“Early Anabaptist Econmics” – October 18, 2015

Disclaimer: These are unedited notes, not a presentation.


Let’s recap a little bit.


So far we have looked at the beginnings of the Reformation. We have seen that the early 16th century was like a time bomb of social unrest. People everywhere, particularly the peasants, were fed up with the injustices of their day, particularly those propagated by the Catholic Church and they were looking for alternative forms of Christianity. So we looked first at the peasants revolt where hundreds of thousands of peasants risked their lives to try to bring about political and economic change. Then we looked at different types of Anabaptisms which almost simultaneously sprouted up all over Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. As I’ve tried to show, the Anabaptist story began not purely with a theological reformation, it also had at its roots the social and economic unrest that went hand in hand with the calls for church reform in the sixteenth century. Many of the same religious, social, and economic impulses which fueled the Peasants’ War remained issues within the Anabaptist movement well after the Peasants’ War had been suppressed.


So today, I would us to look at some of the ways the early Anabaptists thought through economic issues. When we looked at the Peasants’ War we saw that their grievances centered around access to hunting grounds and fishing areas, the ability to brew beer, and other ways of furthering economic equality. What are some of the economic injustices and social justice questions which the early Anabaptist addressed?


We have already looked at one – the tithe. Tithes were a church tax collected to provide income for the parish priests. During, the 16th century the money and payments collected far exceeded the actual costs of maintaining local priests. Most of the money went to absentee and privileged clerics: the monk, a well-connected university student, or a Catholic canon. Only a small, always inadequate amount went to the local parish priest. This meant that most local parish priests ere poorly-educated, ill-prepared, and poverty stricken who had to work their own plots of land.


In 1523, one of the first economic injustices which we find Anabaptists challenging is the tithe. Near Zurich, these Anabaptists insisted that the local congregation should have control of the money received, and that this money should be used to pay the local parish priests first. Any leftover money should be used to help the poor instead of supporting absentee clerics. Here we find Anabaptists trying to raise up the level of the clergy while also combating the economic disparities which were prevalent in their day.


Another central economic issue discussed by numerous Anabaptist groups was usury. Anabaptists had very different reasons for their rejection of usury. And usury was an issue in which other Protestant groups disagreed with the Anabaptists. For example, the Reformed church strongly disagreed that all usury was wrong. They insisted that only exacting excessive interest on loans was wrong. In their words, usury only occurs in cases of “skinning and scraping.” So, they tried to put a cap on it. Limiting it to a percentage, usually around returns of 5%.


Anabaptists in Switzerland, strongly disagreed. They remained firm: “taking interest from money is wrong, because money is unproductive.” Lenders should not give money away expecting to gain a profit on this transactions. But it wasn’t only lenders who were wrong, it was also borrowers. These Anabaptists were clear: “Christians should not borrow unless he is in absolute need. Anyone who borrows without present need does wrong, since Christ forbade us to care for the morrow. And thus, if someone who lends is not in need, he, too, should not receive interest from the person he helped, since he was able to do it, for we are only stewards of the property that God has given us.” Other Anabaptists argued that we should lend without hope of recovering the principal.


If you did have to borrow money, these Anabaptists argued that “he should not be stubborn, should repay the money he borrowed as quickly as possible and recognize the goodness and love that has been compassionately extended to him. That a loan should, beyond that, yield advantage and profit – for that we would like to hear reasons.”


Why did Anabaptists hate usury so much? They saw it as a way in which the idle renting class was allowed to abuse the working poor. They strongly protested the possibility that a peasant who put his house up as surety and if it burned down, of if he offered one of his fields to guarantee a loan and a flood season came and washed it away, then the lender would have the right to take the property away, enslaving the borrower. To this ability, the Anabaptists often argued : “Isn’t idleness a wicked thing?”


In essence, the problem came down to risk. Loaning at interest always creates an unequal contract. It puts the borrower at risk while not the lender, who is always guaranteed to profit without work or worry. The peasants were always subject to the risks of bad weather, war, illness, and tax increase which could hinder their ability to buy back the loan. So the Anabaptists insisted that a fair bargain would be one that secured “the subsistence and maintenance of the worker” before any money to the loan could be collected.”

This hatred of usury continued for a considerable time. In the Swiss Confession of 1578, an article insisted that Christians should not invest their money to obtain interest, but should use their surplus to help the poor. Menno Simons too openly opposed the charging of interest saying that there were to be no Mennonite financiers or entrepreneurs!


Can you kinda see how issues of the tithe and issues are interconnected? Both are about putting the local, most prominent needs first. Leftovers then go to paying those who are far away, the people who are idle and have the capital already to make all the arrangements.


Of these two issues, it seems like the Anabaptist stance on the tithe has caught on, much more prominently than the Anabaptist understanding of the tithe. There are people all over the world today speaking out against usury and demanding changes to interest rates. Is this an issue for Anabaptists to get involved in again? If so, how?


One more thing, kinda connected to the Anabaptist understanding of the tithe and usury, the early Anabaptists were also extremely suspicious of trade and commerce as a means of earnings one’s livelihood. This is ironic because many of the second and third generation Mennonites were merchants. Why were the early Anabaptists suspicious of trade and commerce? They didn’t see it as an honest hand labour. Like usury it was a way of making money off of money. You buy a good and then you sell it again for a profit. Menno Simons thought there could perhaps be God fearing merchants and retailers but believed they stood in grave danger of being overcome by avarice. Peter Riedemann, an important Hutterite argued that the work of a trader or merchant is sinful business. Therefore, he argued: “we allow no one to buy and sell again… [It is wrong] when one buyeth a ware and selleth the same again even as he bought it, taking to himself profit, making the ware dearer thereby for the poor, taking bread from their very mouths and thus making the poor man nothing but the bondsman of the rich.” Instead, he like most Anabaptists believed that Christians “should labour, working with their hands for what is honest, that they may have to give to him that needeth.”


However, as the Anabaptists gave up its desire to reform society, and instead turned its focus inward, over time, economic reforms began to center more on the community.

One of the most important economic practices for many Anabaptist communities was the community of goods. What is the community of goods? The community of goods is based off of Acts 2 and Acts 4, where the early church held all things in common, so that no one was in need. Community of goods challenged the notion of individual, private property. Instead it held that all things should be pooled together for the sake of the community.


Today we typically associate the community of goods with the Hutterites – a group of Anabaptists originating in Moravia who are still around today. They maintain that all property is owned by the colony. Each colony is virtually self-sufficient, rarely relying on outside labor, equipment, or materials for survival.


And it is hard to know just how many early Anabaptist communities practiced some version of the community of goods. Part of the difficulty is that their enemies repeatedly accused the early Anabaptists of practicing community of goods. Are the reports accurate or slander? Similarly, we find individuals while imprisoned talk about the Anabaptist community of goods. Are imprisoned Anabaptist sources ones which we can trust. That is the difficulty of doing history fro the vantage point of the oppressed. It is hard to know how to trust the sources which are biased against them.


But we do have some sources, once is an early Anabaptist congregational ordinance from 1527 from the Bern area. Here we find: “of all the brothers and sisters of this congregation, none shall have anything on his own, but rather, as Christians in the time of the apostles held all in common, and especially stored up a common fund, from which aid can be given to the poor, according as each will have need, and as in the apostles’ time permit no brother to be in need.”


Similarly, Heini Frei, one of the first Anabaptists from Zollikon talked about how at his first meeting, he was almost persuaded to sell his land and support himself solely from his trade, weaving.


However, at the same time we also find Anabaptists insisting that they never practiced community of goods. For example, when Zwingli insisted that Anabaptists are heretics for practicing community of goods, Balthasar Hubmaier responded by writing: “on community of goods, I have always and ever said that each person would take care for the other, so that the hungry are fed, the thirsty given drink, the naked clothed. For we are not the masters of our goods bur rather the stewards and administrators. Certainly there is none of us who says that we should seize what belongs to someone else and make it common. Rather, when someone asks for your coat you should also give him your cloak.”


However, all that Hubmaier really says is that community of goods is not to be mandatory, something to be seized. Not that it wasn’t practiced voluntarily.


Similarly, we find Hans Hut, that radical itinerant missionary and evangelist arguing that Christ is soon coming to abolish rulership and private property:


“No one can inherit this kingdom except those who on earth are poor with Christ. A Christian calls nothing his own, not even a place to lay his head. A real Christian should not own more on earth that he can cover with one foot. This does not meant that he should have no trade, or sleep in the woods, that he should have no fields or pastures, or that he should not work; rather that he should use nothing for himself alone, saying ‘this house is mine, this field is mine, this money is mine.’ Instead, he should say, ‘Everything is ours,’ just as we pray: ‘Our Father.’

In sum, a Christian should not call anything his own, but hold all things in common with his brother and sister, and not allow him to suffer want. I should not work so that my house be filled and my bowl be full of meat, but rather, I should work to see that my brother has enough. A Christian is more concerned about his neighbor than himself.”


If you listened closely, you heard Hans Hutt argue for the community of goods based off of the Lord’s prayer. One of the things which many early Anabaptists pointed out was the Lord’s prayer was always intended to be prayed in the plural. They believed that too many people saw the Lord’s prayer as directed to themselves. Praying it to insure that they had access to their daily bread, saying it while closing their eyes to the needs of others. What the early Anabaptists insisted is that the prayer pushes us away from believing that anything is ever mine. Everything is ours. And this pushes us towards seeing the needs of those around us. Here is another Anabaptist, Leonhard Schiemer on this point: “They pray: give us this day our daily bread. But as soon as God gives it, it isn’t ours anymore more but mine. It isn’t enough for them to concentrate on today – rather they are concerned about tomorrow contrary to God’s command, since God commands that we should not take care for the morrow. They indeed take care not only for tomorrow but for the whole year; not only for one year but for ten, twenty, thirty years. They not only are concerned for themselves but for their children, not only when their children are young but also after they are grown up.”


Taken together, I believe we see that many Anabaptist groups held the opinion that they were to own and have property in such as way as if they did not have it. A Christian may have it but in such a way that he has it not. It was ambivalent stance that thwarts legalistic interpretations, and yet promotes sharing. Perhaps Klassen has said it best by staying, Anabaptists rejected property in so far as it bound man to this world; but they accepted property in so far as it enabled the believer to provide for his family and for the poor.”


However, after the debacle of Munster, which we are getting too, most Anabaptist groups realize that after 1535, they must distance themselves far away from this belief, if they want to escape persecution. The notion of the community of goods quickly morphs into the notion of mutual aid. Mennonites can have property, they should just give excess to the poor.

We have already seen how Anabaptist spirituality was very closely tied to Anabaptist understandings of economics by looking at how they interpreted the Lord’s prayer. There was also a few spiritual principles which they followed which guided how they perceived economic realities.


The first was the ideal of Nahrung – which is probably best translated as modest sufficiency. Nahrung involved learning to be content with the necessity of life without striving for luxury. Communities also aimed to obtain Nahrung – to be as self-sufficient as possible, so that you could live without any competitive interests.


The second important ideal was Gelassenheit – which is best translated as yieldedness, surrender, or letting go. The early Anabaptists borrowed this concept from the mystics. But while the mystics, saw gelassenheit as a sort of inner quiet, that could result in a sort of detachment from the world, the early Anabaptists understood it practically. It wasn’t something primarily about an individual’s interior life, it was something that affected how one lived with their neighbors.

In other words, the early Anabaptists understood Gelassenheit as an ideal which promoted radical anti-materialistic views. Gelassenheit was perceived as a call to break free, or let go from the creaturely attachments which are enslaving us. This is very similar to what Jeff was articulating last week. Gelassenheit was the need to give up, to free oneself from the luxuries and riches of life, in order to obtain the freedom of Christ. It entailed surrendering oneself, all that one owned in order to aid the lives of those around you. Gelassenheit is another way the Anabaptists promoted a type of having without having.


It is important to remember that Anabaptism arose while capitalism was still in its infant stages. During our second session, I tried to show how the peasants war was an attempt by common men and women to disrupt the spread of capitalism in order to find alternative modes of living. I think the same is true of Anabaptist understandings of economics. Robert Siemens has recently argued: “that the Anabaptist economic ethos is an intuitive response to the evils that the winds of economic change, brought about in part by the discovery of America, and in part by the cultural maturation of European civilization, itself.” Anabaptism was something that would stymy the development of capitalism and that is another reason why it could not develop unhindered. It had to be persecuted.

You can see that the Anabaptists were undercutting core tenets such as property, individualism, the desire to make profit. These Anabaptists were trying to create alternatives to early capitalistic behavior. They clearly saw capitalism as an adversary to the ways of Christ and Christ’s church.