In this collection, the editors present 19 essays originally delivered at a 2010 conference at Bethel College entitled “Marginal or Mainstream? Anabaptists, Mennonites and Modernity in European Society.”
In the original call for papers for that event, conference organizers Jantzen and Sprunger solicited proposals demonstrating “how European history can be better understood by incorporating key aspects from five centuries of Anabaptist and Mennonite history.” The volume’s contents suggest that presenters were more interested in better understanding Anabaptist and Mennonite history than in that history’s impact on any broader understanding of European history. The editorial introduction reframes the resulting papers as examples that help us see Mennonites as contributing to, detracting from, or adaptors of “the modern venture,” a willingness to seek “to create the kind of world they, or we, might want to live in.” The hindsight of this introduction, together with Thomas A. Brady’s keynote “The Cost of Contexts: Anabaptist/Mennonite History and the Early Modern European Past” that opened the conference and this volume, do provide lenses that allow one to consider the specific content more broadly. Despite efforts to organize and interpret the content around a broader theme of modernity, individual essays generally remain narrow in chronological and/or geographical focus. With several exceptions, the significance of a particular essay does not seem to depend on or contribute significantly to the larger themes promoted in the introduction and keynote address. One wonders whether most of the essays might not have proved to be more “discoverable” (and therefore more usable) if published as journal articles – whether separately or as a group. Classed in Part I as “contributors” to modernity are these eight essays:
- “Münster, Monster, Modernity: Tracing and Challenging the Meme of Anabaptist Madness.” Michael Driedger examines ways in which contemporary polemical accounts of events in Münster affected and continue to affect perceptions of those events. These uncritically accepted assessments have colored even ostensibly objective interpretations of Münster and its legacy.
- “A Mennonite Capitalist Ethic in the Dutch Golden Age: Weber Revisited.” Mary S. Sprunger explores changes in financial practices that occurred among Mennonites living in a pluralistic, urban environment in the 17th century, demonstrating ways Mennonites applied capitalism to strengthen congregational alms.
- “The Dutch Enlightenment and Patriotism: Mennonites and Politics in Late Eighteenth-Century Friesland.” Yme Kuiper provides a clear overview of political and cultural changes in 18th-century Friesland and describes the engagement of elite Mennonites in these changes.
- “Marginal and Modern, Mainstream and Scientific: Mennonites and Experimental Philosophy in the Dutch Republic.” Ernst Hamm writes of the role of “natural knowledge” among 18th-century Dutch Mennonites, including in seminary training.
- “Middle-Class Formation in Rural Society: Mennonite Peasant Merchants in the Palatinate, Rhine Hesse, and the Northern Rhine Valley, 1740-1880.” Using evidence from six Mennonite families, Frank Konersmann describes the role rural Mennonites played in expanding local and regional labor, land, and capital markets.
- “Mennonite Privileges and Russian Modernization: Communities on a Path Leading from Separateness to Legal and Social Integration (1789-1900).” Nataliya Venger argues that Mennonite society served as an experimental field of modernization with the Russian empire. Changes in privileges were inevitable but also economically beneficial to Mennonites as the late-modernizing empire moved towards greater integration.
- “Mennonites in Central Asia and Their Role in the Modernization of Economics and Culture in the Region.” Dilaram M. Inoyatova provides a general description of Mennonites settling in Central Asia, with particular focus on agricultural and technological developments they fostered in the region.
- “The Mennonites of Khiva: A Modernizing Community.” In more detail than the preceding essay, Walter Ratliff offers an account of Mennonites, originally followers of Claas Epp, who settled in the khanate of Khiva.
Part II, “Detractors,” has four essays:
- “Anabaptist Sacramentalism and Its Contemporary Appropriation.” Brian C. Brewer argues that 16th-century Anabaptists often understood baptism and communion public professions and recommitments of sacramental vows – rather than simply symbolic acts. He provides examples of the survival of this understanding in recent times.
- “Isaac von den Blocke, Painter and Mennonite at Gdańsk in the Early Seventeenth Century.” Rainer Kobe describes two paintings (Before the Flood and The Narrow and the Broad Way?) commissioned for public spaces in Danzig and considers whether their presentation or thematic content is distinctively Mennonite.
- “Changing Definitions of Treason and Religious Freedom for Mennonites in Prussia, 1780-1880.” Mark Jantzen provides credible evidence for how reactions/responses to questions of Mennonite exemption from military service exemplify the evolution from enlightened monarchy/Prussia to nation-state/Germany.
- “Mennonites as Catalytic Agents in Free Church History in Russia and the Soviet Union.” Johannes Dyck strengthens understandings concerning Mennonite Brethren influence on the formation of the Russian Baptist church.
Grouped in Part III, “Adaptors,” are six essays:
- “Honor and Charity in the Church: Mennonites and the ‘Disciplinary Revolution’ of the Dutch Republic.” Troy Osborne offers evidence of ways that Dutch Mennonites used congregational discipline and finances to promote social order.
- “At the Margins and at the Center of Modern Expression: Reconsidering Anabaptist and Mennonite Confessions of Faith.” Karl Koop examines the activity and meaning of confessional writing among Dutch Mennonites in the 17th and 18th centuries.
- “New Ways of Old Paths?” ‘Ideas and Hints’ on the Education of Children by Antje Brons (1892).” Marion Kobelt-Groch reflects on pedagogical writing of Antje Brons, the volume’s sole essay to address gender issues.
- “Menno in the KZ or Münster Resurrected: Mennonites and National Socialism – Historiography and Open Questions.” John D. Thiesen tracks general and Mennonite historiography of the Nazi period. Subsequent writing and conferences have begun to address some of the questions considered “open” in 2010.
- “Reception of the ‘Two Kingdoms Doctrine’ as a Key to Understanding Protestant Responses to National Socialism in Germany.” Jeremy Koop contrasts responses to National Socialism among theologians Emanuel Hirsch, Karl Barth, and Benjamin H. Unruh.
- “Utopias of Ash: Galician Mennonites and the Second Polish Republic.” James Regier provides a solid overview of the 150-year history of Mennonites in Galicia with focus on the nature of the settlement after World War I.
As in most collections of conference papers, there is noticeable variation in strength and depth of individual research. The quality of translations of contributions from presenters whose native language is not English ranges from good to somewhat tedious. A very welcome feature in this volume is an index – something often not provided when publishing conference proceedings.