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Some Suggestions to Mennonite Historians

by Tsubasa Mine


First I will write the impact of the Anabaptist Vision by Harold S. Bender. Then I will briefly summarize other historians' points of views, and I show that Mennonite historians share fundamental concerns. Finally, I will suggest better way to deal history.


Provide the Vision

When Christians see the history, none can be objective. Rather, Christians try to see God's hand in human history. The Testaments, both Old and New, are exactly this kinds of books. Rather than Historie, objective and descriptive fashion, the authors of the Scripture depict Geschichte, or perhaps Heilsgeshichte, seeing God's saving act through human history. Though filled with failures and transgressions, the author of Hebrews reminds us how our ancestors of faith faithfully responded to God. The author did not just try to draw historical facts, but through faithful ancestors, he encouraged the people. This sort of attempt belongs to Geshichte, not Historie.

This is exactly what Harold S. Bender has done. He chose the Swiss Brethren as the genuine model of the Anabaptist movement, and by discovering their nature, he showed the Vision to Mennonites. Utilizing typology advocated by Troeltsch, he clearly distinguished Munsterait from Anabaptist. Anabaptist vision was, according to Bender, "Christianity as discipleship," not just sola fide (faith alone). It was "Nachfolge Christi (following)," which ideal Anabaptist really practiced, involving "voluntary church membership based upon true conversion and involving a commitment to holy living," "nonconformity to the world," and "ethic of love and nonresistance as applied to all human relationships."

This clear and powerful vision served Mennonites very well, especially during the World War II and fundamentalist-liberal controversies. In the midst of militarism, many Mennonites were encouraged by this vision. They felt that they were called to be like their ancestors of faith. Thus, just like their forerunners had done, they refused to become soldiers, even to the point of shedding their blood. Also, it should not be overlooked that Bender implicitly provided alternative methodology to read the Scripture. Although quite a lot of Mennonites were influenced by and involved in "either fundamental or liberal" paradigm, at least Bender tried to prepare the third-way position.


After the Anabaptist Vision

In spite of some critique, this Bender thesis survived and virtually dominated scholarship for a long time. Robert Friedmann, who was fascinated by Hutterian literature, argued against Bender saying that Anabaptism and mainstream Protestantism were totally different and had not "retained the original vision of Luther and Zwingli, enlarged it, gave it body and form, and set out to achieve it in actual experience." Anabaptism was not radicalized Protestantism, but the third-way position. Friedmann argued that Anabaptists did not, unlike Protestants, have explicit, systematized theology, but rather, they held implicit theology. According to him, "To magisterial Protestantism theology had become the very qualifying trait… To the Anabaptists the exact opposite was obvious: they accused the Protestant leaders of taking the life and the commandments of Christ too lightly… Theology as a system they considered rather a stumbling block to discipleship and no real help in man's earthly predicament." However, in a sense, Friedmann merely deepened Bender's thesis. He did not challenge the main thesis of the Anabaptist Vision. For him, Anabaptism was nothing but radical Christianity, and "ever since the days of the apostolic church, Anabaptism is the only example in church history of an 'existential Christianity' where there existed no basic split between faith and life." None of his contemporary Mennonite historians appreciated Anabaptists to this extent. With his characteristic manner, he depicted Anabaptist dualism, which clearly distinguishes the light from the darkness, Christ and Belial, and the Kingdom of God from the world, and this dualism shaped non-resistant pacifism. Anabaptism was the way of discipleship, or obedience. Although his focus was very different from Bender's, generally he supported and strengthened Bender's thesis.

In 1973, Walter Klaassen published "Neither Catholic nor Protestant." As the title shows, Klaassen also suggested that the Anabaptist movement is not a part of Protestantism, but rather the third-way, but there are some significant differences. He includes the South German/Austrian group as a part of the Anabaptist movement. While Bender clearly distinguished between "Anabaptism proper" or "evangelical Anabaptist," Klaassen suggested that some "Anabaptists" were involved with "terror of the Kingdom of God of Munster." He suggested that "to view the Anabaptist movement with as much historical objectivity as possible is of utmost importance. Both positive and negative elements must be acknowledged. Pride in denominational heritage has positive value. There are strengths which should not go unnoticeable. Unfortunately the negative effects of history are much more noticeable. For example, to suppose that Mennonites are the inheritors of a tradition - whatever that tradition may be - which in its beginning was 'without spot or wrinkle,' is to make us less charitable and openhearted today." However, he still thought that there was "an Anabaptist 'movement'" Klaassen's image of the Anabaptist movement was not so far from Bender's, although Klaassen's was much more chastened.

However, later, most Mennonite historians changed their thought. The main thesis of the Anabaptist Vision could no longer surviv. Klaassen said, "Up to 1975 that [the evangelical Anabaptist] model was taken for granted, as indeed virtually all of us who were taught by Harold Bender and George Williams did."


From Monogenesis to Polygenesis

Because Bender put the Swiss-South German as the normative Anabaptist model, he could, to a certain extent, simplify its theology and history. However, for Mennonites, Anabaptism is their origin, and Anabaptist history is thus strongly connected to their history. Because the Anabaptist Vision thesis dominated scholarship, many who are also called Mennonite but whose origins are not "Anabaptist proper" felt like "second class citizens." This bitter experience let non-Swiss-South German origin Mennonites review this Bender thesis. Cornelius J. Dyck tried to include Dutch and North German groups with genuine Anabaptist movement. Mennonite Brethren scholars shared their story that tells us how they struggled and suffered especially in the Soviet Union, which story had been mostly ignored by the Anabaptist Vision scholarship. Moreover, many non-Mennonite and secular scholars began to feel that the heroic martyrdom story of Anabaptists was too much. There were also some theological and socio-political challenges. Influenced by the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement on Viet Nam war younger generations began to raise serious questions. Many of them felt that the traditional non-resistant position was too quiet and did not challenge the injustice of the world seriously, thus was no longer appropriate to draw their vision. To a certain extent, the New Left and Christian Radicalism reflected this mode. The author Arthur G. Gish, a Brethren activist who graduated from Bethany Theological Seminary, interpreted sixteenth-century Anabaptists challengers of this unjust world and creative political activists who created counter-cultural community. Although people who fought to gain Conscious Objector rights who mostly enjoyed middle-class life were pretty skeptical toward this sort of movement, the old generation was very sympathetic toward this new generation.

In a sense, the Polygenesis theory is a composition of these needs. Of course, there is some academic reasoning. Bender's conviction, "Anabaptist proper, maintained an unbroken course in Switzerland, South Germany, Austria, and Holland throughout the sixteenth century, and has continued until the present day in the Mennonite movement" can be interpreted in many ways, some more troubling than profitable. To combine certain groups with a certain flow of denomination is not purely a matter of Historie, but more dependents on Geshichte. For example, for John T. Christian, a Landmark Baptist scholar, the main concern was succession of right baptism, not other theological agenda or even dynamics of groups. Although the Polygenesis theory tries to be "objective" and "descriptive," it reflects the contemporary Mennonite situation. For this reason, Rodney J. Sawatsky noted that "pluralism does complicate normatively. Pluralism requires openness, tolerance, and humility. It is an ecumenical stance."


Their Common Concerns

Mennonite historians share several fundamental concerns: Who are Mennonites and what is Mennonitism? Harold S. Bender answered that the roots of Mennonites go back to Swiss Brethren and their theologies were discipleship, Free Church ecclessiology, and nonconformity. Friedmann answered that Anabaptists did not have the explicit theology but implicit one, and they were the only example of existential Christianity. Of course, he implied, and often expressed that Mennonites should be like that. In his Neither Catholic nor Protestant, Walter Klaassen insisted that Anabaptists had some serious failure. This movement itself was not "without spot nor wrinkle," just like today's Mennonites, but still they prepared the third-way position, and its theology is still worth listening to. Anabaptists have some different origins and institutionally have never been unified, yet they shared same core belief and this fact gave their groups certain unity. Klaassen included non-Swiss/South German origins in this movement, and its implication is that non-Swiss/South German originated Mennonites are not secondary people. He wanted Mennonites to see its negative points squarely. The polygenesis theory reflects the Mennonite situation of this age. People formerly regarded not as "Anabaptist proper," particularly who belong to General Conference Mennonite Church, want to reflect their voice to contemporary Mennonite Church in general. Diversity, tolerance, humility… in a word, warm welcoming is what they need.


Rather Than Seeking Denominational Identity

I am firmly convinced that these questions, who are Mennonites and what is Mennonitism themselves are more problematic than profitable. When Mennonites use Anabaptists to draw their identity, we tend to forget the very fundamental question: Who is Christian? How should a Christian live? Actually, both monogenesis and polygenesis theories do not, at least directly, deal with this question. Both theories might have some place for Mennonites, but can such theories help to make earnest Christians is highly doubtful. In this sense, Stanley Hauerwas has more adequate identity. His denominational identity is quite vague. Although he is strongly influenced by some form of Anabaptism, and he is a member of a United Methodist church, he only refers to himself as a High Church Mennonite. Many people feel stress about this expression because of its unclearness, at least he does not worship sixteenth century legacies. We must realize that the label Mennonite does not, or at least no longer, assure anything. Especially in this age, and especially in North America, the label Mennonite became a kind of ethnicity. Even Mennonites do not perform infant baptism, Mennonites are more ethnically identical than Presbyterians. The majority are pacifists, but there are some non-pacifists, and even soldiers. Even an atheist can claim oneself as a Mennonite. Of course, one can still pursue what is genuine Anabaptism/Mennonitism, but this seems not so profitable. None of "Anabaptists" identified themselves as Anabaptists. They simply called themselves Christian or Bruder. These are not specific denominational term. It is true that sometimes they used terms like Taufer, but these terms were used only to explain their theological stance, and they did not forget to put "so called" in front or in mind. It is true that later some groups identified themselves as the only right expression of true Christianity, but they merely thought that the existence of other groups is merely a consequence of departure from genuine Christianity. All of their concerns were, in a word, who true Christian is. Seeking denominational identity was not their primary concern. Their focus was true Christianity.

If it is true that to be a Mennonite does not exclusively mean that he or she is an earnest Christian; and if it is more important to be a true Christian than to be a true Mennonite, seeking denominational identity is no longer appropriate.


Some Suggestions for Mennonite Historians

Now I want to suggest how we should draw our history.

Since no Christians can be objective, it is unavoidable, and actually necessary to draw history in a way that encourages Christians to be faithful. Just like the author of Hebrews has done, we should let people remind holy lifestyles of saints, their faith, their struggle, and their endurance. Through this sort of narrative, Christians learn how they should live. Just like the authors of Scripture have done, to describe serious failures and sins is nothing wrong. In any case, Christian historians should see God's solemn holiness and merciful act.

Also, we must notice that good elements of particular movement are not necessarily exclusively held by one particular group. It is true that some people have gone in totally the wrong way, but it is possible that there are various faithful groups at the same time.

Of course, this sort of historiography requires strong value standard, but without it, the study of history becomes boring and meaningless. Even though there must be many value standards, we should continue to draw history to give strong vision.

It seems Brethren scholars know this point very well. They do not connect one particular movement with their group. Instead, they see the work of Holy Spirit through history, and they place themselves within this flow. Since they recognize that even faithful groups had many mistakes, they do not have to idealize certain groups and yet they can draw history in the manner which gives us strong vision. Similarly, I can see this sort of attempt in John Driver, Radical Faith. I do not say that we can find an easy answer to our questions. Yet we should grow and develop our historiography better.



Bender, Harold S., The Anabaptist Vision. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1944.

Christian, John T., A history of the Baptists: together with some account of their principles and practices. Texas: Baptist Sunday School Committee of the American Baptist Association, 1922.

Driver, John, Radical faith: an alternative history of the Christian church, ed. Carrie Snyder. Ontario: Pandora Press: Scottdale: Herald Press, 1999.

Friedmann, Robert, The theology of Anabaptism: an interpretation. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1973.

Gish, Arthur G., The New Left and Christian Radicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970.

Klaassen, Walter, Anabaptism: neither Catholic nor Protestant. Ontario: Conrad Press, 1973.

Sakakibara, Gan, Historical research on the early period of Anabaptism. Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1972.

Sawatsky, Rodney J., "The One and the Many: The Recovery of Mennonite Pluralism," in Anabaptism Revisited, ed. Walter Klaassen. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1992.

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