Book Review: The Naked Anabaptist by Stuart Murray

Ever since I was able to distinguish what anabaptists were from baptists, I have been intrigued by their story and their theology. My interactions and knowledge of anabaptists and their later affiliates have been:

  • seeing Hutterites at the farmer's market and out and about
  • the movie Witness set in an Amish settlement
  • many friends who grew up as Mennonites, or at least have Mennonite parentage
  • Paraguayan/German Mennonites to whom my wife taught English
  • the incredible, forgiving response of the Amish community after 5 of their daughters were killed
  • Daily Digs, emails which I still receive from the Bruderhof network which are some of the most thoughtful quotes out there
So, with this opportunity to learn more of these easily identifiable Christians, I picked up The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith. In the past half decade, I have been drawn more to traditional or more orthodox theological or historical texts, so this is perhaps a little out of character for me. 

The book begins with a tour of anabaptist influence in Britain and Ireland which is odd because there has never been a visible concentration of anabaptists in the British Isles, but that is where the author lives and where his Anabaptist Network operates from. For me, this was the least interesting part of the book. I wanted to know what anabaptism was all about and where it came from and where it is today. Fortunately, Murray takes us there.

To explain the essence of who these fringe Christians are and what they believe, you can simply look to the words of Jesus. They embrace communal living, non-violence, justice, Jesus as the central voice in theology, personal devotion to Christ, decentralized power in the church structure, and the separation of church and state. 

The movement was born mainly out of Switzerland in the time of Calvin, early 16th century. They were persecuted for most of their existence. The primary cause of opposition was their insistence that Christians make decisions for baptism as adults. This flew in the face of centuries old theology and the authority of the church, be it Catholic or Reformed. Some of the earliest anabaptists (rebaptized) were martyred by drowning in mock baptisms by other Christians. They eventually spread out through central and northern Europe where strongholds were found in Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Czech Territory (Moravia). They were then scattered during the following centuries and ended up in Russia where they again were persecuted and fled to the Americas mainly.

As I read about their unique attributes, I realized that much of what they brought to the table as they spoke out in opposition to the established church were doctrines and practices that I grew up with in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church:
  • Adult baptism
  • Foot washing ceremony (as a part of communion)
  • Strong bent towards separation of church and state
  • Emphasis on service and justice
  • Distrust of other Christians, especially Catholics
  • Independent (either personal or congregational) interpretation of the Bible
As such, in my journey, I have had to re-evaluate these beliefs, embracing some and not others. One of the greatest things that I have come to embrace is the ancient interpretations of scripture above my own. This is one of the areas where Anabaptists and I part ways. While I am drawn to their humble communal way of life, their hearty rejection of anything traditional prior to their movement makes it difficult to accept their paradigm. This is essentially the evaluation Lazar Puhalo and Ron Dart gave the book.

That said, I think their passion, as muted it is, is commendable and inspirational. I think many aspects of it should spread. And that is the estimation of Stuart Murray too.

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