History: The ‘Anabaptists’ who weren’t

Jan 30, 2017 by

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Before the Radical Reformation and before the Protestant Reformation were the Waldensians. While Protestant Christianity celebrates its 500th anniversary in 2017 and Anabaptists prepare to do likewise in eight years, those who sought to reform the church centuries before the Reformation also deserve recognition. For Mennonites and Amish, that includes the Waldensians, although in a paradoxical way.

A Martyrs Mirror illustration depicts the martyrdom of a Waldensian minister and his wife, Dulcinus and Margaret, at Novara, Italy, in 1308.

A Martyrs Mirror illustration depicts the martyrdom of a Waldensian minister and his wife, Dulcinus and Margaret, at Novara, Italy, in 1308.

The Waldensians originated about 1173 in France when Peter Waldo, a wealthy businessman in Lyon, assumed a life of preaching and poverty. He soon attracted followers and actively spread their message of the centrality of Scripture and simple, ethical living. The Roman Catholic Church excommunicated them in 1184 for operating beyond the church’s purview, and they were persecuted for centuries.

After Martin Luther started the Reformation, the Waldensians joined the Reformed wing led by John Calvin of Geneva. Today churches are found in Italy, Argentina and Uruguay. The largest group of Waldensians in the United States is in North Carolina, where they have merged with Presbyterians.

Some of the similarities between the Anabaptist and Waldensian movements of the 16th and 17th centuries are notable. Both existed outside of the accepted Christian churches of the times and subsequently experienced great hardship. The Waldensian emphases on the Bible, biblical living and evangelism presaged the Anabaptists. The Waldensians also upheld nonviolence in their early years.

Dutch Mennonite Thieleman van Braght connected the Anabaptists and Waldensians in his book Martyrs Mirror, first published in 1660. He refers to Anabaptism’s early leaders as descendants of Peter Waldo and devotes much of the first section, covering the first through the 15th centuries, to the Waldensians, even calling them Anabaptists, though they never rejected infant baptism.

Van Braght wrote Martyrs Mirror to warn the church of the dangers of worldliness by drawing on its heritage of martyrdom. In doing so, however, he had another goal: distance true Anabaptism from the violence and immorality of the Münster uprising, which had tainted the movement. The pietistic Waldensians offered that opportunity.

Van Braght’s thesis has since been refuted, and current understandings place Anabaptism’s origins solidly in the context of the Reformation, not in any preceding movements or developments. Nevertheless, the Waldensian connection was accepted, or at least not contested, well into the 19th century.

In Indiana, influential Amish Mennonite bishop Jonas D. Troyer’s belief in the Waldensian connection is evident in the congregations he oversaw. In 1863, the deed for the property for what became Clinton Frame Mennonite Church east of Goshen was made out to the Waldentz Church. When Troyer and others later relocated to start a short-lived congregation about 50 miles to the southwest, the meetinghouse and cemetery were deeded to the Waldenzer Church.

John S. Coffman, the prominent “Old” Mennonite evangelist and preacher of the late 19th century, contended that Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz and company taught doctrine inherited from the Waldensians. Following a visit to the Waldensian community in North Carolina, he wrote, “There are many things which they have in common with us that show conclusively that they are of the same people with us in faith and practice.”

The Waldensian thesis received its greatest affirmation in the 1880s from a German archivist and church historian. Ludwig Keller was not a Mennonite but took great scholarly interest in their history and actively promoted the connection between the two groups. Russian Mennonite Brethren historian P.M. Friesen reiterated it in his landmark 1911 book, Die Alt-Evangelische Mennonitische Brüderschaft in Russland (1789-1910). J.S. Hartzler and Daniel Kauffman also supported the thesis in their 1905 Mennonite Church History.

By then, however, skepticism had started rumbling in both Europe and North America. C. Henry Smith became interested on Anabaptism’s origins, including the Waldensian link, as a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the first decade of the 20th century. Smith would become the first great American Mennonite historian and a longtime professor at Bluffton University. His work on the early years of the Anabaptist movement would profoundly reshape its self-understanding.

Smith uncovered no connection between the Anabaptists and Waldensians. “There are too many weak links in the chain of evidence that would trace the one entirely to the other,” he wrote in his classic The Story of the Mennonites, first published in 1941. He noted the fact that no early leaders came from the Waldensians and attributed the similarities in belief to reading the same Bible, which had become increasingly available with the development of the printing press.

Instead, Smith discovered dozens of early groups across Europe that he identified as Anabaptist, ranging from spiritual mystics to apocalyptic prophets to violent revolutionaries. They were all rooted in the religious, political and social upheaval of the Reformation. Over its first several decades, the movement would go through a sorting-out process and emerge as principled, nonviolent biblicists who stressed discipleship and a willingness to suffer for the cause of Christ, with Menno Simons as the primary catalyst.

While the Waldensian thesis didn’t immediately die out in the wake of Smith’s scholarship, it’s now part of Anabaptist history only because the Waldensians aren’t really part of it. It’s a historical paradox.

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

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