The question left Layton Boyd Friesen befuddled: Why were the 16th-century Anabaptists so reviled and persecuted? The answer Friesen had learned — that they lived in an age when people didn’t tolerate theological diversity — was lacking. It didn’t explain the intense hatred of Anabaptism by Reformation leaders such as Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, as well as by the Catholic Church.
So Friesen set out to find a more satisfying answer. The result is Seditions, Confusion and Tumult: Why Reformation Europe Thought Anabaptism Would Destroy Society. It’s a book many of us might not have known we needed.
General surveys of Anabaptist-Mennonite history have characterized the conflict as Anabaptists versus the state church, usually with adult baptism at the core. It’s not inaccurate but fails to identify other dynamics, such as politics and economics, that were just as much a factor in the rise of the Reformation and Anabaptism. These have been explored, but only in piecemeal fashion in some scholarly books and journal articles. In fewer than 130 pages, Friesen offers historical depth that previously didn’t exist, particularly for those who are not scholars.
Friesen, conference minister for the Evangelical Mennonite Conference, is able to empathize with the Reformation authorities intent on eradicating Anabaptism. He examines the beliefs of the reformers and the Catholic Church on church-state relations, baptism, oath-taking, anti-clericalism, eschatology, tithing and more — all without denigrating them. Understanding their views is essential to understanding how they viewed Anabaptism as being in direct opposition to them.
In doing so, Friesen squarely places Anabaptism in the context of broader Christianity, as John D. Roth points out in the foreword. The movement was fully a part of the messiness of the Reformation and not just a “pristine” return to the New Testament and early church.
“Friesen invites contemporary Mennonites to momentarily set aside the impulse toward moral superiority and to regard other Christians as fellow seekers,” writes Roth, a history professor at Goshen College in Indiana.
Friesen sees that the problem between the state churches and Anabaptism was not simply religious intolerance. The authorities saw the Anabaptists as a threat to public order. “Theological error in the 16th century was seen as a poison that could literally destroy society,” Friesen writes.
For Luther, Zwingli and Calvin, the three most important reformers of the era, church and state remained inextricably intertwined, just as they were for the Catholics. It was a continuation of the Constantinian Synthesis, in which “church and state were supposed to function as two heads of one reality,” according to Friesen.
Although often accused of being anarchists, most Anabaptists did not reject the state. But they redefined the church-state relationship. “This amounted to a radical rejection of the ordering mechanism of society,” Friesen writes. The Schleitheim Confession accepted secular rulers ordained to punish the wicked and protect the innocent but stated, “The sword is an ordering of God outside the perfection of Christ.”
By declaring church members could not wield the sword, the Anabaptists dramatically undermined the church’s political role and power in society as seen by the reformers and the Catholics. That was revolutionary, even if the Anabaptists didn’t fully comprehend it.
Chapters on anarchy and baptism offer fresh perspectives on old topics. Chapters on apocalypticism and economics explore what could very well be new and fascinating territory for Friesen’s readers.
Anabaptism’s emphasis on the priesthood of all believers coincided with anti-clerical, apocalyptic ideas that elevated the laity and diminished the institutional church. It’s no wonder the state churches saw the Anabaptists as a threat.
Economic equality was a key to the Anabaptist vision for society. “A religion that ignored the plight of the poor could not be called true Christianity,” Friesen says. The 15th and 16th centuries saw the rise of wealthy classes and the persistence of a large impoverished class. Some Anabaptists, notably the Hutterites, believed the new movement should hold all things in common as an equalizer. That certainly would have upended society. Tradition considered such ideas heretical.
Friesen observes how the Anabaptists contributed to their own persecution, including their real or perceived association with the Peasants War of 1524-25, a failed uprising against the German upper classes. Given how church and state were intermeshed, the war had religious and political, not to mention economic, implications.
While an Anabaptist connection to the Peasants War has not been conclusively determined, the movement drew from the same lower class of society, leading the opponents of Anabaptism, understandably, to link Anabaptism with it. “Community of goods,” Friesen writes, “implied a dangerous vision for the forcible plundering of existing distributions of wealth.”
Seditions, Confusions and Tumult is a valuable addition to popular Anabaptist history. It demonstrates that Anabaptist faith cannot be examined apart from its societal, political and economic context. Teachers of Anabaptist history would do well to consider incorporating the book into their curriculum. Anyone with an interest in Anabaptism needs to read it.
Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind.