The Anabaptist Story embraces William Estep’s wish that “through these pages the world of the sixteenth century may come alive, and the Anabaptists within it, with all their virtues and faults, their strengths and weaknesses, but above all with the faith and ideals that motivated them to witness in word and deed in life and in death for that truth which for them was worth the living and the dying” (xiii). Estep defends his thesis by analyzing the Anabaptist movement, the individual lives of the leaders, and Anabaptist doctrine before comparing Anabaptism to modern evangelical denominations. The Anabaptist Story accurately portrays Estep’s conviction that the Anabaptist beliefs and traditions have an impact on the present generation.
Estep defends his thesis by drawing parallels between the history of Anabaptists and the modern era. By introducing this theme, Estep provides new information about the historical movement which gave us much of the religious liberty we currently enjoy. The author draws parallels between the martyrdom and persecution of the Anabaptists and the persecution of Christians around the world today. He concurs with Hubmaier that truth remains immortal and no amount of persecution will ever stamp it out. Estep also compared the Anabaptist doctrines of infant baptism, the trinity, pacifism, the swearing of oaths, the ban, and civil authority to the doctrines of modern evangelical denominations. His analysis shows that the Anabaptist beliefs were preserved in the teachings of the Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites, English Separatists, Quakers, Baptists, and Church of the Brethren. He also points out that the principles of religious freedom and the institutional separation of church and state have been applied to many countries in varying degrees. Estep concludes his thesis by arguing that “[if] the Anabaptists teach us anything, it is that those who fear freedom and court the governments of this world in the interest of a more moral or “Christian” state are placing their faith in a broken reed. For the Anabaptists, there is only one way, the way of the cross, for the church to become ‘salt, light, and leaven’ in any society, and in every age” (306).
Estep develops his thesis by introducing the early Anabaptists in Switzerland and then follows their continual search in Europe for religious freedom. He includes biographical sketches of leaders and theologians as he traces the Anabaptists from the continent to England and then on to the American colonies. Estep also adds new Anabaptist sources which lend support to his thesis in this third edition of The Anabaptist Story.
Estep adequately supports his thesis. His evidence is clearly stated and appropriately expressed. Seven chapters deal with the history of Anabaptists, three more discuss doctrine and political beliefs, and the final chapter explains the author’s thesis regarding the impact of Anabaptism on the modern world. Extensive passages from primary sources are carefully placed throughout the book, lending support and truth to Estep’s claims about the Anabaptists. The author remains fair-minded about the potential controversies surrounding the Anabaptist heritage, and his position on the questionable origin of the Anabaptist faith is clearly expressed by his belief that Anabaptism began with Grebel and the Swiss Brethren in 1525. Overall, Estep provides an impartial assessment of Europe during the sixteenth-century.
The quality of research for The Anabaptist Story is staggering. Estep spent several years in Europe, particularly Switzerland and the Netherlands, researching the available Anabaptist sources. He personally translated some of the manuscripts into English so they could be available to other Reformation scholars. Estep consulted with nine Reformation professors, perused seven prestigious libraries, and included two hundred and six historical works in his bibliography. His book is also filled with extensive footnotes which provide further information on the discussed topics.
One detrimental characteristic of The Anabaptist Story is the layout. It is a hard book to read because there are so many pieces of the Anabaptist story. The book read more like a collection of random Anabaptist articles instead of a true historical work. Fluidity and logic are lacking. The book skipped from Switzerland to Germany to the Netherlands and so on without any apparent connection. Charts and timelines would help unite the individual stories, but ultimately Estep should add more narrative to weave the stories together.
Another failure of the book pertains to the lack of explanation about radical Anabaptists like those who participated in the Munster disaster. Estep writes in his preface that he feels discussing the radical Anabaptists is unnecessary because so much has been written about them. However, I would like to see an explanation from Estep on how the radicals fit into the overall history of the Anabaptists. The book is not complete unless all Anabaptist groups are addressed in some way.
Estep’s literary skill is adequate. He writes in a simple manner that can be easily comprehended, but the integration of the stories is abrupt. Although the book is an excellent scholarly work, I would not recommend it for the high school level. However, I do believe that college students, scholars, and pastors would profit from a careful study of the book.
– Hannah S. Bowers
Estep, William R. The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdsman Publishing Company, 1975.