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Enthusiasts, a term little used in modern English or German, though much used in both English and German in the 16th-18th centuries, with a meaning similar to though not quite so intense as “fanatics” or “zealots.” In German the more common term is Schwärmer or Verzückte. The third edition of the Realencyclopedie für Protestantische Theologie und Kirche titles its article on the subject Verzückung, Enthusiasmus, Schwärmerei. The latest book making much use of the term is that by the Roman Catholic Oxford don R. A. Knox, Enthusiasm, A Chapter in the History of Religion with Special Reference to the XVII and XVIII Centuries (Oxford, 1950).

Knox includes in his survey the following groups: Montanists, Donatists, Joachim of Fiore, Albigenses, Waldenses, Anabaptists, Hendrik Niclaes and the Familists, George Fox and the Quakers, Jansenists, Quietists, Moravians, and John Wesley and the Methodists. He labels the symptoms of enthusiasm as “ascetic legalism, millenarianism, antinomianism, ecstasy.” In the Elizabethan Age the term “Enthusiasts” became almost a technical term as used by leaders of the Church of England in referring first to Anabaptists and then to Puritans. At times the term seems almost to mean any group of sectarians who depart from the historic church; i.e., who generate sufficient conviction and courage (=enthusiasm?) to break away from the main line of historic Christendom as expressed in the state churches, whether Catholic or Protestants, and to make a fresh start. The assumption behind the term is that such breakaways are due to an overemphasis on immediate guidance by the Holy Spirit or an “inner light,” a relaxing of normal controls and restraints, permitting either excessive emotionalism or undue self-exaltation to overbalance common sense and respect for history and tradition. Knox even calls enthusiasm an “ultra-supernaturalism.”

The term and concept of Schwärmer and Schwärmertum as used chiefly by the Lutheran theologians and historians from Luther on down to the present day, best translated by “fanatics,” has proved more serviceable than “enthusiasts,” and is a far more dynamic term in church historiography. Conservative modern Lutherans are still very conscious of the Schwärmer, both historically and currently, and of opposition to them—far more than is Anglo-Saxon Christendom. The difference may be due to the fact that the ideals of the free churches, who are in a sense the spiritual heirs of the Schwärmer (Anabaptists) of the Reformation time, are now dominant in the Christendom of the United States, and very influential in English Christendom in general, whereas the Lutheran countries have never developed vigorous or large free churches (although Anglo-Saxon importations like the Baptists and Methodists have become significant). The Lutheran state churches, having remained dominant in the Christendom of their countries, have continued throughout their history in effect to view all divergent (sectarian) movements, from the Anabaptists on down, as dangerous and inexcusable aberrations and threats to the life of “the church.” One of the weapons in their fight against these groups has been the derogatory designation of Schwärmer. The term carries both the sense of “sectarian” and somewhat of “fanatical” and “unbalanced.” It is the product of a sincere state-church mind, which has difficulty in conceding the validity of the free church concept. The typical Lutheran sees, perhaps correctly, not just isolated individuals or groups of Schwärmer but a whole front of opposition, another type of Christianity, of which the Anabaptists were the leading exponents in Reformation times. In this understanding, the Anabaptists-Mennonites and their historians would in effect agree, with reversed evaluation, however. They would rate the Anabaptist front as nearer to the true intent of Christ and the New Testament than the state church type. Such historians, and of course modern Mennonites, would not agree to classify the extremist and fringe groups or cults of today such as, for instance, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, in the same category with the Anabaptists at all. Thus in reality the Anabaptist-Mennonite and free churchman will take a position on the concept of Enthusiast-Schwärmer diametrically opposed to that held by the Lutheran state church side. For him the term is intolerable as applied to the main line of his own and related groups through history. The early Anabaptists rejected and resented the term as it was applied to them by the Reformers. Their spiritual descendants can do no less.

The use and prevalence of the term “Schwärmer” (Enthusiast) has a varying value through the centuries. From Luther and Melanchthon to Gottfried Arnold (1666-1714) it was an accepted term, most commonly a term of contempt applied to the Anabaptists and similar heretics. Beginning with Gottfried Arnold a change gradually came in, particularly among the more advanced and liberal thinkers; the heretics of the Reformation were now held to be the true Christians and forerunners of Pietism and the Enlightenment. Through the 18th and 19th centuries this view was held alongside of the older view. The continental liberals of the 19th-20th centuries interpreted the Reformation Schwärmer to be the pioneers and forerunners of the modern religious spirit and gave them much recognition in the development of modern toleration and freedom of conscience. Alfred Hegler of Tübingen with his book Geist und Schrift bei Sebastian Franck (1893) was the brilliant beginner, and Ernst Troeltsch with his Soziallehren (1912) was the climax of this trend, followed by Walther Köhler (died 1942), with many other historians in agreement. In Anglo-Saxondom it was Rufus Jones (died 1950) with his Spiritual Reformers (1905) and other writings. Karl Holl, however, the noted Berlin scholar, reversed the trend to some extent with his brilliant and powerful essay, Luther und die Schwärmer (1922), reviving the older evaluation. Since then a still undecided battle has in effect been raging in modern Lutheran scholarship. The evangelical trend, coupled with the Luther renaissance, in general glorifying Luther, has largely taken Luther’s position against the Schwärmer. The most recent publication of this view has been Heft 6 of Schriften des Theologischen Konvents Augsburgischen Bekenntnisses (Berlin, 1952) containing the following three essays: W. Maurer, “Luther und die Schwärmer”; H. Wendland, “Gesetz und Geist des Schwärmertums bei Paulus”; and F. Schumann, “Schwärmerei als gegenwärtige Versuchung der Kirche.” These essays were papers read at the sixth meeting of the Theologischer Konvent Augsburgischen Bekenntnisses in Fulda, Germany, 25-28 March 1952. The report of the discussion at the meeting as published in the same Heft clearly indicates the position taken toward the Schwärmer by the group attending the session. A few extracts (in translation) will suffice to indicate it. “How is the phenomenon Schwärmertum to be conceived? Is it not a significant symptom, that although it professes to depend on the Word of God, actually it delivers the dynamis of the Word to the devil? The Schwärmer contend that man, as pious man, remains free before God. Here the essence of Anabaptism must be sought. The approach of God to man in the incarnation is for the Schwärmer the stumbling block (skandalon). The Schwärmer uproots the word of God not in the form of rejection but acceptance; therefore Schwärmertum is the most pious and deceptive (verlogenste) form of self-assertion before God.” These and similar astonishing assertions are quite in the spirit of Luther’s attack on the Schwärmer (Anabaptists). It is true the report does not identify the Anabaptists as specifically mentioned in the discussion, and claims that the writers are concerned about the general theory of Schwärmertum, not concrete cases, but the implications are there, and the first essay was on the Anabaptists.

Fritz Heyer’s Der Kirchenbegriff der Schwärmer (Leipzig, 1939) is written in the same general spirit of Lutheran evaluation of all Anabaptism as a dangerous “Schwärmertum.” Christian Neff’s reply to Heyer should be noted in his review in Mennonitische Geschichtsblätter V (1940) 48-52. A far more objective and valuable discussion is Karl Steck’s Luther und die Schwärmer (Zollikon-Zürich, 1955), No. 44 of Theologische Studien herausgegeben von Karl Barth. An adequate historical and theological valid answer to this age-old concept of Anabaptist- Enthusiast-Schwärmertum has not yet been rendered. It cannot be done by modern Mennonites who follow either the liberal or the Lutheran position, or who have no clear historical knowledge or a Biblical Anabaptist-Mennonite theological line of their own. Meanwhile the misconception of the Anabaptist-Mennonites as Schwärmer-Enthusiasts persists in far too many circles and requires correction. Anabaptism is a sober, Biblical, realistic theology of regeneration and discipleship, subject to the Word, constitutive of a true New Testament church, and not “Enthusiasm.”

Author(s) Harold S Bender
Date Published 1956

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Bender, Harold S. "Enthusiasts." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. 28 Jul 2021. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Enthusiasts&oldid=80518.

APA style

Bender, Harold S. (1956). Enthusiasts. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 28 July 2021, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Enthusiasts&oldid=80518.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 227-229. All rights reserved.

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