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Catholic and Protestant reformers in the 16th century occasionally spoke scornfully of Anabaptists as "new monks," referring to Anabaptist insistence on holy living and intense spiritual life (e.g., TA Elsaß 1, 110-13). Anabaptists occasionally accepted the comparison (Klassen, William and Walter Klaassen, eds. and trans. The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck, Classics of the Radical Reformation, vol. 2. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1978: 217) but more frequently rejected it (Klassen & Klaassen: 215-16; Menno, Writings, 369, 401), in part because monks often came from the socially privileged classes. Several scholars have used monastic history as an aid to interpret Anabaptism (Troeltsch, Ritschl, Davis, Snyder, Martin). Many Anabaptists and Mennonites, beginning with the Hutterite chronicle, pointed to quasi-monastic sectarian medieval movements, especially Waldenses, as forerunners of Anabaptism (these theories are promulgated or discussed by Keller, Gratz, Verduin, Durnbaugh). One of the most extensive efforts to relate monasticism and Anabaptism drew on both monastic and quasi-monastic traditions (Davis). Most scholars have carefully limited their interpretations to pointing out "intellectual parallels" or general similarities; some have argued for direct continuity and influence.

The crucial interpretive question revolves around the nature of monasticism: is it a nonconforming sectarian development critical of the institutional church (Workman) or an intensified institutional core of the ecclesiastical establishment? Or, did monasticism begin as a charismatic, lay, "sectarian" movement in the 4th century but become fully integrated into the sacramental, ecclesial, institutional church by the early Middle Ages (Rousseau, Martin)? How central the critical, separatist aspect of early monasticism is to monastic identity is disputed, even by those within the monastic community (Eoin de Bhaldraithe). Particularly significant in this regard is the distinction between contemplative monastic orders (Benedictine, Cistercian, Carthusian) and more lay-oriented, urban mendicant orders and houses of regular canons of the late Middle Ages (Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinian Friars, Praemonstratensians, Augustinian Canons). The latter orders were associated with the middle class and were visibly and pastorally active; the former were often but not always associated with the nobility and lived in secluded and rural areas. Most Anabaptist links to "monks" appear to have been with the mendicants and canons regular. Michael Sattler is the main exception to this generalization.

Most interpreters agree that Anabaptists rejected the sacramental and institutional "culture-church" of the Middle Ages in favor of a voluntary, non-institutionalized, even anti-clerical church of the faithful few, in effect, reducing the church to a devout "monastic" core. At issue among scholars is whether the label "monastic" should properly be applied to a sectarian, pure church vision such as that held by Anabaptists, since most monks did not believe that the church was made up solely of monastics, rather, they believed that monks and nuns were part, perhaps the most important part, of the church. The qualities and virtues prized by Anabaptists and Mennonites (hospitality, humility, community, Gelassenheit, obedience, repentance, nonresistance, etc.) were also prime monastic virtues, although all medieval Catholics were exhorted to practice these same virtues.

Significant parallels to monastic spirituality are found in the Mennonite period of post-Anabaptist history in which Anabaptist first-generation identity was transformed into a sacramental, ecclesial, institutional, cultural (ethnic) faith, even though Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites avoided the language of sacramental and institutional Christianity (Cronk, Martin). During the 1980s growing Mennonite concern about the role of single adults in the church has not yet taken account of the traditional Christian monastic theology, with its implications for both marriage and singleness. Recent scholarship on monasticism emphasizes the social role of celibate communities, which enhanced the role of marriage while creating a sphere of activity for those remaining unmarried (Brown, Leclercq). Further research is needed in all these areas of Anabaptist and Mennonite history and culture.

See also Historiography; Sociological Studies.


Cronk, Sandra. "Gelassenheit: The Rites of the Redemptive Process in the Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonite Communities." PhD dissertation, U. of Chicago, 1977. See also Mennonite Quarterly Review 65 (1981): 5-44.

For Ritschl, Gratz, Verduin, Keller, and others: see Davis, Kenneth R. Anabaptism and Asceticism: A Study in Intellectual Origins. Scottdale, 1974: 27-31.

de Bhaldraithe, Eion. "Michael Sattler, Benedictine and Anabaptist." Downside Review 105 (April 1987): 111-131.

Durnbaugh, Donald F. "Theories of Free Church Origins." Mennonite Quarterly Review 41 (1968): 83-95.

Martin, Dennis D. "Monks, Mendicants and Anabaptists: Michael Sattler and the Benedictines Reconsidered." Mennonite Quarterly Review 60 (1986): 139-64. Reply by Snyder, C. Arnold. "Michael Sattler, Benedictine: Dennis Martin's Objections Reconsidered." Mennonite Quarterly Review 61 (1987): 251-79.

Martin, Dennis D. "Catholic Spirituality and Mennonite Discipleship." Mennonite Quarterly Review 62 (1988): 5-25.

Martin, Dennis D. "Nothing New under the Sun? Mennonites and History." Conrad Grebel Review 5 (1987): 1-27.

Snyder, C. Arnold. "The Monastic Origins of Swiss Anabaptist Sectarianism." Mennonite Quarterly Review 57 (1983): 5-26.

Snyder, C. Arnold. The Life and Thought of Michael Sattler. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1984.

Troeltsch, Ernst. The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches. Translator: Olive Wyon. New York: Harper and Row, 1960: 239-46, 332-33.

For general information on monastic history, see:

Brown, Peter R. L. "The Notion of Virginity in the Early Church."  Christian Spirituality: Origins to the 12th C. Editor:Bernard McGinn and John Meyendorff. New York: Crossroad (1985): 427-43.

Gründler, Otto. "Devotio Moderna." Christian Spirituality: High Middle Ages and Reformation. Editor: Jill Raitt. New York: Crossroad (1987): 176-93.

Knowles, David. Christian Monasticism. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969.

Leclercq, Jean. Monks and Love in 12th-C. France. Oxford: Clarendon, 1979.

Novak, Michael. "The Free Churches and the Roman Church." Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 2 (1965): 426-47.

Rousseau, Phillip. Ascetics, Authority, and the Church in the Age of Jerome and Cassian. New York; Oxford, 1980.

Workman, Herbert B. The Evolution of the Monastic Ideal from the Earliest Times to the Coming of the Friars. 2nd edition. London, 1927, reprinted with introduction by David Knowles. Boston: Beacon, 1962.

Author(s) Dennis D Martin
Date Published 1987

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Martin, Dennis D. "Monasticism." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. 19 May 2022.

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Martin, Dennis D. (1987). Monasticism. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 19 May 2022, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 601-602. All rights reserved.

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