Institute explores world of Anabaptists

By Ben Sutter

In the last 40 years, the number of Anabaptists in the world has nearly tripled, with much of that growth happening outside of North America and Europe.

The Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism, a new initiative at Goshen College, aims to document and explore these dramatic changes.

According to its website, the institute “will help nurture a new generation of scholarship and fraternal exchange explicitly oriented to the global Anabaptist church.”

Anabaptists belong to a faith tradition that grew out of the Radical Reformation of 16th century Europe. Goshen College is a member of Mennonite Church USA, which traces its roots to the Anabaptist movement.

John D. Roth, the director of the institute and a professor of history at Goshen College, believes that Goshen is well situated to manage this project. The college already houses the Mennonite Historical Library and the Mennonite Church USA archives.

“For more than a century, Goshen has had a tradition of Anabaptist-Mennonite scholarship for the church,” Roth said. “We have been a pioneer in trying to connect the contemporary life of the Mennonite church with a deeper understanding of our history. My sense was that it was time to re-frame that long tradition in light of contemporary changes.

“I want to be attentive to renewal,” he said. “My vision is that the institute could truly serve the church by bringing rigorous scholarship to rapid change in the global church and a North American church that’s trying to find its way.

“It’s my passion to be attentive to this moment in history when the Anabaptist movement is exploding in ways that don’t look at all like the traditional cultural expressions it has taken in North America,” said Roth. “There’s a hunger for knowledge. Something important is happening that merits attention, just as a phenomenon in its own right.”

Roth, who is currently the only institute staff member, is working on four distinct projects. The first, the Global Anabaptist Wiki, is already under way.

The Global Anabaptist Wiki, a website that allows its users to create and edit its content, is an effort to help promote a deeper sense of community between the 227 Anabaptist groups in 85 countries, said Roth. The wiki can be found at http://www.anabaptistwiki.org.

Another initiative will be the Global Anabaptist Profile. The profile will work with research associates from 25 Mennonite-World-Conference-member churches to gather information on the faith practices of church members. The survey “will allow for a global comparison of membership,” Roth said.“It will tell us what we believe and what our priorities should be in going forward.”

The institute is also beginning a long-term research effort to collect narratives of endurance in the face of suffering. The Suffering Church Stories project will analyze how Anabaptist groups remain faithful to their faith in difficult times.

The “Martyr’s Mirror,” a 17th-century Dutch book later translated into English, chronicles the persecution of early Anabaptists. After collecting global narratives, the Suffering Church Stories project will develop a supplemental volume of modern martyrs.

“It’s good for North Americans to be attentive to parts of the body that are hurting,” Roth said.

The fourth initiative Roth is working on is a publication series of translated theological and historical works.

“There are creative things happening in other languages,” said Roth. “We need them translated to English, so we can learn what other people are thinking.”

The institute published the first book in the series this past July. A copy of the book, an English-language translation of John Driver’s “Life Together in the Spirit,” was given to all Mennonite congregations, through the financial support of Greencroft Goshen.

Roth is now looking into publishing an English-language translation of a history written about GITJ, one of the Mennonite conferences in Indonesia.

The Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism is one of three institutes started by Goshen College President Jim Brenneman in March 2011. The other two institutes are the Institute for Ecological Regeneration, a program of Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center, and the Institute for Latino Educational Achievement, a program of the Center for Intercultural Teaching and Learning.

“An institute gives focus and visibility to areas of particular resources and strengths that make Goshen College special,” Roth said.

According to Roth, the institute concept combines research and academics, “doing university-level research, but in a liberal arts college.”

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Written by Ben Sutter

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