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The Radical Reformation

Recently, Sarah and I spent some time in Lancaster, PA, driving through the scenic country-side and otherwise enjoying my parents’ offer to watch our kids for a couple days. As we followed a covered bridge tour through the Lancaster County country side, we passed horse-and-buggy drivers, one-room schoolhouses, and lots of farm land. At our lunch stop at the Shady Maple Smorgasbord, Sarah remarked that she was fascinated by the lifestyle we had just witnessed. Whether Amish or Mennonite, their plain living and attitude towards outside culture was fascinating. I knew some of the history of the Pennsylvania Dutch from growing up in Eastern Pennsylvania, but the historical connections to the Reformation were fuzzy for me at best. So, on this Reformation Sunday, I thought it would be interesting to consider that lesser-known part of the Reformation which has been called the Radical Reformation. My aim with this reflection is two-fold. I will present a general history of the Radical Reformation first. Then, I will look at its present day existence through the Amish and Mennonite communities.

Contrary to the Lutheran and Reformed streams of the Reformation, the reformers of the Radical Reformation pushed their efforts to the extreme. It has been said by one church historian that the radical reformers looked into the metaphorical drawer of tradition and didn’t like what they saw. So, they threw everything into the trash bin and lit the bin on fire. This was quite different from other reformers who critically evaluated tradition, keeping that which conformed to the teaching of Scripture. Thus, from the beginning, the radical reformers separated themselves from both the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. This brought upon them persecution from both sides, and probably explains in part the isolationist tendencies of the groups that flowed out of the Radical Reformation.

But when and how did the radical reformers get their start? The first mention of radical reformers to my knowledge comes from Zurich in the mid- to late-1520s. As Ulrich Zwingli began to reform that Swiss city, some citizens took issue with the extent of his reforming activities. As they delved into the Scriptures for the first time, they could find no justification for the rather close relationship between the church and city council. Neither could they find justification for infant baptism. Furthermore, the participation of Swiss soldiers in military campaigns as mercenaries struck these people as contrary to the teaching of Jesus. So, they pushed back against Zwingli and sought greater reforms. But neither Zwingli nor the city council supported these radical reformers. Indeed, their position on baptism brought them persecution and even led to the death of some citizens.

But this did not deter the radical reformers, who had been labeled with the pejorative term “re-baptizers” or Anabaptists. Other pockets of radical reformers in southern and northern Germany, Holland, and Switzerland gathered together in communities that sought to push the Reformation to what they saw as its only logical conclusion. However, these reformers did not produce unifying confessions like the Lutherans and Reformed. Again, this was probably in part due to constant persecution. However, the Schleitheim Confession of 1527 is a good representation of the general principles that made these reformers distinct. Among these general principles, a rejection of infant baptism, pacifism, and separation from unbelievers are three that stand out. These are the principles that can be seen most clearly in the modern stains of Anabaptists.

So, that is the brief background of the Radical Reformation. The Amish and Mennonites communities are the fruits of that stream of the Reformation. In general, these communities come from the leadership of Menno Simons, a Dutch Anabaptist leader who avoided the excesses of the Munster rebellion (ask me about it later) and encouraged pietistic elements of faith. Because of his leadership, many groups of Anabaptists began to be identified by his first name. Thus, Mennonites as a group was born. The Amish come from a related group of Anabaptists, but were known primarily for their policy of shunning those outside of and expelled from their community.

Due to the persecution that they faced in Germany, Holland, and Switzerland and the religious tolerance that was established in Pennsylvania by William Penn, many of these groups emigrated in the 17th and 18th centuries. As the world about them changed, the most conservative of these groups doubled down on their principle to separate from unbelievers. Hence, the Amish avoid much modern technology. The Mennonites are a more variegated group that spans the continuum from almost total separation to almost total conformance to the world about them. By one estimate, there are about 40 different groups of Mennonites. So, it is difficult to pin them down beyond the general principles of their Anabaptist roots.

If you ever find yourself driving along a country road and passing a horse and buggy, I hope this brief look at the Radical Reformation will give you a greater appreciation for the driver of that buggy.

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