1According to the most prevalent popular view, Anabaptism stems from a radicalization of the mainstream Protestant Reformation initiated by Martin Luther in Wittenberg in 1517, furthered by Zwingli in Zürich, and subsequently carried to completion by their followers along with Calvin in Geneva and others throughout Europe in the decades to follow. Viewed in terms of a right-left continuum of theological thought, it is standard to place the Catholics all the way to the right as most “conservative”; the so-called Magisterial Reformation of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin in the middle; and the Anabaptists all the way to the left as the radical or even left wing of the Reformation. So far so good, as long as we are content to view history as a progressive series of causes and their subsequent effects. An organic account of the theology of the earlier Anabaptist movement, however, makes this kind of assessment highly questionable, if not impossible (Ritschl 70–71; Davis 295).
2So, what is problematic about viewing Anabaptism as the radicalization of the Reformation? The answer is that on a number of key points the early Anabaptists explicitly rejected the position taken by the Magisterial Protestant Reformers and instead employed ideas found in late medieval Catholic thought. In terms of theology, this centers on the fact that the Anabaptists unequivocally repudiated the central doctrinal tenet of the mainstream Reformation––the doctrine of justification by faith alone (Ritschl 72; Davis 90, 294–95)––and instead employed conceptions of justification akin to those found in the various strands of late medieval theology.
3We can start by defining justification as what happens when God saves a sinner through grace with the implication that, once justified, the person is now righteous before God. For Luther and Calvin, this means that a change in legal status before God has occurred when God declares a sinner righteous on behalf of Christ’s righteousness, even though that person actually remains a sinner. That is, for the Magisterial Reformation Christians are quite simply “saved sinners.” Luther’s famous Latin expression for this state of affairs is simul justus et peccator, a phrase which becomes valid at the onset of Christian life when new believers recognize themselves as sinners and begin to have faith in Christ. In other words, Christian believers are justified by faith alone; no further works or additional actions are necessary. By contrast, for late medieval Catholicism justification was rather generally understood to occur at the end of the Christian life as the conclusion of the process of sanctification—a process to which believers, through grace, also necessarily contributed. It was at the end of this process, when believers were understood to have actually become holy, that justification before God was understood to occur (McGrath 46–54, 59–72). Although both the Magisterial Reformation and the medieval understandings of justification and sanctification were understood to be dependent on divine grace, Luther separated justification and sanctification, pulling the former to the beginning of the Christian life and equating it with salvation. Justification was thus understood as a legal declaration of “not guilty” ascribed by God to the sinner, whereas for medieval Catholicism it was understood to be the conclusion of the process of sanctification in which the believer was literally made free from guilt, i.e. holy, and thus worthy of God’s love. Against this backdrop, Luther’s poignant statement from the “Heidelberg Disputation” is instructive: “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it” (24).
4In their writings, many early Anabaptist theologians demonstrate that their understanding of divine grace and justification is far more indebted to the medieval understanding than to that of Luther whose view on justification by faith alone they explicitly reject. Alvin J. Beachy writes that “grace is for the Radical Reformers not so much a forensic change in status before God as it is an ontological change within the individual believer” (4–5; 70, 228). As opposed to Luther, this change begins not with a mere acknowledgement of one’s sinfulness, but with actual repentance from sin (Beachy 18, 70). Accordingly, the believer is not just declared righteous while still remaining a sinner but rather comes to participate in the being of God in this life—that is, the believer is literally made righteous by the infusion of God’s grace. The difference here is profound, for in Luther and Calvin’s version the believer can only share in an “alien righteousness,” the righteousness of Christ (Luther “Two Kinds,” 119–125; Luther “Lectures,” 90; Calvin 753–54), whereas in the medieval Catholic and the Anabaptist view, divine grace is literally poured into the believer, making the believer righteous.
5In connection to their understanding of grace, early Anabaptist theologians explicitly rejected other theological points intrinsically related to the doctrine of justification the Magisterial Reformers taught. First, early Anabaptists, such as Michael Sattler, explicitly rejected Luther’s emphasis on faith alone as requisite for justification, claiming rather that faith was always the basis for works of love, which—though originating in God—were its necessary conclusion (Sattler “On the Satisfaction,” 108–118; Davis 123). For Luther, however, it was impossible to make justification depend on good works in any way since the justified Christian always also remained a sinner. Beyond this, early Anabaptist theologians, such as Balthasar Hubmaier, rejected the Magisterial Reformers’ teachings on divine predestination which is the idea that God elects certain individuals to salvation (and possibly also to damnation). Further, Hubmaier rejected the notion of the “bondage of the will,” a doctrine of the Magisterial Reformation, which meant that as a result of the fall into sin, humans quite simply lack the ability to repent from sin and have faith in Christ on their own without grace (Davis 103). In addition to rejecting predestination, a number of Anabaptists explicitly stated that humans had retained free will with respect to faith despite the fall into sin (Beachy 46–56; Davis 102). Thus, with regard to divine grace and its corollaries, the Anabaptist position is simply not a radicalization of the Magisterial Protestant one, but rather its explicit rejection.
6This is not to say, however, that early Anabaptists uncritically adopted any particular medieval Catholic position—a possible second option—because major differences remain. For example, medieval theology tended to focus on the necessary presuppositions to receiving divine grace as well as a doctrine of merits by which God gave believers grace to earn the merits which God then rewarded with eternal life. Anabaptist thought, by contrast, typically focused on the holiness that resulted from the receipt of divine grace and the works of love flowing from it, explicitly rejecting the medieval system of merits (Beachy 25–28).
7This necessarily extended to the church and the sacraments. Similar to the Magisterial Reformers, the Anabaptists did indeed reject the medieval sacramental system along with the Pope and the authority of the Church in Rome. In this regard, however, the Anabaptist rejection of the Catholic position did not entail an adoption of what ultimately became the Protestant one. Here, the Magisterial Protestants retained the ordination of a specially educated clergy and the right as well as the necessity of having this clergy preside over the remaining sacraments: baptism and holy communion. By contrast, as expressed in the Schleitheim Confession of 1527, it was standard for early Anabaptist communities to abolish ordination and choose their pastors or “shepherds” from among the members of their particular community (Sattler “Schleitheim,” 38–39). With respect to the sacraments, the difference is equally stark: Luther, for example, retained the objective presence of Jesus Christ regardless of the believer’s faith whereas the Anabaptists stressed that the believer’s faith ensured the efficacy of holy communion. With respect to baptism, Luther retained an objective presence and working of God apart from the believer’s faith and therefore had theological justification for the practice of infant baptism (Luther “Concerning”), a practice the Anabaptists completely rejected (Davis 203–05).
8Thus, with regard to grace, good works, the church, and the sacraments, the Magisterial Protestant position is clearly not situated between a medieval Catholic position on the right and an Anabaptist position on the left. Whereas the activities of Luther and Zwingli did serve as a kind of efficient cause enabling Anabaptism to spring to life, the organic interrelations of Anabaptist thought show that Anabaptism is clearly not a radicalization of Magisterial Reformation. This is also evident in the fact that many Anabaptist distinctives were formulated prior to or consecutively with the corresponding Magisterial Protestant ones (Davis 295). However, since early Anabaptist divergences from medieval Catholicism were sharply different from how Magisterial Protestantism diverged from medieval Catholicism, Anabaptism cannot simply be labeled a version of Catholicism stripped of the Pope, the Church, and the sacraments.
Impact of Anabaptist Thought on American Culture
9This realization allows us to engage in a third option, namely that Anabaptism is more or less sui generis, that is, a movement focused on the restitution of early church practice derived from the New Testament that arose during the Reformation. For Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, for example, the term “radical” implicitly refers more to the nature of church restitution centered on the early church proposed by the Anabaptists than to their departure from the Magisterial Reformation (Yoder “Anabaptism and History,” 124–27; Beachy 87, 205–07, 227–30; Klaassen Anabaptism, 8–9). In this case, the Radical Reformation is understood to have continued the work rooted in the New Testament that the Magisterial Reformation began but ultimately abandoned (Yoder “Radical Reformation,” 107). In outlining this position, Yoder argues that Anabaptism’s ethical distinctives were developed for their own sake and are not mere implications of other more foundational theological positions (107–08). This thesis is certainly compelling and—with respect to certain features of early Anabaptist belief and practice—also correct; however, an organic account of early Anabaptist belief and practice shows that the theological continuities with medieval Catholicism cannot be ignored.
10Fine. But, so what? Why are the theological origins of Anabaptism important, whether medieval Catholic, Protestant, unique, or a mix of all three? If Anabaptism is seen as having only a minority voice in American life, then these origins may not in fact be all that important beyond those interested in the topic. Let us assume for the moment, however, that this is not the case, and that the reception and influence of Anabaptist thinking has actually had a profound impact on American life and culture. If this were the case, then Anabaptism could have much to tell us about the origins of our current cultural situation. In the next part of this paper, I will argue that particular elements of Anabaptist thought have deeply influenced both American religious and secular life.
11The direct influence of Anabaptist thought has generally been considered negligible in comparison to that of mainstream Protestantism in America both from Calvin and the Reformed via Puritanism as well as from the churches descending from the English Baptists. In the latter case, the influence of Anabaptism on the English Baptists has been hotly debated since they share some strong theological similarities only (McBeth 52–56). Yet, Anabaptist thought did have a profound though indirect effect through its prior influence on a movement called Continental Pietism in the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe (Ritschl 105). Continental Pietism appeared directly in a number of the American colonies and subsequently reappeared to some degree in the Methodism of John Wesley and Francis Asbury—as a primary forbear of many forms of modern American Evangelicalism—in the late 18th century (Noll 34, 60). Notable similarities between Anabaptist theology and American thought express a preference for pragmatism and individual (religious) experience over metaphysical and speculative thinking. Furthermore, despite the experiential individualism inherent in American religiosity, there has generally been a strong focus on community as well as lay participation in church life (Klaassen “Modern Relevance,” 295–99), both of which are unquestionably characteristic of Anabaptism.
Conceptions of Divine Grace
12As interesting as those points of contact are, however, I want to continue to explore how early Anabaptist writers conceived of divine grace. Three well-known Anabaptist distinctives are directly connected to this conception of grace. First, a separation from and/or renouncement of the world; second, a refusal to participate in the state; and third, imminent expectations of the end of the age and the arrival of a new Christian millennium.
13The early Anabaptist understanding of grace implies that righteous believers who participate in the being of God in the here and now are to be separated from the world (Beachy 87–99), a view that makes perfectly good sense within this particular theological framework: You cannot participate in the being of the holy God and the sinful world at the same time. Prior to the Anabaptists, this notion of biblical provenance was most literally implemented in the way some Western monastic orders were understood to be separate from the institutional church in the world (Harnack 35–42; Ritschl 80). By contrast, the Magisterial Reformers abolished monasticism and maintained a distinction between a visible church––that is, a church in the world including both true and false believers––and an invisible church of true believers who were elected by God. However, they did not strictly distinguish between religious and non-religious spheres. Instead, they saw the state as a safeguard for both the religious and the general public spheres, though it was neither to be completely irreligious nor overly involved in particular theological matters (Calvin 1485–1521).
14The Anabaptists, however, explicitly rejected any distinction between a visible and an invisible church, meaning that there was only a visible church in the world and it was composed of true believers. As Davis writes, “the Anabaptist doctrine of the church is also molded around and dominated by a theology of ascetic holiness,” which means that the church is “to be made up only of repentant, spiritually regenerate, and voluntarily baptized believers, who then function corporately as a holy living disciplined brotherhood” (Davis 209). Accordingly, many of the early Anabaptists maintained a strict institutional separation between their communities and the world. Whereas they did understand God to be active outside the church in the world, they refused to take oaths and participate in war on behalf of a state (Sattler “Schleitheim”). The refusal of oaths and the sword clearly correlates to the Anabaptist understanding of grace. The Magisterial Protestants, of course, went in the opposite direction.
15Finally, the Anabaptist understanding of grace—along with its social implications—means that Christians are no longer really at home in this world. In fact, the presupposition—at least early on—was that the end of the world had to be near (Ritschl 75, 80; Davis 212–14; Beachy 56–58; Williams 1303–06). Thus, millennialism in various forms, both positive and negative, was maintained in early Anabaptism. In other words, the present age would end and a new age of paradise would subsequently begin for believers. Again, however, millennialism was explicitly rejected by the Magisterial Reformers (Mühling 244), though it was later picked up in various forms by Continental Pietism and developed in terms of a secular doctrine of progress in the philosophy of the Enlightenment (229–33). Therefore, the separation of the church from the world and the state as well as Christian millennialism are much more a characteristic of Anabaptist thought than of Magisterial Protestantism.
Separation of Church and State
16These theological notions, extending from the Anabaptist understanding of grace have profoundly influenced religious life in America, particularly with regard to the so-called separation of church and state. Today, we tend to think of the separation of church and state as being the exclusive product of an objectively neutral reason dispassionately defining the boundaries between the realms of the secular and the religious, public and private, matters of fact and mere opinion. This setup is supposed to produce a society characterized by religious diversity, tolerance, and reason—a society that will, in fact, become increasingly prosperous over time as the boundaries between the religious and the secular are ever more clearly defined. A substantial portion of contemporary academic work and actual problems in American society, such as the integration of immigrants with non-Western backgrounds and the debates over whether Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays is a more appropriate greeting, have demonstrated these supposedly universal human ideals not only to be highly problematic, but also as contextually determined as any particular religious beliefs (Fitzgerald).
17Further, with regard to immigration to the New World, this is only half the story at best. Why? Because we in fact know that most of the religious groups that came to the New World did so in order to remove themselves from the mainstream political and theological cultures of the Old World and establish their own new agendas (Noll 53). Whereas religious liberty was vitally important to the 16th century Anabaptists (Klaassen, “Modern Relevance,” 303) and the many groups who left Europe for America in pursuit of religious freedom, this did not generally mean they wanted to share a common life with others in a religiously plural society. As religious pluralism and tolerance in the colonies were initially only found in Quaker Pennsylvania and Catholic Maryland, the point of coming to the New World for most groups was rather to establish a new, independent, and religiously exclusive society.
18Whereas most mainline Protestant Christians in America today have come to accept and herald the separation of church and state as being a uniquely Protestant idea, this notion is quite opposed to the writings of Magisterial Reformers. In fact, wherever the influence of the Magisterial Reformation was strongest in the early colonies, those colonies leaned towards the establishment of a state church, for example, the Puritans in Massachusetts and the Anglicans in Virginia, both of Reformed (i.e. Presbyterian) provenance (Noll 32–34). The Anabaptist understanding of the independence of the church and its separation from other churches, the state, and the world has been more originally at home in American religious life than in classical Protestant thought. Thus, instead of viewing them as a mere religious oddity, it is just as possible to see the Amish as one of the ultimately more successful of the various religious groups to settle in the New World. A separation between church and state in America is as much the result of practical necessity deriving from religious exclusivism as it is the result of the successful implementation of a particular secular ideology of pluralism, tolerance, or diversity (Noll 44–45, 75–77).
19I want to suggest here that the modern notion of the separation of church and state is both historically and theoretically reliant not on a notion of pluralism but rather exclusivity and that this exclusivism lies at the heart of much of the cultural warfare in contemporary American life. Even though I have traced at least one strand in the provenance of this idea through the influence of Anabaptist thought, I am certainly not suggesting that any group of 16th, 17th, or 18th century Anabaptists should be held accountable to a postmodern take on an ideal such as religious pluralism. By contrast, what I do want to suggest is that it is precisely within the uniquely Anabaptist conception of the church community that potential solutions to some of our contemporary ills can be found.
20Today, we are frequently told that in order to make a positive contribution to a peaceful, prosperous, and pluralistic society, we must ensure that our private and personal religious beliefs and practices always acknowledge the prior and more foundational claim of the supposed religiously tolerant, rational, and inherently neutral public sphere. On this point Timothy Fitzgerald writes of “the tacit modern assumption […] that ‘religion’ is a private, non-political assent to a belief in God and a future state that is essentially separated from a public, non-religious domain of ‘politics’” (212–13). These notions and the categorical distinctions on which they depend have been mainstays of the modern understanding of church and state. This, of course, will not ultimately lead to pluralism and tolerance, but rather to precisely the kind of cultural hegemony from which those coming to the New Word fled in the first place. Thus, it is the uniquely Anabaptist concept of community in contrast to the world which can serve as a model for how groups can maintain their exceptional cultural and religious identities while at the same time participating in a pluralistic civil society. In this sense, it would hopefully be possible for more groups to follow the lead of many contemporary Anabaptist groups in not forsaking but rather maintaining their exclusivity internally, understood in terms of theological and cultural particularity, while not making this a basis for exclusivity externally—particularly with regard to violence and compulsion—over and against other groups.
21Yoder’s work is helpful at this point in suggesting that the Anabaptist ethic is not inherently exclusivist, but has rather been placed in this position by the dominant cultural paradigms surrounding it (Yoder “Radical Reformation,” 115–16; Yoder “Anabaptism and History,” 125–26; Yoder “Christian Case,” 165–66; Davis 70; Klaassen “Anabaptist Understanding,”). A significant element in Yoder’s argument is that Anabaptist distinctives—such as their understanding of the church and their pacifism—were first order elements in their own right as derived from their reading of the New Testament, rather than being conclusions derived from a more basic set of theological premises. Although I have argued above that these Anabaptist distinctives are organically and necessarily connected to their fundamental theological particularities (especially with regard to divine grace), we may nonetheless take up Yoder’s suggestion that any exclusivism is at least as much an implication of the prevailing cultural paradigm as of any particular internal necessity. That is, there is no need for contemporary Anabaptists to be “less Anabaptist” in order to engage in and with modern civil society, for this would only imply subordination to the dominant culture. In other words, the Anabaptist understanding of grace—instead of denoting exclusion and separation—can just as much serve as a basis for their relationship to civil society in terms of, for instance, moral critique and servanthood. My personal encounter with contemporary Anabaptist thinkers and their communities shows that this has long been the case and that we all have a great deal yet to learn from the radicals of the Reformation.
Beachy, Alvin J. The Concept of Grace in the Radical Reformation. Nieuwkoop: De Graaf, 1977. Print.
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Ed. John T. McNeil. Vol. 2. Louisville, KY: Knox, 1960. Print.
Davis, Kenneth Ronald. Anabaptism and Asceticism: A Study in Intellectual Origins. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1974. Print.
Finger, Tom N. A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004. Print.
Fitzgerald, Timothy, “Encompassing Religion, Privatized Religions and the Invention of Modern Politics.” Religion and the Secular: Historical and Colonial Formations. Ed. Fitzgerald. London: Equinox, 2007. 211–240. Print.
Harnack, Adolf von. Das Mönchtum, seine Ideale und seine Geschichte. Giessen: Töpelmann, 1907. Print.
Klaassen, Walter. Anabaptism: Neither Catholic Nor Protestant. 1952. Rev. ed. Waterloo, ON: Conrad Press, 1981. Print.
—. “The Anabaptist Understanding of the Separation of the Church.” Church History 46 (1977): 421–36. Print.
—. “The Modern Relevance of Anabaptism.” Umstrittenes Täufertum 1525–1975: Neue Forschung. Ed. Hans-Jürgen Goertz. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1977. 290–304. Print.
Luther, Martin. “Concerning Rebaptism.” 1528. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings. Ed. Timothy F. Lull and William R. Russell. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012. 240–60. Print.
—. “Heidelberg Disputation.” 1518. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings. Ed. Timothy F. Lull and William R. Russell. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012. 14–25. Print.
—. “Lectures on Galatians.” 1535. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings. Ed. Timothy F. Lull and William R. Russell. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012. 86–92. Print.
—. “The Two Kinds of Righteousness.” 1519. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings. Ed. Timothy F. Lull and William R. Russell. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012. 119–125. Print.
Locke, John. “A Letter Concerning Toleration.” 1685. John Locke: Political Writings. Ed. David Wootton. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003. 390–436. Print.
McBeth, H. Leon. The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness. Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1987. Print.
McGrath, Alister. Justitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification. 3rd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. Print.
Mühling, Markus. The T&T Clark Handbook of Christian Eschatology. Trans. Jennifer Adams-Maßmann and David Andrew Gilland. London: Clark, 2015. Print.
Noll, Mark A. The Old Religion in a New World: The History of North American Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002. Print.
Ozment, Steven E. Homo Spiritualis: A Comparative Study of the Anthropology of Johannes Tauler, Jean Gerson and Martin Luther (1509–16) in the Context of Their Theological Thought. Leiden: Brill, 1969. Print.
Ritschl, Albrecht. “Prolegomena to the History of Pietism (1880).” Three Essays. Trans. Philip Hefner. Eugene, OR: Wipf, 1972. Print.
Sattler, Michael, “On the Satisfaction of Christ.” 1527. The Legacy of Michael Sattler. Classics of the Radical Reformation. Ed. John Howard Yoder. Vol. 1. Scottdale, PA: Herald 1973. 108–20. Print.
—. “The Schleitheim Brotherly Union.” 1527. The Legacy of Michael Sattler. Classics of the Radical Reformation. Ed. John Howard Yoder. Vol. 1. Scottdale: Herald 1973. 27–43. Print.
Yoder, John Howard, “Anabaptism and History.” The Priestly Kingdom. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984. 124–34. Print.
—. “The Christian Case for Democracy.” The Priestly Kingdom. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984. 151–71. Print.
—. “Radical Reformation Ethics in Ecumenical Perspective.” The Priestly Kingdom. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984. 105–22. Print.
Williams, George Huntston. The Radical Reformation. Kirksville, MO: Truman State U, 1995. Print.
 Kenneth Ronald Davis (1974) emphasizes the humanist influences of Erasmus and the Devotio Moderna tradition on early Anabaptism. Much earlier, Albrecht Ritschl (1880) discusses the Franciscan Tertiaries, a lay organization in the tradition of Francis of Assisi, as a key source of Anabaptist belief and practice, a thesis which Davis in part affirms (232–43). Steven Ozment (1969) investigates the influence of popular mystical writers, such as Johannes Tauler and Jean Gerson, both of whom are cited explicitly in early Anabaptist writings (Ritschl, 75–77; Beachy 187–207; Davis 218–32).
 Tom N. Finger, Contemporary Anabaptist Theology (2004), suggests that the thesis of the prevalence of divinization in early Anabaptism, which was developed by Alvin Beachy, has not been addressed seriously in Anabaptist scholarship (52–53).
 Ritschl (63–68) traces the notion of church restitution to St. Francis, who wanted to spread a non-monastic, that is, a non-cloistered form of ascetic moral practice into the world.
 It is interesting to note that this is actually the original basis for our present-day distinction between the categories of the religious and the secular: the “religious,” as they were called, were the monastics, those set apart from the world; and the “secular” were the priests and bishops who served the church in the world. Thus, the religious-secular distinction was first an institutional distinction within the Roman Catholic Church in the West, not a differentiation between “religious” and “non-religious” (Fitzgerald 220).
 See, for example, the analysis of these categories by Timothy Fitzgerald (2007), who cites John Locke’s “Letter Concerning Toleration” (1685) as exemplifying these modern ideals and the connection to material prosperity in particular. There Locke writes: “I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion, and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other. If this be not done, there can be no end put to the controversies that will be always arising between those that have, or at least pretend to have […] a care of the commonwealth.” Locke continues by equating the commonwealth with the advancement of “civil interests,” which means “life, liberty, health, and indolency of the body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture and the like” (393).
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.