A mystery in the history of Anabaptists

A mystery in the history of Anabaptists August 31, 2012

Nicholas C. DiDonato

Amish buggy

The attitudes of Anabaptist Christians toward violence have created quite a mystery for historians. On the one hand, some Anabaptists embraced extreme pacifism, renouncing violence altogether (for example, Quakers and Mennonites). On the other hand, some Anabaptist congregations embraced an opposite extreme: violence as a means to overthrow the establishment and create a theocracy. How could a tent seemingly as small as Anabaptism cover such contrasting ideologies?

Anabaptists, a collection of Protestant Christian groups that include today’s Quakers, Amish, and Mennonites, are most often distinguished from other Christian sects by their unconventional view that baptism requires the conscious consent of the one being baptized. Historically, this meant that people who had been baptized as children had to be baptized again as adults, giving rise to the name “Anabaptist” (“ana” is Greek for “once more”). Because of their stance on infant baptism and other issues, Anabaptists became distanced from the Reformation, building a culture that at times deliberately scorned the norm. For instance, the Quakers tied their hats to their heads because the nobility expected commoners to remove their hats in the presence of a noble, and the Quakers disagreed.

Anabaptists continue to practice what they believe is right regardless of fashion, but one of their stereotypical beliefs – the value of pacifism – seems problematic when held up to the light of Anabaptist history. For instance, in the 1530s a group of radical Anabaptists led a bloody rebellion in the German city of Münster. But many of today’s most well-known Anabaptist groups – including the Mennonites and American Quakers – emphasize non-violence and peace. Why have some groups of Anabaptists embraced pacifism, while others have wielded arms in the name of their beliefs?

Reformation historians have debated this puzzle for centuries. Unfortunately, they have not reached a consensus on whether violence was prompted by the inherited characteristics of the various Anabaptist groups, or by the horizontal influence of firebrand preachers hawking a violent ideology to receptive audiences. The debate seems intractable using the documentary resources and methods familiar to historians.

Can scientific techniques offer anything to historians on this question? Luke J. Matthews (Harvard University) and his fellow researchers believe that science can open up new and compelling lines of evidence and argument to guide historical interpretation of the reasons for the emergence of violence among some Anabaptists. Using methods from evolutionary biology and network analysis, Matthews et al. found that violent ideology stems more from congregationally inherited political and economic factors than from theological ones, and that violence spreads more vertically through congregational lineages than through horizontal influence between people who knew one another.

The researchers generated three data sets to guide their investigations. One is the historical tree of sixteenth-century Anabaptist congregational splits and relationships, which is akin to a tree of related plant or animal species. The tree included Anabaptist groups such as the Swiss Brethren, Mennonites, Hutterites, Staff Bearers, and English Anabaptists.

The second dataset is a matrix of congregational characteristics, with dozens of characteristics specified for each congregation on the basis of mainstream historical literature about the Anabaptists. The first two datasets jointly permit the use of phylogenetic techniques from evolutionary biology, which are particularly well-suited for evaluating the strength of vertical trait transmission.

A third dataset is a matrix indicating which prominent Anabaptist leaders knew one another. This allows for the use of network analysis techniques to evaluate the stength of horizontal trait transmission.

These types of datasets and methods of analysis have not been employed by historians but there seems to be no reason not to use them, and Matthews’ study shows that they can generate powerfully compelling, statistically based insights into historical puzzles such as the one about Anabaptist pacifism and violence.

Using these datasets and methods, Matthews’s team considered a series of questions about how violence arose among certain Anabaptists groups. First, did attitudes toward violence spread horizontally across contemporaneous Anabaptist congregations? If true, then socially connected congregation leaders would have similar attitudes toward violence. Alternatively, did attitudes to violence spread vertically down through congregational lineages over time? If so, later congregations would inherit the attitudes of their forefathers and foremothers.

The study’s answer to the first question is that vertical transmission of beliefs about violence is much stronger than horizontal transmission.

Second, do attitudes toward matters other than violence spread horizontally across contemporaneous Anabaptist congregations more or less strongly than vertically along congregational lineages? Once again, vertical transmission of traits was stronger than horizontal transmission.

Interestingly enough, vertical transmission of traits unrelated to violence predicted violence better than the vertical trnsmission of violence within congregational lineages. Moreover, the best predicative model combined the answers to the first two questions. That is, both the inheritance of beliefs about violence and beliefs not about violence matter for predicting attitudes toward violence, and both types of vertical influence are far more significant than all horizontal influences. As such, the researchers conclude, “ideology advocating violence was typically inherited from parent congregations.”

At this point, the researchers were able to see that violence does not beget violence among Anabaptists, either horizontally by learning from parents and elders within a congregation, or horizontally by being persuaded to a violent ideology by charistmatic visiting preachers. Rather, something else, primarily vertically transmitted, produces violence generation after generation. The answer must be some inherited factor only indirectly linked to violence, but what exactly?

Could social isolation increase the likelihood that a congregation would advocate violence? What about the prevalence of religious schisms? Or congregations undergoing radical shifts in belief? The researchers found that none of those considerations helped to predict which Anabaptist groups adopted violence. So they were forced to postulate that congregationally inherited political and economic situations best explains the acceptance or rejection of violence.

Thus, the researchers ultimately conclude that:

religious violence does not arise from a group’s characteristic theological beliefs and practices. Congregations may inherit their attitudes toward violence from their parental congregation, but more likely congregations inherit these attitudes from their socio-economic circumstances.

While this may not completely close the book on the mystery of Anabaptist beliefs about violence, it at least indicates how interdisciplinary history is becoming. The question for professional historians is whether they will be willing to incorporate these new types of data and the associated methods into their study of complex historical phenomena.

For more, see “Cultural inheritance or cultural diffusion of religious violence? A quantitative case study of the Radical Reformation” in the journal Religion, Brain and Behavior.

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