The winners write history

Oct 25, 2015 by

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I was driving my 15-year-old to her orchestra rehearsal last night. It was one of those days where she had like a few hours at home to do her homework before she was off in another direction, so, on the drive, she was working on more homework, this time her AP European History work. The topic? The Reformation.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw two names: Ulrich Zwingli and Conrad Grebel. The first was larger with a whole box broken out to spend time on Zwingli’s views. The second was a heading on a paragraph, much smaller. I know both of those names from my own studies in church history so I recognized them right away. But I was pleasantly surprised to see Grebel’s name show up.

So, I asked my daughter, “Well, looks like there’s some stuff about the Anabaptists in your book. You talk about it in class?”

“Yeah, some. We didn’t spend much time on it. We did talk about the Münster rebellion and the stuff there. My teacher said that it was probably caused by hallucinogenic fungus. We didn’t talk much about it, though.”

The MennoNerd in me cried quietly. A whole tapestry of history with Anabaptists, Mennonites, whole movements of people that changed society, etc., relegated to a few paragraphs and a bunch of folks doing violent things while high on mushrooms. That made me sad. But honestly, I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, it’s the winners who write history.

Anabaptist, as a term, was a label that the radical movements of the reformation in Europe were given by their enemies. Basically, anyone who was of a radical flavor who bucked the state churches and their practice of infant baptism coupled with state religion were labeled “Anabaptists” and condemned as both heretics and enemies of the state. Whether it is a monk turned weaver by the name of Michael Sattler, a defrocked priest and rebel preacher named Menno Simons, or a radical insurgent named Melchior Hoffman, they were all accused of being “Anabaptists” and prosecuted as such. Now, I know I’m simplifying things here a bit, but this is in essence what happened. And so, when Anabaptists are taught in the history books, all these groups are summed up in one group and we end up with a picture painted of the radical reformers as violent, bloodthirsty rebels bent on overthrowing the proper order of things, because, after all, even in the 16th and 17th century, sensationalism sells. And then, what follows, is that opponents of people who call themselves “Anabaptists” in the 21st century refer back to their history books, the books written by the “winners” of history, and call Anabaptists “cults” and “violent” and “dangerous heretics.”

But the thing about the Anabaptists who survived the Reformation and adopted the name for themselves is that they don’t aim to be “winners.” Just look at the story of Dirk Willems. In the end, he didn’t “win” by the world’s standards. Most of my Mennonite ancestors and family members don’t spend a lot of time “putting themselves forward” and making a big deal of themselves. The mindset continues today.

And, in truth, there is a good, Biblical, theological reason for this. Anabaptists and Mennonites take very seriously the Sermon on the Mount, specifically, the Beatitudes. So, values like meekness, humility, gentleness, etc. are values that are treasured and exercised. “Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” is a phrase that my grandparents used often to explain why they did what they did. We as Anabaptists don’t make a big deal of who we are. Our job is not to draw attention to ourselves, but to point people toward the kingdom and the one who is our king, Jesus. The rest of us are happy to fade into the background.

I could make a big deal to my daughter’s history teacher: “You need to cover the Anabaptists better. You need to make sure people know the whole truth.” I could write emails and even volunteer to go in and give a presentation. But, to be truthful, I’m satisfied with knowing one thing. My daughter knows better. My wife and I have taught her the broader history of the movement and she understands where we come from. Let the winners have their history books. Jesus is for losers. I’m fine with being a “loser” and letting Jesus shine all the more for it.

Robert Martin blogs thoughts, reflections and stories regarding theology and the Christian walk at The Abnormal Anabaptist, where a version of this post originally appeared.


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