David L. Weaver-Zercher. Martyrs Mirror: A Social History.

John Eicher

The Conrad Grebel Review 36, no. 1 (Winter 2018)

David L. Weaver-Zercher. Martyrs Mirror: A Social History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016.

It is daunting to write a 350-year history of any cultural artifact—especially if one’s aim is to recount not only its production and distribution, but also its affective and moral relevance to a divisive, scattered people. Yet David L. Weaver-Zercher has largely succeeded in Martyrs Mirror: A Social History (hereafter Social History). His thesis is that Thieleman van Braght’s Martyrs Mirror (hereafter “the book”) has functioned, and continues to function, as a measure of Christian faithfulness” (x) within Anabaptist circles. Over the course of three sections—“The Prehistory and Production of the Bloody Theater,” “Van Braght’s Martyrology through the Years,” and “Contemporary Approaches to Martyrs Mirror”—the author demonstrates how, why, and where the book served this function, and considers alternative interpretations of the book’s meaning.

The first section of Social History examines the persecution of 16th- century Anabaptist martyrs, van Braght’s 1660 effort to memorialize them, and the broader historical contexts in which these events occurred. Weaver- Zercher stresses that Martyrs Mirror was not written ex nihilo but borrowed heavily from hymns, oral accounts, letters, pamphlets, other martyrologies and, of course, the Bible. By demonstrating the book’s polygenesis, he subtly foreshadows its polyvalence in the coming centuries.

The second section gives a sweeping overview of the book’s publication history from its 1685 second edition to the present. This section is surprisingly light on Martyrs Mirror’s social impact, emphasizing instead the linguistic, stylistic, editorial, and marketing choices made by its European and North American publishers. At times, Weaver-Zercher describes rather than analyzes the book’s text and images. For example, he details Jan Luyken’s 104 copper etchings used to illustrate the 1685 edition (98-105). After grouping most of them by type—a table may have sufficed— he describes four illustrations that resist a typology (one, of Dirk Willems, is subsequently the focus of chapter eleven). There is little interpretive payoff for these descriptive interludes, so one wonders how they connect to the broader argument. Nevertheless, this section affirms that leaders repeatedly used the book to shore up Anabaptist morale across changing geographic and social contexts.

The third section focuses on the book’s use in recent history—from North American “tradition-minded” and “assimilated” Anabaptists to its evolving global presence. Here, Weaver-Zercher argues that tradition- minded groups engage the martyrs’ legacy more frequently than their assimilated brethren and accept the text uncritically rather than assessing it along academic or artistic lines. His attention to the book’s role in buttressing a tradition-minded theology that prides itself on resisting state and society is illuminating, but his sources could use more contextualization. For instance, he  summarizes  two  texts  but  does  not  indicate  their  influence  within tradition-minded circles (229-33).

The most intriguing chapter in this section concerns the recent popularity of the Dirk Willems illustration. Weaver-Zercher deftly shows how “assimilated” 20th-century North American Mennonites used the image to reframe Anabaptism as “a paradigm of nonresistance . . . an exemplar of enemy-love [and] a willing servant of others” (282), rather than as a reminder of physical persecution. Modern Mennonites could therefore lay claim to the martyrology without considering the path of martyrdom.

One would anticipate a bit more on the Martyrs Mirror’s social function beyond reinforcing religious faith. For example, are there estate inventories or family lore concerning individual copies? What might they reveal about how it was transmitted across generations, circulated around the world, or confiscated by authorities? Are there copies with generational marginalia that may illuminate changes in focus or language preference? The inclusion of more quantities of data would also be valuable. A modest chart or two compiling the estimated sales and distribution of various editions would give an immediate sense of how many people had contact with the book and where it was exported—for instance, to Russia and Latin America. Likewise, Weaver-Zercher includes several interviews to good effect but their total number, locations, and church affiliations go largely unmentioned. In general, A Social History’s last two sections skew heavily toward the northern Indiana/eastern Pennsylvania nexus.

Weaver-Zercher’s contribution is path-breaking in both substance and scope. The prose is lucid and accessible, the endnotes are informative and succinct, and the many illustrations are useful and beautifully rendered. With his engaging style, the author clearly has an eye for a general readership, but scholars will likewise find much valuable material here.

John Eicher, Assistant Professor of History, Pennsylvania State University- Altoona, Altoona, Pennsylvania.