The Roots of Concern: Writings on Anabaptist Renewal 1952-1957

Andrew C. Martin

The Conrad Grebel Review 28, no. 2 (Spring 2010)

Virgil Vogt, ed. The Roots of Concern: Writings on Anabaptist Renewal
1952-1957
. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009.

World War II catapulted North American Mennonites into a world for which they were scarcely prepared. This reality was particularly true for those who left the confines of their predictable regional Mennonitism for the far shores of war-ravaged Europe. A group of seven men, including John Howard Yoder, Calvin Redekop, and John W. Miller, who all had firsthand experience in Mennonite relief work in postwar Europe and at the same time were involved in graduate studies at European universities, met in Amsterdam in 1952 to discuss the disjunction between their American Mennonite theology and their European experience. As one participant put it, “We were unable to define or to communicate the message that seemed implicit in our professed position. … What we in effect proclaimed as an answer for people in devastated countries was no longer a dynamic transforming leaven in our own midst” (2). These men had been influenced by the scholarly research of Anabaptist history and sociology, but their international experiences awakened them to both its inadequacy and its possibility.

Not only did the 1952 meeting mark the beginning of a crucial shift in thinking about Anabaptism that shook the “Old” Mennonite Church, the main target of its critique, but some of the ideas first heralded by this group are still resonant in theology today. Although the Concern movement resisted formal organization, it offered its ideas through eighteen pamphlet publications beginning in 1954 and ending in 1971.

The Roots of Concern: Writings on Anabaptist Renewal 1952-1957 is a compilation of the first four volumes published between 1954 and 1957. Here the concerns and ideals of the group, and those with similar views, are promoted through articles, letters, and an annotated bibliography. These writings are a mix of visceral responses and academic insights, making the mood more personal and spiritual than strictly academic and theological. The first volume addresses the problems and solutions generally, but by 1957, in response to requests for greater clarity, the issues are more specific.

Although the men behind the Concern movement had been schooled in the “Anabaptist vision,” they were critical of it. “Neo-anabaptism is chiefly academic, an interesting subject to build libraries, journals, lectures around – but not to adopt personally in our daily lives….,” said one participant (146). They discovered in Europe a new dimension of their history which brought into “sharp focus the genius of the sixteenth-century Anabaptists [and] their faithful application of New Testament Christianity….” This resulted in the conclusion that “our American Mennonite tradition is not the one of the Bible” (131).

These sharp criticisms are a few of those largely aimed at the perceived rigid institutional and doctrinal structure of the “Old” Mennonite Church. At the heart of this critique was a new realization of Anabaptism as formed and inspired by the Holy Spirit experienced in community. The Concern group perceived the Mennonite Church as compromising the genius of the Spirit-filled church through accommodating to a denominationalism more concerned with preserving the status quo. One reaction was against nonconformity, which in previous decades had been a theological category resulting in judgments on clothes and life insurance. In contrast, the Concern pamphlets endorse a faith focused on “living relationship with a living God” (159), so that “the Church … is realized in the real presence of Christ in its midst” (160). It is in the dynamic Spirit-filled meeting of two or three in Christ where church happens, and this spontaneous existentialist spirit is central in this upstart movement.

While the Concern group criticized preceding historical and theological interpretations of Anabaptism, they too founded their conclusions on some faulty historical research. For instance, Yoder contended that Anabaptism derived from the Reformed movement and he understood the Swiss Anabaptists as the true forebears of the movement. I believe that a broader, deeper understanding of the roots of Anabaptism leads to different conclusions about ecclesiology and ethics and a greater emphasis on spirituality.

The re-evaluation of “the Anabaptist vision” by the Concern group requires another assessment today, one that takes seriously their existential spirituality. The Roots of Concern is a good resource for anyone interested in ecclesiology, ethics, the early writing of Yoder, or Anabaptist-Mennonite history and spirituality. However, its special contribution is the challenge to live the Spirit-led life in community today.

Andrew C. Martin, ThD student, Regis College, Toronto School of Theology