Thursday, January 29, 2015

Book Review: The Legacy of Michael Sattler

I recently finished John Howard Yoder's compilation The Legacy of Michael Sattler. Yoder compiles all of the known documents attributed to the Anabaptist martyr Michael Sattler, one of the most prominent thinkers and leaders of early Anabaptism, especially the Swiss Anabaptist movement. Sattler is someone I have written about before and as one of the lead authors of the Schleitheim Confession he can be arguably labelled the most well-known Anabaptist theologian.

Yoder includes in his work a number of letters and formal writings attributed to Sattler, accounts of his trial and execution, letters written by him from prison and on his behalf from others, notably the Reformer Wolfgang Capito. Also included are two hymns thought to have been written by Sattler that are still in use today by the Amish in their Ausbund, or German hymnbook. Some of my Amish friends recognized his name from the book when I was reading it and confirmed the use of those hymns. Also included is a rather difficult to interpret set of scriptural references seeking to refute infant baptism.

For the student of historic Anabaptism this is an invaluable addition of primary documents, which stands in contrast to the more typical "survey" books like Verduin's The Reformers and their Stepchildren. We get the chance to look at these early writings and see the nascent theology of those who rejected Roman doctrine and many Lutheran/Reformed adaptations alike. Some of the writings exhibit a fairly primitive attempt on a topic but Sattler, like so many others, didn't live long enough to work out his theological positions in great detail. Still The Legacy of Michael Sattler is like a brief step back into history and one I found to be fascinating and encouraging, even though it is overshadowed in places by the gruesome, anti-Christian murder of Sattler.

As an aside, the more I read of the historic Anabaptists the more it seems to me that contemporary "Anabaptists" don't look, think or act much like them on either side of the spectrum. While I feel far more affinity toward the "conservative" contemporary Anabaptists, their insistence on external uniformity and lack of evangelistic zeal indicate that they turned inward and never turned back somewhere along the line. The contemporary "progressive Anabaptist" movement shares a desire for peacemaking with the historic Anabaptists and that is about it, having co-opted the name as a groovy sounding name to dress up run of the mill progressive theology. I think a lot of this stems from general ignorance and indifference to what the men and women who first carried the name Anabaptists thought, taught and did. I think conservative Anabaptists would rediscover the zeal for evangelism that marked their forefathers and perhaps progressive Anabaptists would realize that you can be a peacemaker without embracing every leftist political idea and aberrant theology that comes along.

If you are interested in the Anabaptists and have read over some of the popular level surveys of Anabapist history, The Legacy of Michael Sattler is a great way to get deeper and meet from afar some of our brothers and sisters who paid with their life in order to serve our Lord.

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