We grew up in close—and relatively closed—communities. As culturally and theologically conservative Mennonites with Swiss-German ethnicity raised in the American Midwest (Lisa in Kansas and David in Ohio), the European Anabaptist narrative loomed large in our imaginations. We sang “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” at Christmastime, read gruesome stories of persecution in The Martyrs Mirror (and even acted them out in a capture-the-flag-style simulation game called “Persecution”), ate verenike at mission fundraisers, and imagined the long trans-Atlantic voyage from Europe to the New World. Our families and church communities taught us to understand our spiritual progenitors, those true Anabaptists who followed Jesus’s way of peace, as heroes. These brave men and women, as William Estep put it in The Anabaptist Story (1963), “shone like so many meteors against the night”—the night, of course, referring to the spiritually benighted medieval Catholics who could not see clearly through their Constantinian cataracts. Such imagery formed us deeply as children.
As adults, the Anabaptist mythology we inherited has experienced some damaging blows. Close community has not always felt so peaceful, and our historical and sociological training generated discomfiting questions: Is this narrative interpretively legitimate? How might this mythology reduce or distort “the other”? Does it reduce human reality, as French historian Marc Bloch warns, “to a picture in black and white”? How should we narrate religious tradition to ourselves and to our children?
We will engage these questions by retracing our spiritual heritage from Rome to Rotterdam. This pilgrimage will begin in Rome, where the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Altar of Peace, the Appian Way, and Aqueduct Park represent the heart of a vast empire. The city of Rome also hosted some of the earliest Christians, including St. Paul and St. Peter, who traveled there to preach a savior other than Caesar, who, in turn, persecuted them and forced their followers to the catacombs. Later, at the Milvian Bridge, a new iteration of empire coopted Christian resistance. The Arch of Constantine stands as a symbol of Christian assent to empire. From Rome, our journey proceeds north to Switzerland, where reformers opposed Catholic empire. From there, we travel west to Bern and Zurich, where the Anabaptists opposed Protestant empire. These dissenters, according to Estep’s narrative, emerged as meteors against a dark sky that Luther and Calvin and Zwingli had not illuminated quite brightly enough. We then proceed to the Black Forest and Hesse regions of Germany, where better prospects among the Pietists promised our Müller, Weaver, and Schwartzendruber ancestors a better, freer life. Finally, the pilgrimage heads to the Netherlands, where our forebears fled after persecution followed them even to Germany. It ends at the Port of Rotterdam, where they boarded ships like The Phoenix and Charming Nancy on their journey to America.