Early Anabaptism as social movement, part 2: Understanding the Lens

See part 1 in the series here.

Was the 16th century Anabaptist movement a social movement? There are many parallels between modern social movements and the Anabaptist movement; some writers actually use the term “social movement” to describe early Anabaptism. However, I argue that the Anabaptist movement was not a social movement by definition, though social movement theory can still provide a helpful lens with which to understand the Anabaptist movement of the 16th century. This paper examines the stages and elements of the Anabaptist movement using social movement theory as well as the textbook by C. Arnold Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology. I conclude with reflections on the tensions and opportunities that interacting with social movements offers Anabaptism today, as well as the relationship between movement and mission.


Photo by Katerina Friesen

Defining Social Movements

It is important to begin with a definition of social movements and a brief survey of theories of social movements. One broadly sweeping definition is, “[Social movements] are voluntary collectivities that people support in order to effect changes in society.” The sociologists behind this definition, McCarthy and Zald, formulated a foundational way of looking at social movements for the discipline, the resource mobilization perspective, which was a response to theories that too-narrowly saw general mass discontent and ideology behind protest activities. The resource mobilization perspective moved away from analyzing the social psychology of the masses toward an emphasis on the resources, such as money, labor, costs and rewards, as well as non-material benefits that draw people into collective action and social movements. Today, some theorists believe that although they laid the groundwork for future theories, resource mobilization perspectives were too scientific and empirical. More recently, sociologists have examined the cultural and emotional elements that drive social movements. This newer, perhaps more inclusive, imagination of the forces behind social movements recognizes that emotions such as moral intuition or “the joy of imagining a new better society” are part of social movements, thus blurring the distinction between rational and emotional motivations for movements.

If social movements involve making changes in a society and incorporate emotional and even religious motivations, then why not define the 16th-century Anabaptist movement as a social movement? One answer is that social movements are seen by sociologists to be recent phenomena that have occurred only in the past couple hundred years. Social movements as we understand them today first emerged in response to growing industrialization and the alienation that resulted as traditional (mostly Western) social structures broke down in the 18th and 19th centuries. Sociologists first began naming the processes and patterns of these struggles using what they called mass society theory, which eventually became social movement theory.

Tilly and Tarrow, two theorists known for developing a sub-study of social movements called “contentious politics,” describe the components of social movements using a lens that clearly stems from a modern understanding of the social movements that have taken place in democratic societies. They write, “Social movements combine: (1) sustained campaigns of claim making; (2) an array of public performances including marches, rallies, demonstrations, creation of specialized associations, public meetings, public statements, petitions, letter writing, and lobbying; (3) repeated public displays of worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment by such means as wearing colors, marching in disciplined ranks, sporting badges that advertise the cause, displaying signs,” and other such modern protest actions.” These political actions apply to modern movements such as the labor movement, women’s suffrage, civil rights, anti-abortion, gay rights, and other movements understood in opposition to the State or other political powers. There is obvious dissonance when these tactics are compared to the Anabaptist movement, yet the fact remains that Anabaptism challenged and called into question the political-religious order of the day.

The Anabaptist movement outdates the rise of social movements by several hundred years, so why not simply call it a religious movement? Many writers describe it as such, but naming Anabaptism as only a religious movement falls short of its impact and threat in 16th-century Europe. Additionally, the distinctions between religious and social movements in our secularist, Western, post-Christian understanding arise from an assumption of the separation of church and state and do not fit the 16th-century mold. Anabaptism emerged from a context of cohesion between the church and state that was supposedly sanctioned by God. In this late medieval corpus christianum, political authorities were religious authorities, and vice-versa. I believe this is why the Anabaptist movement is so unique; its core religious teachings posed a threat to the broader political society and therefore needed to be stamped out. In essence, Snyder says, Anabaptism threatened the cohesion of the unified religious and political “glue” of 16th century Christendom.

Even if Anabaptists were not social change-makers by their own intention, they were framed as revolutionaries by the authorities. One historian, in a study of the names they were called, says early Anabaptists were called Revolutionaries, Aufrüherer, “who promoted civil disobedience and revolt under the guise of preaching and practicing religious piety.” Their teachings quickly came into conflict with the social order, especially on issues such as participation in the magistry, baptism, and refusal to take oaths or to take up the sword in the name of God and empire. The practices of the early Anabaptists hearkened back to the early church’s sharing of all things in common, and thus carried social and economic implications that echoed peasant concerns. Additionally, their emphasis on a voluntary faith was seen as dangerous. At the time, “political chaos and even revolution were the only possible results of religious differences within a given political body.”

Given the context of a God-ordained social and political order and the threat Anabaptism posed to this order, I see both resonance and dissonance between the modern definition of a social movement and the early Anabaptist movement. There is resonance in that Anabaptism challenged and called into question the unified political-religious powers that were kept in place by the sword. They were treated as a political movement by the authorities. However, there is dissonance in the fact that, for the most part, Anabaptists themselves were not trying to be a revolutionary movement or even what we might call a social movement today, but rather saw themselves as a movement of the Word and Spirit. When compared to the stages of modern social movements, as I will do in the following section of this essay, the resonance and dissonance between what Snyder calls the “dissident grass roots reforming movement” of early Anabaptism and understandings of modern social movements become all the more apparent.

Katerina Friesen is currently a M.Div. student at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, IN.


 See Calvin Redekop, Mennonite Society (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989) and also Claus-Peter Clasen, Anabaptism: A Social History, 1525-1618 (London: Cornell University Press, 1972), 151.

 Karl-Dieter Opp, Theories of Political Protest and Social Movements (New York: Routledge, 2009), 92.

 John D. McCarthy and Mayer N. Zald, “Resource Mobilization and Social Movements: A Partial Theory”, The American Journal of Sociology 82, no. 6 (May, 1977): 1216.

 Jeff Goodwin, James M. Jasper, and Francesca Polletta, eds. Passionate Politics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001), 5.

 Goodwin, Passionate, 13.

 Goodwin, Passionate, 2.

 Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow, Contentious Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2006), 8.

 C. Arnold Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology (Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora Press, 1995), 11.

 Snyder, Anabaptist History, 2.

 John S. Oyer, “Sticks and Stones Broke Their Bones, and Vicious Names Did Hurt Them: 16th Century Responses to the Anabaptists,” Christian History, 1985, 21.

 Walter Klaassen, “Anabaptism: Neither Catholic Nor Protestant,” Christian History, 1985, 12.

 Oyer, “Sticks and Stones,” 22.

 Snyder, Anabaptist History, 102-103.