Pilgrims and Exiles: Recommended Resources

Although the Anabaptists have valued humility and privacy highly, they have attracted a lot of attention from curious tourists and serious students alike. In whichever category you may fall, you will find in the following resources a wealth of carefully researched information and interpretation on the Anabaptists.

Anyone interested in learning about the origins of Anabaptism would do well to start with William Estep’s The Anabaptist Story (3rd edition, Eerdmans, 1996). Estep covers the heady days of the Radical Reformation in engaging prose, from Conrad Grebel’s and George Blaurock’s courageous baptism through the spread of the movement into Holland, where Menno Simons assumed the mantle of leadership, and then finally over the Atlantic where the movement took root in America.

Next to the Bible, no book is held dearer by Anabaptists today than Thieleman J. van Braght’s Martyrs Mirror (Herald Press, multiple editions). Originally published in 1660, the book traces a terrifying yet venerable tradition of Christian martyrdom beginning with Christ and his disciples and quickly moving to Anabaptists who died at the hands of Catholics and Protestants alike. Today the Martyrs Mirror serves as a reminder to American Anabaptists of the price they paid in Europe for nonconformity. The complete set of 104 etchings added to the 1685 edition by Jan Luiken may be viewed at http://www.bethelks.edu/services/mla/images/ martyrsmirror/, which also provides a link to the full English text of the Mirror.

Donald Kraybill is one of the foremost historians and interpreters of the Anabaptists today. The reader new to Anabaptist studies would do well to begin with almost any one of the more than 18 books Kraybill has authored. In On the Backroad to Heaven (Johns Hopkins, 2001), Kraybill attends to the nuances of faith and practice in the “Old Order” branches of the Amish, Brethren, Mennonites, and Hutterites (a communal group not included in this issue). In the concluding chapter he sagely maps out the challenges facing American Anabaptists with the collapse of modernity and the rise of post-modernity.

A handy reference and a quick but comprehensive read on American Anabaptists is Donald B. Kraybill and C. Nelson Hostetter’s Anabaptist World USA (Herald Press, 2001). This handbook includes summary descriptions and statistics for all major Anabaptist groups, along with historical, cultural, and demographic charts that illumine complex social patterns and theological distinctives.

In The Riddle of Amish Culture (Johns Hopkins, 1989, 2001), Kraybill addresses why the Amish have neither declined nor fallen into irrelevance over the course of the 20th century, but have continued to grow and flourish. He also masterfully disentangles for the reader puzzling inconsistencies in Amish attitudes and policies that arose during the initial encounters with modernity and technology.

For a comprehensive history of the Amish, Steven M. Nolt’s A History of the Amish (Good Books, 1992, 2003) is an excellent choice. Nolt returns to the Reformation to set the scene for Jakob Ammann’s split with Swiss Mennonites in 1693, then follows the first wave of emigration to Holland and finally to Pennsylvania in the early 18th century. Nolt is careful to note that not all Amish fled to America at first; the last to leave Europe did not emigrate until 1914.

How much of our perception of the Amish draws from facts on the ground, compared with stereotypes imposed by the American mainstream? In The Amish in the American Imagination (Johns Hopkins, 2001), David Weaver-Zercher follows the attempts of American media to portray the Amish—from early 20th century Helen Reimensnyder Martin’s novels lampooning the “Pennsylvania Dutch” to Peter Weir’s redemptive Amish widow in his 1985 movie Witness. Weaver-Zercher concludes that American representations of the Amish tell us as much about ourselves as about the Amish.

Part of the series Studies in Anabaptist and Mennonite History, Ervin Beck’s MennoFolk (Herald Press, 2004) brings to our attention a different source of “insider information” on Anabaptist theology and culture: their own folklore. Having collected a trove of trickster tales, jokes, and urban legends told by Mennonites and Amish (as well as mainstream American culture), Beck sets these stories—for example, the “Reggie Jackson urban legend” that once circulated among many Anabaptists—in their cultural context, and takes great delight in them along the way.

Finally, for a detailed but easy-to-read set of guides to the details of “plain” lifestyle and culture, see the People’s Place Books (Good Books). This series explores subjects as diverse as Anabaptist buggies, recipes, plain dress, and even weddings.

By Steven Gertz

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #84 in 2004]

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