The Reformers and Their Stepchildren

The Stepchildren

the-reformersI had heard the compliments a thousand times. “Your people are so wonderful: hard working, solid families, simple lives, and good pies.” The more they went on, the more my ballooning pride neared its bursting point. Growing up working at an Amish furniture store I was accustomed to hearing the question: “What does it mean to be Amish/Mennonite?”

When the question arose last week I was determined to talk about more than furniture and pies. In vain, I tried to direct the conversation to Christ but the customer was intent on praising men. As I reflect on the conversation I can’t help but wonder if this is really what the Stepchildren envisioned.

In my late teen years I became fascinated by church history. The thing that fascinated me the most was why the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century were called the Radical Reformers. This group is now most prominently associated with farming, furniture, buggies, suspenders and pies. How had they ever been known as radicals? What set them apart from the mainstream reformation?

In his book, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, Leonard Verduin takes up this question. Verduin recounts the struggle which precipitated the Anabaptist movement in the sixteenth century. Verduin aptly uses the term “Stepchildren of the Reformation”(15) to describe the Radical Reformers who differed from the Magisterial Reformers, such as Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. Terms of derision were heaped on those who joined the Stepchildren. The book is spent unpacking these slang terms as the author argues that the Stepchildren have often been misrepresented. First, I will visit a few of these labels.


In order to understand this name given to the Stepchildren, we must go back to the time of Constantine. Ancient man envisioned everyone worshiping at the same shrine. Therefore “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s” was a novel idea. Verduin argues that all pre-Christian societies were sacral(23). By this he means, “bound together by a common religious loyalty”(23). A sacral society was held together by a common religion to which all members of that society committed.

Early Christians were at odds with the Roman State when they began to declare Jesus as Lord, refusing to worship the Roman Emperor. A sacral society must exterminate anything that might erode its supreme authority; the swift spread of Christianity was a threat to the Roman Empire. Therefore early Christians were persecuted intensely.

How could the eroding Roman Empire be saved? Introduce a “Christian sacralism.” The result: the marriage of the Church and the Roman Empire at the “conversion” of Constantine. Now, all who stood in the path of this “Christian sacralism” would receive the wrath of Christendom. The Donatists of the fourth century attempted to stand against this change, believing that the true church was a small body of regenerate believers separate from the all-inclusive state church.

For similar reasons 1,200 years later, the Stepchildren of the Reformation were often labeled the new Donatists.


Another derogatory term unleashed against the “heretics” was Stabler. This term means “staff-carriers” (64), and refers to the way the two differing groups viewed the Church’s relationship with the sword. While the Constantinian Church had long been engaged in forms of coercion, the Stepchildren saw no place in the Gospel for “conversion” by coercion. They believed the New Testament taught that a person voluntarily followed Christ. This drew the wrath of all who held to a sacralist view of the church.


The Stepchildren believed the New Testament called believers to walk in a new manner of life. By contrast, the sacralist church was embracing everyone in its given locality, removing the purifying aspect of the Body of Christ. It was this mentality the Stepchildren attacked. This brought charges of Perfectionism upon the “heretics.” These charges often had little basis (103).

Another New Testament practice resurrected by the Stepchildren was church discipline. Verduin astutely observes, “Church discipline as set forth in the New Testament is impossible in ‘Christian Sacralism’”(119). When Conrad Grebel of the Stepchildren dared to challenge this practice he met vehement opposition. Grebel proposed church discipline as the New Testament presents it. Excommunication was the ultimate punishment in the church, not death. As Verduin says, “Grebel’s program was calculated to terminate the Church as it had been known for twelve centuries and to substitute for it the Church of the New Testament”(121).

Because the Reformers embraced the sacralist formula, they were unable to attack the lax morality of the state church or resurrect Biblical Church discipline. As Verduin says, “In this whole area the Stepchildren blazed a new trail, by repudiating the Constantinian change, by reinstituting the Church of believers with conductual distinctiveness, by driving away the sword function out of the Church, by re-introducing Church discipline in which excommunication is the ultimate penalty. This program earned for them the incriminating appellative of Catharer [heretic]”(131).

The Negatives

The book is not a quick, easy read and you must stay engaged to comprehend well. However, the mental work required is well worth it. Also, some may find the book a bit academic (many of the footnotes are in original languages) and the average reader will want a dictionary handy.

A Reason to Read

This is one of the most compelling books I have read on the Reformation era. While critics will dismiss Verduin’s take on the Constantinian change as simplistic and his presentation of Anabaptism as overly sympathetic, time has largely vindicated the Stepchildren. This book is a wonderful contribution to Anabaptism and should be read by anyone with interest in church history or Anabaptism.

Stepchildren Today?

I still wrestle with how to direct questions about my heritage to the Gospel. It’s easier to be quiet and lap up men’s praise than to testify of a risen and returning Savior who calls us to repent. Fallen humanity continues to spurn worship of the one true God and erect idols. The Stepchildren advocated a vision of society where no man is coerced into a religion. They did not do this because it was popular; they did it because they believed following Christ included suffering with Christ.

Western society is rapidly rejecting religious freedom. In its place a new sacralism is emerging. Those who will not bow the knee to the idols of erotic liberty and unbridled autonomy are labeled bigots and haters. Once again biblical Christianity is in the crosshairs. Once again religious people will be leading the persecution. Once again the Church of Christ must pick up the Cross and follow.

Will there be Stepchildren in this generation who practice and voice biblical convictions when the praise of men stops and the terms of derision start?

“Timothy” Timothy Miller currently lives near Sarasota Florida with his wife Sarah. Notable interests include hunting, woodworking, reading, sports, and traveling. Timothy is passionate about the Bible, truth, and understanding history. His supreme desire is the glorification of Jesus Christ through sacrificial service.

Works Cited

Verduin, Leonard. The Reformers and Their Stepchildren. Sarasota: Christian Hymnary, 1991. Print.

12 thoughts on “The Reformers and Their Stepchildren

  1. >>“What does it mean to be Amish/Mennonite?”

    >>…I can’t help but wonder if this is really what
    >>the Stepchildren envisioned.

    One has to face facts on the road of life. FACTS, I say. The truth. No matter what that truth is, no matter how difficult to swallow, no matter how much it hurts… one must face the facts. To turn away from the facts is to run straightway into the grip of the devil.

    Here’s my point: if what Verduin describes in his book is authentic Anabaptism, then contemporary Amish and Mennonite societies are not at all what the Stepchildren envisioned. If Verduin’s book accurately defines the nature and character of original Anabaptism, then contemporary Mennonites have ceased to be Anabaptists.

    I’m asking you all to face this fact head-on. I’m asking you to allow this FACT to collide with your life and destroy your Mennonite identity. Welcoming that Collision is called REPENTANCE.

    Good news! Jesus always rushes to the aid of repenters. I know that’s true because I’ve had to do A LOT of repenting! He will help you to recover from that necessary and unavoidable Collision, unavoidable if you really want to be Anabaptists. And that is the real point….

    You younger Mennonites have got to become something NEW. You all are the hope of the world… but not as Mennonites. You can be a special generation in our Lord Jesus… but not as Mennonites. You younger Mennos can become witnesses of the true faith and religion, and restore the body of Christ… but you’re gonna have to become Anabaptists.

    Good review, Tim.


  2. Kevin, I’m intrigued by your comment. I have not read the book, so would you care to expound a little on the comment you made about mennonites having ceased to be anabaptists? What would be the main points and reasons for your view?

    Thank you!


    1. >>would you care to expound a little on the comment
      >>you made about mennonites having ceased to be anabaptists?

      Hello. Allow me to offer you the short answer for now, an answer I will lift straight from Tim’s article. Here is what he wrote:

      >>The thing that fascinated me the most was why the
      >>Anabaptists of the sixteenth century were called the
      >>Radical Reformers. This group is now most prominently
      >>associated with farming, furniture, buggies, suspenders
      >>and pies.

      I have read Verduin’s book; marked it up pretty good with pen and highlighter. There are no chapter headings about Farming or Furniture or Buggies. I don’t recall anything about standardized plain suits and uniform cape dresses. And I don’t think you’ll find the terms “suspenders” or “pies” in the index.

      Something has gone terribly wrong. It’s a tragedy really. That which is most definitive of contemporary Amish and Mennonites bears no connection at all to original Anabaptism. How can we honestly evade the mournful conclusion…

      The Mennonites have ceased to be Anabaptists.


      1. Ian here commenting…
        Glad to see this discussion! I think Kevin has a point. Our purpose as a blog is to “call young [and older, if they want to read our blog :-)] Anabaptists back to the Root [Christ].”
        And this book review points out how some Mennonites have become more associated with man’s traditions than God’s Word. However, by no means do we intend to put everyone in a box.
        I personally know many Mennonites who seek to be identified PRIMARILY as Christ-followers.
        At the same time, everyone has a cultural background, whether Hispanic, Asian, Middle-Eastern or Germanic. We must find ways to embrace culture while not teaching it as doctrine of men.
        I see God working in the Anabaptist movement. He is giving us a deeper commitment to evangelism and missions. He is giving us an appreciation for our heritage while showing us the importance of being Biblically founded. May His Spirit increase His work in our movement! Because we really need it!
        I am optimistic, as you can tell! But longing for more growth!


      2. I would tend to agree you. But what has been lost? What has the pies, farming, and suspenders replaced?

        》You all are the hope of the world… but not as Mennonites. 《

        What is it about being a Mennonite that makes it impossible to get back on track? Most Mennonite have no connection to suspenders and cape dresses and “regulation” suits- but maybe you are specifically meaning “conservative -traditional- mennonites.


  3. Ian wrote:

    >>Our purpose as a blog is to “call young [and older, if they
    >>want to read our blog :-)] Anabaptists back to the Root [Christ].”

    I’d like to better understand the premise behind your purpose statement, Ian.

    Clearly, you believe there are young Anabaptists who have departed from Christ. My question is this: who and where are these young Anabaptists that you’re calling back to the Lord? Are they currently within traditional Mennonite groups? Are they runaways from traditional Mennonitism? Are they youngsters Mennonite-born, but who are now within Evangelicalism of some type?


    1. Good question! Which young Anabaptists are we seeking to call back to the Root?
      I would say yes, yes, and yes!
      There are young Anabaptists within traditional Mennonite groups that are not following Christ. And we write for them.
      There are “runaways” from Anabaptist churches who are not following Christ. And we write for them.
      There are young people born within Anabaptist circles, now within Evangelical circles, who are not following Christ. And we write for them.
      And another few categories:
      There are many young Anabaptists who are following Christ and need encouragement to continue on in the faith. And we write to them.
      There are many not-so-young Anabaptists who are following Christ and long to see the young people follow in their footsteps. And we write to them.
      There are many non-Christians and discontented Evangelicals browsing the web looking for truth. And we write to them.
      This might roughly be our order of importance :-).
      Other Radi-Call writers: pipe up and share your thoughts too! Who is our targeted audience?


  4. Adisciple probes:

    >>But what has been lost?

    Anabaptist identity has been lost.

    There are two ways that I can distort your identity and render your description unrecognizable to your friends:

    1. Leave out essential marks of your person.

    I could provide the names of your third-grade teacher, the street you grew up on and your grandfather’ favorite ice cream, but leave out your job, spouse and children…and most of your friends would have no idea whom I was describing.

    2. Present marks as essential to your person that are not true.

    Even if I accurately provided your friends with your name and age, but insisted that you are a professional chess player, a former astronaut and a member of the local Knights of Columbus, they would not recognize you. They would say, “We know someone with that name and around that age, but we don’t know the person you are describing. Sorry, but we don’t recognize that person.”

    What I am asserting is that traditional Mennonites are guilty of #2. They have added a host of regulations and code to original Anabaptism, made those regulations and code NECESSARY for church membership and, as a result, have forfeited their identity as Anabaptists. In mandating Mennonite code for church membership, thus enforcing Mennonite culture as essential, their Anabaptist claim is rendered unrecognizable.

    Add to this tragedy the lamentable fact that Mennonites are now most widely identified by their “farming, furniture, buggies, suspenders and pies,” and what else may we conclude but…

    Anabaptism is dead among traditional Mennonites.


  5. Adisciple writes:

    >>Most Mennonite have no connection to suspenders
    >>and cape dresses and “regulation” suits

    I am not Mennonite-born nor am I a Mennonite presently. Actually, I’ve never been a Mennonite 🙂 But I do count myself an Anabaptist.

    After spending several years attempting (unsuccessfully) to connect with a variety of Mennonite assemblies, I would suggest there are basically three types of Mennonite churches:

    1. Traditional Mennonites who wear plain suits and cape dresses, devoted to the preservation of the tradition.

    2. Liberal Mennonites who are largely indistinguishable from the world, swallowed whole by “progressive” politics.

    3. Middle Mennonites who hold only the loosest connections to the old traditions, wanting to be more evangelistic, but whose churches are still filled only by Yoders, Millers, Mullets, Grabers, etc.

    These are generalities, of course, and I’m open to amending this little model with better information which you may provide.

    Now, you say that “most” Mennonites are not #1 types, not Traditional Mennonites. I don’t think that’s right. There may be less and less of them, as their children become #3s, Middle Mennonites. But I think the plain suit wearing, cape dress adorning, Traditional Mennonites are still, far and away, the largest segment of Mennonites.

    What information can you provide to help me see it differently? I’m ready to be persuaded on this, but I’ll need some facts 🙂


    1. ” In mandating Mennonite code for church membership, thus enforcing Mennonite culture as essential, their Anabaptist claim is rendered unrecognizable.”

      Kevin, I really appreciate your “take”. I believe you have an excellent point. We, as Mennonites, have grown up with such a strong culture that we almost see it as a necessary part of Christianity.

      ” but I’ll need some facts🙂”

      I’m not sure how to know what is “fact”, but from what I’ve read, about 75% of Mennonites do not hold to certain dress standards or are connected to farming. In Mennonite Beliefs and Occupations, Tomomi Naka writes, “In the 1950’s 66 percent of Mennonite males had agriculture-related occupations…….recently, only 8 percent lived in farm households.” Later he writes that about 25% of mennonites would be considered conservative mennonites, and 7% would be “Old Order” Mennonite.

      You seem sold on Anabaptism. But I want to challenge you that gaining an identity as an Anabaptist, is not Christ’s calling for mankind. If you say it is wrong for Mennonites to strive to hang onto their identity in a Mennonite culture, is it any more correct to look for our identity in the Anabaptists? Jesus never called people to that. I appreciate what I have read about the Anabaptists, don’t get me wrong, but that is not what we are striving for! Jesus called all of mankind to come, be his disciples and follow Him, and go make disciples to follow Him. THAT is the identity to strive for and if that makes me an Anabaptist, fine, I don’t mind. But let’s never hold some group or name up to where our eyes are pulled off of the real goal.


      1. Adisciple writes:

        >>You seem sold on Anabaptism.

        Your comment transported me 15 yrs into the past. Blogs did not exist then…but Yahoo group discussion forums did! A long time ago now, on one of those theological lists, someone posed to me a challenge very similar to yours. So I went diving into the vaults of cyberspace to dig up my response. Here it is…with some editing.

        On Fri, 31 Aug 2001 –

        >>What practical difference does it make whether I am
        >>an anabaptist or not?

        Only the difference between authentic Christian expression
        and modern Evangelical drive-thru religion. The difference could
        not be greater or more substantive. Our interest in Anabaptism,
        I’ve tried to make clear, is not born of personal preferences or denominational prejudices, but of a desire to find the apostolic
        faith and order _alive_ somewhere in the history of the “Church.”
        In examining Anabaptism, we locate a genuine continuity with the original revolution in Jesus Christ which may be, in fact, the
        singular example of such continuity since apostolic times.

        For anyone interested in bona fide Christianity, some standard
        of measurement is inescapable, especially in our age when just
        about anything is given room under the “Christian” tent. This is
        why the Anabaptist tradition is so valuable to us–we find in these brethren the Spirit and teaching of Jesus come into its own. The
        goal of Christ’s Cross is to produce a visible and distinctively Christian community, set apart from the world while laboring for
        the world’s salvation at the same time. We believe the original Anabaptists provide us with a very good model of what that eschatological city is supposed to look like.

        Evangelicalism has reduced the goal of the Gospel to an
        interior decision and the Reformed tradition has reduced it to
        5 theological points. Neither have an authentic Kingdom presence
        in the world. Neither form coherent and bonded social realities.
        Both find their principle of unity in the realm of the strictly theoretical. The fundamental problem, you see, is that Evangelicalism and the Reformed “churches” are without a vision
        of genuine discipleship. Therefore, they have never produced
        a normative way of living together as witnesses of Jesus Christ.
        Far from forming an authentically Christian people and a distinctively eschatological counter-culture, these “churches”
        are invisible sociologically. They are not even concerned to
        form themselves into new societies that reflect the ideals
        and values of the Kingdom of Christ. And that’s because they’ve
        never really renounced the claim to autonomy.

        The Anabaptists, however, were concerned with Kingdom norms,
        and for Christ’s sake, they did renounce the pursuit of individual happiness and personal interest. They interpreted their individual futures in terms of their distinctly Christian group identity. They understood that the grace of a new life meant loss of self and the adornment of a new communal life, advanced by brotherly love
        and strict submission to the other-worldly ethic of Christ the King. For this reason those who love the pure and unadulterated faith
        of Lord Jesus are greatly indebted to the Anabaptists. The point
        here is not to make us over into slavish yearners for the days
        of old nor to say that the Anabaptist expression of faith cannot
        be improved upon, but only to point out that in these authentic followers of Jesus we find a most remarkable and exemplary embodiment of the faith of Jesus Christ, quite possibly the
        most faithful in all of post-apostolic church history.


  6. Hello, Kevin. Did you ever find a modern expression of anabaptist-like mentoring and discipleship? I have found that there are remnants of God’s people with fervor in many churches (of various denominations), but most are considered too Jesus-focused or “holier-than-thou.” Almost none of them have any organized way of assembling or discipling beyond what their current church offers. I wondered if you have found otherwise.


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