Early Anabaptism as Social Movement, Part 4: Conclusion

This post is the final part of an essay looking at the Anabaptist movement through the lens of social movement theory. See Part III in the series here, which compares the early Anabaptist movement with four stages of social movements.


Photo by Rachel Friesen

Gaps, Tensions and Overlaps

Though there are apparent overlaps, it is clear by now that there are also gaps where the phases of social movements inadequately describe or leave out elements of the Anabaptist movement. Sociologist Charles Tilly writes, “The employment of invariant models…assumes a political world in which whole structures and sequences repeat themselves time after time in essentially the same form. That would be a convenient world for theorists, but it does not exist.”[1]

One shortcoming of social movement theories is that they sometimes fail to capture the many complex, different stories within an observed movement. They tend to look at movements as a whole, and the four phases are very linear in their approach. While this progress-oriented “bird’s eye view” is often helpful, it misses the contradictions present on the ground. C. Arnold Snyder offers a more nuanced understanding in his way of describing the Anabaptist movement as a polygenesis rather than monogenesis. He highlights the similarities and differences in how Swiss, South German-Austrian, and North German-Dutch Anabaptisms developed, conversed and converged. The polygenesis approach does not lend well to the homogenizing categorization implicit in social movement theories. For example, one may argue that Anabaptism did in fact experience the fourth phase of decline due to eradication by the sword in Austria and many parts of South Germany, though in other places it survived.

Another tension between social movement theory with the Anabaptist movement is that social movements are dependent upon a target, whether an enemy, a social problem, or the State. Their success is often based upon their ability to gain power and thus address the grievance at hand. For the early Anabaptists, identifying and resisting an enemy and gaining power were not of foremost importance, if at all important. Rather, their main concern seems to have been witnessing to true Christianity and forming an alternative order according to the Sermon on the Mount and the life of Jesus, until the return of Christ. As I wrote in the beginning of this paper, in the eyes of the political and religious authorities, the Anabaptists themselves were the enemy even though they did not mobilize politically against these powerful groups as targets for grievances.

Aside from the gaps and tensions described above, there are several overlaps, or points of comparison, between modern social movements and the early Anabaptist movement that my previous overview of the four general stages of movements did not describe. The first overlap is that of functions that build collective identities, and the second is the method of non-violent resistance to hegemonic power.

The first comparison I will describe between social movements and early Anabaptism can be seen in what has been called the “solidarity-building functions of movement culture.”[2] Social movements involve gatherings, rituals, stories, symbols, and the fusing of relational ties that help those within the movement to share emotions and address fears together. Sociologists see these processes as formational in the development of new collective identities for movement participants.[3] I believe these insights can help describe elements of the Anabaptist movement that bound followers together to form a new collective identity as the body of Christ.

The power of the symbol of baptism, the reading of scripture, a communal sharing of goods, corporate prayer, and other factors and processes can all be seen as contributions to a new collective identity that is essential for cohesive movements. Recent social movement theories that emphasize the emotional and cultural layers of social movement mobilization help to highlight the shared emotions that must have been part of the emerging Anabaptist movement: the liberating experience of studying the Bible together for the first time, feelings of passion and commitment on the part of new converts, the binding power of baptism that defined an individual in the context of the regenerate community, love for fellow believers and for God, collective fears of the authorities and of being caught, and the elation of meeting secretly in a forest or at a person’s home, to name a few. I believe that these emotions and factors contributed to the powers that tied the community of believers together as the physical body of Christ.

The common use of non-violence and resistance represents another significant overlap between modern social movements and the Anabaptist movement. In the 20th century, the practice of non-violence was developed through the strategies and methods of various social movements for change, such the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., the Indian struggle for freedom from imperial rule, and the People Power Revolution in the Philippines. In these movements and others, people chose to use their bodies as resistance against forces of violence, rather than weapons. I wonder if this non-violent social movement strategy might nuance our understanding of the martyrs and others who put their very bodies on the line for the sake of the faith they so radically professed. For the most part, the early Anabaptists have been characterized as “non-resistant” in the face of martyrdom and violence. However, I would argue that there was an element of resistance in the early Anabaptists’ very acts of refusing to return evil with evil, and choosing not to retaliate against an oppressor. Participants in social movements and people of faith who have faced persecution know that there is power in the choice to yield one’s own body for the sake of something larger.


In this essay, I use understandings of social movements to shed light on the early Anabaptist movement as neither a social nor purely religious movement. I believe that sociology is an oft-neglected lens within the discipline of theology, especially when it comes to our own religious histories and identities. As a Mennonite, I personally feel the fear of “sociologizing” the spiritual renewal movement of my Anabaptist predecessors. However, this fear can hold us back from a more complete understanding of history and theology; it also furthers the sharp divide between the world and the spirit, secular and the sacred, and spiritual and social movements.

An awareness of the intersections of social movements and the early Anabaptist movement may contribute to more openness on the part of Anabaptists today to participate in “secular” movements for change. I sense a reticence on the part of some Anabaptist groups to become involved in social movements.[4] Some of this wariness no doubt stems from the two-kingdom approach inherited from the early Anabaptists, much of which developed out of their context of persecution. Additionally, the pietism prevalent in the 17th– and 18th-century Anabaptist communities resulted in an inward “spiritual” and moral focus rather than an accompanying outward social ethic more inclined to participation in social movements.

Ched Myers, a Mennonite mentor of mine who is also a long-time activist refers to all people’s movements for justice and peace as “The Movement.” His way of speaking about movements ties together social struggle with spiritual struggle, and traces the historical movement of the Spirit of God in Jesus and the disciples to the movements of Ghandi, King, and others today. Behind his words, I hear a belief that the Spirit is working through history beyond the walls of the church to accomplish God’s purposes of shalom and freedom from bondage for all people. I wonder if the long-time separation between the church and what is considered “political” participation in social movements might be bridged if we Mennonites saw ourselves as part of a continued movement of the Spirit acting in the world? This last question poses interesting possibilities for connections between movement and mission for the Anabaptist church today.

The church is called to be a witness to the kingdom of God in terms of how we share our common lives together in ways of repentance, kinship across seemingly irreconcilable divides, and peace extended to all creation, among other expressions of worship and faith. Our witness in the way of Jesus resists the dominating powers and principalities that seek to destroy life. However, if this church witness to the kingdom ends with our community, we do not experience the full purposes of God’s mission. I believe that God’s mission in the world calls us as Christ’s followers beyond our borders and often into risky territory. Involvement in social movements offers one way of participating in God’s Movement in the world.

The Civil Rights struggle offers a paradigm for seeing churches as not only participating in, but as fountains of support for social movements. Churches offered training, organization and leadership to what was one of the most powerful U.S. social movements of the last century. Sociologist Karl-Dieter Opp writes, “The most important pre-existing organization or institution that supported the battle for civil rights in various ways was the Church.”[5] How might the Civil Rights vision of the Beloved Community with its outward social ethic provide new ways for Anabaptists to understand the kingdom of God and our participation in it? I would be very interested to see work done in this area by Anabaptist theologians or missiologists.

Like the Civil Rights movement, many, if not most, social movements originate with those who are most impacted by systemic injustices. The ongoing “Idle No More” movement of First Nations people, the global food sovereignty movement started by peasant women farmers, and the U.S. immigration reform movement all represent notable examples today. By standing with the oppressed and marginalized and working with humility to accompany them in their struggle, the church offers a powerful and political presence of resistance to domination and violence. While other U.S. churches are involved in certain kinds of advocacy efforts within the systems of lobbying and Washington politics, I believe Anabaptist churches can, and often do, model a different kind of advocacy. We stand and grieve with those who mourn rather than simply taking grievances to the State to fix; we live into an alternative community rather than trying to transform society into the kingdom. Listening to, walking with, and, need be, putting our bodies on the line alongside the ones whose voices are denied demonstrates the power of Christ’s love that overcomes evil with good.

There are many challenges and tensions presented by participation in social movements, but these should not hold back Anabaptist churches from engagement. Within a single movement, there are often many conflicting approaches to change, and Anabaptists inevitably find that some strategies compromise our convictions and call core values into question. Still, in response to competing strategies and the “messiness” of interacting with different social change agents, I believe that Anabaptist Christians can find ways to embody the good news without compromising our faith convictions. For example, we can seek ways of resisting evil apart from demonizing the enemy, in faith that the Spirit might yet work for good in the hearts of individuals. In the face of an overwhelming sense of urgency heightened by many movement organizers to push for change, Anabaptist Christians might maintain the belief that the making of peace and justice is ultimately God’s work through Christ, and stretches far into the past and future beyond the possibilities of our own work and imagination. Finally, the Anabaptist emphasis on non-violence puts us in the company of both unlikely friends within social movements as well as people we may choose not to join in certain actions.

Anabaptist history, especially told through Snyder’s polygenesis perspective, shows that we have a long tradition of holding tensions: between Spirit and letter, inner and outer regeneration, and the “sword and staff,” to name a few. Might the Anabaptist church’s involvement in social movements present an opportunity to continue to hold the ongoing tension today between our separatist tradition and an outward social ethic of resistance? I believe, contrary to Reinhold Niebuhr’s well-known characterization of Anabaptists as withdrawn from society and irresponsible because of their unwillingness to engage, that our separatist tradition is itself a theologically deep wellspring of political resistance. This Anabaptist stance of resistance, when carried to its potential, can express itself even more fully through standing with marginalized people in movements for social change.

In conclusion, in this paper I presented the Anabaptist movement through the lens of social movement theory for the sake of the conversation generated by comparison. I argued that despite its limitations, social movement theory provides a way of understanding the growth of the Anabaptist movement, key distinctions of Anabaptism compared to other movements of the day, as well as a way of analyzing aspects of its leadership, separatist identity, and the cultural and emotional elements of the movement. A fuller understanding of early Anabaptism as a movement both socially and spiritually driven helps contemporary Anabaptists see ourselves in more nuanced ways in relation to social movements today. The Spirit is at work today as in the 16th century, and so the Movement lives on; may we no longer hesitate to join in this mission beyond our walls.

Katerina Friesen is an M.Div. student at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, IN. Aside from learning to engage the church in public faith and movements for social change, her current interests include writing poetry, tapping maple trees, and riding her bicycle, “Ruby Streaks.”

[1] Christiansen, “Four Stages,” 5.
[2] Goodwin, Passionate, 19.
[3] Ibid.
[4] The hesitance I describe is not the case for all Anabaptist churches. There are many exceptions, such as Mennonite churches in Canada involved with Idle No More actions (see online article: http://www.mennoworld.org/blog/2013/10/16/mennonites-and-first-nations-dance-peace-action/).
[5] Opp, Theories, 343.

Comment (1)

  1. Chris Lenshyn

    Loved this engagement!

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