How might prisoners awaiting torture or death spend their time? In 1535, Anabaptist captives in a German castle dungeon composed hymns, setting new words to tunes they knew.
The following lines (translated from German) fit the tune of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” which Martin Luther penned only six years earlier:
Against all strife and tyranny
God’s love for us is given.
This love endures defenselessly
though death and devil threaten.
Five centuries later, the prisoners’ testimony lives on as Old Order Amish and others sing from the Ausbund, the oldest Protestant hymnal in continuous use, first published in 1564.
Remembering the hymn writers in a castle dungeon is a good way to begin a yearlong countdown to the 500th anniversary of Anabaptism. (See Elam Stoltzfus’ account of his Ausbund research and memories of Amish childhood.)
We’re still a year shy of the half millennium since Jan. 21, 1525, when a group of young people in Zurich, Switzerland, baptized each other — a subversive act that sparked a movement that’s grown to about 2.13 million believers in more than 80 countries today.
Preparations for the quincentennial are underway. Anabaptists in Europe have adopted “Daring!” as the theme of their five-year countdown, with “Living in Hope” as the emphasis for 2024.
“Daring!” reminds us that the first Anabaptists were risk takers. Defying the authority of church and state, they were willing to die for their faith. What risks will we take?
Since 2017, Mennonite World Conference has been ramping up with “Renewal” events around the world — in Germany, Kenya, Costa Rica, Canada. The next one is April 6 in Curitiba, Brazil. The 500-year observance, on May 29, 2025, in Zurich, will feature an ecumenical gathering to celebrate reconciliation with Christians from other traditions, the descendants of former rivals and persecutors.
MWC’s “Renewal” series began in 2017 to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Although Martin Luther’s 1517 split with Rome gets most of the glory, the Anabaptist insistence, eight years later, that there was a higher authority than the Zurich City Council would reverberate around the world with no less importance.
Anabaptist rejection of the government’s sovereignty in matters of faith led the way for religious freedom that became a cornerstone of democracy. A Reformation without free churches — one that merely established Protestant church-state unions alongside Catholic ones — would have been far less revolutionary.
The broader Christian family affirms Anabaptism’s pioneering role in religious liberty. In a Nov. 6 statement, the World Council of Churches recognized the 500th anniversary of the Anabaptist movement and commended its founders’ declaration of freedom from “age-old alliances between churches and monarchs.”
“Such daring,” WCC general secretary Jerry Pillay wrote, “is ever so relevant today, when a growing sense of nationalism seeks to co-opt the Christian message as a tool for wars, violence and discrimination.”
Indeed, it is the relevance of Anabaptist principles that energizes our celebration. The European organizers of “Daring!” refer to Anabaptism as a “lodestar” — a celestial guide for a mariner charting a course — that directs us to follow Jesus and to raise a prophetic voice as the first Anabaptists did when they insisted baptism must be an adult decision.
Anniversary organizers in Europe acknowledge that Anabaptist history is not entirely a source of pride. We and our spiritual ancestors have left a trail “of highs and lows, of emergence, decline and renewal, of debates, discussion and controversies, of courageous faith and feeble faith,” they write.
We have only begun to reckon with racial inequality, antisemitism, divisiveness and other sins. Our identity is sometimes poorly defined. Many know little of what it means to be Anabaptist rather than mainstream American evangelical. White ethnic Mennonitism still competes with theological Anabaptism as an identity marker.
The quincentennial presents “a unique opportunity to celebrate and dream,” say the writers of anabaptismat500.com, MennoMedia’s website that outlines anniversary projects like the Anabaptist Community Bible, children’s books and other resources. To fund these projects, MennoMedia is more than two-thirds of the way toward a $1.5 million goal. Supporting this effort is one way to make next year’s milestone a time to strengthen our identity and witness.