The Reformers And Their Stepchildren

Introduction & Postscript

by Leonard Verduin

Introduction to "The Reformers And Their Stepchildren"

Before the Reformation was ten years along it had become evident that not all who were rebelling against the medieval order were of one mind and heart. It had become apparent that within the camp of the dissenters there were deep­seated differences, tensions of such dimensions that a parting of the ways was in the making. It had become plain that the Reformers would as a result be obliged to deploy some of their forces to a second front; they would have to divide their energies between two opponents, Rome and the Radicals.

From the outset the Reformers realized that the opposition that was shaping up on the Second Front was going to be formidable­­at least as formidable as the opposition from the side of the Catholics. As early as May 28, 1525, Zwingli, in a letter to Vadian, expressed the opinion that the struggle with the Catholic party was "but child's play" when compared with the struggle that was erupting at the Second Front.

The opening of the Second Front affected the course of the Reformation very significantly. By way of reaction to it the Reformers backed into a corner where they would not otherwise have retreated. The opening of the Second Front caused the Reformers to go back on their own former selves; it made them swing to the right. This bending to the right, occasioned by the emergence of the Second Front, caused much that was latent in the earliest rustlings of the Reform to go underground, as it were, not to emerge again until much later times.

No suitable name has been found for the Second Front. A name that has gained rather wide usage is "The Left-wing of the Reformation." This name, however, is less than wholly satisfactory. The term "Left-wing" is borrowed from the parliamentary scene and stands for the faction that wishes to go faster and farther than the center, and much faster and farther than the right. We would therefore expect a "Left-wing of the Reformation" to out­Luther Luther. But an examination of the record shows that the men of the "Left-wing" did not do this; in fact, we find them going against Luther, and at very crucial points.

Let us take for example that very central doctrine of the Reformation, the doctrine of justification by faith and its bearing on the place of good works in the scheme of salvation. In his haste to establish the doctrine of justification by faith rather than by works Luther down­graded good works; the only place he had left for good works was at the very end, as a sort of postscript or appendage, something that needed attention after salvation was an accomplished fact. We meet in Luther, to put it theologically, a very heavy emphasis on the forensic aspect of salvation and a correspondingly light emphasis on the moral aspect. Luther was primarily interested in pardon, rather than in renewal. His theology was a theology that addresses itself to the problem of guilt, rather than to the problem of pollution. There is an imbalance in this theology between what God does for man and what He does in man. It was this imbalance that caused Luther to collide with the Epistle of James.

The people of the Second Front showed from the very first a critical attitude toward Luther's disparagement of good works. They did not go along with his one­sidedly forensic theology. They complained that "Luther throws works without faith so far to one side that all he has left is a faith without works." They suggested that Luther's sola fide was heresy­­if taken, as it was taken by some, to mean faith unaccompanied. In this matter, which takes us to the very heart of the Lutheran vision, the men of the Second Front stood to the right of Luther, so much so that their enemies accused them of being "heaven­stormers" and "work­saints," people who think to earn salvation by their good works. Surely this is not left­wing; one could with greater propriety consider it, at this vital point, to be right­wing. These men stood closer to Rome than to Luther in this matter. We do well, therefore, to avoid the expression "Left­wing of the Reformation."

Another name that has come into quite common use is "The Radicals of the Reformation." This name is similarly inadequate, for it likewise implies that the people of the Second Front were quite similar to the Reformers, only more headlong. But the difference between the Reformers and the men of the Second Front was not simply a quantitative one; the difference was qualitative. Although we shall he using the term "Radicals" occasionally, we do so with this reservation. They were radicals, it is true; but they differed from the Reformers in kind, not simply in degree.

The men of the Second Front have also been referred to as "The Stepchildren of the Reformation." This is a much better term, and we shall be using it freely. This name is appropriate for two reasons; First, because the men of the Second Front were indeed treated as stepchildren allegedly are wont to be treated; Second, because they were the victims of a second marriage. Later we shall point out what this second marriage was. We shall also, likewise in its proper place, suggest still another name as a useful designation of these Stepchildren.

Contemporaries called the Stepchildren by all sorts of derogatory names, each of which calls special attention to an aspect of the disagreement that had developed. These names were not intended to convey information; they were intended to convey opprobrium. They were one and all hateful to the persons to whom they were affixed.

The Stepchildren wanted to be known as "evangelicals," as "brethren," or simply as "Christians" or "believers." On their part they called the Reformers "Scribes" or "the learned ones"; those who followed these were called "name-Christians" or "heathen."

Not one of the ugly names used by contemporaries to designate the Stepchildren was new; not one of them was coined in the sixteenth century. All were old terms of opprobrium, most of them were very old. Nor were the ideas that are characteristic of the Stepchildren's vision new; these too were old, very old. Not one of them was invented in Reformation times. When we examine the thinking of the Stepchildren in its several items, whether it be the rejection of "christening" or the refusal to swear an oath, or certain convictions in the matter of economics, or an apparent toning down of the sacrament, etc., we find that it was not in any sense new when the Second Front rallied to it. This explains why no new names were invented. Men have need of new names only if and when they encounter new commodities; there were no new commodities; hence there was no need for the coining of any new names.

It must also be pointed out in this connection that the record does not credit the vision that prevailed at the Second Front to any person alive in those times. Who it was that broached the idea, so central in the vision of the Stepchildren, that the Church of Christ must consist of believing people and of them exclusively, the sources say not a word. Nor do the sources say who it may have been that first challenged the propriety of "christening." The same situation confronts us when we examine the rest of the vision of the Stepchildren. This is passing strange, if it is assumed, as has become the vogue, that the Stepchildren were simply the fruitage of the Reformation. Imagine the story of the rise of Communism without the mention of its Karl Marx!

How is all this to be explained? The answer can be quite simple. We do not read of any new commodities or new names, or of any father of it all, for the simple reason that what erupted at the Second Front was a resurgence, a reiteration, a restatement, precipitated in a way by what began with the posting of the now famous Theses, but essentially older than 1517. What erupted at the Second Front was a resurgence of those tendencies and opinions that had for centuries already existed over against the medieval order; it was connected with ancient circles in which, in spite of the persecutions, a body of ancient opinions and convictions was still alive. It was not a thing arising without deeper root out of the events that began in 1517. To ignore this fact is to fall into error, an error the more serious since even the experts have strayed into it."

The dissent against the medieval order was in 1517 already a millenium old and extremely widespread. Because it had been obliged to carry on under cover, so that conference between the dissidents was quite out of the question, it had gone in all directions. The "medieval underground," as it has been called, was unable to have its "town meetings" to discuss and then come to consensus; hence the endless variety. The Church called all its foes by one and the same name, "heretics", who "like the foxes of Samson, have diverse faces but are all tied together at the tail." The Church had no desire to differentiate between group and group; they were all guilty of one and the same sin, that of challenging her monopoly; and she vented her spleen on them indiscriminately.

This will go far to explain why the "Left-wing of the Reformation" or the "Radical Reformation," or whatever one wishes to call the camp that developed the Second Front, shows such bewildering diversity. The Church had long had a sort of catch­all, a kind of wastebasket into which she thrust everything she didn't want; when the Reformation failed to satisfy there was again and at once the same multifariousness; Menno and Muntzer, Schwenkfeld and Servetus, and many more, all clubbed together under a single label.

Fortunately for us, the record shows that there were great polarities right within the camp of the "heretics," in medieval times and also in the days of the Reformation. We find Menno Simons, for example, aiming his criticism quite as much at fellow "heretics" as at the Catholics and the Reformers. If we allow ourselves to be taught by these built-in polarities we can narrow down the area of our investigation; we can then perhaps arrive at some such thing as the "typical Anabaptist" or the typical "Stepchild of the Reformers." If we allow ourselves to be guided by the recorded antagonisms we will be able, it is hoped, to arrive at a kind of standard, the typical man of the Second Front.

Until comparatively recent times men were obliged to speak of the Stepchildren in the idioms of their foes. Men could do little but repeat the ancient vilifications that had been part of the psychological warfare raging at the Second Front. By and large the primary sources in the matter, consisting of court records, correspondence, confessions, testimonials, etc., were tucked away in ancient archives. There was not much historians could do but repeat the old legends.

All this has changed. During the past thirty years a vast array of the primary sources has been made available in print, accessible to all who have an interest in the matter. Enough is on hand now, in fact, to warrant the assumption that further bringing to light will not alter appreciably the outlines now already wholly clear.

One of the things that has become apparent is that near the heart of the conflict that raged at the Second Front lay two irreconcilable and mutually exclusive concepts of the delineation of the Church of Christ. Modern investigators have, one by one, singly and in combination, come to see that this was the heart of the matter, two diverse and disparate conceptions as to what the Church of Christ is and what its relation is to that which lies around it. All the several features of the struggle are so many implications of this master struggle. It is very nearly correct to say that there is consensus at this point.

The Stepchildren believed that the Church of Christ is by definition an element in society, not society as such. Their opponents, the Reformers as well as the Catholics, were unwilling to go along with this; they continued to look upon the Church as coextensive with society.

It has been said of late that Luther was faced with a dilemma, the dilemma of wanting both a confessional Church based on personal faith and a regional Church including all in a given locality. It was this dilemma that gave rise to the Second Front.

This dilemma was a cruel one. He who thinks of the Church as a community of experiential believers is bound to oppose him who thinks of it as a fellowship embracing all in a given territory; he who operates with the concept of the Church as a society embracing all in a given geographic area must of necessity look askance at him who restricts the Church to the believing ones. The two views cannot be combined; one cancels out the other. In the one view the Church is Corpus Christi, the body of Christ, which consists of believing folk and of them solely; in the other view the Church is Corpus Christianum, the body of a "christened" society. As we shall see, attempts have been made to combine these two, but without success.

Upon the horns of this dilemma Luther was impaled. And not only Luther-all the rest of the Reformers were torn between the same two alternatives. They one and all halted between two opinions. They one and all tried to avoid an outright choice. All tried to ride the fence.

It was this fence­riding that was the immediate occasion for the exodus of the people who thereupon came to be known as the Stepchildren and treated as such. When the Reformers gave evidence that they were not minded to let go of "Christendom," that is, of the Church embracing a whole society, then the exodus occurred. Those who departed were convinced that "Christendom" is a myth, seeing that the Church of Christ consists of the believing element of society and of it only. Their going only made the Reformers burn the midnight oil in an effort to provide an apology for the inclusive Church. And the Reformers grew progressively more hostile toward those who left. Here we are standing right in the middle of the battle at the Second Front.

We have spoken of an exodus. That word is warranted. The people of the Second Front had indeed been at one time a part of the flock that had rallied to the cause of the Reform; in this sense the Stepchildren were the children of 1517. But they abandoned the Reformers because of an earlier conditioning; in this respect they were not the children of 1517. The Second Front resulted from an exodus of people who had come to the Reformation already conditioned, and this conditioning made it predictable that they would not feel at home there permanently and would, for that reason, depart again.

That this is what happened we have from the mouth of Luther himself. He wrote: "In our times the doctrine of the Gospel, reestablished and cleansed, has drawn to it and gained many who in earlier times had been suppressed by the tyranny of Antichrist, the Pope; however there have forthwith gone out from us "Wiedertaufer Sacramentschwarmer und andere Rottengeister..."for they were not of us even though for a while they walked with us."

In this word from the hand of Luther we read the following three things: (1) that people who in earlier times had been suppressed by papal tyranny had joined his movement (they were therefore already estranged from the medieval order); (2) that these did not stay with him, seeing that they were really not homogeneous with him and his ideas; (3) that they thereupon came to be known as Wiedertaufer, etc. The present volume is in a large way an exegesis of this terse tatement made by Luther. The uncomplimentary names he used are nothing but synonyms for "Stepchildren of the Reformation."

Now that we have stated the nature of the Reformers' dilemma, we may well ask how they came to be in such an uncomfortable position. How did they happen to be torn between these two alternatives, these two irreducible views concerning the delineation of the Church? Why was it so painfully difficult to choose between these two possibilities? Whence came this problem that drained away a sizable part of the Reformers' following?

The dilemma resulted from the fact that the Reformers were torn between two loyalties. On the one hand was a loyalty to the New Testament Scriptures, which know no Church other than the believers' Church, a Church based on personal faith. On the other band was a loyalty to what the Dutch call "het historisch gewordene" (that which has come about with the passing of time), in which the Church was construed so as to include all in a given locality. Only by repudiating history, twelve whole centuries of it, could one escape from the dilemma-unless he were prepared to repudiate the New Testament. This latter escape neither the Reformers nor the Stepchildren were willing to use. So there was the other escape, the repudiation of "het historisch gewordene". To reject it was a radical step, too radical except for radicals, who took this way out and so came to stand alone, as Stepchildren.

As we have already said, in the dealings with the Stepchildren a great many terms of reproach were bandied about. Although these names were used in spite, they do, each in its turn, put in focus a phase of the master struggle, the struggle regarding the delineation of the Church. Each of these smear­words points up an aspect of the battle that raged at the Second Front. We shall in this study pick up some of the most commonly­used terms of reproach, examine them somewhat carefully, one in each chapter. Together these studies will sketch, so it is hoped, the essential outlines of the battle of the Second Front.

Before we delve into our subject we wish to point out that this neither was nor is a mere acdemic matter. The Stepchildren were not speculative theologians, eager to win an argument; they were eeeply religious men, and the matter had a definitely existential dimension for them. We shall discover that for us also the matter is far from a mere monk's quarrel.


The Reformers And Their Stepchildren. Leonard Verduin. The Christian Hymnary Publishers, P.O. Box 7159, Pinecraft, Sarasota, Florida 34278. Copyright 1964 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. Reprinted 1991 by The Christian Hymnary Publishers with permission of the copyright owner. Pages 11-20 (Introduction).


 Postscript to "The Reformers And Their Stepchildren"

In this book we have dealt with the rift that developed between the Reformers of the sixteenth century and the men of the Second Front [Anabaptists]. This rift was the result of a problem that perennially besets the Church of Christ, the problem of how to relate that Church to its environment. It is the problem that is posed by by the formula "in the world but not of the world." The history of the Church is, to a large extent, the story of a tension between two extreme tendencies: the one extreme makes so much of the principle "in the world" that the Church loses her identity; the other extreme makes so much of the principle "not of the world" that the Church becomes irrelevant. There is a frighteningly large element of truth in a sentiment expressed by Roland H. Bainton: "If there is no accommodation [to culture] Christianity is unintelligible and cannot spread; if there is too much accommodation it will spread, but will no longer be Christianity." [Quoted by Paul Peachey in Recovery, p. 334.] The way of orthodoxy is often the way of recovering equilibrium.

In this volume the Radicals [Anabaptists] of Reformation times receive more sympathetic treatment than they are wont to get, especially in the Reformed tradition. There are two reasons for this sympathetic treatment. One is that the time seems to have come to reverse the derogatory treatment to which these Stepchildren of the Reformation [Anabaptists] have been traditionally subjected. One can speak very well of them indeed before he becomes guilty of a bias as pronounced as that of those who have so long spoken evil of them; one can let these Stepchildren play the role of the hero and he will be at least as near to historic truth as is the tradition that has so long assigned to them the role of the rogue.

A second reason for the sympathetic treatment given these Radicals of the Reformation is that history has to a large extent demonstrated that they were in a large way right. Little by little, step by step, item by item, Protestantism has, at least in the New World, come to endorse the very emphases for which these men pioneered. The free Church, the Church by voluntary association, the missionary Church, and a host of other features for which the Stepchildren agonized, have become part and parcel of the Protestant vision ­ so much so that men are often surprised to learn that it was not always thus. It is not too much to say that in the New World, as well as among the so­called Younger Churches, the vision of the men of the Second Front has, to a large extent, fought through to victory. The First Amendment of the Federal Constitution of these United States, has, as has been intimated in this volume, carved out the kind of pluralistic situation for which the Stepchildren toiled; it has secured, by the highest law of the land, the kind of cultural and societal compositism for which they labored; it has laid low the sacralism against which they fought. And it has done so with apparent blessing. At the end of the New World experimentation with Old World sacralism, on the eve of the ratification of the Federal Constitution with its First Amendment, but six percent of the citizenry was Church­related; from that moment, the moment of the official repudiation of the sacral formula, dates the return to the Church, in a gradual increase, which without a single setback, has continued to this day, so that now the percentage of Church­relatedness stands in excess of sixty percent. When it is remembered that this is all strictly on a voluntary basis, with complete absence of the compulsions that go with the sacral formula, then it may be said that the American people have become the most religious people on earth. There are voices even in the Catholic Church in the New World asserting that the Catholic Church is nowhere else in possession of the state of health in which it finds itself here. The heritage of the "heretic" seems therefore to be salubrious. For that reason also have we dealt kindly with it.

All this is not to say that the Stepchildren's solution of the Church's knottiest problem solves all her difficulties. No indeed. In fact, it raises some new ones. The problem with which they dealt, the problem of the mode d'integration of Church and society, is in the very nature of things ultimately and finally insoluble; that which derives from the resources supplied by the paliggenesia (the new birth) cannot be integrated smoothly with that which has no other resources than those that are present in the unregenerate heart. Perhaps a modus vivendi (a way of getting along as best we may) is the best we can hope for, a being "in the world" without being "of the world."

This problem remains, even if and when the Stepchildren have their way. The Christian, in the New Testament sense of that word, is a sojourner. But to play well the part of a sojourner is no easy task. For a sojourner stands halfway between a native and a migrant; he must walk the thin line that separates total engagement from total disengagement. This can never become easy.

There are straws in the wind which indicate that the battle that raged at the Second Front is not ancient history and a thing of the past. We shall mention a few.

There are, to begin with, certain overtones of the so­called ecumenical movement that leave the impression that sacralism is not quite dead, not even in the areas in which the First Amendment is in force.

Although it is indisputably true to say that whatever may be good and great in the American tradition developed in the climate of religious pluralism and denominational multiformity, one detects in the temper of some of the advocates of Church union a decidedly negative attitude toward America's past in this matter. We are asked to go in sackcloth because of the "sin of denominationalism" ­­ whatever that "sin" may be. What is this but to look askance upon a feature of the American landscape, a feature concerning which we have laboratory proof that it is a blessing, even if not an unmixed one?

Under the tutelage of such ecumenicalism, an "American religion" could be developing, a religiosity to which every right thinking American would be expected to rally. This would be the "Common Faith" of which John Dewey spoke so oracularly. This could usher in a new sacralism; it could herald the coming of a new "right" religion. And that would call for the creation of a new Second Front; it would make needful again the creation of a Protest such as that of the Stepchildren in their day, against the everybody­embracing Church. Such a development would

bring back into the parlance of men once again the expression "the fallen Church," or "the false Church."

Closely related to the foregoing, and perhaps likewise indicative of an emerging neo­sacralism, is the revival on the contemporary scene of the medieval word "sectarian." Need it be pointed out that in the climate of authentic Americanism there can be no such thing as "sectarian"? This word is a correlative, a word that derives its meaning from a companion concept. Just as the word "wife" requires the concept "husband," just as the word "employer" requires the concept "employee," so does the word "sectarian" require the concept "sacral." A thing can be sectarian only in the climate of establishment. A sectary is, historically, etymologically, by definition, a person who deviates from the "right" religion. But as long as in America there is no "right" religion, that is, as long as the First Amendment stands unrepudiated, there can be no "sectarian" position. He who labels a thing "sectarian," or a man a "sectary," has already in substance embraced the idea of establishment, has already abandoned the postulate that in the American vision all religiosities are equally right in the eyes of the law. Such a man is already operating with the concept of a "right" religion; he has already embraced a new sacralism. And he is but one step short, and it is a short step, from the inevitable concomitant of all sacralism, namely, persecution for him who dissents from the "right" religion. He has done his bit to bring back the world against which the Stepchildren inveighed. He has already approximated the days of the Stepchildren, in which it was held that he who declares that the pope is the vicegerent of Christ is fully entitled to the floor but that he who denies it must sit down and hold his peace. Theism is a "sectarian doctrine" only if and when atheism has been called the "right" position.

This brings us to the educational front in the contemporary American scene. Here the First Amendment, which was written in order to provide and secure a climate in which all religious persuasions would have equal rights before the law, which was intended to provide religious multiformity, is being quoted as though its intention had been to provide religious vacuity. The First Amendment, which was intended to preclude a too favorable position for one religious tradition (and the consequent handicap for the rest), has become a handicap for all religious orientations. This piece of legislation, intended to preclude the rise of sacralism in the United States, is, being quoted in support of a new sacralism, the sacralism of secularism. The upshot of all this is that, in the classroom, he who believes that the universe is "running" talks at the top of his voice while he who believes that the universe is "run" must prudently lower his voice. This handicap for the person of the latter conviction is an intolerable violation of the First Amendment, which forbids the highest law of the land to prevent the free exercise of religion no less than it forbids the "establishment" thereof.

Although the First Amendment officially repudiates sacralism, and so endorses the views for which the men of the Second Front fought, the repudiation of sacralism has not as yet become the heritage of every individual American. That this is so, and the extent to which it is so, became apparent during the campaign of the late and much lamented President Kennedy. There were many Americans who were against Kennedy because he was a Roman Catholic in his religious loyalties. Their tacit assumption was that the "right" religion in America is some version of Protestantism These people were blissfully unaware of the decidedly un-American nature of this stance in the matter; they were blissfully ignorant of the fact that their pose is a direct rejection of the highest law of the land; they were blissfully un-mindful of the fact that theirs is an essentially medieval position, one that has bathed the world in blood and tears.

In all events, the battle that raged at the Second Front is a battle that did not end with those who fought there. It is part of an Eighty Years' War, a contest in which generations succeeding each other will be involved. For this reason the story that we have sought to tell in this volume will be useful reading for all who come after them and who seek to fight the good fight of faith.


The Reformers And Their Stepchildren. Leonard Verduin. The Christian Hymnary Publishers, P.O. Box 7159, Pinecraft, Sarasota, Florida 34278. Copyright 1964 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. Reprinted 1991 by The Christian Hymnary Publishers with permission of the copyright owner. Pages 276-281 (Postscript).