- Martyrs Mirror: A Social History by David L. Weaver-Zercher
Though the demographics of worldwide Anabaptism—a Christian movement that rejects infant baptism and its historic connection to citizenship in a state in favor of adult baptism and the divorcing of church and state—have shifted to South America, Asia, and Africa, their historic roots are in the Netherlands. It was here, in the 1660, that Thieleman J. van Braght published Martyrs Mirror, stories of Christian martyrdom from the time of Jesus. Also known as The Bloody Theater, the books takes nearly 2000 pages to cover the stories of the apostles, early Christians, and those who were coming to identify as Anabaptists in the 1500 and 1600s. Approximately 2500 early Anabaptists embraced martyrdom at the hands of both Catholics and Protestants as part of their nonviolent theology. Martyrs Mirror collected their suffering in a foundational text for future Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites, including the many worldwide who do not trace their ancestry to the Netherlands.
David J. Weaver-Zercher's Martyrs Mirror: A Social History examines how this book informs the lives of the roughly 2.1 million Anabaptists in the world today—a group well-represented in the US and Canada, primarily due to a high birth and retention rate among more conservative believers. Weaver-Zercher's book considers the diverse and contested ways that the book has been used: as a source of gruesome bedtime stories that encourage children to solidify their faith, as a resource that helps forge ethnic unity, as proud evidence of the group's dedication to peacemaking. Weaver-Zercher offers a history of Anabaptist martyrdom and the initial production of the book, but American studies scholars will likely be most interested in what happens when the text comes to America.
After taking readers through the American history of the book, Weaver-Zercher explores the ways that "tradition-minded" and "assimilated" Anabaptists—those who live lives in greater and lesser tension with the non-Anabaptist world—use Martyrs Mirror to their own ends. These two chapters usefully illuminate one of the book's earlier points: that Martyrs Mirror, like all religious texts, has always been used to promote the [End Page 110] view of the one laying claim to its power. Because "Martyrs Mirror has functioned, and continues to function, as a measure of Christian faithfulness" (x), those who can make the greatest claim on it are also the ones defining "faithfulness"—likely a cause of the many fractions among Anabaptists. Conservative Anabaptists read it to find justification for strict sectarianism and deference to the community of believers. Among "assimilated" Anabaptists, the distinctive history of the faith may be downplayed, even as the parts of its theology that align with progressive politics—such as individual agency in opposing state-led violence—are forwarded; in these settings, the role of Martyrs Mirror "is both more muted and more complicated" (239). The stories from Martyrs Mirror, particularly the story of Dirk Willems, who was martyred after rescuing a bounty hunter who fell into icy water while pursuing him, are used not just for personal piety but for political projects both within and outside the church.
Most compelling is Weaver-Zercher's chapter on what Martyrs Mirror means in a world in which Anabaptists now reside not primarily in the safety of the US and Canada but in places where violence is part of a daily life. In April 2017, Mennonite Michael Sharp, a white American with long family roots in the Mennonite faith, was working with a Swedish colleague and their Congolese guides as part of a UN investigation into human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo when he, along with his companions, was murdered. As shocking as Sharp's death was to Mennonites, they had a working martyrology to make sense of his death, a history in which to insert it. Today, according to the Mennonite Mission Network, more than 5000 Congolese Mennonites—more than twice the number of European Anabaptists killed during the Radical Reformation—remain in hiding for their own...