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I well remember the first time I faced the stark realization that I was a Mennonite and different. My fourth-grade friend, Gregory, and I were riding home from public school on the bus. We were talking about our future, how we would always be friends and do things together when we grew up. Then he enthusiastically began to describe activities that from my upbringing I knew to be worldly. Desperate to save our lifelong friendship, I turned to Gregory and said, “You will have to leave your church and become a Mennonite when you grow up.” Thus, the inevitability of our way of life impressed itself on my eight-year-old mind. A year later I made my decision to follow Christ. Of course, Gregory never joined my church, and I do not even know his whereabouts today.
The theme of separation from the world ran strong in the Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania where I grew up. But I wrongly assumed that, except for our plainness, we believed the same things that other Christians believed. Then one evening at the Chambersburg Mennonite Church, where I was a member, a visiting speaker jolted me with a graphic picture of my martyr heritage. Even after forty years, I can still see Brother Irvin Martin stepping to the edge of the platform to demonstrate how they shoved the head of Felix Manz beneath the water trying to make him recant. Then the preacher showed us how they stripped his bound hands over his knees, thrust a stick between to hold them, then dumped him into the water to drown while his Anabaptist mother shouted encouragement from the riverbank. From that moment I knew that my destiny lay in the faith expressed by Felix Manz, though I but dimly understood what that meant.
Several years later I visited Zurich, Switzerland and stood beside the Limmat River at the place where it had happened. By then, I knew that it was the Protestant reformers, not the Roman Catholics, who opposed my Anabaptist forefathers in Zurich. I realized that the issues then were freedom of conscience and separation of church and state. Knowing that these were no longer issues in the free land of America, I again wrongly assumed that only our separated lifestyle and nonresistance distinguished us from our neighbors who now actually professed the same fundamentals of faith that we do. This false assumption was driven home by many sermon comments about our “twin distinctive doctrines.” It seemed that we were Biblicists just like the fundamentalists around us except for our two distinctives. Unfortunately, my false assumption was a reality in the beliefs and lives of many in my church. But this I did not realize until many years later.
In the meantime, I struggled through a spiritual crisis that obliterated thoughts of history and heritage. Agonizing doubts about my salvation drove me finally in desperation to surrender all of my life unconditionally to Jesus as my Lord. Brimming with new motivation and power of the Holy Spirit, I began my quest for reality. The Scriptures became an absorbing delight, and I made it my purpose to master the Book. Then new movements in the community began to challenge the worldward drift in the church. Earnest preachers called for a return to “what the Bible says.” Revival would follow when we had “scriptural beliefs,” “scriptural standards,” and “scriptural churches.” The genius of our Anabaptist heritage, we were told, was our forefathers' insistence on sola scriptura (the Bible alone). At first, I agreed. It sounded so right. Certainly, obeying God meant obeying the Bible. But something seemed to be missing.
The secret of my new life was my passion to model my life after Christ, not my preoccupation with the text. For me, the text was not an end in itself, but a means to an end—learning to know the thoughts, feelings, and will of my Lord. But I saw well-meaning people getting stuck in the text. And then the disagreements broke out all around me over what and who were “scriptural.” In the confusion that followed, one thing became clear. Much sincere teaching and debate focused on sharpening “scriptural” ideas from the Bible, but not on the example of Jesus Himself.
I saw this discrepancy most clearly in our “scriptural” conclusions about mammon. The “Biblical” discussion was impressive. The exegesis put every verse in its proper place. No one could find fault with the “scriptural” logic. There was only one problem. The conclusion did not match the voluntary poverty of Jesus Himself, nor did it ring true to His many clear teachings on the subject, even though we had “scripturally” explained them all. It was a watershed discovery: Being “scriptural” did not guarantee that we would be Christlike—the whole point of being Christian.
With new ears I began to scrutinize the teaching around me. The call to follow the Bible was loud and clear, along with the call to obey the Church and separate oneself from the world. But a primary call to focus finally on the example of Christ and follow Him was seldom heard. The rare allusions to modeling the actual life of Christ in everything were usually peripheral to other primary concerns. It was obviously assumed that getting the verses right would make us Christian.
I finally turned again to the Anabaptists. Was Biblicism their secret? To my surprise, I found that the Protestant reformers were the Biblicists, insisting that people turn from the dogmas of the church to the authority of the Bible. Martin Luther gave his people the Bible in German so they could read it for themselves. Zwingli preached through the Gospels verse by verse. Between them, they bitterly debated the meaning of the literal text. It all sounded so familiar. So what then did the Anabaptists do differently?
To be sure, I found that the Anabaptists also turned to the Bible in serious study. But they went “beyond the sacred page” to focus on the Person the Scriptures were intended to reveal. For them, the final appeal was actually solo Christus. A credible discipleship was their powerful theme, not a sterile Biblicism that actually misses the life of the Person. They saw the Scriptures as an “outer word” that would lead the genuine seeker to the “inner Word,” which was Christ. It was the confirmation I needed for the conviction the Holy Spirit had given to me.
Herein lies the great distinctive of Anabaptism. The “gospel” of the fundamentalist still focuses on the text, manipulating verses into proper theologies. Somewhere along the way, we unwittingly adopted their emphasis. But we dutifully tacked on our “twin distinctives.” It is obvious now that this was not enough to save us, and most of my boyhood friends were finally swept into the camp of the Biblicist reformers. The gap between Reformation theology and Anabaptism is as wide today as it ever was. It is the difference between a misguided Biblicism and the true Word of God.
Our critics will say, “There should be no difference between the Scriptures and the Word.” The writer of this book would heartily agree. The glory of this powerful union as well as the tragedy of the unintended separation is shown in his story.
Peter Hoover has not given us a history of the Anabaptists. You can read that history in the many volumes by others. In this book, however, you will meet the Anabaptists in their struggles to live as Jesus would against strong Biblicist opposition. The strength of Brother Peter's presentation lies in the many actual quotes that allow the Anabaptists to speak for themselves. Obviously, these quotes have been selected and no doubt reflect the writer's bias (as all books do). But the reader is heartily invited to judge the truth for himself. Have we really followed Christ as our forefathers so passionately followed Him? Or has His pristine example been obscured by many “scriptural” inventions that they would have rejected outright? Does all our emphasis on the church lead us to experience the unique Anabaptist vision for community? Was “the secret of the strength” what we commonly assume today?
This book will likely provoke much fresh and vigorous discussion. It will challenge many long-held assumptions about what it means to be an Anabaptist. Some will see this as threatening and dangerous. Others will be encouraged to focus with new passion on the Person and example of Jesus Christ. With a fervent prayer to this end, we invite you to consider the story you hold in your hands.
John D. Martin
November 8, 1997
For my Friend
about whom they asked, “Isn't this the Carpenter?”
who wrote no books
but about whom and for whom we are still writing,
and the brothers and sisters of our fellowship in 1997: Lynn and Wilma Martin, Marvin and Virginia Wadel, John and Patricia Martin, Edsel and Jennifer Burdge, Kore and Elizabeth Byler, Ronald and Edith Martin, David and Starla Goodwin, Eldon and Sherilyn Martin, Conrad and Katrina Hege, Kevin and Jalee Brechbill, Jason and Jill Landis, Dallas and Joy Martin, Gordon and Janelle Ogburn, Conrad and Sharon Sollenberger, Wendell and Marla Martin, Harvey and Arlene Reiff, Kirk and Barbara Anderson, Jonas and Vonda Landis, Mike and Sarah Hostetler, Dan and Esther Mae Wadel, Sheldon and Marge Martin, Piper Burdge, Luke, Elisha and John Byler, Mario Aguilar, Edna Horst, Levi, Malinda and Rhoda Hostetler, Wade and Katrina Anderson, Andrea, Erica, Rantz, Lana, Trent, Anne, Heather, Candace, Craig, Bradlyn and Sharleen Martin, Barry Willis, Marc, Kathy, Byron, Darian and Christa Wadel, without whom this book would not have become a reality, and for Christopher, Grace, Justin, Stanley and Stephanie Hoover, Chantel Brechbill, Daniel, Ian, Adam and Andrew Burdge, Salome Byler, Conrad, Felix, Julitta and Anysia Goodwin, Karla, Marjorie, Audrey, Lynette, Leonard and Delbert Hege, Bertha Hostetler, Rylan, Rochelle, Jenna, Elyse and Lorielle Landis, Radford, Natalie, Abigail, Winston, Meghan, Alex, Roxanne, Geoffrey, Spencer, Caroline, Lauren, Amy, Rachel, Brady, Dylan, Shana, Kylie, Lance and Colin Martin, Ian, Ariana and Avery Ogburn, Joshua, Jonathan and Joellen Reiff, Travis, Jessica, Heidi and Benjamin Sollenberger, Brendan, Kirby, Maria, Kayla, Micah, Daven, Justin, Joanna, Lindon and Kara Wadel who, it is hoped, will capture the message of this book and share it with the world.
Apart from the Christian community that produced it—the men, women, young people and children who have come to share what they have, spiritually and materially, so that none are left with too much and none are found wanting—this book would have nothing to say. It is our challenge. Let us live it. We will need the “secret of the strength” when our trial comes.
My birthplace, the city of Kitchener, Ontario, had much to do with the writing of this book. Founded by Mennonite bishop Benjamin Eby in the early 1800s, the city, with its doors always open to immigrants, provided me with my first contacts with the wider Anabaptist community: the Russian Mennonites, the Nazarener, the Hutterites, and others. Special recognition must be given to J. Winfield Fretz and Frank Epp, then of Conrad Grebel College, for spending time with me in my most impressionable years. The same and more must be said for Reinhold Konrath, then of Victoria Street, with his rare collection of Anabaptist books and documents, and for Reg Good, a friend.
My parents, Anson and Sarah Hoover, and great-uncle Menno Sauder of the Old Order Mennonite community north of the city greatly stimulated my desire to know about our past. So did my grandparents, Menno and Leah Hoover and our neighbourhood harness-maker, Matthias Martin, whom I visited innumerable times on foot, cutting across the back fields to his place along the creek.
I would thank Cornelius Krahn of North Newton, Kansas ( who gave us a box full of Anabaptist books as a Poltergeschenk when we stopped at his place on our wedding trip) and bishop Elmer D. Grove for their inspiration in historical research. I thank the following persons: Amos B. Hoover (in whose library I paged through original Anabaptist writings for the first time), David Bercot, Philip Yoder, John David Hoover, Elmo Stoll, Wayne Chesley, Keiner Barrantes and the rest who played a part in bringing this book to completion.
Claudia Schmiedel Pichardo, writing from Mexico City, München, or Graz added a special dimension to this project, and I am grateful to John D. Martin and Edsel Burdge for their work as editors, Elizabeth Myers Byler and Starla Goodwin for correcting the text, Conrad Sollenberger for its design, and to my wife Susan and our children for putting up with me during long hours of writing and review.
A Man Hanging from his Thumb
The sun shines on Klundert, green lowland plains lying flat as far as eye can see. Tourists visit Klundert. They take pictures: fields of flowers and vegetables. Thunderheads rise, making rows of poplars alongside the canals of Noord Brabant look small. Long canals, they cut straight through the shimmering plains until they lose themselves in the haze where land and sky meet sea. “We like the peace of Noord Brabant,” say the tourists, “It does the heart good.”
But there is much the tourists do not know.
Klundert, tidy Dutch village in Noord Brabant, stands on blood. The blood of Anabaptists was shed here.
Anabaptists gathered at Klundert throughout the mid-sixteenth century. They came, sneaking out of nearby cities, to meet in secret on the fields. Sometimes they gathered in the homes of Elsken Deeken or Jan Peetersz, a servant of the Word. On August 5, 1571, about a hundred Anabaptists met at the Peetersz home in Klundert. Some came from Haarlem, some from Leyden, and many from towns not far away. During the meeting a young couple was going to get married, but they did not get that far.
The town magistrate and his assistant were sitting at Gerrit Vorster's house, drinking. Someone told him about the Anabaptist gathering. He said: “We will root up that nest and get rid of them at once!” Twice he sent one of his men to listen at the Peetersz house. “Straight Peter” a tailor lived in the front part of the house. Jan Peetersz lived in the back where the people met. After nine o'clock the spies found the meeting in session. They heard someone preaching and saw the light of many candles in the room. Then the magistrate and his men, well armed with guns, halberds, swords, and other weapons broke in through all doors at once. They grabbed left and right. But most of the Anabaptists, ready for such an emergency, escaped up the stairs, through a hole in the roof, or back through a hall and out of openings in the wall.
When the raid was over, the magistrate's men held six men and several women: Peter the tailor, Geleyn Cornelis of Middelharnis near Somerdijk, Arent Block of Zevenbergen, Cornelis de Gyselaar, and a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old boy who worked for Straight Peter the tailor. The captives were led to Gerrit Vorster's house where the women escaped. They handcuffed the men and kept them under guard. The next morning Michael Gerrits, an uncle of Cornelis de Gyselaar, came to see him. Also an Anabaptist, Michael came to encourage Cornelis to stand for Christ, no matter what might take place. The magistrate seized Michael too.
They confiscated the property of the prisoners, so their wives fled from Klundert with nothing. Then they called on the school teacher to dispute with the prisoners. He wrote up a report in which he said: “They do not baptize infants. They cannot believe that Christ had his flesh and blood from Mary, and they regard themselves as the little flock and the elect of God. But their lives are better than the lives of many others. They bring up their children in better discipline and fear of God than many other people. Their children in school are better students and learn more readily than the rest.”
The magistrate kept the prisoners in Gerrit Vorster's house until noon of Aug. 7, 1571. Then he took them to Breda to be tortured. Straight Peter, the tailor, gave up the faith, so they only beheaded him. The rest, including his teenage worker, remained steadfast. One had his hands tied behind his back to be suspended by them and whipped. Another was pulled to the utmost on the rack. While in this helpless condition they held his mouth open to urinate into it and over his body. But Geleyn Cornelis was treated worst of all. They stripped off his clothes and hung him up by his right thumb with a weight hanging from his left foot. Then they singed off his body hair, burning him in tender places with candles, and beat him. Finally the men, tired of torturing the prisoners, took to playing cards. They played for over an hour while Geleyn hung, by now unconscious, until the commissioner of the Duke of Alba said: “Seize him again. He must tell us something! A drowned calf is a small risk.”
At first they thought Geleyn was dead. They shook him until he revived, but he did not recant.
They burned Geleyn Cornelis, Jan Peetersz, and the young boy first. The wind came the wrong way and blew the fire away from Geleyn's stake, so the executioner had to push and hold his body into the flames with a fork.
When they led Cornelis de Gyselaar and Arent Block to the stakes, Arent dropped a letter hoping that some Anabaptist in the crowd would notice it and snatch it up. But the Duke's men saw it first and took the two men back to prison for another torturing session. They did not recant and they refused to betray any of their brothers in the faith. Shortly afterward, they burned Cornelis, his uncle Michael Gerrits, and Arent Block.
Since 1571 there have been no more Anabaptists at Klundert. Tourists come—with Bermuda shorts, sunglasses, paper cups of Coke, and with camera strings flapping in the fresh spring breeze. They like Noord Brabant. But there is much the tourists do not know.
What Was the Secret of the Strength?
For as long as I can remember, people have told me about the Anabaptists. In fact, I distinctly remember the first time they told me about Geleyn Cornelis, who hung from his thumb. I was not yet going to school. It was on a Sunday evening in southern Ontario, and we had many visitors. (My father was an Orthodox Mennonite minister.) All of us sat around our long kitchen table on which a kerosene lamp stood to light a circle of solemn faces: women in dark dresses with large white head coverings, and men with suspenders and their hair cut round. I was sitting on someone's lap while one of the visitors told the story of Geleyn Cornelis. I never forgot it, and I live to this day deeply aware of the challenge put to me by my Anabaptist ancestors.
I am challenged by the strength of their convictions, by the strength of their endurance in persecution—and above all, by the sheer strength of the Anabaptist movement itself.
Within thirty years of the first baptisms in Switzerland, in a secret meeting of a few people, the movement drew incredible thousands—perhaps more than a hundred thousand converts to Christ, and this in the face of the bitterest persecution.
Congregations of Anabaptists sprang up almost overnight. On Palm Sunday, 1525, only two months after his own baptism Conrad Grebel baptized several hundred in the Sitter river at Sankt Gallen in Switzerland. Ten years later, the movement had reached the far corners of the German world. All of ancient Swabia: Switzerland, the Tyrol, Salzburg, Württemberg, Bavaria, Ansbach, and the Kurpfalz, as well as central Germany: Hesse, Thuringia and Saxony had been affected. Entire regions of southern Germany, whole towns, were reported to have “gone Anabaptist.” In Moravia, Anabaptist communities eventually numbered 60,000 members. In the Netherlands, Belgium, the Lower Rhine region in Germany, Holstein, and along the Baltic Sea to East Prussia, the movement raced like a fire.
Due to favourable winds?
Hardly. Within those same ten years innumerable Anabaptists were imprisoned, exiled, and put to death by Roman Catholic and Protestant authorities. Anabaptists had white-hot rods pushed down their legs, their tongues screwed onto their gums, and their fingers chopped off. Some had gun powder tied to their bodies or crammed into their mouths to be set on fire. Some were beheaded. Some were drowned. Some were buried alive and many more burned at the stake.
The Anabaptist movement was a city movement in the beginning. Born in Zürich, it branched out quickly into the largest cities of central Europe: Strasbourg, Augsburg, Regensburg, Salzburg, Heidelberg, Basel, München, Speyr, Konstanz, and Worms. Soon afterward, it reached Aachen, Köln, Münster, Antwerpen, Gent, Rotterdam, Leyden, Utrecht, Amsterdam, Haarlem, Alkmaar, Leeuwarden, Emden, Hamburg, Lübeck, Danzig, and even Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) in East Prussia.
On back streets by lantern light, in town squares during public executions, everywhere, Anabaptists preached and lives were changed. Christian communities took shape and in the bond of love that united them the “Kingdom of Heaven” came down to earth.
What was “the secret of their great strength”?
A woman called Delilah once asked that question.
And the more I think about it, the more parallels I see between the Anabaptist movement and Delilah's husband.
The Anabaptists began with spectacular accomplishments—but they met spectacular defeats.
The Anabaptists began as the only peace church, the only nonviolent movement in a violent age—but they became the most split up and quarrel-plagued movement, for their size, in Christendom.
The Anabaptists began in great light from heaven, in true faith and personal conviction—but many of them became bound by tradition, blindly and pitifully treading the mill of meaningless custom.
In the beginning the Anabaptists were free, even in bonds. Now many of them are bound, even in freedom. Truly, their weaknesses and failures, like Samson's, have become apparent to all. But what, in the beginning, was the secret of their great strength?
That is the question I began to ask myself while growing up with horses and buggies, bare houses, and serious-minded German people in southern Ontario.
Was the secret of the Anabaptists' strength their return to the Scriptures? No. Most of the early Anabaptists could not read, and few owned Bibles. Christians today know the Scriptures as well, or better than they—but without the strength.
Was their secret a sound church structure and submission to men in God-given authority? No. The Anabaptist movement spread all over central and northern Europe before it had any structure at all. Its early leaders were self-appointed and unofficial, many of them in their late teens or in their twenties. Many of them got killed.
Was their secret a connection to an evangelical tradition that had gotten passed on from generation to generation in the mountains of Europe? No. The Anabaptists inherited no sacred “body of tradition” from anyone. They were all new converts—not tradition keepers, but tradition breakers. There is no evidence of a single contact between them and the Waldenses, Albigenses, or other movements before them.
So what, finally, was their secret? Was it a return to perfectly correct doctrine and applications? No. All of the first Anabaptist leaders taught some things that were incorrect: an impossible view of the incarnation, mistaken eschatology, misunderstood Latin terms about separation from the backslidden, and the like. And in their applications of Bible principles, the early Anabaptists varied greatly. But for more than a century the Spirit of God moved among them in a truly miraculous way.
What a great secret! What a mystery! In spite of appalling weaknesses and a lack of education, a lack of seasoned leadership, a lack of church structure, a lack of unified practice, a lack of experience, a lack of established tradition ...even in spite of errors in their teaching, the Anabaptist movement shook Europe so that like the first Christians, they were accused of turning the world upside down.
Four centuries later, I grew up innerly aware, always conscious of our glorious “Anabaptist heritage” ...and wondering, already as a child, how they could accomplish so much and we so little. We heard our parents tell about the Anabaptists on long winter evenings. We learned about them in school, and we heard about them in the unpainted, wooden interior of our meetinghouse where we met to sing and pray. But already as a child I began to suspect that the Anabaptists, like Samson, knew something—some secret—which we did not.
Now I am beginning to sense that there is yet more to the Samson comparison: After Samson lost his strength and spent a long time blind, shackled, and treading the mill in prison, his secret came back to him. Little by little his great strength came back. He could feel it in his bones! Then, on the day of the feast in the idol's temple, poor old blind Samson came back. Thousands came to see him. Some smiled and giggled, pointing at his blindness and chains: “There he is! There is the man who sent the foxes through our fields! There is the man who struck down a thousand with a donkey's jawbone and walked off with our city gates. But just look at him now! He's blind. He doesn't know who's leading him around. Just look at the funny old man!”
While the words were still in their mouths, the Philistines began to stare. What was Samson doing! What was going on! He was pushing. Great muscles rippled along his biceps. Mighty legs braced themselves, and the pillars began to move, the roof began to sway ...and nobody remembered the crash, for the screams and curses of thousands who slid and thousands who saw them fall were silent, after the idol's temple came down.
In the end, Samson's great strength came back to accomplish more in death than in life—and his name went down with the faithful in Hebrews eleven.
I am fascinated with the possibility of an ongoing parallel between Samson's life and the Anabaptist movement.
The Anabaptists, like Samson, were once the terror of the populace. Governments spent untold wealth trying to get rid of them. Their writings were outlawed on pain of death.
But the Anabaptist movement, like Samson, grew old and feeble. No one is afraid of it anymore. Thousands come to look at the Mennonites, the Amish, and the Hutterites (the Anabaptists' descendants). Some smile and giggle, pointing at their quaint clothes and customs: “There they are! There are the people who dared defy the pope (and Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin besides)! There are the people who sang on their way to be burned at the stake, who had their fingers chopped off or their tongues cut out rather than give up what they believed. But just look at them now! They're blind. They don't know who's leading them around. Just look at the funny people!”
What they don't know is that the Anabaptist movement, like Samson, may yet have some life in it.
Something may be happening. New faces, new family names, new tradition-breakers (home schoolers, seekers, hungry and thirsty Bible readers) are popping up out of nowhere, right out of our modern Dark Ages, to stir up the old Mennonite, Amish, and Hutterite communities. What would happen if some of those seekers, and some of those Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites should start remembering together—if they would rediscover the secret of the strength, the muscles would start rippling, the shackles would fall, and the pillars of the idol's temple would start to move?
Just what would happen?
In this book I want to allow the Anabaptists to answer that question themselves.
The Woman Who Had a Baby in Jail
In 1637 they caught the minister, Hans Meyli, of the Horgerberg, in the snow-crowned Alps south of Lake Zürich in Switzerland. They tried him and threw him into the Oetenbach castle dungeon, but after forty-three weeks he escaped. The Protestant authorities (of Zwingli's reformed church) were furious. They did continual house searches and harrassed the believers. Thirty Täuferjäger (Anabaptist hunters) found out where the Meylis lived and with bare swords and firearms stormed the house, hacking through doors and throwing things around to find the escaped minister. They cursed and swore and blasphemed God. When they realized that he was not there, they took his two sons, Hans Jr. and Martin Meyli captive. Martin was already married. They grabbed his young wife and tied her up tightly. Her name was Anna. She had a fourteen-week-old baby, which they took from her and gave to people from the state church to keep. They took the captives to Zürich, tried them and locked them up in the Oetenbach castle dungeons.
They took off the men's clothes and chained them to the stone floor for twenty weeks. They tortured them with spiders and caterpillars. They gave them just enough food and water to keep them alive. But the prisoners would not recant. After one year the two men escaped “with undamaged consciences” and after two years, on Good Friday, 1641, Anna escaped as well.
They fled from place to place, but the people betrayed them. Anna fell into the hands of the Täuferjäger again and was imprisoned, first at the Oetenbach, then in the Spital jail. This time she was expecting a baby. They left her shackled until the pains of labour came upon her. Then they loosened her to have the baby, and “with the help and grace of God” she escaped. After her husband found her they fled across the mountains and through the Black Forest to Germany.
That woman, Anna (Baer) Meyli, was my ancestor, eleven generations removed.
When I repented and chose to follow Christ at the age of fifteen, I wanted nothing more than to follow her on the narrow way—the narrow Anabaptist way—to eternal life. But I did not know for sure which way that was.
We lived among twenty-five kinds of Mennonites and Amish in one densely populated county in southern Ontario. Even our local Hutterite colony had divided into two groups on one property. From the most “liberal” to the most “conservative,” every shade of Anabaptism was represented there. Every group claimed to be a legitimate heir of the “Anabaptist heritage” we all had in common, and they all claimed to be travelling on the narrow way. But their claims became jumbled in my mind.
During the 1950s, my parent's group (which had split off another one in 1917) suffered a deep inner crisis. My parents then took part in establishing the group in which I was born and spent my childhood. When I was 13 we entered another time of turmoil, and my father became the lead minister of a new brotherhood. Then, two years later, we practically disintegrated, and now, by the time I was a young teenager, we were not attending church at all.
That a true remnant of the true church still existed somewhere—surely somewhere—among all the groups of Anabaptist descendants, we felt certain. My father spoke of making a trip through the eastern United States and visiting all the groups that looked like possibilities for a “Biblical” church home. He took the Mennonite Yearbook and made a list of the congregations whose ministers did not have telephones. But we had little hope that the trip would do any good. All our lives we had lived in a constant struggle over issues involving the use of chain saws, neck ties, oil stoves, drains in bathtubs, the number of pleats in women's veilings, chrome cupboard-door handles, lawn chairs, white figure skates, flush toilets, unpainted barns and painted implement sheds, roofs on silos, hydraulic cylinders, motors on grain binders, contact lenses… The possibilities for disagreement seemed endless, and we knew that feelings ran high.
My parents, by now excommunicated and in the ban by three groups, faced tremendous animosity on every side. All of my thirty-six uncles and aunts (including the in-laws) lived within a ten-mile radius of our home. All of them drove horses and buggies and dressed in dark homemade clothing, but of these there were many whom I had never met, and in whose homes I had never been. I did not know most of my first cousins (some of whom grew up within walking distance of our home) and now, when my grandfather died seven miles away, the messengers drove past our lane but did not stop to tell us about it.
My parents never wavered in their dedication to Anabaptist beliefs. They kept on looking for something suitable among the groups. One of my sisters had contact with the Amish. But I turned, on long Sundays at home, to the Anabaptist writings...
Late on a cold afternoon in 1975 a Städtler (a man from the city) stepped from the Canadian winter into the dim light of our horse stable where I was working. His car had slid off the road and he had gotten stuck. I pulled him out with the heavy team and he gave me fifteen dollars. Another man gave me ten for the same reason, and I began to look forward to fresh snowfalls. With my money I bought the Complete Writings of Menno Simons, the Aelteste Chronik der Hutterischen Brüder, the Ausbund, the Artikel und Ordnungen der Christlichen Gemeinde and all other Anabaptist-Mennonite books I could afford. A friend of our family, J. Winfield Fretz of Conrad Grebel College, took a special interest in my studies. He gave me valuable books and directed me to Mennonite college archives in the United States and Canada. Another Mennonite professor, Frank H. Epp, became a personal friend and inspiration to me. He let me “work” on his unpublished manuscripts and introduced me to Anabaptist social concerns.
Then I met a World War II refugee from Yugoslavia. This man, living in the city of Kitchener, Ontario, knew history and owned a wealth of rare and untranslated Anabaptist writings. He was not primarily a historian, nor a scholar, but he spent hours with me, a fifteen-year-old, intensely, earnestly, calling me beyond what I knew of the Anabaptists into strange and exciting territory.
It was in my contacts with this man, and while reading the literature he gave to me from the Anabaptists in southern Germany and Moravia, that I began to sense, for the first time, a clue to their secret. I began to sense an incredible power behind the things they wrote, the power of a new world coming, a time when men are free ...and we shall be his people and He shall reign in peace!
Beyond the darkness and gloom of four centuries, beyond the tunnels of the traditional, the historical, and the academical, I began to see a strange new light in the accounts of those who went out “with shining eyes” to die. Dimly at first, but slowly and surely it dawned on me as a young teenager, that this light from heaven would surely break forth again, and that someday a strong wind would blow and the raindrops and clouds would be gone ...and the darkness would leave me, and the sunshine would see me, as I walk ...as I walk ...a new road.
That new road has been longer and rougher and narrower than I expected, and it is definitely taking me to where I did not plan to go. It is taking me from the shelter of a long-established “background” into the raw uncertainty of going out, not knowing where to or with whom. It is taking me from the riches of my “goodly heritage” into dreadful loneliness—the forsaken loneliness of the cross, where all men are equally poor. It is taking me from the familiar traditions of my childhood, out into a frightening, totally unknown world, where “backgrounds” do not count, where terrible consequences must be taken in stride, where glances into the dark night ahead make the blood run cold ...with visions of hatred and rejection, of high-sounding religious denunciations, of fierce opposition from family and friends, a world of coercion, of fire-arms and murder, of castle dungeons and bloody torture, of treachery and terror and death... This new road, I have discovered, is the road of the woman who had her baby in jail.
Do you want to be on it?
If not, you should forget about finding the secret of the strength and stop reading this book.
From Where Did the Anabaptists Come?
They came from “no where.” Right out of the Dark Ages, out of incredibly corrupt state churches, the Anabaptists (Ludwig Keller and E. H. Broadbent notwithstanding) stepped as a totally new and different movement.
Were they somehow connected to the first Christians?
No, they were not. The early Christians were Jewish, Greek, or Latin people in flowing robes. The Anabaptists were north Europeans in black hats and broadfall pants.
The Anabaptists, although they respected the early Christians, made no attempt to “reproduce” them exactly. A thousand miles and a thousand years apart, they had little in common except the New Testament and the secret of the great strength.
Once this became clear to me I started seeing things in history:
After Pentecost, Jews from Parthia, Media, Elam, Babylon, Cappadocia, and other places joined the Jews of Judaea who believed in Christ. Jewish Christians, all of whom could trace their ancestry back to Abraham, were circumcised and wore beards. They ate Kosher foods and kept the Sabbath holy. But they followed Christ, and Christianity soon broke out of the bounds of Judaism.
After Paul's conversion and Peter's visit to Cornelius, hundreds and eventually thousands of Greeks from all over Alexander's former realm—Greek merchants and lawyers, Greek doctors, educated Greeks, Greeks given to profound thought, athletic Greeks, Greeks used to idolatry and total abandon to immorality, Greek masters and slaves—repented, believed, and got baptized. They followed Christ, and it wasn't long until Christianity was predominantly Greek, centred in the Hellenistic regions of Syria, Egypt, and Asia Minor. Paul wrote his letters in Greek and the rest of the New Testament, if not originally conceived in that language, was soon known only in Greek texts.
Greek, the “world language” and “world culture” of the times, gave the Christians a place on the cutting edge of current events. But Christianity soon broke out of the bounds of Hellenism.
With the decline of Greek influence in the western part of the empire, Latin Rome came into its own. Jews from Rome witnessed the birth of Christianity in Jerusalem. Perhaps it was they, or other early missionaries who carried it to Latin Italy and northern Africa. Whatever the case, it wasn't long until thousands of clear-thinking Latins, Europeans at heart and, like the Greeks, uncircumcised, had joined the Jews and the Greeks in following Christ. From these Latin Christians, centred at Carthage and Rome, came such inspired thinkers as the bishop Clement of Rome, Mark Felix, and Tertullian. Latin Christians carried the Gospel throughout the far reaches of the Roman empire: to the Celts in Britain and Ireland, to Iberia (Spain and Portugal), to the Gauls in what later became France, and to Celtic tribes living in the Alps and down the Danube valley. But Christianity soon broke out of the bounds of the Roman Empire.
As early as 1800 B.C. (about the time Jacob fled to Padan-Aram) small bands of families had found their way from Mesopotamia and the Indus valley north through Persia and the Ukraine, through central Europe to the shores of the North Sea. There they called themselves Teutsch (German).
The Germans lived a wild life, planting few crops and hunting to make up the slack. The “Indians of Europe,” they thrived in cold forests and wetlands along the sea. They grew rapidly in number, pushing ever southward until they inhabited the Black forest and the mountains of Swabia. They pushed north (the Vikings) to occupy Scandinavia, west into England, east into Russia, and eventually south into Italy and Asia Minor.
These German raiders had no taste for Latin or Greek culture. They smashed temples, slaughtered ruthlessly, and took children along with their spoil. Through this practice they unwittingly brought home something that changed their ways forever.
On a raid to the south, around the time of Constantine the Great, German tribesmen kidnapped a Cappadocian boy named Ulfilas. He believed in Christ.
Unlike most captives before him, Ulfilas did not lose himself in barbarian ways. Carried north through the Balkan mountains, he crossed the Danube river with his captors and found himself outside the Roman Empire—out in the wilds with a wild people, but he did not lose heart. He learned German and began to tell his captors about Christ. Long blond hair falling around their fur-clad shoulders, rough men with beards and hefty women sitting around campfires listened to him, fascinated. Their hearts responded to the story of Christ. One by one they believed, repented of their sins, and began to follow Christ themselves. Ulfilas baptized them in water. Before long, a nucleus of Christians developed among the wild people north of the Danube. Ulfilas, using the Greek and Latin he knew, invented for them a German alphabet. He taught them how to read and translated first the Gospels, then the letters of Paul, and finally most of the Old Testament into German.
In 341 A.D. Ulfilas traveled south to his homeland in “civilized” Asia. In Nicomedia, the city where an old bishop, Eusebius, lived, he told of the Germans who had turned to following Christ. Eusebius ordained Ulfilas to be an apostle to the Germans.