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Response to Review no. 286

In my response I will emphasize two sets of arguments from Obedient Heretics and consider their implications.

The first set of arguments concerns the understanding of ‘confessionalization’, a frequently used historiographical category. I agree with and am grateful for Graeme Murdock’s comparison of Obedient Heretics with Heinrich Richard Schmidt’s and Gregory Hanlon’s studies of confessional Europe. Confessionalization is most valuable as an analytical category when the close coordination of territorial church and bureaucratic state activities is not made its essential or central defining characteristic. Rather, in its most basic sense confessionalization should mean the institutionalization of collective religious identity. It is useful to think of most early modern Mennonite communities as confessionalized, for they, like other long-surviving religious groups, used unique confessions of faith, catechisms, official histories, martyrologies, ritual practices, and so on, to codify and maintain the boundaries of their communities. While the Mennonites’ relationship to the state need not in itself be of central concern when historians decide whether or not to apply the category of confessionalization to them, there were important political dimensions to their official positions. Confessional Mennonitism preserved a form of religious nonconformity in jurisdictions such as the Calvinist-ruled Netherlands and in Lutheran-ruled Hamburg and Altona. However, in jurisdictions in which confessional foes were allied with rulers, Mennonite leaders were able to assert their groups’ distinctiveness largely because they also put obedience to secular rulers at the centre of their confessional self-definitions. Thus, the Mennonites’ brand of religious nonconformity went hand in hand with political conformity, at least until the era of great European revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century, when the situation became more complex in places like the Netherlands. The major historiographical conclusion is that confessionalization and emerging socio-political order could be closely connected without territorial bureaucracies coordinating all disciplining activity.

By downplaying (although not ignoring) the role of ‘the state’, historians open up greater possibilities for considering ‘the ruled’ as active participants in, rather than merely passive victims of, the processes of confessionalization. One of the more important implications of this position is that it makes possible an expanded focus on confessional groups excluded from the political centre. Because religious nonconformity was common in a confessionally divided Europe, the ways in which political outsider communities contributed to social order deserves further attention. For example, Jewish life went through phases of institutionalization in the early modern period, just as did Christian life. When the Christian state is no longer the primary focus of confessionalization studies, it makes more sense to begin broadly comparative studies of religious communities that as neighbours were subject to many of the same historical forces. Just as confessionalization need not be an exclusively statist historiographical category, so too do the general sociological patterns it highlights not need to apply merely to Christian communities. Although I touch on this idea briefly in Obedient Heretics, much more could be done to extend this line of thought.

The second set of arguments concerns the distinction between official standards of confessional identity and the actual lived experiences of group leaders and members. The first half of Obedient Heretics focuses primarily on conflicts among Mennonites or between Mennonites and non-Mennonites over official standards. It is noteworthy that the harder leaders tried to articulate and codify standards of collective confessional identity, the more resistance they encountered. In other words, the standards of confessional identity required a great deal of continued energy to maintain. It is therefore not surprising to learn that the same leaders who sometimes policed standards of confessional identity closely were at other times much less concerned about how to define Mennonitism. Standards fluctuated in intensity. The second half of Obedient Heretics focuses on the waxing and waning in significance of official standards and on the ways in which confessional standards were understood, modified, and even ignored amid day-to-day activities. From the point of view of historians, the focus on the peaks and valleys of official efforts to define and circumscribe confessional life is significant because it offers a dynamic framework for understanding lives and events. And from the point of view of historical actors, the fluctuation of standards was significant, because at times when leaders were less strict about standards, rank-and-file believers gained more freedom of action. As I will note below, this freedom of action was not without significance for official definitions of confessional identity.

At one point in his review Graeme Murdock offers a warning which he suggests applies to studies like Obedient Heretics. He writes: ‘The danger in some of this analysis is that the social power of religious ideas becomes a significant concern only to a devout confessional core, while most ‘ordinary people’ allow their confessional identity to vary according to changing economic, social and political relationships.’ I am not sure how this critique applies to my work. First, if one follows the ‘devout confessional core’ closely over long periods of time, one is likely to find that attitudes held by its members varied depending on the character and duration of the controversies to which they contributed. For example, leaders like Geeritt Roosen, Bastiaan van Weenigem and Galenus Abrahamsz did not respond in uniform ways throughout their long careers to confessional issues. In other words, their attitudes toward confessional identity varied with circumstances. Rather than being socially reductionist, this position takes ideas seriously without giving them an autonomous, ahistorical existence; ideas and beliefs, like people and events, had a time and place, that is, changing historical contexts. Secondly, the attitudes and actions of ‘ordinary’ Mennonites could and did play a significance and active role in shaping the contours of confessional life. This is the main point of the seventh chapter of Obedient Heretics, ‘Mixed Marriages and Social Change’, which shows how the marriage choices made by several generations of young men and women limited the decisions leaders could make about defining confessional identity. In other words, the beliefs of ‘ordinary people’ as expressed in their fundamental life choices did have larger social consequences.

In Obedient Heretics I show that historians can think usefully about important aspects of early modern Mennonite life in terms of the model of confessionalization, but, at the same time, it would be a mistake to think about confessional standards as though they were applied uniformly, successfully and consistently. I argue that Mennonite identity had a fundamentally contingent character. I also suggest that this conclusion applies not only to Mennonite identity but to confessional (and perhaps collective) identity in general. In the ‘confessional age’ official confessional standards of identity could sometimes be central to people’s collective lives, while at other times they could fade into insignificance.