J. Denny Weaver, Becoming Anabaptist: The Origin and Significance of Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism. 2nd ed. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2005. Pp. 200. ($15.99paperback) ISBN 0-8361-3434-6 Reviewed by John D. Essick.
Esther Royer Ayers, Rolling Down Black Stockings: A Passage Out of the Old Order Mennonite Religion. Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 2005. Pp 192. ($25.00paperback) ISBN 0-87338-8070 Reviewed by Ardie S. Goering.
Don Bender, Mildred Bender, and Titus Bender, Without the Loss of One: The Story of Nevin and Esther Bender and Its Implications for the Church Today. Telford, Pa.: Cascadia Publishing House, 2005. Pp. 274. ($15.95paperback) ISBN 1-931038-31-7 Reviewed by John E. Sharp.
J. Denny Weaver, Becoming Anabaptist: The Origin and Significance of Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism. 2nd ed. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2005. Pp. 200. ($15.99paperback) ISBN 0-8361-3434-6
J. Denny Weaver first published Becoming Anabaptist in 1987. The second, revised edition appeared in September 2005. In between, new questions regarding the "polygenesis" theory of Anabaptist origins renewed debate concerning the historical and contemporary significance of Anabaptism. In the second edition of Becoming Anabaptist, Weaver seeks to retell and apply the Anabaptist story in light of these new directions.
Weaver, the Harry and Jean Yoder Scholar in Bible and Religion at Bluffton University, has published widely on Anabaptist life and thought. His recent contributions include Anabaptist Theology in the Face of Postmodernity: A Proposal for the Third Millennium (2000) and The Nonviolent Atonement (2001).
After a brief introductory chapter, Weaver moves to recount the origins of Anabaptism in Switzerland, southern Germany/Moravia, and the Low Countries. A chapter on the meaning and essence of Anabaptism concludes the book.
Weaver locates the sources of Swiss Anabaptism in Zwingli's radical followers, pervasive hostility toward Roman clergy, and a groundswell of peasant unrest. All these elements, he argues, surfaced in a conflict over the tithe, which "precipitated the break between Zwingli and his radical supporters" (35) in 1523. The final break occurred just over a year later with the first adult baptisms on January 21, 1525. A noteworthy addition in this second edition is a detailed discussion of the "Communal Reformation" of the sixteenth century. Working with categories supplied by James Stayer and Peter Blickle, Weaver finds Swiss Anabaptism's distinctiveness in "its rejection of the idea that the church encompasses the entire social order" (54). Furthermore, he writes, the articles signed at Schleitheim in 1527 similarly reflect various Anabaptist interactions with Zwinglians, radicals, and peasants with regard to society.
Weaver identifies medieval mysticism, anti-clericalism, apocalyptic expectations, and the Peasants' War as contributing factors in the origins of South German and Moravian Anabaptism. Leading figures such Thomas Müntzer, Hans Hut, Hans Denck, Balthasar Hubmaier, and Pilgram Marpeck were influential in the early years, but Weaver is quick to point out that "South German Anabaptism died out as a distinct movement" and many of its leaders left no "institutional legacy" (158). Moravia, on the other hand, was home to the Hutterites and their communalistic practices. Community of goods had already surfaced in the Swiss region, but it became an integral part of the South German story, especially in Moravia.
Weaver next turns his attention to Anabaptism in the "Low Countries," which presently correspond to Belgium and the Netherlands. He is aware that any discussion of Anabaptism in the Low Countries must address the legacies of Melchior Hoffman, Münster, and Menno Simons. Weaver dates the beginning of Anabaptism in the North from Hoffman's baptism of almost 300 persons in June 1530. Yet "the most spectacular and infamous events of the Melchiorite movement occurred at Münster" (122). While the shadow of Münster looms large in Anabaptist history, Weaver is quick to jettison any association of Anabaptist origins with the 1534 debacle. The story of Anabaptism in the Low Countries concludes with a summary of Menno Simons's contributions to Anabaptism, which include a Mennonite movement still seeking to exist as a separated minority within the social order.
In the final chapter, Weaver assesses and characterizes Anabaptism as a legitimate expression of the Christian tradition. He characterizes Anabaptism as a movement which follows the life and teachings of Jesus in a voluntary community. The result of such a commitment is a believing community "visibly different from the society in which it lives" (174). In contrast to other sixteenth-century expressions of Christianity, Anabaptists "put the Bible in the hands of laypersons and involved every member in interpretation, making the believing community of voluntary members the locus of interpretation" (172). With Jesus as the norm, Weaver contends that rejection of violence is a "particular manifestation of discipleship" (175). Furthermore, they gave priority to the narratives surrounding Jesus, thus developing a condensed canon. Weaver concludes the final chapter by informing the reader of several contemporary Anabaptist conversations concerning discipleship, ecclesiology, nonviolence, and education.
Despite all that is commendable about Becoming Anabaptist, it could be improved in three areas. First, given the abundance of towns, cities, and locations germane to Anabaptist origins, the general reader would benefit from the inclusion of a map for each region. Second, Weaver abruptly ends the story of Swiss Anabaptism at Schleitheim in 1527. The Schleitheim Confession was an obvious high point of Swiss Anabaptism, but the movement certainly extended beyond that conference. The second edition of Becoming Anabaptist, like the first, fails to include the rest of the Swiss story.
Lastly, and perhaps more importantly, in an appended essay on interpretation, Weaver critiques the position of C. Arnold Snyder with regard to Anabaptism's essence. In Anabaptist History and Theology and "Beyond Polygenesis," Snyder identifies a three-tiered theological core of Anabaptism: 1) beliefs held in common with Catholics and Protestants (e.g. classic creeds), 2) beliefs held in common with Protestants (e.g. rejection of sacramental theology), and 3) beliefs unique to Anabaptism (e.g. adult baptism). Weaver disagrees with Snyder and claims that Snyder's thesis "supports rather than rejects Christian identification with the surrounding social order, thereby contradicting a plain theological-ethical commitment of Anabaptist dissent" (225). Moreover, Weaver argues that Snyder's core establishes "Christendom's theology as the norm from which Anabaptism is distinguished" (230). Weaver's critique of Snyder is valid on several levels and worthy of further conversation, yet Weaver's argument appears to fall prey to his own critique. On at least two occasions he refers to Anabaptism as a "Christian tradition" (226 and 230). It seems that to call Anabaptism a "Christian tradition" is to appeal to some "core" or norm that constitutes "Christian." Weaver stops short of clarifying what a group must exhibit in order to be considered Christian, only to fault Snyder for providing a broad definition. What was it about the Anabaptists that made them Christian, or members of the Christian tradition? In answering this question he might strengthen his rejection of Snyder's thesis.
Criticisms aside, Becoming Anabaptist incorporates the helpful aspects of the polygenetic theory of origins, and still succeeds in identifying elements common to all three streams. Particularly helpful is the way in which Weaver underscores the influence of Erasmus and Andreas Karlstadt during Anabaptism's formative years, especially in its Swiss expression. Becoming Anabaptist is a concise and nuanced account of Anabaptist beginnings in Switzerland, South Germany/ Moravia, and the Low Countries. This second edition is recommended without hesitation for scholars and students, pastors and laypersons, Anabaptists and non-Anabaptists. Weaver informs us about the history of Anabaptists and compels us to look to the future of Anabaptism.
John D. Essick
Esther Royer Ayers, Rolling Down Black Stockings: A Passage Out of the Old Order Mennonite Religion. Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 2005. Pp 192. ($25.00paperback) ISBN 0-87338-8070
As a young woman in the late 1950s in Akron, Ohio, Esther Royer is approached by a local social club asking to sponsor her in the Miss Akron contest, the winner of which would proceed to the state level, and possibly the national and well-known Miss America pageant. To better prepare for such an event, Esther is encouraged to first enter a modeling contest. She buys a stylish outfit and checks out a book on modeling to get the right tips on how to walk down a runway.
The night of the modeling competition, Esther watches the other contestants go first, and reassures herself that she knows the proper routine. But when the spotlight shines on her, she freezes like a "deer trapped in the headlights of a car." She recovers only enough to flee the auditorium. "On the way home, I berated myself: You can read all the books you want to on how to walk and position your feet, but, deep within, you'll always be an Old Order Mennonite," concludes Esther Royer Ayers.
In this memoir subtitled "A Passage Out of the Old Older Mennonite Religion," Ayers describes a childhood spent being uncomfortably different, and an early adult struggle to find an authentic identity when her family leaves its restrictive Mennonite culture.
In the late 1940s, Ayers was one of eight children in a family living on Germantown Road near Columbiana, Ohio. She finds it a "drab" and "dismal" world, where she and her siblings "learned early to give up our identity for the good of the community."
As a young child, she longs for the pretty and colorful clothes of her non-Old Order classmates, and dislikes the plain dress and long braids required of her. Most distasteful are the black stockings Ayers wears on her legs and she rolls them down whenever she can, only to be punished by her mother for doing so.
She finds the Old Order Mennonite culture devoid of affectionate hugs and kisses, and full of the drudgery of hard work. Particularly painful to Ayers is the Old Order prohibition of school beyond eighth grade and the subsequent pressure to fail two grades, so as to meet legal requirements of attending school until age 16.
Ayers' life changes dramatically when her father dies, after suffering years of slow decline from multiple sclerosis. Her mother finds new energy and comfort in an evangelical "Full Gospel" congregation; she moves her eight children to Akron, Ohio, and leaves the Old Order Mennonite faith.
The second portion of Rolling Down Black Stockings is a series of vignettes from Ayers' life as she struggles with shame about her Old Order background. She lies about her age, not wanting people to know that she failed in school, and marries without telling her husband the truth about her family and home community.
Ayers ends the book with a section entitled "A Walk into the Light," clearly intending that the reader will understand her personal triumph over oppression. Yet this memoir never gets beyond the passage out of the Old Order Mennonites; she explains little about how life is truly better in the "light."
Caught up in personal pain over how hard her life was, she demonstrates little understanding of a religious group like the Old Order Mennonites. "The community left us hanging like a loose twig in a tree," Ayers says ever so briefly, but does not explore the critical issue of why this faith community failed to offer support and mutuality, surely the counter balance to severe everyday restrictions.
The book is far more compelling in its portrait of the Ayers family, its close-knit siblings, a bold and determined mother, and the tenderness that draws them together despite great difficulty.
Only a child, Ayers helped care for her father as he grew increasingly unable to work as a carpenter, plow his fields, and eventually wash or feed himself. "Papa's eyes glistened with love as I washed his face ever so carefully with a soft washcloth," Ayers writes. "It felt as though his facial bones relaxed as I gently moved across his forehead, his chin, then patted it all dry with a towel."
For a reader of this memoir filled with rich stories, this is the triumph that emerges most significant.
Ardie S. Goering
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Don Bender, Mildred Bender, and Titus Bender, Without the Loss of One: The Story of Nevin and Esther Bender and Its Implications for the Church Today. Telford, Pa.: Cascadia Publishing House, 2005. Pp. 274. ($15.95paperback) ISBN 1-931038-31-7
On our way home from Sarasota, Florida in the mid-1960s, our family stopped in Nanih Waiya, Mississippi, to visit Nevin and Esther Bender. Nevin's was a household name in our home, having preached often at Locust Grove Conservative Mennonite Church, Belleville, Pennsylvania. I don't remember much about the visit, but I do remember the positive regard my parents had for Nevin Bender, and his ministry.
That positive regard was clearly shared by his own children. This book is a tribute to Bender, husband and father, pastor and evangelist, created from the memories of his children, sons- and daughters-in-law, and grandchildren. Three of the nine children, Don, Mildred, and Titus, organized the memories and wrote this tribute.
While the story includes financial difficulties, disappointments, and the frequent absences of their father because of demands for his services as evangelist and conference executive, the tone of bitterness and regret is not present. Rather, they reflect their parents' experience of church as "a place of intense joy" while seasoned with the occasional "painful disappointment."
Nevin was born near Springs, Pennsylvania, the Amish community that had also produced such Mennonite leaders as George L. and Daniel H. Benderboth Nevin's uncles. The Bender family moved to Greenwood, Delaware, when Nevin was 21. In his mid-twenties, Nevin experienced a profound inner renewal, which nurtured in him a sense of call to pastoral ministry. That inner call was soon confirmed by the outer call of his congregation when he was chosen minister by lot.
Controversy was also born in that calling. Another man in the lot was convinced that Nevin's call should have been his own, and by his jealous opposition caused many years of difficulty. Other church controversies followed when more traditional members considered Nevin too moderate, and criticized him for preaching too much love. They believed he should have exercised stronger leadership in stemming the erosion of traditional forms of nonconformity.
The authors also give tribute to their mother, who filled the traditional model of supportive spouse, and efficient, homebound mother. Esther Lauver was born in the Juniata district of Lancaster Conference, where her father served as deacon, and her Graybill grandfather was a minister.
Nevin and Esther met at the Altoona, Pennsylvania, Mission, and were married in 1925. They and their nine children subsisted by dairy, poultry and truck farming, and selling produce at the Lincoln Street market in Wilmington. Their strenuous, combined efforts were sometimes supplemented by "love offerings" from the Greenwood congregation.
While making a living was obligatory, Bender's first love and main focus was his ministry. After serving fifteen years as minister, he was ordained bishop in 1933 by the Conservative Amish Mennonite Conference. As bishop and a member of the conference executive committee, Bender experienced his share of controversies. His leadership style was temperate and conciliatory. His preaching was "quiet but eloquent," which stood in contrast to the more emotional evangelistic preaching of some of his colleagues. His desire that all be redeemed was reflected in his customary prayer that God would receive his own, "without the loss of one" (which was also a common phrase in my father's daily prayer).
Bender, while self-educated, favored higher education, and encouraged his children to attend college. This, along with his more moderate views of discipline and issues of nonconformity, and his practice of involving the congregation in decision-making, caused conflict with his fellow ministers, and with the more traditional members of his congregation. These differences led to an impasse in the Greenwood congregation in 1958. To break the impasse, Bender resigned his office of bishop, even though he had the support of the majority of the congregation. Now free to consider other options, he and Esther began a new chapter of ministry among the Choctaw Indians of Mississippi.
And what a chapter! While Mississippi was fighting to maintain its segregated status quo in the face of the civil rights movement, the Mennonite chapel at Nanih Waiya was blown up by dynamitenot once, but three times. And three times the chapel was rebuilt. Nevin and Esther, along with three adult children, continued their quiet witness of reconciliation that bridged the racial divides of that community.
In the twilight years of his life, Nevin experienced the death of his companion, Esther, agonized over the rape of a daughter, audited courses at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, explored Anabaptist sites in Switzerland, discovered the Bender family roots in Langendorf, Germany, and finally returned to Greenwood, Delaware. There he died as a result of a traffic accident in 1975 at the age of 82.
I have been moved by this family's story, by Nevin and Esther's unwavering confidence in God's presence and leading, by their persistent faithfulness in the face of criticism, and amidst the violence of the civil rights movement. I have also been touched unexpectedly by the intersection of the Bender story with my own. I was not aware until reading this book that significant people in my own pilgrimage where members of the Bender family. Each of them modeled Nevin and Esther's enduring faith, and joy in the journey.
When Nevin was auditing courses at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, 1968-69, he was invited to speak in the school's chapel. On one such occasion, he began his address by expressing the pleasure he felt in that globally diverse setting, saying that, "It makes one feel as though a large family came home." That's a remarkable attitude for an Amish boy born in the provincial hills of southwestern Pennsylvania. Nevin's family and his world had become global.
John E. Sharp
Instructor in History
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