Five hundred years ago this fall the German monk and rabble-rousing reformer, Martin Luther, published his famous 95 arguments or “theses” laid down against the church of Rome. Some would mark this as the beginning of the Reformation—an era of fragmentation that produced several new Protestant branches of Christianity and even a Catholic reformation.
This year has been filled with events marking the anniversary of Luther’s defiant career. Religious organizations and seminaries with roots in the Lutheran and Reformed traditions have been planning their commemorative events several years in advance. Websites have been created. 1 Scholarly organizations like the American Society of Church history have given particular attention to the anniversary 2 and Concordia Publishing House’s online gift shop 3 is offering commemorative hats, shirts, and even Martin Luther Lego minifigure! In short, it’s a really big deal.
The Reformations of the 16-century not only changed the face of Christianity across the globe but also set the West on a trajectory that would usher in the modern world and arguably pave the way for the Enlightenment and modern democracy. But not all are apt to remember this turning point in history the same way. Roman Catholics are not prone to memorialize Luther. (For obvious reasons.) Neither are Jews. (Luther was quite anti-Semitic.)
Mennonites, Amish, and other heirs of sixteenth-century Anabaptists, who were severely punished and even executed with Luther’s approval, may also be reticent to mark this occasion. The so-called Anabaptists, dubbed “rebaptizers” by their enemies for performing adult baptisms, moved toward a theology of the church in which the community of believers stood apart from the political allegiances of this world—a new model in which the church was to remain independent of the state.
They also adopted believer’s baptism, which was a rejection of the standard Protestant and Catholic practice of infant baptism. Instead, they believed the rite should be performed after a believer was older and could make a personal profession.
The divide between the “Magisterial” Reformers (Luther, Calvin, et al.) and the “radical” reformers (Anabaptists) is an important distinction. The Magisterial reformers defied the Catholic church, but still subscribed to a political arrangement in which religious authorities worked together with civil magistrates to enforce an established state church, and this included the prosecution of dissenters. In addition to disagreeing with Luther and Calvin over theology and practice, radical reformers rejected this political model.
At a time when Americans are wrestling with how to remember the history of racism in America and what is worthy of commemoration, what should we make of the Reformation? What should those of us in the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches do with Luther?
This question is perhaps even more poignant given the fact that in the 18th-century, the religious authorities—who were the religious and political heirs of the Magisterial Reformers— harassed and harangued the founders of our tradition in Germany. These founders were part of Pietism, which originated about 200 years after Luther nailed his statements to the church door.
Though not a branch of the original Reformation, the early Brethren were nevertheless motivated by a similar spirit to breathe new life into the existing churches. They were a loose-knit cluster of dissenters who wanted the freedom to pursue new ways of worship, and they sought a more experiential and personal communion with Christ. Organized outside the established church, their small groups or “conventicles” were a threat to the religious authority.
The Brethren also adopted believer’s baptism and made it a hallmark feature of their belief and practice—even though the authorities prosecuted it. This made them “new” Anabaptists. While none of the early Brethren faced execution like the original Anabaptists did, the Brethren still experienced abuse for their faith. They were imprisoned and exiled. Their families were broken up and their property confiscated. They were often wanderers and refugees finding haven in the few areas that would tolerate them.
So for members of the Brethren tradition, to celebrate or not to celebrate Luther’s Reformation is a complicated question. For some, questions about the relationship between the Brethren movement and the Reformation may not even seem relevant. All of this is “ancient history,” some might say. 4
What is more, since the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches has increasingly gravitated toward American evangelicalism, many have come to identify with Luther and Calvin rather than with early Brethren leaders such as Alexander Mack. This might help explain why each spring at Grace College’s commencement service, it has become a tradition to sing Luther’s famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” The history of the “Grace Brethren” makes this understandable, but there is nevertheless some irony in this.
Regardless of these ironies or how Brethren think of themselves today, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and its leaders deserves to be remembered merely for its momentous historical significance and for the great changes that took place in its wake. And regardless of the Reformers’ weakness and even abuses, their calls for institutional reform, their emphasis on bringing scripture to the masses, their new focus on the importance of personal faith and saving grace as well as their volumes of theological writings are worthy of celebration. In short, these Protestant traditions have made great contributions to Western society and global Christianity.
It is also important to remember and honor those who suffered, both in the 16th and the 18th centuries. This year’s “Believers Church” conference 5 (Mennonites and other Anabaptists) at Goshen College, for example, remembered both the “gifts and tensions of the Reformation legacy.” Honoring multiple sides of the Reformation has even brought about reconciliation between Lutherans and Anabaptist groups 6 in recent years. Honoring the victims of oppression can also prompt us to wrestle with a few of Christianity’s big questions: How much should Christians identify with the political establishment? Should one version of Christian faith be legislated? What is the Christians’ role in military service? Does tradition matter? Can we celebrate the past in a way that does not glorify oppression? In commemorating these events, it is essential to remember that the magisterial Reformers were only part of a larger era of upheaval and the efforts of Anabaptists and later, the Pietists and other dissenters, were equally important.
Anniversary celebrations are part and parcel of forming and perpetuating the historical narratives that give our lives meaning. What we choose to celebrate says a lot about our interpretation of the past and with what parts of it we want to identify. The question is not so much whether we should celebrate the Reformation or let it pass by without notice. Rather, how we remember the Reformation or any of history’s turning points, is what matters most. Like any commemoration, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation should prod us to study the past, consider the many sides of historical events, and reflect on the narratives that continue to shape our spiritual identities. — by Jared S. Burkholder
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Jared S. Burkholder, Ph.D., is chair, Department of History and Political Science, and associate professor, American and World History, at Grace College. One of his research interests is the Anabaptist movement. To receive your personal copy of the magazine mailed directly to your home, click here.
- See lutheranreformation.org, reformation500.csl.edu, and elca500.org ↵
- See churchhistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Program_Draft1- ↵
- See cph.org/t-reformation.aspx ↵
- See After 500 years, Europe’s Reformation scars have all but healed, study nds, theguardian.com/world/2017/aug/31/reformation-protes- tant-catholic-europe-scars-healed-study ↵
- See e 18th Believer’s Church Conference, goshen.edu/register/believers-church ↵
- See Lutherans reconcile with Mennonites 500 years after bloody persecution, dw.com/en/lutherans-reconcile-with-mennonites-500-years-after-bloody-persecution/a-5837683 ↵