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Spiritualism, mainly of the 16th century (Rufus M. Jones prefers the term "Spiritual Reformers"), a tendency in the period of the Reformation to emphasize the possession of the Spirit (occasionally called the Holy Spirit, by Anabaptists also called "the Power of God" or the "Heart") over against a literal acceptance of the Scriptures. Actually the conflict between "letter" and "spirit" is as old as the New Testament itself and represents a perennial problem for any honest Christian. In the days of the Reformation two opposing tendencies appear very clearly: a stronger reliance upon the letter of the Scriptures such as with Luther, or a greater emphasis on inner illumination, with its corollary: freedom of decision, centering in man's conscience, and neglect of historical elements in Christianity such as the organized church, the sacraments (as means of salvation), and the historical setting of Christian events: creation, fall, redemption, Last Judgment, etc. While all Scripturally oriented Christians center around some organized form of church life, Spiritualists usually minimize these social aspects of faith, relying on the "invisible" church rather than on any visible one, by this promoting a strong individualistic element within Christianity. In its extremist forms Spiritualism moves even further away from its New Testament matrix, only to become a vague "spiritual religion" of some Neoplatonic character, hence no longer justifiably called "Christian."

It seems that Spiritualism in its different forms of historical expression originated in German and Dutch-speaking areas in the 16th century, while in the 17th century there arose a similar phenomenon in England, that is, Quakerism. The first to recognize Spiritualism as a particular phenomenon was Hegler in his unsurpassed study on Sebastian Franck (1892); his ideas were taken up in part by Troeltsch in his Social Teachings (1912, English 1930), in which he made a distinction between (institutional) church, sect (that is, gathered church or brotherhood), and individualistic Spiritualism. In the latter movement he counts men like Franck, Bünderlin, and Entfelder. Two years later the American Quaker scholar Rufus M. Jones published his Spiritual Reformers of the 16th and 17th Centuries (1914) where the term received its final formulation and historic content. Jones sees in men like Denck, Franck, and later Weigel and Boehme, the true forerunners of the Quakers of the 17th century. Actually to pool Denck, Franck, and Schwenckfeld on the one side and Weigel and Boehme (a theosophist) on the other dramatically reveals the vagueness of the term Spiritualism. Karl Holl, another modern church historian concerned with the theme, lumps together all dissidents from the Lutheran way as Schwärmer and in another connection also calls them Spiritualists (in conscious opposition to Troeltsch); to him Anabaptists were also a kind of Spiritualists.

A great step forward in the problem of the definition of Spiritualism was achieved by Kühn in 1923, who distinguished five types of "Protestants"; besides the "prophetic" type of Luther (believing in the revealed Word of God in the Scriptures), the Spiritualistic type represented by Schwenckfeld in Germany and Roger Williams in America, the "Nachfolge" (discipleship) type such as Anabaptists and Quakers—again a strange fellowship inasmuch as Quakerism is nearer to the Spiritualists than to the Anabaptists, the mystical type (Weigel, Boehme), and the ethical-rational type (Castellio and Arminius, later also Pietism). Köhler (Die Religion in Geschichte and Gegenwart, 2. ed., 5 vols. Tübingen: Mohr 1931) classified Castellio among the Spiritualists.

Finally, George H. Williams of Harvard presented in his edition of Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers (1957) a new classification which seems to come nearer to historical reality than any of the earlier attempts. He distinguished three groups in Spiritualism: revolutionary, evangelical, and rational. For revolutionary Spiritualism Carlstadt and Müntzer are named as typical; for evangelical Spiritualism Schwenckfeld and Gabriel Ascherham are considered as characteristic; for the rational type of Spiritualism Sebastian Franck is named as a representative, but also—strangely—the "pansophist" Paracelsus and the mystic Valentine Weigel. On the other hand, a man like Hans Denck is classified among the "contemplative Anabaptists," quite in contradistinction to Rufus Jones's opinion.

This survey clearly demonstrates the elusiveness of the concept of Spiritualist as found in the 16th and 17th centuries. Sharper definitions or distinctions are still needed to understand the deeper issues. For instance, for some of these men the doctrine of the "inner word" (see Bible, Inner and Outer Word) means a divine impulse to discipleship and a concrete Christianity while to others (for example, Quakers) it means simply the spiritual equipment in every man, hence a liberating force in life's decisions. It might perhaps be best to distinguish Spiritualism proper (as described by Williams) from spiritualistic tendencies both in general Protestantism and in Anabaptism (this distinction is suggested by Bergsten). In this regard early Anabaptism clearly demonstrates these tendencies without, however, losing its concrete and existential character as the religion of discipleship.

Spiritualism is only in part New Testamental; in part it is Neoplatonic, a teaching which runs like a red thread throughout Western intellectual history (see Lovejoy), and in part is indebted to medieval mysticism (Williams, 87). But beyond that Spiritualists rely either strongly "on that of God in every man" (George Fox's term), that is, on man's spiritual equipment, or on dreams, visions, revelations, and other inspirations, occasionally called Eingebungsgeist (Müntzer, David Joris). The great names in this line are undoubtedly Sebastian Franck, Johann Bünderlin, Christian Entfelder, and (as a type in itself) Caspar Schwenckfeld, sometimes called the "spiritualistic pietist" of his age. All these men consider the Holy Scripture more as a textbook of Spiritualism than as the one and final revealed Word of God to be unconditionally obeyed. Franck very clearly explains why he could not be an Anabaptist, in spite of all his warm sympathies for these people—it was their discipline, their congregational life, their practical demonstration of discipleship. There was a great controversy between Spiritualism and Anabaptism, even though the delineations are not always clear. Spiritualists are generally individualists, believing in an invisible church rather than in a visible institution or brotherhood, although at times they developed fellowship groups or circles, as around Schwenckfeld. Doctrinally they were not much concerned, inasmuch as the person of Christ is often not absolutely central (for some Christ was only a great teacher). Also sacraments or ordinances were minimized: neither Müntzer nor Joris nor Schwenckfeld cared for baptism or the Lord's Supper, nor did Quakers ever practice these ceremonies. Spiritualists hardly ever speak of the "church under the cross" (see Martyrdom, Theology of). Of course, they, too, know of suffering in this world, but it is due to the tension between spirit and flesh and not because the "world" would contradict their teachings and practices. Usually they live a life of withdrawal and inconspicuous conduct, filled with meditation, writing, and a rich correspondence.

At first Spiritualism can be a very strong force in those who actually experience such an immediacy of God's inner light. Later it can and often does develop into two directions: rationalism (Socinianism) and Pietism, sometimes even combining them. This development became particularly obvious in later Dutch Mennonitism—the line from Hans de Ries to Galenus de Haan (see Meihuizen). Thus Kühn's typology can become blurred since there are no pure types. Often Spiritualism ends in religious liberalism, just as Anabaptism at times eventuates into conservatism, fundamentalism, and legalism.

Early Anabaptism, that is, the first generation, 1525/50, bears certain marks of a dynamic spiritual (spiritualistic) character; in fact, this is the very justification for its existence. Inner rebirth and John 3:8 explain the vigor and liveliness of its first representatives anywhere. This has been brought out most impressively in Orley Swartzentruber's analysis of some early documents, Michael Sattler's letter to the congregation in Horb of 1527, and Anneken Jans's farewell letter to her infant son in 1539 (Swartzentruber, 17 ff., 131 ff.). In these analyses it becomes quite clear that to these early martyrs the "inner word" does not mean at all an "antinomian escape" but rather an increased urge for obedience and concrete witnessing to one's faith. Sattler warns his fellow believers of "false brethren," apparently "spiritualizers" (perhaps followers of Hans Denck and Hans Hut [see Kiwiet]), and "enthusiasts," but nevertheless he himself uses, as Swartzentruber writes, a "pneumatic language," stressing the inwardness of a dedicated heart. Early Anabaptism represents a unique synthesis of spiritualism, Gospel ethics, and eschatology (ibid., 133); most likely this formula of explanation does not exhaust the phenomenon. Certainly, the idea of a "church without spot and wrinkle" is another aspect of this "Anabaptist spiritualism" which Swartzentruber calls "orthodox spiritualism" (22), something which is very different from the ideas of Spiritualism in the narrower sense of the term used above.

Robert Friedmann discussed the issue of Anabaptism-Spiritualism several times. In his Mennonite Piety (79 ff.) he formulated the issue somewhat as follows: "The Spirit can be present only where He can also become flesh" (82). Such a spiritualism is then called a "concrete or Biblical spiritualism" as contrasted to the non-concrete vagueness of Neoplatonic Spiritualism in a Franck or a Campanus. In other words, Anabaptist "spiritualism" requires commitment, Nachfolge, obedience, evidencing of faith in life—points little cared for by the Neoplatonists, and hence is probably better not called Spiritualism. But, to be sure, all this is true for the early representatives of the movement (to 1540-1555), while later generations show already signs of the "routinization of charisma" (term by Max Weber), that is, a certain formalization of erstwhile spontaneous acts and expressions.

H. W. Meihuizen (Mennonite Quarterly Review 1953, 259-304) wrote an important article on the "Spiritualistic Tendencies and Movements Among the Dutch Mennonites of the 16th and 17th Centuries," contrasting the line from Hans de Ries and the Waterlanders up to Galenus Abrahamsz de Haan with the other line from Menno Simons and Dirk Philips to Pieter Jans Twisck and the Hard Frisians, claiming that the spiritualistic line is the very genius of the Dutch Doopsgezinde. To this Friedmann replied in a rather lengthy analysis (MQR 1954, 150 f.): It must be granted that Anabaptism would not be Anabaptism if it did not contain a certain element of spiritualism, that is, the free working of the Holy Spirit in the understanding of the Scriptures. Without this spiritualism Anabaptism would quickly deteriorate into formalism, legalism, or antinomianism. But it leads rather to emphatic commitments, since it is never an unguided inspirationalism or illuminism (see Enthusiasts). Reference was made to Wiswedel's important study on the "Inner and Outer Word" among Anabaptists (see Bible, Inner and Outer Word), and in particular to Ulrich Stadler's beautiful tract of 1536 entitled Vom lebendigen Wort und geschriebenen (L. Müller, 212-27). But precisely these studies demonstrate convincingly the distance of such thoughts from those of the Spiritualists discussed above, German, Dutch, or English. The question was raised more than once how the Anabaptist brethren could actually know that their "spirit" was the same as the Spirit of the Scriptures and not mere imagination (Eingebungsgeist). This was the question of E. Hegenwalt in 1524 (Bender, 122), J. J. Wolleb in 1722 (Friedmann, 42 ff.), and Karl Holl in 1923 (Friedmann, 78). Obviously, no absolute proof can be given but the external results might suggest the answer: the pure church, discipleship, Gospel character of the brotherhood, versus a mildly rationally oriented conventicle or circle of like-minded friends. In the 19th century Ludwig Keller was in his own life a dramatic example of this shift: he began as an ardent "Anabaptist" (see Keller and the Anabaptists) mainly of the Hans Denk type, only to end as the chairman of the spiritualistic "Comenius-Gesellschaft."

Once more the tension between Anabaptism and Spiritualism becomes an urgent issue in recent studies on Pilgram Marpeck and his controversy with Caspar Schwenckfeld. Kiwiet, Bergsten, Klassen, and others put this controversy into the very center of their analyses. For Marpeck the "Word," as revealed in the New Testament, is the carrier of spirit and life, while for Schwenckfeld such ties are nonessential, as one may also receive the inner word without any traditional means (Kiwiet, 111). In other words, the "spirit" of the Spiritualists is not necessarily the Holy Spirit. The difference between Marpeck and Schwenckfeld becomes particularly evident in their ideas concerning the church: visible versus invisible, discipline versus no discipline, historical versus timeless. Bergsten in his Marpeck study (part IV: Zusammenfassung) claims that before 1534 Anabaptism and Spiritualism were hard to distinguish (even though the line Grebel-Sattler is different from the line Denck-Hut), but after 1534 the distinction became very clear and sharp, not only sociologically as Troeltsch claimed, but also theologically (no ordinances, etc.). But Klassen holds that the separation of Anabaptism and Spiritualism occurred clearly in 1531.

Still not fully understood is the position of Hans Denck, which might be called a real borderline case. At one time he is nearer Anabaptism, while at another time he appears to be nearer or leaning toward Neoplatonic Spiritualism, although Kiwiet expressly says that he was not a Spiritualist.

The issue of Müntzer and David Joris, both of whom might better be called "inspirationalists" than Spiritualists, will not be discussed here at any length, in spite of their possible influence upon the early Anabaptists. Anabaptists at all times were cool to the idea of "direct inspiration" (Eingebungsgeist) by which these men lived and acted. Of course such a judgment is correct only as long as one adheres to the conventional definition of Anabaptism (see Anabaptist, Section 2). In any other case the situation becomes more complicated, and one might then better refer back to G. H. Williams' recent classification (see Radical Reformation). Certainly, Spiritualism and Inspirationalism are not identical phenomena (see Enthusiasts).

Letter and Spirit represent a basic tension in Christianity from its very beginning (see I Corinthians 3:6), and will remain so throughout history: the Word without the Spirit is dead, but the Spirit without the Word is empty of content and without control.


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Lovejoy, A. The Great Chain of Being (Baltimore, 1936), dealing with the Neoplatonic trends in Western thought.

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Author(s) Robert Friedmann
Date Published 1959

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Friedmann, Robert. "Spiritualism." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 21 Mar 2019. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Spiritualism&oldid=162908.

APA style

Friedmann, Robert. (1959). Spiritualism. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 21 March 2019, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Spiritualism&oldid=162908.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 596-599. All rights reserved.

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