Division or Renewal? Samuel Froehlich and the Mennonites

in ACBAS, Front Page

In the fall of 1832, Samuel Froehlich, an itinerant Swiss revival preacher, held a series of open meetings in the Bernese region of the Emmental that attracted much attention among the Mennonites living there. As a result of his impassioned preaching, some 60 members of the Mennonite church in Langnau, led by Christen Gerber and Christen Baumgartner, left the congregation. In March of 1835, the group formally organized as the Evangelical Baptism-Minded Church, more commonly known as the Neutäufer (or, in North America, the Apostolic Church).

According to a contemporary witness, Samuel Froehlich and his followers were “trying to bring new life into the fellowship, because they saw what a lukewarm condition the Alttäufer [Mennonites] were in. To be sure, the external forms were still intact, but there was almost no evidence of an inner spiritual life.”

Image found at http://www.acc-nazarean.org/our-history.html

The story of Samuel Froehlich and the Mennonites in the Emmental is a theme that runs deeply throughout Anabaptist-Mennonite history, and indeed all churches who are part of the Believers Church tradition. From the Mennonite perspective, stories of charismatic personalities who challenge tradition, stir up dissent, and lead break-away groups are part of a long and troubling litany of schisms. Yet from the perspective of the revivalist, the narrative is not about division but is a story of renewal.

What is it that distinguishes a schism from a renewal movement?  From the time of the Reformation—itself, a renewal movement that resulted in division—theologians have affirmed the idea of the ecclesia semper reformanda (the church always reformed). If the church is a truly living body, then it will embrace the ongoing transforming movement of the Spirit that continues the work of reform and renewal.

Yet renewal in our traditions has found many expressions. It can, as in the case of the Amish and other Old Order movements, take the form of consciously strengthening the lines of separation from the world that have become blurred. In other instances, renewal challenges boundaries that have become overly rigid and invites members to a new freedom offered by Christ in the unmerited gift of grace. Renewal can celebrate the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit but it can also focus on disciplined practices of communal life, liturgy, or spiritual disciplines.

Renewal movements have in common a near-universal insistence that they are not importing something new but are appealing to convictions already present in the tradition that has gone out of focus.

Renewal movements also nearly always involve young people. If the next generation is going to the assume responsibilities of leadership, they will want to do so with a vision that is genuinely their own.

Renewal movements often thrive on opposition—a sense that they are a prophetic minority carrying the light that others have lost.

Finally, renewal movements almost always carry with them the shadow side of their own distinctive gift. In the passionate pursuit of a particular conviction, emotion, leader, or model of church, renewal movements can easily wither or implode.

In nearly every part of the global Anabaptist-Mennonite church that has experienced growth in recent decades, some form of Spirit-driven renewal has been the catalyst. In Ethiopia, a branch of the East African Revival known as Heavenly Sunshine sparked the astounding growth of the Meserte Kristos Church; that same revival also led to the origins of the Kenyan Mennonite Church and brought winds of the Spirit to staid Mennonite churches in eastern Pennsylvania. Charismatic revival has given rise to the JKI church of Indonesia, and, more recently, to a new Mennonite church in Argentina.

Where is renewal happening among groups in the Believers Church tradition today? What does authentic renewal look like? Can renewal happen without schism?

Submitted by John D. Roth, January 2022

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