The "Radical Europe" cross-cultural group in front of Melk Abbey, overlooking the Danube River in Austria. The theme of their summer travels, led by Professor Kimberly Schmidt and The Rev. Seth Miller ᾽07, MDiv ᾽15, was 16th and 21st century expressions of Anabaptist/Mennonite identity, with a focus on women's Reformation history and specific sites in Austria. (Courtesy photos)

European cross-cultural experience examines women’s Reformation history

Madalynn Payne didn’t bring to the cradle of Anabaptism this past summer the same lineage as some of her Eastern Mennonite University peers.

The daughter of parents who joined the Anabaptist church, Payne readily notes her ancestry isn’t one rich in Anabaptist lore. By the end of her trip, however, her parents’ decision to adopt the faith made sense to her in a way it never had before.

“Now I truly connect with the Anabaptist perspective,” she says.

Anabaptism was a 16th-century movement in Europe to separate church and state. At a time when the dominant religion of Catholicism and infant baptism was tied to government, founders believed that church should be free of government inference, and that adults should be baptized on a confession of faith.

Hannah Menefee takes a turn preaching in Hutwill, Switzerland.

Payne was one of 11 students – nine women and two men – who traveled through Austria, Switzerland, and Germany from May 7 to June 17 as participants in a spring cross-cultural semester, “Radical Europe: 16th and 21st Century Expressions of Anabaptist/Mennonite Identity.”

The students explored Anabaptism’s roots in central Europe, with a special focus on the crosscurrents of gender and class that shaped the nascent movement.

“I doubt that even just five years ago I would have been able to lead a tour that focuses on Anabaptist women in the Reformation. The recent monuments, museum exhibits, documentation, and secondary sources we have now, especially the new work among Austrian and Canadian historians, made this tour possible,” said Schmidt, who collaborated with Austrians during her six-month sabbatical in Vienna last year.

The cross-cultural was one of five offered this summer by the university, which has required some form of cross-cultural study for more than 30 years. Student groups are accompanied by EMU faculty with years of experience living and working in destination countries, a dynamic which offers unique perspectives and engagement with the local culture.

Support for Reformation spanned all segments of society

The program was led by Kimberly D. Schmidt, professor of history at EMU and director of its Washington Community Scholars’ Center, as well as The Rev. Seth Miller ᾽07, MDiv ᾽15, pastor of Bethesda Mennonite Church in Henderson, Nebraska.

The starting point was Vienna. The EMU group then proceeded west through the Austrian Alps into Switzerland. After a stop in Weierhof, Germany, the group stayed in Berlin, with side excursions to Lutherstadt and Wittenberg.

Co-Leader Seth Miller with daughter Abigail and student Madison Streett in front of a statue of prominent cleric Ulrich Zwingli. Miller presented a biographical treatment of Ulrigh Zwingli at this location in 2004 when traveling as a student on a similar cross-cultural. In 2017 it was Streett’s turn.

Against the backdrop of this year’s worldwide observance of the 500th anniversary of the birth of the Protestant Reformation, students relived the theological and socio-political upheaval that set the stage for multiple challenges to the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church, arising from numerous localities and social quarters.

The ecclesiastical and magisterial authorities of the day regarded Anabaptism as a radical and dangerous sect, as it challenged the authority of both church and state. Those who aligned themselves with the movement – which encouraged people to read and interpret the Bible for themselves –risked imprisonment, torture, and death.

The EMU students were interested to learn, however, that far from being a movement only of the most desperate and downtrodden, the early Anabaptists represented a broad cross-section of society.

Schmidt names Linda Huebert Hecht, a Canadian historian, as a leader among the handful of scholars in Europe and North America who have drawn attention to the contributions of women, ranging from aristocrats, to members of trade guilds and independent businesswomen, to peasant and farm women.

Among the former was Helene von Freyberg of Kitzbühel, on whose castle – Schloss Münichau – the students paid a call at the outset of the trip.

In addition to her involvement in the founding of three separate congregations, Baroness von Freyberg made her castle a sanctuary for those fleeing the Täuferjäger – the “Anabaptist hunters.”

No less remarkable is the example of the nameless Anabaptist woman memorialized in an open-air museum in Niedersulz, about 30 miles north of Vienna. Among the approximately 80 historic buildings displayed there is a modest farmhouse. Inside, the students could see and touch the heavy iron chain kept fastened to the ankle of the house’s Anabaptist matron, lest she go about the countryside proselytizing.

History sleuthes

Assigned work for the class drew on these and similar experiences. One project cited by students as having been particularly formative was the “homeplace search.” It made use of the vast amount of genealogical data compiled by Hanspeter Jecker of Bienenberg Theological Seminary in Liestal, Switzerland.

Students with family members who descended from the early Anabaptists determined which localities in Switzerland their ancestors formerly inhabited. Each then teamed up with a member of the group who did not have an Anabaptist background.

A selfie stick comes in handy to capture some of the group with a local guide in the Swiss Alps.

“These pairs of students had to go out and use public transportation to get to these various places in Switzerland,” Schmidt explains.

They were deeply moved, she says, to see with their own eyes the beautiful Alpine villages the early Anabaptists had to forsake in hopes of escaping religious persecution.

Traditional accounts of Anabaptism’s origins have placed it in Zurich, citing prominent clerics such as Jacob Hutter, Ulrich Zwingli, and Conrad Grebel as its founders.

However, modern historians have taken the view that the Anabaptist movement emerged through the coalescence of several independent movements.

For the “Radical Europe” participants, Miller says, the homeplace-search exercise provided persuasive evidence of this “polygenesis” account.

“Some students learned things about their families, and the communities their families came from,” he says, “that tended to move them away from the notion that Anabaptism had a single expression that moved out of one city, and that only a few people started it.”

Visiting the site of secret worship

Payne, a second-generation Anabaptist, differed from several members of the party who could trace their descent to some of the earliest Anabaptist converts in Switzerland, Austria, and Germany.

The Tauferhohle near Baeritswil, an isolated place where Anabaptists came to worship safely. (Courtesy of Madalynn Payne)

Fellow EMU student Timothy Martin, for example, was able to visit a castle in the Swiss canton of Emmental in which a distant ancestor remained imprisoned for 15 years.

“My own parents joined an Anabaptist congregation when I was young,” says Payne, a junior majoring in mathematics and secondary education. “While growing up, I watched them make conscious choices to uphold Anabaptist principles.”

In this way, she says, she learned “the distinctive characteristics of the faith.”

Yet only during this summer’s trip did she embrace for herself, deliberately and wholeheartedly, the core tenets of Anabaptism.

It happened one evening, Payne says, as she was giving her parents an account of a particularly exciting day of hiking in the Swiss Alps.

“We visited a cave where some of the early Anabaptists secretly met for worship,” she says. “I suddenly realized that the principles I stand for today are the same ones for which those faith-ancestors risked their lives.”

In that moment, Payne says, she was confronted by a number of questions with which she continues to wrestle. Would she, like those early Anabaptists, be willing to die for her faith? Would she be brave enough to defy ostracization by cultural elites to defend what she avows to be true?

The Anabaptist heroes and heroines who faced persecution, and worse, did so knowing “exactly what they believed and why they believed it,” Payne says.

“Now, I identify with them.”

Editor’s note: While the EMU cross-cultural focused on the historical roots of Anabaptism, the modern global family of Christian churches rooted in the Anabaptist movement is widespread and diverse. Mennonite World Conference, the representative body, includes in its membership “one international association and 102 Mennonite and Brethren in Christ national churches from 56 countries, with around 1.4 million baptized believers in close to 10,000 congregations. About 81 percent of baptized believers in MWC member churches are African, Asian or Latin American, and 19 percent are located in Europe and North America.”