Ruth Tucker: The Anabaptists

Ruth Tucker: The Anabaptists September 3, 2019

So begins a new series on this blog by our friend Ruth Tucker. My favorite book on the Anabaptists is by Harold Bender, The Anabaptist Vision. What are your recommendations?

Now to Ruth:

Here is the first installment of a series on the history of Christianity. My thanks to Scot for jumping at the idea. There is no other field of history that features more crazy characters and captivating controversies. Thus, virtually all of my writing has found its footing in this discipline.

Anabaptists have gotten short shrift by church historians. One reason is that there is no well-known individual who singularly changed the course of the Christian faith—no Paul, no Augustine, no Aquinas, no Luther or Wesley. Yet the Anabaptists played an unparalleled role in the course of the Christian Church. They “gathered up the gains of earlier movements,” writes Rufus Jones, from “the spiritual soil out of which all nonconformist sects have sprung,” heralding “a new type of Christian society . . . an absolutely free and independent religious society . . . shaping both Church and State.”

Reason enough for me to break tradition and begin Part 2 of my church history text, not with the Magisterial Reformers but rather with the Anabaptists, the so-called Radical Reformers. Parade of Faith: A Biographical History of the Christian Church gives this movement its due. Martin Luther and other Reformers did not challenge the Constantinian and Catholic marriage of church and state.

Anabaptists paid dearly for their passionate—and radical—convictions. They are “hunted down like wild boars,” lamented German Reformer Katherine Zell. Indeed, my Reformed forbearers in Zwingli’s Zurich drowned them in the River Limmat. If they insist on being [re]baptized by immersion, we’ll baptize them, so the saying went. It was an act of utter viciousness, often referred to as the cruelest joke of the Reformation. Others were burned at the stake. Their crime: separating themselves from the state-sponsored church into a community of baptized believers.

Their sacrifice has led directly to the freedom of religion that democracies have taken for granted—a clear separation of church and state. But from the earliest days the very beneficiaries of this spiritual autonomy denied such freedom for others. The persecuted Puritans turned right around and persecuted those who did not follow their own strict beliefs and lifestyle demands. A “wofull” example is Anne Hutchinson.

Born in 1591, and a congregant of Puritan John Cotton, she immigrated from England to America with her family shortly after he did. Mother of fifteen, she was an accomplished midwife and an engaging Bible teacher—so popular that her followers became known as Hutchinsonians. The Puritan leaders, however, deemed her a heretic and exiled her from the Bay colony. Not long afterward in 1643, amid starvation and struggle on Long Island, she and several family members were killed by native Americans. This “wofull woman” would serve as a “heavie example” to all others who would challenge the separation of church and state.

Roger Williams, a dozen years younger than Hutchinson, was already making headlines as a heretic. 1635 the General Court issued an ominous warning: “Whereas Mr. Roger Williams, one of the Elders of the church of Salem, hath broached and divulged new and dangerous opinions against the authority of magistrates . . . it is, therefore, ordered that [he] shall depart out of this jurisdiction within six weeks.” Williams went on to pave the way for religious freedom in New England and is heralded today as having had a significant influence on the Bill of Rights.

Williams had his own prejudices, though never denying others religious liberty. He scorned the Quakers, and taunted the movement’s founder with a short volume entitled: George Fox digged out of his Burrowes—available on Amazon, $11.64. (Hurry, only 1 left in stock!) Actually, that’s the shortened title; it goes on: or an offer of Disputation on fourteen Proposals made this last Summer of 1672 unto G. Fox then present on Rode-Island in New England. Williams was always on the ready to spar on doctrinal matters, in this case his strong objection to the Quaker “inner light.”

Although Fox was the founder, the greatest thinker and organizer associated with the early Society of Friends was Margaret Fell, a wealthy widow who would become his wife. A colleague of mine once remarked to his students that she is famous only because she married George Fox. He went on to joke: This is one way you women can make a name for yourselves. Not really. Indeed, I find it bewildering that the highborn Margaret Fell would marry this rag-tag, smelly, eccentric, wandering prophet. Surely not to gain fame.

She was one of his converts, ten years older and outliving him by eleven years. Their marriage was marked by separations. Refusing to give obeisance to the King, they both endured long dungeon confinements. When not in prison, he traveled and she mentored converts at her Swarthmore estate. She was an early feminist, arguing in Women’s Speaking Justified for equality in marriage and ministry. Restrictions against women originated, she insisted, from “the bottomless pit” of hell. As was true of previous non-conformists, ministry was conducted by laity, including women.

The marriage of Fell and Fox was similar to that of Catherine and William Booth. The men were regarded as founders while their wives served as the brains of the movements. Like the Society of Friends, the Salvation Army (founded some two centuries later in 1865) was the beneficiary of the Anabaptist cry for separation of church and state. Catherine Booth, like Margaret Fell, defended women’s equality in marriage and ministry and wrote a book on the subject, setting the stage for female equality in the Salvation Army. Catherine preached to an upscale congregation while William preached to the poor, though they joined forces in all matters relating to social justice.

A contemporary of the early Quakers and the most famous of the non-conformists was John Bunyan. Like them, he was arrested for unauthorized preaching, leading to a prison sentence that afforded him time to write The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678).

Imprisonment for heresy died out in the West during the eighteenth century due in part to widely accepted Enlightenment ideals. John Wesley formed societies and freely traveled as did George Whitefield and Johnathan Edwards, followed by generations of evangelists and preachers whose independent ministries thrived without government interference. Alongside them was the modern missionary movement led by the Moravians (another early non-conformist movement), followed by tens of thousands of western missionaries and even greater numbers of native evangelists and Bible women—often facing persecution even as did early non-conformists.

Today most Evangelicals in America, inheritors of twentieth-century revivalism and para-church movements, have little in common with early Anabaptists or even present- day Mennonites who are known for a simple lifestyle, social justice, and non-violence. Indeed, their founder Menno Simons, would no doubt roll over in his grave if he knew what his legacy had brought about: Christian kitsch and consumerism, megachurches, politicized religiosity upholding a military-industrial complex—and the blurring of lines between church and state.



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