The Christian Roots of America

It is sometimes refreshing to look back in Christian history to be reminded once again of those events upon which we stand. Where we are today did not occur in a vacuum or in isolation from the past. In a very real sense, the past shapes who we are in the present and reminds us of where we have been. I spent some time yesterday and this morning doing such historical reflection about the Anabaptists of the 16th century. 

Not too long after Luther and Zwingli’s Reformation, a small group of Christian leaders in Switzerland began to question the idea of infant baptism, antinomianism that seeped into Christianity, and the church’s connection to the state. The utterly swift response from the Reformers who had become known as “evangelicals” was nothing short of unchristian and evil. 

In one stunning example of how these evangelicals had used violence against people who did not believe as they, Michael Sattler, a former monk turned Swiss Brethren, was burned at the stake on May 21, 1527 and, eight days later, his wife was drowned in a mockery execution mimicking baptism. 

Anneken de Vlaster, an Anabaptist woman, is thrown into the fire in 1571, as pictured in Herald Press’s Martyrs Mirror

Their crimes: 1) they held to believer’s only baptism; 2) they observed the Lord’s supper; 3) they rejected self-indulgence; 4) they read and taught Scripture; 5) they did not swear an oath to civil governments; 6) they did not bear arms or use coercion; 7) they stayed on God’s mission. 

For these and other so called crimes, they were considered seditionists.

Contrastingly, one historian recognized the beauty and simplicity of the Anabaptists which birthed renewal in the church. It is a timeless reminder of an unchanging truth. He wrote:

“There is that in the Christian gospel which stirs the consciences of men to be ill content with anything short of full conformity with the ethical standards set forth in the teachings of Jesus and which awakens the hope and the faith that, seemingly impossible of attainment though they are, progress towards them can be made and that they must be sought in communities of those who have committed themselves fully to the Christian idea.” (Latourette, 1953: 786).

Interestingly enough, it is from these 16th century Anabaptist beginnings that a hundred years later the Pilgrims and Puritans would set sail from England for America. In their search for a holy commonwealth based on Scripture and free from the Church of England, they would eventually be challenged by Baptists and Quakers who were more aligned with the original Anabaptist. They, too, would endure persecution, albeit not as severe as their 16th century ancestors. But, the Anabaptist passion to be free from state control so that they might carry on God’s mission clearly gave them a united purpose.

George Whitfield preaching to a crowd

I’d venture to say that this is the root of American Christianity. It was a Christianity in search of freedom to express itself without being controlled, even influenced, by a state church or by the state. It was inspired by those 16th century Anabaptists who would ultimately influence George Whitfield, and John and Charles Wesley in the Great Awakening of the 18th century.

Reflecting on the Anabaptist impact, another historian wrote,

“The Anabaptist movement that spawned the Brethren and Mennonite churches brought warmth into the religious environment of Europe, and flowed into the even more important evangelical revival that affected the entire Western church during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Pietism on the continent and the evangelical movements in Britain and America led to a revitalization of Christianity from which a passion for missions arose. Pietists and their Moravian successors fanned out all over the world, and Christians in Britain and America were moved to action . . . .” (Tucker, 1983: 24).

Granted, it was not perfect. There were mistakes and injustices along the way. But the Anabaptist ignited a passion for an unrelenting pursuit to imitate Jesus that seemed absent in other forms of Christianity that would eventually conflate with politics. Nevertheless, how America evolved from there to where we are today is nothing less than a tangled web of theological gymnastics, ecclesial compromise, mission blindness, and religious nationalism.

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