Step-Children of the Reformation

The Anabaptists have in the past been treated rather shabbily, much like the proverbial “step-children.” This is the basic judgment of the Rev. Leonard Verduin whose interest in his subject extends over a period of many years and has stirred him to write this book on The Reformers and Their Step-children.

In a series of chapters, each one headed by one of the defamatory nicknames given this “left” wing of the Reformation, Verduin takes up the various accusations and defends the Anabaptists against them. Called “Donatists,” these people were merely recalling the church from the corruption that followed Constantine’s church-state alliance. Labeled “Stabler,” or “staff–carriers,” they would have the church stop relying on “the sword” and confine itself to using spiritual weapons. Nicknamed “Catharer,” they desired only a return to evangelical purity of faith and life. Named “Sacramentschwarmer,” or “Sacramentarians,” they wanted a complete break with Roman sacramentalism and recognition that salvation is by faith in the gospel and not sacramental manipulation. Derided as “Winckler,” people addicted to secret meetings, all they really desired was a church free of state control. Reproached with the term “Wiedertaufer,” they would only restOre a baptism freed from formalism and superstition. The name “Kommunisten,” too, was in part a slander, and when properly used only meant responsible Christian stewardship. And the term “Rottengeister,” that is “clique-” or “faction-maker,” was really a misrepresentation of their desire for religious freedom. So, in general, runs the argument of the book. The Anabaptists emerge from Verduin’s treatment as the protagonists of virtually everything good in modern Christianity, and the Reformers—their opponents—as the villains of the story.

The author has obviously done a good deal of research, much of it original. He has made himself master of his material, and presents his case in an unusually interesting style. The trouble is that he is, throughout the book, trying to “make a case.” The result of his labor is, therefore, a lawyer’s brief. It lacks the careful, balanced judgment that is essential to serious history.

This partiality towards the Anabaptists is displayed throughout the book. Criticisms of them are summarily dismissed as slanders, their defenses taken at face value; their faults are passed over in silence, their critics portrayed in the worst light possible.

Contributing heavily to this kind of prejudiced judgment is the fact that the author in his treatment of the material tends to reduce all the issues involved to one: the question whether the Christian church should be coextensive with society (which he calls “Christian sacralism”) or a separate voluntaristic group. He views Anabaptism not as a new movement, but simply as a continuation of the medieval dissenting movements. Of them he says, “The one thing the prevailing Church had against the ‘heretics’ was their refusal to go along with ‘Christian sacralism.’ This was their sin, their one and only sin. And it was this sin, and this only, that set the wheels of the Church’s discipline going” (p. 35; cf. p. 119). Although he may (in a footnote) admit that there were unorthodox heretics (p. 34), the book is constructed on the basis that this was the all-important issue.

On this crucial point it is instructive to contrast Verduin’s work with one by Dr. J. Lindeboom. Written 35 years earlier, it even carried a similar title, Stiefkinderen van het Christendom . That work was an effort to analyze and classify the various heretical movements in their bewildering complexity. These differences are largely ignored by Verduin. 10 building his case he lumps them together much as though one today would lump Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Christian Scientists and other such groups with some smaller churches and treating them as presumably orthodox because they oppose an established church! Although some extreme Baptists have tried to rewrite the history of the Middle Ages in this way (as in the notorious tract, “The Trail of Blood,”) their efforts have been too poorly substantiated to gain the respect of historians, Baptists or otherwise. (An interesting study of this subject appears in the article “Landmarkism: Doctrinaire Ecclesiology among Baptists,” by Hugh Wamble in the December, 1964, Church History, pp. 429ff.) Such a restructuring of medieval church history is not so much proved as simply assumed by Verduin in the construction of his book, when he reduces all of the theological issues to that of sacralism and tries to trace a line of real orthodoxy as always at odds with the medieval church.

Subjecting the course of events to so prejudiced a judgment on the basis of the single issue of sacralism produces bizarre results. The medieval church is portrayed as having “taken on the features of the modern police state. The modern totalitarian State has added nothing new, not even that which we now can ‘brainwashing.’” When religious freedom is made the one criterion for judgment, the fact that the medieval church was attempting—though in an improper way—to promote the Christian faith while the modem totalitarian state is attempting to destroy it no longer registers as a significant difference.

We are not too surprised a little later to find Calvin emerging from this kind of treatment as the scoundrel who “must be held largely responsible” for the burning of Servetus. “He planned it beforehand and maneuvered it from start to finish.” And Servetus becomes the innocent victim who “posed no threat to civil serenity,” “something of a scientific genius,” “indeed ‘off the beam’ in matters of religious doctrine,” but not deserving “to be arrested or executed” (pp. 51ff.).

It is interesting to observe the way in which the author handles the charge that the Anabaptists were communists. This accusation is first dismissed as an “old cliche” while the Reformers are roundly condemned for making it. At the same time the author admits that in certain cases they did introduce community of goods, and when they did so he defends the propriety of their having done it (pp. 221ff.)! In either, or perhaps we should say in both, of these contradictory versions of the story the Anabaptists again come out as right and the Reformers as wrong.

After observing this performance the reader begins to wonder what our Anabaptist apologist win do when he comes to the Munster episode. He is even equal to that challenge. The Munster story he dismisses as an exception, not to be linked with the Anabaptist movement as a whole. Its excesses are attributed to mental derangement or “battle fatigue,” for which even the Munsterites can therefore hardly be held responsible. The wickedness of the Reformers is demonstrated by the way in which they insisted on blaming the Anabaptist movement for what was done at Munster. No notice is taken of the tremendous problem of Menno Simons in his efforts to salvage a more moderate Anabaptist movement from this debacle in which it was inescapably involved except that a quotation in which he condemned the excesses of Munster is cited as proof that he and his followers had no connection with it (pp. 237ff.). For some knowledge of these complicated relationships and problems one must turn to such writers as W. J. Kuhler; the reader will gain no inkling of them from Verduin, for they do not help his “case.”

One of the most astounding claims made by Verduin is that the Reformers—and Calvin, in particular—radically misunderstood the real beliefs of the Anabaptists (pp. 47, 59, 229). To many a modern who has been inclined to assume that most people in those days didn’t know what they were talking about anyway, such a claim might appear plausible. When one considers that Calvin experienced some of the greatest successes in his whole career in converting multitudes of AnabaptiSts in Strassburg to the Reformed faith, that he wrote his baptismal form with them in view and himself married the widow of a former Anabaptist minister, and that other Reformed leaders on occasions extended their debates with Anabaptist leaders into as many as 124 and 156 sessions, he can hardly be impressed by Verduin’s charge that the Reformers were ignorant of what their opponents believed.

We need not rely on our own critical judgment to discover that the author’s point of view is strongly prejudiced. The author’s treatment of the material throughout the book is so conSistently biased that at its conclusion he feels compelled to acknowledge it himself and to advance two explanations for it. “One is that the time seems to have come to reverse the derogatory treatment to which these Stepchildren of the Reformation have been traditionally subjected. One can speak very wen of them indeed before he becomes guilty of a bias as pronounced as that of those who have so long spoken evil of them; one can let these Stepchildren play the role of the hero and he will be at least as near to historic truth as is the tradition that has so long assigned to them the role of the rogue….A second reason for the sympathetic treatment given these Radicals of the Reformation is that history has to a large extent demonstrated that they were in large way right” ( p. 276).



In order to understand how this almost totally favorable portrait of the Anabaptists can be drawn in the face of a wealth of contrary evidence we must bear in mind that Anabaptism was not a unified movement but a term for a variety of groups who broke with the Reformers because in their opinion these had retained too much of Roman Catholic tradition. Some authorities have claimed that there came to be as many as forty or fifty such groups. While Verduin admits that there was diversity, he in his book draws a portrait of the ideal Anabaptists and can dismiss criticisms against the movement as not being properly applied to these Anabaptists, but rather to some of the others who were not “typical.”

This portrait of the idealized Anabaptists is drawn the more readily through the author’s facility for jumping freely from place to place and from one period of time to another. This makes his representation more vivid and entertaining, but also makes the question inevitable whether or in how far his idealized portrait conforms to historical reality.

As has been observed, the book characteristically reduces the issues involved in this history to the one important one of “Christian sacralism.” The early church had been a minority group confronted by an alien state and world culture. After Constantine all this was changed. The church adopted and tried to realize and maintain the ideal of a “Christian society” with a coextensive and closely-allied state and church. When the Reformation came, the Reformers—after some hesitation—attempted to maintain this “Christian sacralism.” The Anabaptists, like many medieval dissenting sects, rejected it as a betrayal of the Christian faith. On this issue Verduin unhesitatingly defends them and joins them in condemning the Reformers.

It is highly significant that the Anabaptists in their condemnation of the ideal of a Christian society and state appealed to the New Testament as leaving no room for such an ideal. The Reformers pointed out that the New Testament was not to be separated from the Old Testament, which certainly envisioned a godly society, culture and government, and repeatedly defended their “Christian sacralism” by appealing to the Old Testament. On this point also Verduin sides with the Anabaptists, assuming as an ideal, “the societal composition of the New Testament” (p. 90). He says that “the Reformers sought to construe the New Testament Church after the lineaments of the Old Testament” (p. 131), and that they fell into “the error of not appropriating the teaching, found so unmistakably present in the Epistle of the Hebrews, for example, that the Old Testament is superseded by the New” (p. 211; cf. pp. 23, 78, 102, 126).

By assuming this Baptistic starting point Verduin’s treatment of the medieval church and of the Reformers in their differences with the Anabaptists is almost totally unsympathetic. Although he acknowledges the Reformers’ political difficulties, and belatedly in the “Postscript” admits that the Anabaptists had not really solved the cultural problem (pp. 277, 278), he never really comes to grips with the problem that the church had to face after Constantine. When the church was no longer a persecuted minority, but the authorities themselves became Christians and began asking the question, “What would the Lord have us do for his kingdom?” what answer must the church give? The answer of the Anabaptists (and Verduin ) is, in effect, “Such a situation is by the definition of the New Testament church impossible!” and “Church and state must remain separate.” Verduin, taking his place in the modern American tradition of such a separation, may condemn the medieval church and the Reformers for not seeing this, but when he does so he does considerably less than justice to either. One can hardly blame Constantine or the medieval church or the Reformers for failing to take for granted the modem American position. We will have to criticize them as misguided in resorting to religious coercion, and point out the faults of the “church-state” alliance and the theory of a church coextensive with society, as Verduin does. But if we try to face the situation from their point of view, considering the circumstances that they had not created but through which they had to grope for a way, we can hardly be content with the wholesale denunciation and sometimes scathing ridicule to which Verduin exposes them. Our criticism may be the more tempered when we consider that our American “solution” of an increasingly secular state and culture steadily reveals itself to be somewhat less than the realization of the Biblical ideal that Verduin’s thesis implies that it is.

Verduin’s adoption of the Anabaptist ideal of a “New Testament church” in opposition to the Reformers’ ideal of a Biblical (New-and Old-Testament) church with concern for a Christian SOCiety, leads him to glorify the American “cultural compositism” in which men “get along peacefully in the market place even though they do not worship at the same shrine” (p. 21). He considers that the New Testament teaches “that there are resources in the as yet not regenerated human heart, due to the remnants of original righteousness left after the Fall, resources that are adequate for the affairs of state, loyalties that are adequate for the political level …” (p. 22). “The New Testament vision implies that as long as Church and State weed each in its own garden there will be a tolerable modus vivendi.” “It is implied in the New Testament vision that Christianity is not a culture-creating thing but rather a culture-influencing one.” “…There can never be such a thing as a Christian culture; there can only be cultures in which the influence of Christianity is more or less apparent.” “New Testament ideology … is satisfied to add the Christian voice to the cultural ensemble” (p. 24). When one assumes this position, which repudiates the idea of a Christian culture, it is evident that there is no longer much if any reason left for urging the establishing of Christian industrial, social, political, and educational organizations. One may still defend the right to have a Christian school on the basis that society should preserve freedom of choice also in this area. But since Christianity is only to be advocated as an ingredient in a composite culture, there would appear to be little reason for going to the trouble of establishing one. We are not surprised to find a Reformed leader such as Abraham Kuyper, whose name has been particularly associated with such movements, severely criticized as a “Christian sacralist” (pp. 61, 79). Although the author adopts the Anabaptist views of the Bible, of a strictly New Testament church—“The New Testament Scriptures…know no Church other than the believers’ Church, a Church based on personal faith” (p. 19)—he evidently still maintains the practice of infant baptism. The reader, following the argument of the book, is left wondering why.

Summing up, we note with appreciation that the book shows extensive new research, contains passages of brilliant analysis, and presents a thesis that demands the attention of the historian. Due account must be taken of and credit given for the contributions of the Step-children in the history of the Christian faith, or more correctly. what God has revealed through their labors. This book is an important one for anyone who would make extensive study of the Reformation or of the Anabaptist movement. It is to be regretted that its extreme partisanship, its tendency to over-simplification, and its numerous rash judgments prevent it from being reliable history. If one would read this book as his sole source of information on the Reformers and their Step-children, without knowing the other presentations against which the author protests, he would probably finish it with a more distorted view of them than he had when he began. The Reformers have deserved far better treatment than this at the hands of their children. Even their modern step-children often deal more fairly with them.

In this contribution the Rev. Peter De Jong pastor of the Christian Reformed Church, Smithers, British Columbia, analyzes and assesses the positions taken by the Rev. Leonard Verduin in his recent work on the Anabaptists entitled, THE REFORMERS AND THEIR STEP-CHILDREN. The reviewer recently awarded the Th.M. degree in Church History from Washington State University, having submitted a thesis which dealt with the relations between Anabaptists and Calvinists in the Netherlands in the early days of the Reformation.