It may seem far in the future, but church leaders have already begun planning the 500th- anniversary celebration, in 2025, of the first Anabaptist baptism. In fact, the festivities are set to start in early 2017, with a commemoration in Augsburg, Germany, of Martin Luther’s “Ninety-five Theses” and the launching of the Reformation five centuries ago.2 Following the example of German Lutherans, especially, who have already nearly finished a “Luther Decade” culminating next year, Anabaptist leaders are asking, “How should the global church commemorate a 500-year birthday?”3
Uninterrogated in this question, however, is whether Anabaptism really is 500 years old and, if so, whether we should be celebrating the milestone at all. Over the past year, I have had the privilege of attending two planning meetings for the upcoming celebrations – one in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and another in in Münster, Germany. These have been fascinating opportunities to discuss Anabaptist history, expanding forms of religious identity, and the changing demographics of an increasingly global church community. I affirm the commitment of those who have led the planning, including Mennonite World Conference’s sponsorship of a “Renewal Decade” leading up to 2027, the 500th anniversary of the Schleitheim Confession, an early statement of Anabaptist principles.
Yet at the same time, I find myself uneasy about several of the underlying assumptions of this project, as well as the debates it has generated. At core, I worry that the anniversary celebrations reinscribe a patriarchal, Eurocentric understanding of Anabaptism – one that reflects neither the interests of a majority of members of our congregations worldwide, nor the basic tenets of our Anabaptist faith. Tying our spiritual identity to the admittedly bold actions of a few long-deceased white men (how many 16th-century Anabaptist women can you name?) harkens to a rather old-fashioned mode of historical narration. Meanwhile, continuing to tout the European origins of our denomination risks reinforcing a problematic hierarchy of white, “ethnic” Anabaptists over the now more numerous members of color living across Asia, Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere.4
On one hand, it seems quite natural to celebrate 500 years of Anabaptism. When I was growing up in a Mennonite household in Kansas, I – like many around me – took for granted that Anabaptism had begun on January 21, 1525, the day that Conrad Grebel and George Blaurock performed the first adult baptisms of the Reformation in Zurich. This was a story frequently told in Mennonite history books or explained in Sunday school class. The tale ran something like this: Catholicism, the predominant form of Christianity for more than a thousand years, had become corrupt and dysfunctional. During the early 16th century, Protestant reformers like Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli had proposed modest changes to church structure and practice that, in turn, galvanized a second, more radical wave of reformers, known as Anabaptists, to promote Biblical values like discipleship, separation from the world, and nonresistance.5
One problem with this formulation, of course, is that movements rarely have discrete starting moments. Grebel, Blaurock, and their compatriots had been reading and discussing radical texts well before they began baptizing adults. And over the following years, Anabaptism continued to change and borrow from external traditions. To take the most obvious example: there is a reason we do not call ourselves Grebelites. The Frisian priest Menno Simons was far more influential among early Anabaptists as well as among their detractors, who first coined the term Mennists and, eventually, Mennonites. Yet Menno did not convert from Catholicism until 1536, and his brand of Anabaptism was different in many ways from those that had come before. By his day, some extremist adherents to the faith were already known for running about in the nude, while the radical Münsterites had taken an entire city by arms, forcibly baptized its townsfolk, and introduced polygamy.6
Some historians have for decades argued against a “monogenesis” interpretation of Anabaptist origins. Rather than holding that the movement sprang from a few drops of water in a Zurich household, these authors have advanced a theory of “polygenesis,” arguing that it represented a diverse set of actors from various theological traditions who joined and altered the faith at different times.7 This is in fact not a particularly new idea; as far back as the 19th century, Anabaptist writers traced the history of their denomination to a number of reformers across central Europe who had begun espousing similar theologies at roughly the same time. In 1888, for example, the Prussian pastor and chronicler Hermann Mannhardt posited that the first Anabaptists “emerged at the same time in the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland,” approximately between 1526 and 1530.8
But whether we date Anabaptism to 1525, 1536, or any other point, makes – it seems to me – relatively little difference. The arguments in favor of any given year tend to shift depending on where one places emphasis, usually reflecting rather arcane debates about theological inheritance and the relative importance of particular historical figures. The end effect is often the same: namely, to reinscribe Anabaptism as a (more or less) coherent tradition emanating from (more or less) the beginning of the Reformation. There is undoubtedly some truth to this telling. After all, there was no significant religious movement calling itself Anabaptist, let alone Mennonite, prior to the 16th century. And yet, this is also by no means the only way that Anabaptists, over the past five centuries, have chosen to narrate their past.
For many years, a more prominent origin story held that Anabaptism was not a new movement at all. Rather than emerging well after the events described in the New Testament, it supposedly represented a continuation of the original apostolic church, established by Jesus. In 1660, the Dordrecht elder Thieleman van Braght opened his famous Martyrs Mirror with the assertion that Anabaptists “existed during the whole time of the gospel,” and that over the long centuries, they had been forced “to conceal themselves like the innocent dove in the clefts of rocks and hollow trees, to be secure from the talon of the hawk.”9 Known as the thesis of “apostolic succession,” this view held that since the time of Emperor Constantine – who made Catholicism the Roman state church in the 4th century – Anabaptist principles had been kept alive by small bands of true believers. Dubbed “heretics” by Catholic authorities and hunted by the Inquisition, it was not until the 16th century that these hidden congregations once again came into the open.10
During van Braght’s day, claims of apostolic succession would have fulfilled two significant functions. First, they served to distance contemporary Mennonites from the violent Münsterites of a century earlier, whose bloody exploits continued to haunt a continent still riven by religious conflict. The first Anabaptists “had not their origin from the sect of Munster,” van Braght insisted.11 (Interestingly, he was not averse to assigning blame for the fiasco, which he laid at Luther’s door.) Anabaptism, at least according to this revisionist Mennonite, had been corrupted, not inspired, by Münsterite leaders like Jan van Leiden. And since the faith had not emanated from their misdeeds, it was therefore neither an inherently imperialist nor an incorrigibly chiliastic tradition.
Second, and perhaps more relevant for our own context, the idea of apostolic succession allowed writers like van Braght to argue that their faith had not simply been invented in the relatively recent past. Rather than a sectarian offshoot of Christianity, it allegedly represented a continuation or at least a renewal of Jesus Christ’s original gospel. Indeed, this may be closer to how many 16th-century Anabaptists understood their faith. They may have been less inclined to see themselves as instigators of a new historical epoch, than as adherents to an essentially anti-historical doctrine. Consider the words of Menno: “This, I say, is our foundation, and, by the grace of God, it will ever remain our foundation, for we truly know and confess that it is the invincible word and truth of the Lord; therefore we testify before you and before all the world that we do not agree with those who teach and institute a dead faith, which they gather from profane history.”12
Reformulating this sentiment for the 21st century, an interpreter of Menno might ask: is our primary obligation not to God and to the Word? And if so, does it seem incongruous to place our “anniversary,” “emergence,” or “birthday” in the 16th century – rather than 1,500 years earlier? What does the impulse to celebrate Anabaptism’s 16th-century origins tell us about the integrity of our own faith, the nature of our commitments? Following this line of thought, we might even wonder if our emphasis on the historical origins of Anabaptism per se, recapitulates the very kind of earthly idolatry that thinkers like Conrad Grebel, George Blaurock, and Menno Simons sought to escape. How kindly would these men take to being the objects of historical commemoration? Is it worth considering the possibility that by remembering them at all, we do them a disservice?
It may be useful for us to ask when and why Anabaptists began identifying the Reformation as their point of origin. If by this we mean the theory of “monogenesis” – referring to January 21, 1525 – then the answer has to be: surprisingly recently. Not until the 20th century was this a widely accepted interpretation of the denomination’s founding. Earlier accounts composed by outsiders were frequently murky. “Their history appears not to have been sufficiently well researched,” began one 1786 History of the Mennonites. “More has been written against the Mennonites than about them.”13 As for Anabaptists themselves, chroniclers within the tradition tended well into the 19th century, both in Europe and North America, to open their narratives with the life of Jesus. “[O]ur faith conforms with the teachings of the Lord and his apostles,” Bishop Benjamin Eby of Canada explained in 1841, “and… our faith and community have persisted from the time of the apostles through all centuries until the present day.”14
Nevertheless, recent articles dating the denomination’s founding to 1525 have invoked tradition by way of justification. Planners of the 500th-anniversary celebration have in particular connected upcoming festivities to the establishment the first Mennonite World Conference in 1925.15 Convened nearly 100 years ago, its primary purpose was to honor Anabaptism’s 400th jubilee. Yet despite being portrayed as a historic precedent, it may bear noting that Mennonite World Conference is, historically speaking, a young organization – it began only in 1925. The idea of hosting a global assembly on a given centennial of the faith’s founding was, at least the last time around, quite novel. Never before had leaders from multiple continents gathered to celebrate, in addition to their common religious commitments, the denomination itself.16
The first Mennonite World Conference was held in northern Switzerland, in the cities of Basel and Zurich “on the soil where the confession was born,” as one participant put it.17 Some 90 women and men, representing congregations in France, Germany, Russia, Switzerland, and the United States attended. Many considered their arrival a “return” to Anabaptism’s birth place, the homeland of their spiritual and often biological ancestors. The conference thus functioned as an elaborately choreographed pageant of diasporic homecoming, a reversal in miniature of the great dispersion of Anabaptists from central Europe outward across the earth, that contemporaries often ascribed to political and economic persecution. In his initial 1924 conference proposal, pastor Christian Neff of southern Germany, the main organizer of the event, told the new creation myth: “Next year, our denomination will be 400 years old. On January 25 [sic], 1525 the first adult baptism occurred in Zurich. Thus the break with Zwingli’s church was irrevocably made, and the denomination of the Anabaptists successfully founded.”18
Admittedly, this was not the first centennial – nor even the first quatercentennial – sponsored by European Mennonites. In 1892, congregations in Germany and the Netherlands had collaborated to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Menno Simons’ birth, now thought to have occurred in 1496 (the fact that the exact dates of both the Zurich baptisms and Menno’s birth have been so inexactly remembered highlights the relative arbitrariness of their selection as anchors of historical significance). Held on a Sunday in November, the “Menno Festival” was promoted as an event to be celebrated in every Mennonite congregation around the world. This ambitious goal met with only partial success, although groups as far away as Imperial Russia and the United States did exhibit modest support.19
The 1892 “Menno Festival” reflected a growing interest in commemorative celebrations on the part of European Christians generally. Mennonite planners in fact patterned their event on a much larger and more widely advertised “Luther Festival” of 1883, intended likewise to coincide with that reformer’s 400th birthday. Its Mennonite emulators were not above coordinating with non-Anabaptist Christians – they scheduled their own “Menno Festival” for the same date as Lutherans’ annual “Reformation Sunday.”20 But even these efforts had their predecessors. Already in 1861, some European Mennonites had discussed how best to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Menno’s death. And a century before that, congregations in the Netherlands had observed its 200th jubilee.21 Nor, increasingly, was it unusual for some progressive communities to celebrate the 50th anniversary, say, of the construction of a church building or the 25th year of a preacher’s tenure in office.22
What made the 1925 Mennonite World Conference different was its focus on Anabaptism as a denomination. Rather than following the life cycle of a historic figure like Menno, planners of this 20th-century commemoration identified their faith as a distinct form of Christianity that was worthy of honor in its own right. They did borrow from earlier, hero-figure traditions, speaking of Anabaptism as a kind of metaphorical person – an entity that could be “born” and subsequently mature. The denomination thus appeared as a biological organism, similar to larger “nations” or “races,” of which celebrants were themselves a part. Equally unprecedented was the event’s emphasis on place. While earlier commemorations, like the 1892 “Menno Festival” had followed a decentered model, occurring simultaneously in different worship houses spread across multiple countries, World Conference organizers encouraged denominational representatives to travel “back” to a single region of genesis.23
A further distinction of the 1925 event was its emphasis on martyrdom. Anabaptist writers had, of course, invoked the early martyrs of their denomination for years – van Braght’s Martyrs Mirror being the most famous example. Yet by the early 20th century, church leaders had begun foregrounding this history in a new way. Particularly in Germany, interest in martyr narratives surged.24 During the First World War, some patriotic Mennonites, hoping their coreligionists would fight for king and fatherland, urged young men to serve their nation with the honor befitting the “martyrs’ blood, with which our history is written.” These militarists appropriated the memories of thousands of early Anabaptist martyrs to justify mass warfare. “Are we also willing to perform such sacrifices?” one pastor asked. “Are we worthy of our forefathers?”25
It was Germany’s defeat at the end of the First World War that truly sparked a martyrological renaissance. Not just Mennonites, but millions of German citizens lamented the collapse of the Central Powers’ war effort and the punitive terms of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Across Europe, martyr narratives saw an uptick among groups asserting victimhood, most famously among fascist and proto-fascist groups like the German Freikorps and Mussolini’s Black Shirts.26 Mennonites in Germany particularly connected their long history of oppression to the fate of some 100,000 coreligionists in the new Soviet Union, who since 1917 had come under the rule of atheist Bolshevism.27
Reformulating martyr stories for their 20th-century context, Mennonite writers also drew on rising notions of genetic inheritance and biological racism. Asserting that all members of the denomination were united – both spatially across the surface of the globe and also chronologically throughout time – by the bonds of blood, they suggested that the transmission of these humors could be traced “with genealogical exactitude” from the Anabaptists of the 16th century “down to our congregations in the present.”28 At a very literal level, many believed that “the blood of martyrs flows even in our veins.”29 Such logic lay at the heart of the first Mennonite World Conference. “During the time of persecution,” Christian Neff asked of potential attendees, “how many thousands of our martyrs testified through their blood on the rack, scaffold, and pyre? In quieter times, hundreds of thousands received strength from this and lived in loyal discipleship of Jesus as the quiet in the land. Their continuity is undeniable. Today, we too….want to recognize this and to impress it upon our children and our children’s children.”30
In the context of Anabaptism’s alleged 400th jubilee, Mennonites in Germany published an unprecedented volume of martyrological literature.31 Especially in the years after 1925, a steady stream of death-day anniversaries allowed denominational periodicals to publish obituary after obituary, each 400 years after the fact. Romanticized accounts of drownings, burnings, and impalements continued to evoke militarist themes of sacrifice, manhood, blood, and glorious death. “There on the waters of the Limmat, a ship glides out toward the Lake of Zurich,” began one account of the Reformation’s first Anabaptist martyr. “The sun colors the glittering waves and dips the distant snow-covered Alps in a luminous gold. Fettered, a noble citizen of Zurich stands in the swaying boat; yet his soul rises free to God. It is Felix Manz. Listen! He is singing his death song!”32
This new martyrological leitmotif did not go unchallenged. Perhaps its harshest critic was the Russian-born novelist Hans Harder, who eventually left the church at least in part over the issue. “I am quite satisfied with my departure from the club of the dying,” he wrote in 1935, half playfully, to a fellow expatriate in Germany. “I am a born Mennonite; my exit is motivated by the general betrayal of themselves by the Mennonites.” In Harder’s estimation, the emphasis on martyrdom that had continued since the first Mennonite World Conference was “pure love of cadavers.” Church leaders and historians had “raped the dead,” he continued; they had “cynically mocked the first martyrs of Zurich…. And all this is done in the name of Mennonites. This is anti-Christian, when one in the name of the right belief adds commentary to the text, raises traditions beside the Bible.”33
Harder’s critique echoed a longstanding uneasiness among some Anabaptists for the ostentation of worldly festival making. During the 19th century, conservative Mennonites in southern Germany, especially, had questioned a rising interest among their more progressive coreligionists for the figure of Menno Simons. “Was Menno crucified for you?” the Badenese elder Christian Schmutz asked with rhetorical disdain. “Or are you baptized in Menno’s name?”34 Particularly concerning was the raising of a “Menno Simons Monument” in the reformer’s hometown of Witmarsum in the 1870s, as well as the production of commemorative medallions and other graven images that, traditionalists believed, strayed perilously close to the idolatrous.35 In 1892, an entire conference of Mennonites in southern Germany refused to participate in the “Menno Festival.” Warning against the “mimicry of the national and churchly festivals and erection of monuments,” conservatives eschewed what they considered “an indecent veneration of the human spirit and homage to the spirit of the times.”36
I wonder how figures like Hans Harder or Christian Schmutz might respond to present-day plans for celebrating Anabaptism’s 500th anniversary. Would they offer a kinder interpretation now than they did in their own contexts? My intention is not to lionize either man – to suggest that they bear some eternal wisdom to us across the ages. Schmutz was a hardline traditionalist, deeply patriarchal and opposed to ecumenicism. And Harder, three generations later, served as an SS officer during the Second World War. These men would have loved little about each other, except perhaps the abstract commitment of each to the fundamentals of Anabaptism. And given that these would have been understood so differently by each man, Harder and Schmutz might even have rejected this affinity – based on Mennonite culture rather than Christian agreement – as a kind of blasphemy.
My own sympathies lie closer to the worldview of the late Vincent Harding, African-American theologian, church leader, and civil rights activist. Speaking in 1967 to the 8th Mennonite World Conference in Amsterdam, Harding admonished his coreligionists for their self-absorption in the face of global imperialism and racial injustice. Quoting passages from W.E.B. DuBois, Nelson Mandela, South Vietnam’s National Liberation Front, the Mozambican Liberation Front, Latin American liberation theology, and U.S. Black Power leaders, he charged that “most of us who go by the name of Mennonite know – and often care – very little about the explosive worlds of color and revolution, especially as these worlds have developed since 1945.” In contrast to quiescent interpretations of the Reformation, politically selective nonresistance, and navel-gazing Mennonite heritage tours, Harding held up these prophetic writers as well as the millions of women, men, and children across the world whose suffering they aimed to alleviate. “These are the voices of revolution,” he informed the Amsterdam assembly, “and as they end, it would appear that the blood of a Roman Catholic revolutionary priest cries out from the ground to all the safe Mennonites of the world.”37
Like Harding, I am opposed neither to reevaluating the role of Menno Simons and other 16th-century Anabaptists nor to welcoming Mennonite World Conference as an important venue for change within the church. It would be far too simplistic to suggest that current “Renewal Decade” plans directly mirror either the 1925 meeting in Switzerland or the 1892 “Menno Festival.” Late 19th-century commemoration planners in Germany sought to raise the profile of a faith whose members had long been known as “the quiet in the land,” competing with Lutherans and others to influence the religious course of a fledgling nation-state. Interwar organizers, by contrast, still reeled from the horrors of the First World War. Economic crises loomed both ahead and behind, while in the Soviet Union, one of the denomination’s largest branches seemed to face potential annihilation. Little wonder that the language of nationalism, diasporic homecoming, and martyrdom held mesmerizing power.
I do believe, however, that our choices should be made with full knowledge of what has come before. It is important to ask: in what ways does our commemorative impulse stem from nationalist or ecclesial festivals of the late 19th century; to what extent do the motivations of the 1920s continue to resonate in the 21st century? The notion that Anabaptism is a singular, person-like entity with a “monogenetic” or even “polygenetic” origin in the Reformation and a 500-year backstory is not a self-evident truth, free of ideological baggage. It is bound up with a form of history telling centered around great white men. It posits Europe as the birthplace of a faith now held primarily by non-Europeans. It portrays white, “ethnic” Mennonites as members of a historically persecuted minority – even when most live extremely privileged lives. And it has been closely associated with both militarism and scientific racism.
Further, I believe that our decisions will be strengthened by listening to the debates of the past – to both the proponents and the critics of those actions we wish to emulate. Mennonite festival-makers have historically been adept at both anticipating and inoculating against critiques of their worldliness. In 1892, “Menno Festival” planners made sure to emphasize the simplicity of their undertaking – often contrasted to the supposed decadence of Lutheran and Catholic commemorations – and they consistently went out of their way to deemphasize Menno’s historical role, noting that he was merely a humble servant of God, not Anabaptism’s founder.38 Today, organizers of Mennonite World Conference’s “Renewal Decade” have similarly preempted critiques of eurocentrism. While their first event will take place in Germany, subsequent festivities are scheduled to occur on each continent, making this the first truly global multi-centennial celebration of Anabaptist peoplehood.
And yet, the commemoration’s temporal designation – 500 years – continues to emphasize Europe and the Reformation as the true source of Anabaptism. Such framing tends to suggest to European Mennonites and other white, “ethnic” Mennonites who believe themselves descended from the first Anabaptists of the Reformation, that they are older, more spiritually mature members of the faith – especially compared to relative latecomers of color. If few would actually articulate this logic so blatantly, chronological emphasis on the Reformation nevertheless makes it implicit. I think it is no accident that at both of the planning meetings for the 500th anniversary that I attended, older white men constituted the overwhelming majority of participants. What better way for this demographic to protect its power in the face of an increasingly diverse church than to spend a decade remembering an era when all members had white skin?
This then is my fear: that the upcoming “Renewal Decade” will serve an agenda – predominantly unspoken, perhaps predominantly unacknowledged – of “ethnic” Mennonite supremacy. I fear that it will serve to render women and people of color invisible, and that it will once again raise up the heroes and the martyrs that our denomination’s historical establishment has for more than a century been all too successful at popularizing.39 Over the past 50 years, our church has made incredible strides toward racial justice and the inclusion of diverse identities. Most Anabaptists are well past the naked racism so prominent during the 1920s, the era of our last centennial celebration. But there is still much work left to do. We cannot afford a step backwards – we cannot afford a decade dedicated to the white martyrs of the Reformation.40
As a historian and as a Christian, I am by no means opposed to commemorative celebrations. Our lives are woven together by the threads of collective memories; our faith is bound in their knots. When we gather in our churches to celebrate communion, we recall Jesus’ words: “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” These are the instructions of the Messiah, a template for joyous loving. Indeed, our entire Christian calendar revolves around religious holidays, during which we are invited to strengthen our fellowship and to renew our commitment to Christ.
I would like conclude by suggesting two alternative modes of celebrating our upcoming “Renewal Decade.” First, rather than counting our age in earthly time, we could imagine our faith as a kind of trans-historical community. Emphasizing prayer, otherworldliness, and spirituality, this could be a form of celebration that looks not back through time but beyond it. Transcendence is itself a longstanding characteristic of Anabaptist thought. Rethinking worldliness might allow us to reconnect with older forms of faith and worship within our denomination – a stance potentially of interest to conservative groups, such as the more than 100,000 Russlanddeutsche Anabaptists in Germany who have not yet joined Mennonite World Conference – while also appealing to a rapidly growing contingent of charismatics. It could also help us envision new, creative methods of building just peace in our world, as well as new ways of walking with God.41
A second alternative: rather than thinking of Anabaptism as a single tradition, emanating from 16th-century Europe, we could celebrate it as a growing, evolving, and polyvalent entity that is constantly being reinvented in different places around the world. This may be one way of foregrounding the experiences and contributions of the many individuals and groups that make up our corporate body – a majority of whom live in the global South and are people of color. Thus we could trace the birth of Anabaptism – or more accurately, one birth of Anabaptism – to the establishment of the first Mennonite congregation in Indonesia during the 1850s; we could trace it to the formation of South Korea’s Anabaptist community just a few years ago; to the emergence of groups like Pink Menno and the Brethren Mennonite Council on LGBT Interests; and also to each new baptism.
Our faith is neither so tired that we need a centennial to celebrate it, nor is it so weak that we need constantly make reference to a lost golden age. My hope is that we can remember the meaning some Anabaptists have found in proclaiming our church 500 years old, without ourselves being bound by this number.42 I pray that we may acknowledge it with grace, and that we move beyond it with abundance. Let us, in the words of the Apostle Paul, be transformed by the renewing of our minds.