (225). Moreover, Weaver
argues that Snyder's core establishes
Christendom's theology as the norm from which
Anabaptism is distinguished (230). Weaver's critique of Snyder is valid on several
levels and worthy of further conversation, yet Weaver's argument appears to fall prey to
his own critique. On at least two occasions he refers to Anabaptism as a
tradition (226 and 230). It seems that to call Anabaptism a
Christian tradition is to
appeal to some
core or norm that constitutes
Christian. Weaver stops short of
clarifying what a group must exhibit in order to be considered Christian, only to fault
Snyder for providing a broad definition. What was it about the Anabaptists that made
them Christian, or members of the Christian tradition? In answering this question he
might strengthen his rejection of Snyder's thesis.
Criticisms aside, Becoming Anabaptist incorporates the helpful aspects of the polygenetic theory of origins, and still succeeds in identifying elements common to all three streams. Particularly helpful is the way in which Weaver underscores the influence of Erasmus and Andreas Karlstadt during Anabaptism's formative years, especially in its Swiss expression. Becoming Anabaptist is a concise and nuanced account of Anabaptist beginnings in Switzerland, South Germany/ Moravia, and the Low Countries. This second edition is recommended without hesitation for scholars and students, pastors and laypersons, Anabaptists and non-Anabaptists. Weaver informs us about the history of Anabaptists and compels us to look to the future of Anabaptism.