History – even Christian history – has a proclivity to gloss over character flaws, grave mistakes, and contradictions made by its heroes. The history of the Protestant Reformation is often told in a manner that leads the student to believe that the oppressive Roman Catholic Church had abandoned its biblical mandate, forcing heroes of the faith such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli to rise to the occasion and lead the Reformation. In one sense, this is a fairly accurate portrayal of events. The Catholic Church’s teachings of salvation, grace, and baptism had forsaken their scriptural foundation, and reformation was needed. Brave men such as Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli stepped forward courageously and are certainly due honor for many of their contributions to Christianity. However, so much is made of these men that one could easily fall victim to the same myopia of history and never examine what occurred in the shadows of the Reformation. It is there, in the shadows, that Leonard Verduin casts his lamp and sheds light upon the Second Front of the Reformation – the Anabaptists.
Though they were called by many names (many of which would give the structure to the book itself), Verduin calls them The Stepchildren of the Reformation, stating that it is appropriate for two reasons: “first, because the men of the Second Front were indeed treated as stepchildren are wont to be treated; second, because they were the victims of a second marriage” (13).
For one to grasp the importance and ironies of the Reformation and the Second Front, the author posits the importance of the awareness that, “all pre-Christian society is sacral,” which he defines as, “held together by a religion to which all the members of that society are committed” (22-23). The preaching of the gospel (and men’s response to it), by its very nature creates a new society that includes both those who have received the gospel and those who have not. “Wherever the gospel is preached human society becomes composite” (24). The author maintains that Constantine’s decision to unify Rome under the banner of Christianity was an attempt to return to the sacralism of pre-Christian times, and that the Catholic Church was, therefore, the result.
In the Reformers stand against the Catholic Church, they neglected to dismantle Constantine’s union of church and state, and accepted support and union with other governments and empires. While Verduin concedes that without such a union, the Reformation would have likely been unsuccessful, it was this unwillingness to break with 1200 years of sacralism that led to the rise of the Second Front.
The Stepchildren were the victims of the Reformers’ new marriage to a new state government. In their resistance and unwillingness to join the Reformers, the Stepchildren became objects of derision and persecution – often accused of and given the very names of those who resisted the first sacral union under Constantine. The author is emphatic on making the point that the Stepchildren of the Reformation were not of the Reformation at all, but were the continuance of those who had gone before them and insisted that the gospel makes men Christian, but is not intended or able to make a society or region “Christian.”
It is this connection between the anti-Sacralists opposing Constantine’s Rome and the anti-Sacralists opposing the Reformers that forms the basis of each chapter in the book. Each position that characterized the Stepchildren was a charge levied by the Roman Catholic Church against earlier dissenters unwilling to enjoin themselves to the Roman Empire. These very same accusations were now aimed at the Second Front by the Reformers. In fact, the author quotes the Reformers’ accusations at length in effort to allow their own words to reveal the deep-seated animosity towards any who would object to their sacral church without himself being accused of misrepresenting their sentiments.
In The Reformers and their Stepchildren, students of history are given new insight to the Protestant Reformation. He writes, “the time seems to have come to reverse the derogatory treatment in which these Stepchildren of the Reformation have been traditionally subjected. One can speak very well of them indeed before he becomes guilty of a bias as pronounced as that of those who have so long spoken evil of them” (276). Rather than allowing the continuance of their disparagement, Verduin dismantles the accusations lobbied at them, reveals the theological truths of their beliefs, and the biases that characterized those who made those very accusations.
Verduin believes that the court of history has actually proven these Stepchildren right as, “Protestantism has, at least in the New World, come to endorse the very emphases for which these men pioneered” (276-277). In the United States of America (and many other nations), that has proven itself out in the vehement separation of church and state. Nations that have held onto sacralism have either faltered, failed, or changed their ways. The few remnants of such a mentality are themselves evidence of the theological strengths of the Stepchildren’s position, as they are most often led by a dictator that demands the obedience and worship of his citizens.
One objection to Verduin’s work is that is appears wholly one-sided. Little credit or concession is made to the cause of the Reformers. Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli are unapologetically knocked off of their historical pedestal and replaced with the men of the Second Front. In essence, Verduin casts such light upon the shadows of the Reformation, that he neglects the contributions of the Reformers and casts a new shadow on that which had previously been clearly in view.
With that caveat – that one could easily read this book and do the same injustice to the Reformers that they had done to the Stepchildren of the Reformation – this book is a tremendous resource. Prior to its publication, there seems to have been little work exposing their true convictions, and much ink spilled in attempts to undermine and misrepresent them. Winston Churchill is often quoted as claiming that, “history is written by the victors.” In The Reformers and their Stepchildren, Verduin provides an excellent resource from the perspective of the persecuted, rather than the persecutor, and in doing so does students of all history – especially Reformation history – a great service.