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.

Any parallels?

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.

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