The Anabaptist-Mennonite Traditions: Inculcating and Implementing the Sermon on the Mount

I found Dr. Michael King’s essay on the Anabaptist-Mennonite traditions to be fascinating. I have known very little about these faith traditions in the past, and so I was delighted to be able to learn more.

The concept of “rebaptism” was of particular interest to me as a Latter-day Saint. From the time of the organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830, baptism has always been by immersion, since we are persuaded that this particular ordinance or sacrament is symbolic of the crucified Savior being buried and then rising from the tomb some three days later (Romans 6:3-5; Colossians 2:12). The Church’s founder, Joseph Smith, wrote the following in an 1842 letter to members of the Church: “Herein is glory and honor, and immortality and eternal life—The ordinance of baptism by water, to be immersed therein in order to answer to the likeness of the resurrection of the dead, that one principle might accord with the other; to be immersed in the water and come forth out of the water is in the likeness of the resurrection of the dead in coming forth out of their graves. . . . Consequently, the baptismal font was instituted as a similitude of the grave, and was commanded to be in a place underneath where the living are wont to assemble, to show forth the living and the dead, and that all things may have their likeness, and that they may accord one with another.”

Latter-day Saints are also emphatic about who should be baptized—namely, only those who are accountable and mature enough to understand why they are being baptized and why the ordinance is performed in the specific manner in which it is. We comply with the following instructions given in 1831: “Inasmuch as parents have children in Zion [the Church community], or in any of her stakes [basically the equivalent of a diocese] which are organized, that teach them not to understand the doctrine of repentance, faith in Christ the Son of the living God, and of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the hands, when eight years old, the sin be upon the heads of the parents. . . . And their children shall be baptized for the remission of their sins when eight years old, and receive the laying on of the hands.” The laying on of the hands takes place following the water baptism. Hands are laid upon the head of the initiate and words like the following are spoken: “John Henry Brown, by the authority of the priesthood which we hold, we lay our hands upon your head, confirm you a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and say unto you, ‘Receive the Holy Ghost.’” The reception of the Spirit in this way is referred to as the “baptism by fire,” referring to the cleansing, sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit.

When a member of my Church has been guilty of very serious sin and even excommunicated from the faith, he or she can return and regain their membership through a period of genuine repentance and forgiveness, followed by baptism. This would be an example of a rebaptism. Also, when the Mormon pioneers crossed the plains and arrived in the Great Basin, what is now the Salt Lake Valley, Brigham Young, the senior leader of the Church, encouraged the Latter-day Saints to be rebaptized as an evidence of their re-commitment to the beliefs and practices of the faith, perhaps like a married couple might renew their vows after ten years of marriage. We no longer re-baptize people in this manner.

On page 4 of Dr. King’s paper, he describes a Mennonite perspective toward holy scripture—that it is “without error in the original writings in all that they affirm.” This sounds to me to be very similar or even identical to what a number of Evangelical colleagues have expressed to me over the last thirty years. I think I understand what is intended here but have questions about this particular view of scripture. Because there are tens of thousands of scribal errors on the ancient manuscripts that occurred during the centuries-long transmission of Biblical texts, it would be extremely difficult to suggest that the current Bible, as we now have it, is inerrant or without flaw. Consequently, many religious traditions have chosen to adapt their concept of inerrancy by expressing their view that it was the original manuscripts or autographs that were without error. I might be able to live with that, if we only had the original manuscripts within our possession, which we do not. If I understand properly, the earliest complete manuscripts of the New Testament date to the second and third centuries AD.

I’m thinking of a devoted Christian who is struggling with his conviction regarding the truth and validity of the New Testament accounts of Jesus and his Apostles. To say to such a person that he can have complete confidence in the Bible, since we believe that the original manuscripts were flawless, will not be very comforting. He is probably far more concerned about the Bible that he possesses now, be it the King James Version, the New International Version, the New Revised Standard Version, the Revised English Bible, or the English Standard Version. I would be interested in Michael’s response to my question here. By the way, I love the Bible with all my heart and fully believe that it contains the word of God. I am simply interested in the concept of inerrancy mentioned in Dr. King’s paper.

I was extremely interested in the five values of the Anabaptist-Mennonite traditions. Value number 4 regarding love and non-violence are deeply moving to me. One of the Presidents of our Church, David O. McKay (1873-1970, the leader during my boyhood) spoke the following at the April 1942 general conference: “War is basically selfish. Its roots feed in the soil of envy, hatred, desire for domination. Its fruit, therefore, is always bitter. They who cultivate and propagate it spread death and destruction and are enemies of the human race. . . . War impels you to hate your enemies. The Prince of Peace says, love your enemies. War says, curse them that curse you. The Prince of Peace says, pray for them that curse you. War says, injure and kill them that hate you. The Lord says, do good to them that hate you. We see that war is incompatible with Christ’s teachings. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the gospel of peace. War is its antithesis and produces hate.”

Now, I don’t know many Latter-day Saints who are pacifists or who entered the military as conscientious objectors, though I am certain there would be some. I am neither a pacifist nor a conscientious objector, but a number of my friends served in the Vietnam War. Some of them have bodies that are maimed and spirits that are broken. One friend in particular comes to mind. I had not seen him for several years but was able to become reacquainted at a reunion. We talked about our previous decades, and my friend indicated that he had served in Vietnam. In an act of genuine interest and concern, I unfortunately asked the wrong question: “What was that like?” For well over an hour my boyhood chum wept uncontrollably as he recounted the horrors of war, especially that particular conflict. A few of my buddies came home from Vietnam but never really returned. Others of my friends lost their lives.

Finally, I have been deeply moved by the Amish devotion to the Savior’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount and their Christlike demonstrations of love and forgiveness that I have observed or about which I have learned. My soul was especially stirred by the reaction of a group of Amish people to the vicious murders of five of their children, perpetrated by a crazed killer in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania in October of 2006. I read the book Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy [2007] and saw a docudrama on the horrid acts and the aftermath. The Amish made a merciful and magnanimous decision to forgive Charles Carl Roberts IV, when a huge percentage of the population of our nation would surely have demanded that justice be allowed to take its full course. I realized then how lacking in my own Christianity I was, for I couldn’t conceive of me being able to do as they did.

Reading Michael King’s essay has been very worthwhile—both informative and motivational, particularly to learn more about the Anabaptist-Mennonite faiths. I confess a bit of what the late New Testament scholar and Lutheran Bishop, Krister Stendahl, called “holy envy” in how these Christians live out their faith. What an example to the rest of us!

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