Book Review: ‘The Anabaptist Story’ by William Estep
William Estep (1920–2000) was a brilliant church historian and Baptist scholar who taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for more than three decades (1954-1990). This book is a solid contribution to the world of Reformation studies.
Introduction to The Anabaptist Story
Estep’s The Anabaptist Story was first published in 1963, the second edition in 1975, and this third edition in 1996. Estep’s goal is to not merely share the story of the Anabaptists, but to do so in a manner that is “instructive” for followers of Christ (12). Estep wants more than to merely transmit historical data, he wants to “impart something” to the reader (12).
The story of the Anabaptists is told very well by Estep in this book, but he gives minimal effort in the way of exhortations to the reader throughout the book, therefore it’s difficult to judge whether he met his stated goal of imparting to the reader.
Also, Estep assumes that the reader has some decent familiarity with the events of 16th century Europe. If you don’t, there will be sections that don’t quite make sense to you.
This book begins with a general overview of the origins of Anabaptism. It quickly becomes clear that there is no such thing as one origins of the movement, but rather multiple sources, in various pockets of Europe during the Protestant Reformation throughout the early 16th century. In fact, to refer to it as one movement is probably inaccurate.
For Estep, even the term Anabaptists, which alludes to the typical Anabaptism conviction on the ordinance of baptism, is not the ideal way to identify the impulses of the early Anabaptists. What Estep helps the reader to see is that there are various groups that could be labeled Anabaptists throughout the 16th century (and later their 17 century counterparts), are tremendously diverse in theology and ideology.
Anabaptists: Not a Uniformed Group
Estep effectively points out at one of the significant failures of church historians has been the lack of nuance in which they discuss various groups that have all been lumped-in together as Anabaptists. For example, one of the most unfortunate events during the Reformation was in the city of Munster in 1534, where a group identified as Anabaptists rebelled (or what some people might call terrorism). This has obstructed honest attempts at assessing Anabaptism. Estep says that group in Munster ought to be considered an “aberration of sixteenth-century Anabaptism” (18).
For Estep, the fringe groups ought not be thought of as mainstream Anabaptism. However, I remain unconvinced that such a distinction is as clear as Estep seems to believe; it would be appropriate for instructors to continue to use the term Anabaptist to describe even those fringe groups because, as other historians have noted, those fringe groups do not seem to be as fringe as Estep presents them to be.
Estep identifies three broad categories, different types of groups, the Anabapists, the inspirationists, the rationalists (see pp. 39-42). Estep seeks to tell the story with these distinctions in mind, separating the true Anabaptists from the rest.
Key Players and the Break from Rome
The beginning chapters of the book give biographical sketches of Anabaptism’s earliest leaders and key influencers. Estep gives us insights into Ulrich Zwingli and the Swiss Reformation. The first source of Anabaptists was Swiss Protestants who felt that Zwingli was not being radical enough in his push against the Catholic Church and the city leadership.
In essence, according to Estep, the disagreement between Zwingli and several other protestants in the region led to a break. Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and George Blaurock are at the center of this. Estep presents these early Anabaptist men as having a mostly united front, which is different than how these men are often portrayed in other church history texts.
Estep chronicles the events leading up to Grebel performing the first believer’s baptism which Estep calls “clearly the most revolutionary act of the Reformation… no other event so completely symbolized the break with Rome” than these actions (32). At first, I could not help but to wonder if this statement was hyperbolic, being that there were so many revolutionary type events that took place throughout the 16th century. But Estep’s thorough understanding of the nuances of era gives a lot of credence to his assessment.
One of the personalities that Estep is seemingly most impressed by was Balthasar Hubmaier. Estep calls him a “creative theologian” and notes that he was “well trained in scholastic theology and patristics” (108). However, Estep is more gracious than other observers when assessing Hubmaier’s antisemitism, only saying that Hubmaier “shared the prejudices of the people of his day and probably the moral standards of his fellow ecclesiastics” (108).
Estep gives careful attention to Jacob Hutter, Peter Riedmann, and especially Menno Simons. Simons was an influential writer and theologian, but Estep says that the “greatest contribution to the Anabaptist movement was his character,” calling him “[h]umble and self-effacing to the end” (220).
Throughout the book, Estep spends a lot of real estate giving biographical sketches of various Anabaptists influencers. He presents the Anabaptists as being mostly orthodox and pious, however, the fact that he uses the term Anabaptist differently than how others have used it, this causes some confusion. Estep effectively covers the personalities of the early the Anabaptists, describing them in the light of their Medieval backdrop.
The primary flaw with Estep’s biographical sections is that there is significant effort placed on personalities, and less emphasis on the chronology of events. After the biographical sketches Estep covers the theological framework of many Anabaptists, however, as previously stated, it is important to note that Anabaptists are not one monolithic group. Estep does show, however, that several of the early Anabaptists alluded to the ancient creeds, therefore were not heretics while the more radical components have heretic ideas, it is unfair to lump them in with all Anabaptists.
The Development of the Anabaptist Movement
Estep makes clear that personalities like Grebel and Simons and many in between were Trinitarians, and “there is an abundance of evidence” to prove that (231). Estep does mention that there have been questions around Simons’ odd doctrine of the incarnation, or what Simons called the doctrine of “celestial flesh” (218). However, Estep is willing to be favorable to Simons, giving Simons the benefit of the doubt that other historians have not given. Frankly, I remain unconvinced that such benefit of the doubt is warranted.
In addition, regardless of the theological differences amongst Anabaptist, which grew over time, it is valuable to note that most Anabaptists were known for have a high view of Scripture, a commitment to Christian community, and they held to credo-Baptist convictions.
One element of the Anabaptist story that Estep tells especially well, that is to be commended, is the persecution that existed against Anabaptists. Estep is especially effective in giving the reader a better appreciation for the history of persecution that existed in Europe, and later elsewhere. This is a component that is easily overlooked by many because of the reputation that Anabaptists gave as being “radical” that it’d be easy for many people (probably most) to simply think that Anabaptists brought such persecution upon themselves, but Estep effectively shows that is (mostly) not the case with most Anabaptist groups.
Estep then covers the development of Anabaptism in the south of Germany, and he shows how Moravia would become a very important region for Anabaptism. Later Estep gives this development significant praise for influencing future groups.
Estep points out that the Anabaptists of this region would lead to the Mennonites, and Estep claims they would greatly influence the General Baptists (see pp. 357-358), however, this point seems somewhat overstated. He also gives credit to the Anabaptists for later societal shifts, stating that Anabaptist heritage is the “prized possession of every free society of the twentieth-century world” (372). But to imply that Anabaptism is the primary influencer leading to free societies is odd. This was another moment in the text where this review felt that Estep is potentially overstating his point.
Estep closes the book by tracing the influence of Anabaptism throughout the globe over the last 400+ years. He highlights the direct descendants of the Anabaptists like the Mennonites and the Amish, but also mentions the influence of Anabaptists on Unitarians, Quakers, and Baptists (while modern-day Baptists are not direct descendants of the Anabaptists, they were influenced by Anabaptism; however, as earlier stated in this review, Estep potentially overstates this influence, but the existence of such influence is undeniable).
Estep is a careful storyteller. The book has a tremendous amount of detail (with fantastic, detailed footnotes) and Estep approaches the topic, and each sub-topic, with great nuance. This book also presents a much more cohesive understanding of the facts connected to Anabaptism, especially when compared to writings from historians or theologians that tend to be much more sympathetic to modern variations of Anabaptism.
Overall, The Anabaptist Story is good. I’ve shared my critiques herein, but even with those critiques in mind, this is a great resource for anyone wanting a deeper dive into the world of the Anabaptists and this book is a must read for any student of church history.