Commoners and Community. Essays in Honour of Werner O. Packull

Walter Sawatsky

The Conrad Grebel Review 23, no. 2 (Spring 2005)

C. Arnold Snyder, ed. Commoners and Community. Essays in Honour of Werner O. Packull. Pandora Press, 2002.

To honor Werner Packull, with whom many associate the “polygenetic beginnings” thesis, now thirty years old, and more recently phrases like “between paradigms” and “demise of a normative vision,” one should expect a Festschrift with the latest revisionary interpretation of sixteenth-century Anabaptism. The authors (Packull’s colleagues and students) and the editor have delivered, and they have produced a richly rewarding book.

That the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition is and was fully Christian, not heretical as charged in the 1500s, is now widely assumed. There still are evangelists for Anabaptism seeking to persuade us of the superiority of the Anabaptist reformist agenda, many themselves converts from another tradition. Indeed, elements of such a defense of one’s Reformation tradition are still widespread, yet much has changed in that regard. Historians now teach students to appreciate a broader and fuller Reformation agenda.

To take seriously the contextual influences that have changed us over time also includes tracking shifts in historiography. It remains a challenge to think of the Christian Tradition and of our smaller traditions as having a history of development, where neither a rediscovery of an elusive pristine beginning nor a celebration of our present reality as the result of unending progress can serve. This Festschrift provides a handy introduction to the sobriety now characteristic of Anabaptist studies.

At the zenith of Anabaptist studies (between 1960 and 1980), it was possible to claim statistical significance for Anabaptists in specific regions of Europe and, above all, to see them as forerunners of values now taken for granted in modernity. The modern assumptions of freedom of conscience, separation of church and state, and voluntarism in religion that Harold Bender described as “basic in American Protestantism and so essential to democracy” were “derived from the Anabaptists of the Reformation period, who for the first time clearly enunciated them and challenged the Christian world to follow them in practice” (Anabaptist Vision, 4). More recent scholarship makes such claims no longer meaningful, though they are still encountered in popular Mennonite writing. For example, theologian James Reimer cites Mennonite Islamic scholar David Shenk’s embellishment of Bender, a “blazing the way forward for the global commitments today to human rights, religious freedom and pluralistic culture” (122). Reimer is less certain that links to the modern democratic state should be celebrated so freely, given Hauerwas’s claim that such a state “is intrinsically dependent on violence to sustain itself”; Reimer senses a dilemma for Mennonites in modernity.

Commoners and Community summarizes what scholars have now established. Arnold Snyder begins with a short outline of Packull’s published contributions. Then follows a longer essay by Edmund Pries on Packull’s biography. Snyder ends his introduction by further revising the polygenesis claim to say that internal connections between the two groups most studied in English – the Swiss and the South German – were stronger than their distinctions.

Although statistical record keeping came later, present research allows us to draw a more accurate picture of the Anabaptist communities. Until 1618 the majority of Anabaptists were artisans from the “middle elements of the population.” Men were dominant, more so in the Biblicist groups, less so in the spiritualist groups. But among Anabaptist martyrs, women constituted about one third, a higher percentage than in most other martyr traditions. The best estimate now is that 2,000-2,500 Anabaptists suffered martyrdom in the Reformation era. This represented 40 to 50 percent of all martyrs, a sobering fact in another way. Recent research has also established that Protestant authorities more often spared the lives of dissenters than did Catholic authorities. From yet another angle, the relatively low numbers of martyrs caused the Dutch scholar Zijlstra to assert that Dutch Mennonite survival was due “to the stubborn resistance of local authorities to enforcement of the laws against heresy,” the Dutch republic protecting Doopsgezinde after 1570.

Indeed, as we learn more about the survival and development story of the Dutch Mennonites during the Enlightenment, more questions emerge. Whereas one had relied on the claim of 160,000 Dutch Mennonites around 1700, with a steady loss of membership thereafter to the present, it now seems clear that between 1570 and 1670 Dutch Doopsgezinde membership remained constant around 60-65,000, though the general population was growing. During the eighteenth century, according to Michael Driedger, Dutch Mennonites were active as leaders and publicists for learned societies, social agencies, and reform groups. A seminary (though with only one professor teaching) had been sponsored by the Lamist wing of the church since 1735 and continues to the present. Dutch Mennonites were active in the Enlightenment, editing journals, taking part in Free Mason societies, and being leaders in Pietism, as preachers, poets etc. A number of Mennonites were politically active and supportive of the Batavian Republic set up under Napoleon, many of whom were seminary students. Yet, “unlike many Dutch Mennonites, north German Mennonites [also participating in the Enlightenment and Pietism] remained politically obedient to the established powers” (120, n46). Why this is so is not easily answered, except for the obvious difference of political context for Dutch and north Germans.

Even the picture of the Swiss and south German Anabaptists as moving toward greater isolation from society and settling for apoliticism now requires adjustment. The unearthing of manuscripts from the end of the sixteenth century reveals an active “Marpeck group” among the Swiss Brethren, Marpeck’s irenic and flexible style not having died out after all. In theologian Reimer’s reading, the materials show less of the strict dualism of Schleitheim, “a more comprehensive reading of the Bible as a whole, using figurative and spiritualist hermeneutics; respect for individual conscience and opposition to coercive measures in matters of faith . . . support of the ban but with toleration of diversity within the church; greater flexibility in relating to government officials; and less readiness to damn those outside the perfection of Christ” (136).

This volume includes biographical and bibliographical surveys of Packull’s remarkable achievement. The remaining twelve articles are grouped under Perspectives on Reformation and Tradition, and Perspectives on Anabaptist History. The latter section devotes attention to spiritualist themes in Anabaptism. Packull’s first monograph identified mysticism as central to the early south German-Austrian Anabaptist movement; Snyder’s essay on mysticism and spirituality notes the shift away from mysticism studies in the later 1970s and ’80s, but his own research now sees Hubmaier providing, through his Summa of the Entire Christian Life, “one of the seminal works in all of Anabaptism” (200), in essence a systematic Swiss Anabaptist spirituality.

Walter Sawatsky, Professor of Church History & Mission, AMBS, Elkhart, IN