The Anabaptist Story
Our church has its roots in a small group that began meeting in Ann Arbor homes in the mid-1970s. We were all Anabaptists, having been raised in the Mennonite Church or the Church of the Brethren. When our numbers grew, we moved to a local school and then to our present location at Gretchen’s House, a childcare center. Along the way we adopted the name “Shalom Community Church.”
The story of Shalom is part of the larger Anabaptist story, which began centuries ago in Zurich, Switzerland. One wintry evening in 1525, just eight years after Martin Luther posted his famous 95 theses, those gathered in the home of one Felix Manz did something unheard of: they baptized each other. They had all been baptized as infants, but they could find in the Bible no justification for infant baptism. So they baptized themselves “for real,” as a result of conscious understanding and choice. Detractors began calling them and their followers “anabaptists” or “re-baptizers.”
“Re-baptism”– or simply “believer’s baptism”—was an act of defiance that struck at the heart of both church and state. The two had been enmeshed in Europe since the fourth century, when Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire. Anabaptists wished to be free of state control so they could re-create the kind of Christianity described in the New Testament. This meant drawing on the Sermon on the Mount and doing away with such things as the swearing of oaths, usury, military service and participation in civil government.
Such defiance led to the persecution of Anabaptists by both Catholic and Protestant authorities. Those who survived martyrdom did so by becoming “quiet,” keeping their beliefs to themselves and meeting in secret. Many migrated to Eastern Europe and what is now Russia. Centuries later, a number of them crossed the Atlantic and settled in Canada and the United States.
In 1531, a Dutch Catholic priest by the name of Menno Simons learned about the Anabaptist movement, which he said “sounded very strange to me.” It seemed less strange after he consulted the Bible, which he had never done during his training for the priesthood. When his brother Pieter was among a group of Anabaptists killed in 1535, Menno “prayed to God with sighs and tears.” He rejected the Catholic Church and the priesthood and cast his lot with the Anabaptists.
Through his writings, Menno Simons preserved the teachings of the early Swiss founders. He wrote, for example, that “true evangelical faith . . . clothes the naked, feeds the hungry, consoles the afflicted, shelters the miserable, aids and consoles all the oppressed, returns good for evil, serves those that injure it, prays for those that persecute it.” Menno died in 1561 and was buried at home, in his garden.
His name did not die, however. As early as 1544, the term “Mennonite” or “Mennist” was used in a letter to refer to Anabaptists who lived in the Netherlands. The name was carried with immigrants to North America and in the late 1700s to Catherine the Great’s Russia, where they successfully farmed the Ukrainian steppes in exchange for religious freedom and military exemption. After the Revolution of 1917, however, their farms and enterprises were expropriated and many were persecuted or imprisoned by the Soviet government. This led to another wave of emigration to the Americas.
Church of the Brethren
Believer’s baptism was still a mark of defiance in Europe long after the death of Menno Simons. In August of 1708 five men and three women, calling themselves “Brethren,” gathered at the Eder River in Schwarzenau, Germany. They had been influenced by Pietism, a movement that stressed the emotional aspects of religion, basing its assurance of salvation on the “feeling of grace.” One of the group baptized a miller by the name of Alexander Mack, after which Mack baptized the other seven. Twenty-one years later Mack and his followers, wanting to escape persecution, set sail for North America.
They weren’t the first of their group to leave Europe. Brethren had begun emigrating to North America in 1719 and by 1740 most had left Europe. The first congregation in the New World was established in Germantown, Pennsylvania. From there missionaries set out for the Midwest and by the mid-1800s had reached the West Coast. Expansion caused strain and conflict, however. In the early 1880s a major split left the German Baptist Brethren as the largest group coming from the original Brethren. In 1908 they adopted the name “Church of the Brethren.”
Anabaptists today come from all over the world, with only a minority living in Europe and North America. There is considerable interest among many Christians in the Anabaptist vision—its call to peace, justice, reconciliation and love of the enemy; its emphasis on community and simple living; its commitment to religious liberty; its rejection of institutions and “empire” Christianity. Bridges are being built with the very faiths from which Anabaptists first separated. Here at Shalom we try to be true to historic Anabaptist beliefs in making Jesus the center of our faith, community the center of our life, and reconciliation the center of our work.