Monday, October 12, 2009

Littell, Franklin H. The Anabaptist View of the Church - A book review

Since I have to write a bunch of book reviews for my course work, I figured I'd post them here. Here is the first one. Enjoy.

Littell, Franklin H. The Anabaptist View of the Church, 2nd ed., rev. and enl. The Dissent and Nonconformity Series, No. 11. Paris, AR: The Baptist Standard Bearer, 1958. 229 pp. $ 22.00.

In the midst of a “surge of Anabaptists studies” in the late 1950s (x), the late Franklin H. Littell, Professor of Church History at Emory University, better known as the father of modern Holocaust studies in America[1], revised and enlarged his original study on the Anabaptists and their identity.


In an attempt to correct the misconceptions about Anabaptists created by the four centuries of church historians, Littell presents a study which does not dismiss Anabaptists as peripheral and does not base itself on extremely hostile polemics (139) which “generally can be said to reflect the theology of the Reformers more than the economy of the Anabaptists” (142). His quest begins by an attempt at identifying the essence of these “radical groupings [which] developed not on the margins of the sixteenth-century Christendom, but rather in the very centers of the Reformation” (1). After proposing a working definition for the Anabaptists proper as “those in the radical Reformation who gathered and disciplined a ‘true church’ (rechte Kirche) upon the apostolic pattern as they understood it” (italics his, xvii), Littell proceeds in chapter one to present a historical overview of the larger “Anabaptist” movement. This larger movement he will come to call the “Left Wing of the Reformation” and isolate among it a smaller group of proper Anabaptists which include Swiss Brethren, Hutterites, South German Brethren, and Dutch Mennonites (45). His approach is initially geographical, subdividing his overview into three sections: North Germany (3-11), Switzerland (12-18), South Germany and Strassburg (18-27), but then turns more chronological and topical. Ultimately, the purpose of this first chapter is not only to delineate the variety of groups that have been rightly or wrongly classified as Anabaptist, but mainly to historically substantiate his thesis of the centrality of the view of the church in Anabaptist thought and praxis (which gives nature to his possibly mislabeled title, more on this below).

Chapters 2 through 4 then focus on the groups which are proper Anabaptist, for they “gathered and disciplined a ‘True Church’ (rechte Kirche) upon the apostolic pattern” (italics his, 47) and more specifically on their theology. Littell divides this in three fairly self explanatory chapter titles: ‘the Fall of the Church’, ‘the Restitution of the True Church’, and ‘the Great Commission’. In ‘the Fall of the Church’ Littell looks at the Anabaptist primitivist tendencies. For the Anabaptists, “the New Testament was clear both as to the content of the Christian faith and the organizational procedures in the True Christian community” (46). Littell points out that primitivism was not a new concept or even a purely Christian concept and that Anabaptists did not arrive at their position from a historical tradition of philosophical perspective, but from a commitment to scripture. He then proceeds to look at the historical and theological understanding of the fall of the church from the classical Golden Age.

This leads him straight into ‘the Restitution of the True Chruch’ where he expounds on the Anabaptist belief that the life and virtue of the Early church could be recovered (79). He points out that “after a short period of general protest, a strict Biblicism triumphed over prophetism and chiliasm in the large section of the Left Wing”(82). The focus was now on the restoration of the True Church according to Biblical principles. He therefore distills the Anabaptists’ marks of the True Church into: believer’s baptism; spiritual governance; community; the Lord’s supper; and passive obedience as the outworking of their view on the authority of civil government. Finally, Littell transitions into ‘the Great Commission’ where he stipulates that this passage of scripture was central to Anabaptist theology and practice. He ends his book with the last chapter, which was the first chapter in the first edition, where he chastises historians for not being fair to Anabaptists and for being bad historians, thereby giving us some insight into his research theory and application.

Critical Evaluation

This well written, informative, and well researched work is to be commended for its scholarship at a time when such a position as taken by Littell was not the status quo of academic thought on Anabaptism. Littell’s commitment to original source, his commitment to the careful evaluation of said sources (150), and his fearless chastisement of his contemporaries for abandoning the Anabaptists and passing them “in dim review behind the glittering personalities of the chief reformers” (139) are what make this work uniquely relevant. The twenty-first century reader, though, might sense some lacunae even in Littell’s research. As mentioned several times by Littell, the topic at hand had engendered much more interest since he wrote the first edition, in part, due to the then newly available, numerous primary sources. Possible lacunae in research on his part could therefore be due to the lack of said resources in the 1950s. This could explain the total lack of discussion of the Italian and French Anabaptist movements. Therefore, ultimately, while Littell is a very good starting point in the understanding of Anabaptism, another updated and revised version would provide an even fuller picture of the Anabaptist movement. Someone needs to pick up the torch.

Said future researchers might try not to fall in the same trap as Littell when it comes to entitling their work. Littell entitles his work The Anabaptist View of the Church, for his central thesis is that their view of the church is what really defined Anabaptists, but, while he spends much time describing the ecclesiology of the Anabaptists, it seems to me that Littell really sets out to describe Anabaptists as a whole and not just their view of the church. Therefore, it would seem that the title does not do the work justice and might even deter some reader who might wrongly ignore it as being too narrow in focus and too technical in nature.

Another aspect which could possibly mislead the casual or cursory reader as to Littell’s intentions could arise from his positioning of baptism as the Anabaptists’ first mark of a true church in Chapter 3. It should be noted that based on his overall work, Littell does not place undue emphasis on baptism, but the positioning of it as the primary item in his list tends to lend credence to the misconception that Anabaptists were mainly concerned about believer’s baptism. It could also be beneficial, since Littell was in the business or rescuing Anabaptists’ reputation, if he included some discussion of the lack of emphasis of the original Anabaptists on baptism by immersion.

Finally, it is ironic that, while he cautions his reader not to read “back into the Reformers and radicals a logical coherence and clarity of thought which neither party possessed until after a series of hard fought controversies” (3), he himself seeks from the very beginning to postulate a hypothesis that in itself is an attempt at identifying coherence and clarity of thought in the Anabaptists, mainly that the central issue that brings all these groups together is the concept of a “True Church”. I do not argue with Littell’s conclusions, for he does a good job at supporting them, but, granted that he does a good job at factually showing that they themselves did not necessarily understand or were aware of this coherence, his warning is nevertheless ironic.


Littell set out to do two things in his work: redeem the Anabaptists and show that their central concern was to restore a True Church by following the New Testament. He clearly achieved his purposes in a work where the research is thorough and well documented. His book is informative and challenging, a must read for any student of the Free Church and for any believer who wants to be encouraged to follow the New Testament in all aspects of their life.

[1] Joelle Farrell, “Rev. Franklin H. Littell, scholar of the Holocaust,” Obituaries at (May 25, 2009), [on-line]; accessed 22 September 2009; available from; Internet.

1 comment:

Arthur Sido said...

Excellent review, I added this book to my Amazon cart (once I finish the Reformers and their Stepchildren!)

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