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Mysticism is a generic term used to describe a wide variety of experiences in which individuals understand themselves to be united with the divine. Mystical experiences are most often recorded by adherents of one of the major world religions, but similar experiences are documented by individuals who have felt themselves united with the 'spirit' of nature and by those who have undergone a drug-induced altered state of consciousness.

Classic descriptions of the mystical experience in Christianity occur in 2 Corinthians 12:2-3, in Augustine [354-430] (Confessions Book 7, ch. 17; Book 9, ch. 10) and Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). The great age of Christian mysticism occurs between the time of Bernard and the 16th century. Mysticism of this period is often divided into two types. The first (Brautmystik) described the mystical union primarily in terms of the union between bride and bridegroom, the second (Wesensmystik) as a union of essences. In the 14th century mystical literature was particularly abundant in the Rhineland (Meister Eckhart, Johan Tauler) and in England. The 16th century in Spain marked the golden age of Catholic mysticism in John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila.

In its 'classic' Christian form the mystical experience proper was understood as the final phase of a three-fold path. In the first (the purgative) the believer practiced the purgation of sin, in the second (the illuminative) the development of a virtuous life, and in the third (the unitive) she experienced union itself. The unitive experience was generally understood as a union of essences in which the believer retained his individuality (in distinction to essential union described in much Eastern mysticism in which the believer is lost in the divine) and as open to only a few. By the 15th century this threefold path was democratized and mystical vocabulary was often used to describe every Christian's union with Christ in faith and particularly when receiving the Eucharistic sacrament. This tendency is especially evident in two late medieval spiritual treatises which were popular among later Protestants, the Theologia deutsch and the Imitation of Christi.

As the term is generally understood, "mysticism" ought not to be used in describing either Anabaptist or Mennonite spirituality. Mystical themes and images can be found in Anabaptist writings, but neither the Anabaptists nor the Mennonites made wide use of mystical manuals such as the Theologia deutsch (as did the Lutherans, for example.) The term Gelassenheit, current in mystical literature of the 13th to 15th century does appear in Anabaptist literature but by the 16th century it was a common spiritual term and its presence does not indicate a direct influence of mysticism, although it and other terms and themes in Anabaptist writing may indicate that some mystical literature of the period was read by the Anabaptists.


Erb, Peter C. "Anabaptist Spirituality" in Frank C. Senn, ed., Protestant Spiritual Traditions. New York: Paulist, 1986: 80-124.

Packull, Werner O. Mysticism and the Early South German-Austrian Anabaptist Movement, 1525-1531. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1977.

Boyd, Stephen B. "Pilgram Marpeck and the Justice of Christ." ThD diss., Harvard U., 1984.

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

Bernard of Clairvaux, Selected Writings, Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1988.

Eitzen, Lando. "The Mennonites and Mysticism." MA thesis, U of Minnesota, 1948.

Additional Information

Augustine Confessions (Text)

Bernard of Clairvaux (Text - On loving God)

Imitation of Christ (Text)

John Tauler (Texts)

Teresa of Avila (Life - Text)

Author(s) Peter C Erb
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Erb, Peter C. "Mysticism." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 8 Jun 2023.

APA style

Erb, Peter C. (1989). Mysticism. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 8 June 2023, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, p. 615. All rights reserved.

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