Opinion: Late for the 500th birthday party

Sep 24, 2018 by

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A new direction and a different interpretation are mother’s milk to the historian. At times this is helpful. At other times, not so much.

Anabaptism, defined from its inception by its enemies, more recently came to be understood in terms of its followers’ courageous stand in the 16th century. That view has been challenged in its own ranks by some who have called those believers less than responsible, inflexible in dealing with their adversaries and not really what they were cracked up to be.

This, along with the passage of time, has conspired to diminish what was accomplished nearly 500 years ago and to relativize when it happened. The date was Jan. 21, 1525, when the first Anabaptist baptisms took place in Zurich, Switzerland. The announcement was of a separation of powers — the divorce of church from state — that was arguably of greater consequence than Martin Luther’s earlier posting at a church in northern Germany, an act that mostly concerned corruption in the state church.

With the half-millennium milestone approaching, there comes the opportunity to remember and reinforce the importance of that event when a group of believers insisted there was a higher authority than the Zurich city council. The stand is hardly a provincial one. It translates into every culture in every location.

With the birthday event delayed by two years — according to Mennonite World Conference’s plans — the message is sent that what was crucial in the founding of a movement has been deposited in the relativity bin of its history.

What was accomplished by a small group, while on the run, with their insistence on baptism and the prerogatives of a congregation of believers, served as a forerunner of the separation of church and state and the free assembly of people of faith. This was set in motion on the winter evening in Zurich when the believers made their intentions clear.

Historian James Stayer notes that “modern Anabaptist scholarship has long agreed that Anabaptism began as a schism in the Swiss Reformation that built up to the first believers baptism in Zurich, Jan. 21, 1525.”

He adds: “If history is to be made relative to the interests of a contemporary religious denomination, there are no limits whatsoever to its plasticity (in setting an inaugural date).”

MWC spokesman John Roth concurred: “Although 1525 . . . might seem like the obvious date for a 500th anniversary, planners . . . settled instead on 1527 because it suggests a more complex story.”

Illustrating that complexity, Roth points to the Schleitheim Confession, written at a gathering north of Zurich after two years of a turbulent Anabaptism. That same year, a meeting to coordinate mission strategy, called the Martyrs Synod, was conducted in Augsburg, Germany. Most important, Roth says, the 18th MWC assembly is in 2027.

Observations about other inaugurals and anniversaries:

  • The first MWC assembly was held in 1925, 400 years after Anabaptism’s start.
  • Mennonite Central Committee was organized in 1920 in response to civil war and famine in Russia, but it developed its own complexities — refugee resettlement, Civilian Public Service administration, World War II relief in Europe, worldwide aid and development efforts. MCC will observe its centennial with reunions in 2020.
  • The Jerusalem Council, also concerned with mission strategy resulting from outreach to the Gentiles, did not sideline the significance of Pentecost.

The importance accorded to the MWC assembly in 2027, at a site to be determined in Africa, relates to the predominance of the Global South in the present-day Anabaptist church and a desire to avoid Eurocentrism in the celebration of an anniversary.

That effort was given an ironic twist in 2017, when MWC president J. Nelson Kraybill reported on an event in Augsburg leading up to Renewal 2027, the name given the anniversary fête:

“We stopped by a large house where 88 Anabaptists were discovered in an illegal meeting [on] Easter morning [in] 1528. People arrested were variously deported, tortured or executed. Someone from the Global North in our group expressed gratitude that Anabaptists no longer are being persecuted today. Immediately a brother from Ethiopia raised his hand and said, ‘Can I tell you about persecution today?’ ”

Paul Hershberger is a retired journalist from Goshen, Ind.


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