2017, vol. 71 Special Issue: Why 500 Years?
Review of Mark Jantzen, Mary S. Sprunger, John D. Thiesen, editors. European Mennonites and the Challenge of Modernity over Five Centuries: Contributors, Detractors, and Adaptors (North Newton: Cornelius H. Wedel Historical Series, 2016).
In this collection, the editors present 19 essays originally
delivered at a 2010 conference at Bethel College entitled “Marginal or
Mainstream? Anabaptists, Mennonites and Modernity in European Society.”
In the original call for papers for that event, conference
organizers Jantzen and Sprunger solicited proposals demonstrating “how European
history can be better understood by incorporating key aspects from five
centuries of Anabaptist and Mennonite history.” The volume’s contents suggest
that presenters were more interested in better understanding Anabaptist and
Mennonite history than in that history’s impact on any broader understanding of
European history. The editorial introduction reframes the resulting papers as
examples that help us see Mennonites as contributing to, detracting from, or
adaptors of “the modern venture,” a willingness to seek “to create the kind of
world they, or we, might want to live in.” The hindsight of this introduction,
together with Thomas A. Brady’s keynote “The Cost of Contexts:
Anabaptist/Mennonite History and the Early Modern European Past” that opened
the conference and this volume, do provide lenses that allow one to consider
the specific content more broadly. Despite efforts to organize and interpret
the content around a broader theme of modernity, individual essays generally remain
narrow in chronological and/or geographical focus. With several exceptions, the
significance of a particular essay does not seem to depend on or contribute significantly
to the larger themes promoted in the introduction and keynote address. One
wonders whether most of the essays might not have proved to be more
“discoverable” (and therefore more usable) if published as journal articles – whether
separately or as a group. Classed in Part I as “contributors” to modernity are
these eight essays:
“Münster, Monster, Modernity: Tracing and Challenging the Meme
of Anabaptist Madness.” Michael Driedger examines ways in which contemporary
polemical accounts of events in Münster affected and continue to affect
perceptions of those events. These uncritically accepted assessments have
colored even ostensibly objective interpretations of Münster and its legacy.
“A Mennonite Capitalist Ethic in the Dutch Golden Age: Weber
Revisited.” Mary S. Sprunger explores changes in financial practices that
occurred among Mennonites living in a pluralistic, urban environment in the
17th century, demonstrating ways Mennonites applied capitalism to strengthen
“The Dutch Enlightenment and Patriotism: Mennonites and Politics
in Late Eighteenth-Century Friesland.” Yme Kuiper provides a clear overview of
political and cultural changes in 18th-century Friesland and
describes the engagement of elite Mennonites in these changes.
“Marginal and Modern, Mainstream and Scientific: Mennonites and
Experimental Philosophy in the Dutch Republic.” Ernst Hamm writes of the role
of “natural knowledge” among 18th-century Dutch Mennonites, including in
“Middle-Class Formation in Rural Society: Mennonite Peasant
Merchants in the Palatinate, Rhine Hesse, and the Northern Rhine Valley,
1740-1880.” Using evidence from six Mennonite families, Frank Konersmann
describes the role rural Mennonites played in expanding local and regional
labor, land, and capital markets.
“Mennonite Privileges and Russian Modernization: Communities on
a Path Leading from Separateness to Legal and Social Integration (1789-1900).”
Nataliya Venger argues that Mennonite society served as an experimental field
of modernization with the Russian empire. Changes in privileges were inevitable
but also economically beneficial to Mennonites as the late-modernizing empire
moved towards greater integration.
“Mennonites in Central Asia and Their Role in the Modernization
of Economics and Culture in the Region.” Dilaram M. Inoyatova provides a
general description of Mennonites settling in Central Asia, with particular
focus on agricultural and technological developments they fostered in the
“The Mennonites of Khiva: A Modernizing Community.” In more
detail than the preceding essay, Walter Ratliff offers an account of
Mennonites, originally followers of Claas Epp, who settled in the khanate of
“Detractors,” has four essays:
“Anabaptist Sacramentalism and Its Contemporary Appropriation.”
Brian C. Brewer argues that 16th-century Anabaptists often understood baptism
and communion public professions and recommitments of sacramental vows – rather
than simply symbolic acts. He provides examples of the survival of this
understanding in recent times.
“Isaac von den Blocke, Painter and Mennonite at Gdańsk in
the Early Seventeenth Century.” Rainer Kobe describes two paintings (Before
the Flood and The Narrow and the Broad Way?) commissioned for public
spaces in Danzig and considers whether their presentation or thematic content
is distinctively Mennonite.
“Changing Definitions of Treason and Religious Freedom for
Mennonites in Prussia, 1780-1880.” Mark Jantzen provides credible evidence for
how reactions/responses to questions of Mennonite exemption from military
service exemplify the evolution from enlightened monarchy/Prussia to
“Mennonites as Catalytic Agents in Free Church History in Russia
and the Soviet Union.” Johannes Dyck strengthens understandings concerning
Mennonite Brethren influence on the formation of the Russian Baptist church.
Part III, “Adaptors,” are six essays:
“Honor and Charity in the Church: Mennonites and the
‘Disciplinary Revolution’ of the Dutch Republic.” Troy Osborne offers evidence
of ways that Dutch Mennonites used congregational discipline and finances to
promote social order.
“At the Margins and at the Center of Modern Expression:
Reconsidering Anabaptist and Mennonite Confessions of Faith.” Karl Koop
examines the activity and meaning of confessional writing among Dutch
Mennonites in the 17th and 18th centuries.
“New Ways of Old Paths?” ‘Ideas and Hints’ on the Education of
Children by Antje Brons (1892).” Marion Kobelt-Groch reflects on pedagogical
writing of Antje Brons, the volume’s sole essay to address gender issues.
“Menno in the KZ or Münster Resurrected: Mennonites and National
Socialism – Historiography and Open Questions.” John D. Thiesen tracks general
and Mennonite historiography of the Nazi period. Subsequent writing and
conferences have begun to address some of the questions considered “open” in
“Reception of the ‘Two Kingdoms Doctrine’ as a Key to
Understanding Protestant Responses to National Socialism in Germany.” Jeremy
Koop contrasts responses to National Socialism among theologians Emanuel
Hirsch, Karl Barth, and Benjamin H. Unruh.
“Utopias of Ash: Galician Mennonites and the Second Polish
Republic.” James Regier provides a solid overview of the 150-year history of
Mennonites in Galicia with focus on the nature of the settlement after World
As in most collections of conference papers, there is noticeable
variation in strength and depth of individual research. The quality of
translations of contributions from presenters whose native language is not
English ranges from good to somewhat tedious. A very welcome feature in this
volume is an index – something often not provided when publishing conference