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Monday, July 25, 2016
In Debt to Zwingli
July 21, 2016

Our guide to Anabaptist history in Switzerland, Hanspeter Jecker read for us a speech given by John Ruth in Zurich on the occasion of an historic observance. Hanspeter read this for us as the well-known “Anabaptist cave” in the hinterlands outside the city. Ruth claims Zwingli as an important and instructive figure in Mennonite history. Indeed, Hanspeter also offers nuanced take on the relationship between Swiss Reformed and Anabaptists in the 16th and 17th centuries, than the portrayals often made of Zwingli.

In this view, it is Zwingli who radicalizes the young Conrad Grebel and his friends through powerful teaching. Grebel and his cohort are not original thinkers, they simply want to take what they learn from Zwingli to the fullest and most uncompromising completion. Zwingli on the other hand is trying to balance the challenges of governance, and of caring for a whole parish, with his understanding of the demands of scripture. This, of course, does not justify the violent persecution of Anabaptists. But it does paint a picture of Zwingli that is more complex. He is less a villain in this view, and more a leader struggling to meet the demands of faithfulness balanced with the pragmatic demands of caring for a diverse population.

One of the common threads here is the hunger of Christians, whether 16th century Anabaptists or 17th century Puritans, for a community of believers deeply committed to a rigorous Christian life. This is what we mean, I think, when we refer to “high-bar” discipleship in our priorities. This theme emerges for Roger Williams in his search for a community of believers worthy of the name church of Christ. You might say eventually he gives up.

Where Anabaptists experienced a new influx, a new grafting in, it came from people searching for rigor in the life of faith. What this looks like changes from age to age, but it remains a common theme. Many Swiss Reformed became Mennonites in the 17th century, looking for a more rigorous Christian life than they experienced in their home congregations which included many people who were Christians in name only, and not serious about their faith. One such group in this later grafting is Yoders from Steffisburg in Canton Berne.

Again, these later Swiss Reformed became Anabaptists for similar reasons many of us become Mennonites today, and hopefully the reason many raised by Mennonite parents choose faith themselves.