Driving from Bern toward Zurich, we continued our Anabaptist history tour.
Hiking to a cave where the early Anabaptists hid from the authorities:
Just up the road in Zurich, a church door depicts scenes from Anabaptist (and other religious) history of the area:
Hanging out with Zwingli, who, it seems, was sympathetic to many of the Anabaptists’ convictions, but more concerned about pacing the changes.
I imagine Zwingli as the denominational administrator of his day, pursuing unity and sustainable change by nudging the traditionalists in a better direction and avoiding ideas that were too radical and changes that seemed too extreme.
He must have made the radical reformers absolutely crazy. And vice versa.
Walking Zurich, the community that held these characters together seems so much smaller than it did in my college church history books. These people knew each other. They walked the same streets, did business in the same shops, rubbed shoulders with the same people.
The house on the right in this picture, now a picturesque market where we bought Swiss chocolate, belonged to the family of Conrad Grebel, one of the first to be re-baptized in Zurich, launching the Anabaptist movement.
Just blocks away, I’m looking over the river where recalcitrant Anabaptists were publicly executed by drowning, and towards the building where some of them engaged in heated debates with Zwingli:
Public, church-sanctioned executions are hard to wrap our modern minds around. It helps (a little) to realize that these actors’ per-enlightenment thought didn’t give them a framework that valued human rights.
This also seems like a clear case of religious and political power gone very, very wrong–which just proves the early Anabaptists’ point. These leaders justified persecution of the Anabaptists using religious logic: The Anabaptists, they worried loudly, were drawing people away from eternal salvation—as defined, of course, by state-based religion, the Christian nationalism of its day. But in guarding “orthodoxy,” they also defended their own power.
These radicals weren’t just threatening because of their “wrong” theology, they endangered social stability–the system that kept powerful men in control of both churchly and political systems. It’s no wonder everyone was out to get the Anabaptists!
When the kids were younger, one of them asked me why we aren’t Catholic. I explained some of this history, including the Protestant Reformation, and the Anabaptist Radical Reformation. Their response: “so the Anabaptists finally got everything right?” This conclusion is, of course, the temptation for those of us who adhere still value their legacy and hold to the ethics and theology they promoted.
But no, they didn’t get everything right. They made big mistakes and bad decisions–just like every other group, ever. They saw “through a glass darkly.”
So why do we claim them?
Because their story is our story.
Humans are storytelling beings. We need stories to make sense of the world around us. For our family, this Anabaptist past is an important part of our story. It runs deep in our cultural legacies–and maybe even our DNA. Identifying with it helps us understand ourselves.
And it compels both celebration and repentance. I celebrate the precedent set by the early Anabaptists who resisted Christian nationalism, rejected violence, and insisted on forgiveness as a way of life. But I also wonder if maybe some of them were kind of jerks about it. Like so many of us, they walked the fine line between prophetic idealism and humility. They also don’t seem to have followed their own egalitarian logic when it came to listening to women (most of the names we remember and celebrate, at least, are influential men). They did not get everything right.
But they did leave us with a lot to think about.