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The many voices of the Reformation

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. -- Were the Anabaptists really a majority group (if you exclude those in the Roman Catholic state church in Europe in the 16th century) in the Reformation? That’s one theory posited by Lee Palmer Wandel, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and a specialist in the Reformation, particularly in Switzerland. Wandel delivered the 53rd annual Menno Simons Lectures at Bethel College, Oct. 31-Nov. 2.

Over the course of four lectures spanning Halloween, which many churches also celebrated as Reformation Sunday this year, All Saints’ Day and a U.S. presidential election, Wandel made the case for a plurality of voices telling the story of the Reformation, rather than only one--Martin Luther--or a handful--add Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin.

Wandel began her first lecture by presenting the metaphor of CSI, a popular television series (the letters stand for "Crime Scene Investigation"). Every episode of CSI begins with a dead body, she said. The forensic investigators give their theories about what happened. "The first hypothesis reveals more about the observer than it does about the murder," Wandel said. The collection and analysis of evidence collecting throughout the hour-long show gradually creates another picture, usually very different from the first.

This, she said, pretty well describes the task of the historian.

Throughout her lectures, Wandel carefully assembled the evidence for what she called "a stunning array of voices" that tell the story--generally in the form of pamphlets, sermons and letters-- of the Reformation as seen by artisans, tradespeople, women and others whom mainstream historians generally ignore.

However, to establish the context, Wandel began with the man whom most consider almost singly responsible for the Reformation, Martin Luther. She looked at him mainly through the eyes of the German historian Leopold von Ranke, whose book The History of Germany at the Time of the Reformation paints a glowing picture of Luther.

By her fourth lecture, Wandel commented with some wryness, "By now it should be clear that I am not going to agree with Ranke that Luther was the Second Coming."

Popular history says that the Reformation began on Oct. 31, 1517, when Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church. But Wandel disagrees. The real seed of the Reformation, she said, went into the ground more than a year earlier, in February 1516, when Desiderius Erasmus published his Greek New Testament.

At that time, Wandel pointed out, many people believed that the earliest accounts of Jesus speaking were in Greek. Therefore, Greek texts allowed them to get as close to the historical Jesus as possible.

Incarnation, in fact, was the focus of her final lecture. Reformation historians tend to teach the Incarnation of Christ as "a purely abstract doctrine," Wandel said. "That’s not how they saw it in the 16th century.

"The preacher was the matter through which God made his will visible," she continued. "The preacher gave God’s Word sound. Who the preacher was mattered. When individual human beings acted in accord with Scripture, they made God’s word visible. Christ was linked to them through their bodies--they acted as they thought he had acted.

"The pamphlets argued that God chose to be revealed as carpenter, not as a king or a priest. Everything a Christian is to be and do can be found in Scripture. Anything else was human invention," she said.

And this is what may have made Anabaptists a majority group in the religious upheaval of 16th-century Europe--or at least more prevalent than may be commonly believed. If Anabaptism is defined as belief that authority rests in Scripture, that adults make the decision to follow Christ (symbolized through baptism), and that the Eucharist is egalitarian and to be celebrated in community, then most of the most revolutionary reformers saw the world as Anabaptists, Wandel said. There might have been 100,000 such in Reformation Europe--more than the numbers of Lutherans or of Reformed.

With most historians, Wandel agrees that a particular vision of a Christian state that was born in the Reformation ended on May 15, 1525, in Frankhausen, when the nobles slaughtered thousands of peasants accompanied by Thomas Muentzer, while losing fewer than 10 of their own. After that, Wandel said, the Reformation church became more closely allied with the state, more legalistic and bound by "confessionalization."

But the example of "fearlessness"--a term she used often--of people for whom following Christ (whom they were newly able to interpret through printed Scripture) permeated every area of their lives is one we must consider, Wandel said. This may be even more important at a time when candidates for public office as high as the presidency of the United States invoke a "Christian faith" that looks very different from that reflected in a myriad of voices from the Reformation.

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