DAVID L. WEAVER-ZERCHER. Martyrs Mirror: A Social History. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2016. Pp. 440. $49.95 (U.S.)
David Weaver-Zercher completed an impressive undertaking in writing Martyrs Mirror: A Social History: a three-part book detailing Anabaptist history and the significance of a book dedicated to describing the stories of martyrs from the crucifixion of Jesus until the seventeenth century. Weaver-Zercher laid an important foundation in detailing the historical context of the sixteenth century, which led to the emergence of a new group within Christianity, the Anabaptists. Born out of the Protestant Reformation, Anabaptists hoped to take reforms further with core tenants being adult baptism and a stance of nonresistance. And the community paid a price for these seemingly heretical beliefs. They were “condemned by Protestants and Catholics alike” and “suffered a level of judicial persecution that outpaced the persecution of all other religious groups in sixteenth-century Europe” (16). Pointing to the persistence of persecution, Weaver-Zercher cites data that the number of Anabaptists persecuted represented ten percent of all Christians executed within the first five years of the movement (17).
Thieleman van Braght produced the first edition of the Martyrs Mirror in the Netherlands in 1660, a time when persecution among Dutch Anabaptists had dwindled and the community enjoyed more wealth and social prestige. Van Braght wanted to remind his fellow members of their humble beginnings. Numerous reprints, revisions, and translations of this beloved book ensued, cementing the importance of historical memory within the Anabaptist community.
A treasure trove of information and knowledge fills the pages of Martyrs Mirror: A Social History. A novice in Anabaptist history and tradition can read this book and come away with an understanding of the chronology of a movement bred by a few “radical” people who wanted to take the life and teachings of Jesus seriously. Weaver-Zercher painstakingly combed through primary sources producing a detailed historiography. The first two parts of the book resemble a typical text one might find in a college history classroom. Certainly, not everyone has the appetite for reading two hundred pages of historical records. Indeed, even people who have a love and appreciation for history can at times become overwhelmed as a result of the sheer of amount information contained with the pages. Additionally, the first two parts may be redundant for someone well versed in Anabaptist history. For those who find themselves in this camp, skim the historiography but recognize the potential of learning new information. Weaver-Zercher deserves credit for the time and effort spent on putting together a concise timeline of five centuries of material, as evident by the excellent notes and citations found at the end of the book.
While the historiography does not necessarily contribute anything new for Anabaptist scholarship, the last section of the book, “Contemporary Approaches to Martyrs Mirror,” adds new and exciting knowledge. Academics and lay people alike will find the contents valuable as Anabaptists continually wrestle with tension of honoring tradition in the midst of continual assimilation into broader culture, more so by certain Anabaptist groups. In North America, the martyrology became “a history book, an instruction manual, an heirloom, and an icon” (146). The first-hand accounts of men and women in recent centuries, particularly tradition-minded Anabaptists, growing up with the Martyrs Mirror add a special significance in the book. This section recognizes the effect and power of a book detailing martyrdom in Medieval Europe in the twenty-first century. Contemporary descendants of the Anabaptists identify themes from the Martyrs Mirror and discuss their relevance today. For example, the stance of nonresistance found throughout the martyrology intersects with of one of the main pillars of Anabaptist theology today, raising questions about moves from traditional conscientious objection to war to increased participation in social activism. “The martyr memory might renew a ‘weary and uncertain people,’” Weaver-Zercher suggests (240). No doubt, the readership of the Martyrs Mirror declined over the centuries; however, to say it is no longer effective or relevant for Anabaptists today would be a falsehood, as Weaver-Zercher illustrates over and over again.
The importance of this book should not be lost on the Brethren in Christ Church, a denomination with theological ties to Anabaptism. How does the denomination honor the memory of the martyrs today? What can members learn from them and how do we apply these practical lessons in life? David Weaver-Zercher’s work points to the larger context of conversation happening within Anabaptists communities around the globe. Without a doubt, Anabaptist martyrdom shaped and formed the movement from the sixteenth century to the present, and will continually insert its influence into the future.
Author: Brooke Strayer
Brooke Strayer is a long-time attendee of The Meeting House, formerly Carlisle Brethren in Christ Church. She graduated from Messiah College in 2014 with a degree in Peace and Conflict Studies. During her time at Messiah, she became interested in the practical application of traditional Anabaptist beliefs, especially the peace tradition. Brooke recently relocated to Goshen, Indiana, to take a position with Mennonite Central Committee Great Lakes as Young Adult Coordinator.