Bad history perpetuates animosity

Jan 3, 2015 by

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Philipp Melancthon called Anabaptists “irreligious fanatics and murderous revolutionaries, enemies of temporal government, however peaceful they may seem.”

“To write against all the false opinions and errors of the Anabaptists should be a thing too long and such a bottomless pit as I could not well come out of,” wrote the Protestant reformer John Calvin (1509-1564).

“To write against all the false opinions and errors of the Anabaptists should be a thing too long and such a bottomless pit as I could not well come out of,” wrote the Protestant reformer John Calvin (1509-1564).

Johann Casimir said the movement spread an “offensive, poisonous, treacherous doctrine, harmful to eternal and temporal welfare.”

Francis Nigel Lee called Anabaptists “re-emergent variants of neo-paganized sub-Christian early-medieval and mid-medieval heresies.”

Melancthon, a colleague of Martin Luther, penned his criticism in 1530.

Palatinate ruler Casimir made his statement as part of a 1583 mandate against unrepentant Anabaptists.

Lee, meanwhile, wrote his condemnation much later — less than two decades ago.

A college and seminary professor who died in 2011, F.N. Lee was one of the most venomous members of a movement of extreme Calvinists, part of the Reformed movement inaugurated by Ulrich Zwingli. Most other descendants of Anabaptism’s early foes have left behind their antipathy and now have positive relations with Mennonites. But Lee’s co-religionists are still living in the 16th and 17th centuries. As a result, they illustrate how not to do history.

This breed of Calvinists vociferously holds to the words of early leaders such as Zwingli, John Calvin and John Knox and to faith statements of the era, as if they were the full revelation of the Reformed faith. Historical and theological developments since then have little merit.

Such an approach means a vehement anti-Anabaptism, since that’s what the founders believed.

Such a perspective was understandable in the 1500s and 1600s. Fledgling Anabaptism was a strange mix of religious and political rebels. Today’s adherents disavow some of them, such as Münster, or take them with a grain of salt, such as Menno Simons’ prediction of the end times.

Anabaptism has matured over the centuries — something the critics ignore as they focus on the discredited, the anomalies and the most radical.

For example, Lee staunchly opposed believers baptism on theological grounds but also because a couple of early Anabaptists claimed that candidates should wait until they are 30 years old, since that’s how old Jesus was when he was baptized.

Lee also slams Anabaptists as sexually immoral because of one person’s infidelity, polygamy among some fringe groups and an Amsterdam group that ran around in the buff proclaiming the “naked truth” of Jesus Christ.

To say such beliefs and conduct is not and never has been normative for the Anabaptist faith would be a monumental understatement.

But the extreme Calvinists don’t try to understand Anabaptism. Instead, they rely almost exclusively on Zwingli, Calvin and company.

A 1997 article by Greg L. Price presents the Anabaptist position on salvation by citing not Menno Simons or Michael Sattler but four Calvinist writers, only one of whom lived after 1893. While their views are important, Price needs to find out for himself what the Anabaptists believed and not just take someone else’s word for it. As a reputable Reformed scholar, Mirjam van Veet of the Free University of Amsterdam, has pointed out, just because John Calvin said something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true.

Lee, who claimed seven doctorates, did the same thing as Price. He cites only five Anabaptist or Mennonite works in his 60,000-word article “The Anabaptists and Their Stepchildren.” (Those stepchildren, according to Lee, include Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and Moonies.) Another writer, Reg Barrow, has no such sources in his 12,000-word diatribe blaming Anabaptists for pornography because of their stance on the separation of church and state.

Admittedly, today’s Mennonites should feel no threat from the extreme Calvinists. In fact, their criticisms are often laughable. But they underscore how bad history can be manipulated to fit preconceived ideas and continue to fuel animosities. That is regrettable for people of a faith built on truth and love.

Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind.

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