I Wish I'd Been There .
The consulting editors
of the Mennonite Historical
Bulletin respond to the question: What is the one event in
Anabaptist-Mennonite history you wish you could have witnessed
-- and Why?
by Leonard Gross
The human dimension of "doing
church" can take on utmost significance when differing opinions
come into conflict -- at times, clashing through to schism; at
other times, finding resolution through a deeper "meeting
of the minds." In the 16th century, the Concept of Cologne
(1591) was a rare example of the latter, with the meeting of
the minds and wills resulting in reconciliation and church unity
among several Swiss and Dutch Mennonite groups.
One of the many examples of the former was when Menno Simons,
in the latter 1550s, banned "all the 'High Germans' [i.e.,
the Swiss Brethren] and their followers." If we could only
capture the human dynamics behind this drastic measure! Menno
Simons and cohorts, to be sure, differed from the Swiss Brethren
on a number of issues, including the nature of Christ's incarnation,
and the use of the ban and excommunication.
I would like to have been with the two Swiss Brethren leaders,
Zelis and Lemke, in 1556 through 1559 -- looking over their shoulders
as they penned their communications to Menno Simons, to see from
their perspective the nature of the conflict. I would like to
have been at the Strasbourg Anabaptist Conference of 1557, where
some of these same ideas were discussed. I would like to have
been there when Menno met with Zelis and Lemke during this time.
And I would most of all like to have been privy to Menno's mind,
to see exactly how he could justify his written response and
formal banning, which Dirk Philips and Leenaert Bouwens then
delivered in person to the Swiss Brethren in 1559.
What possessed Menno Simons to have even dared to assume the
authority of pronouncing the ban on an older Anabaptist group,
the Swiss Brethren? The Swiss Brethren on their side would never
have dared to pronounce such on the Dutch Mennonites; such a
reaction did not lie in their character! Why, then, the Dutch
reaction, and why, the seeming Swiss response of life as usual,
such a ban notwithstanding? Equally important, could it be that
both sides were somehow "right"? That Menno was attempting
to resolve conflict in his Low Country setting, just as the Swiss
Brethren were attempting to take care of their Upper German situation,
each with its own unique cultural context and tradition?
To have experienced Anabaptism in the 1550s would have been most
instructive, providing insights into knowing how best to respond
to those many parallel clashes of minds and wills that have inundated
the Anabaptist-Mennonite scene ever since.
--Leonard Gross is consulting archivist at the Archives of
the Mennonite Church, Goshen, IN.
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, July, 1996