Hate Literature Then and Now

in ACBAS, Front Page

Having just retired as History Professor at the University of New Brunswick, I had the pleasant(?!) task of sorting through some 40 years of collected lectures, research notes, drafts of publications, and correspondence. This has inspired me to reflect on what it is that I have been doing over these decades.

INteresting HIstory

My career started as a historian of the early Dutch Reformation, particularly its Anabaptist variant, with a particular focus on the life and thought of the controversial artist and self-acclaimed Anabaptist messiah, David Joris (1501-1556).[1] Even though I went on to explore several other subjects relating to the history of religion and idea formation, I have remained deeply interested in the history of those people who risked dissenting from orthodox norms. I remain interested in figuring out why they came to believe what they did, such as their intense expectations of the End-times. And while Anabaptist Münster gets most of the “end of the world” attention, we need to remember that almost all actors in that drama, from the Habsburg Catholic overlords to Lutheran and Reformed princes and their theologians, similarly believed themselves to be engaged in a cosmic struggle between Christ and the Devil that was coming quickly to a close.[2] Everyone, on all the confessional sides, was afraid of incurring the wrath of God.[3] This fear was, we are beginning to appreciate more fully, a significant motivating factor in many of their decisions and actions.

Shift in Perspective

My perspective on this has, unsurprisingly, changed over the course of four decades of research, writing, and interacting with so many wonderful scholars and friends in the field. My comprehension of the Anabaptist movement has benefitted immensely from exploring other subjects, such as the Dutch literary and drama societies called the Chambers of Rhetoric;[4] the demonizing rhetoric of the Reformation and the witch hunts;[5] and my latest monograph on Dutch and English perspectives on Jews and Muslims in the long seventeenth century.[6] And now, of course, the “Amsterdamnified!” team research program that I co-lead with Michael Driedger of Brock University that is exploring how ideas were formed, contested, and reshaped in the polemical atmosphere of early modern Europe.[7] All of these have been exciting and deeply rewarding quests, shaping how I view the past and present both. I’m now focusing on the long-term impact of Anabaptist and spiritualist ideas in the broader culture of the seventeenth century, including how the polemics against them contributed to subsequent intellectual and cultural changes.

I am convinced, more than ever, about the power of words, of language, to inspire people to act, whether for good or bad. Today we continue to witness how politicians, writers, and social media influencers demonize their opponents to discredit their ideas or policies. We saw it with the so-called “Freedom Convoy” and related protests, not just in Ottawa but even where I live in Fredericton. I saw signs and flags with far-right symbols, including QAnon, intermingled with the Canadian flag and extremely hateful references to our Prime Minister. And, I’m afraid to say, anti-vax protestors carrying the yellow star of David pretending that they were being persecuted like Jews in the Holocaust.[8] That I and a colleague, Lisa Todd, had to co-author a column in the local papers explaining why this was a deeply wrong appropriation of a symbol of genocidal hatred toward the Jews indicates how poorly informed and misguided, deluded perhaps, some of our fellow citizens have become.[9]

But how did this happen?

Why would they follow such bizarre ideas as QAnon’s amalgam of conspiracy theories involving a “global cabal” – some of the conspiracies have these as lizard aliens in human skin – manipulating political and entertainment elites by exploiting their alleged paedophilia and craving for the blood of children to extend their lives.[10] They also believe that only a former U.S. president can save society from this plot by overturning a valid election and attacking “socialism” and “wokeism.”

And so on. “How crazy,” you might say. Yet, we’ve seen this stuff before. The core ideas of QAnon and its predecessors Pizzagate and the Satanic Ritual Murder panics of the 1980s and 1990s, were developed in the demonizing polemics of the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, as writers opposing ideas deemed unorthodox or heretical by mainstream churchmen used a polemical strategy of demonizing to make these dissident ideas as terrifying as possible.[11] Soon hateful ideas about Jews, including the myths of the ritual murder of Christian children and of a global cabal led by Satan, were blended with distortions of the heretics’ teachings and with popular fears of magic. The result were the infamous witch-hunts. The demonizing rhetoric of the anti-heresy preachers worked in ways they had not anticipated, as the people became convinced of a different diabolical threat – a sect of witches in league with the devil to overthrow Christian society.[12]

If this is sounding familiar, it’s because the ideas concocted by these anti-heresy and anti-witch polemicists were kept alive or revived in some religious communities. Every time they saw threats to their particular belief system, the old demonizing rhetoric and hateful tropes would be trotted out, in new dress. What we are witnessing right now is just the latest of these, although I am surprised to see many of the same ideas of a conspiratorial, demonic sect kidnapping children to drink their blood back in circulation.

Relevancy in current times

So, the work I’m engaged in now, the one that I presented for the Jarold K. Zeman Memorial Lecture in Anabaptist Studies on Sept. 20, 2021, is far more relevant today than I had ever imagined, and I’m not particularly happy to say that.[13] The subject of the lecture were the seventeenth-century English polemics against any form of Anabaptism, and how these were used to condemn the beliefs of a variety of dissident religious groups, including Baptists, Catholics, and Quakers. Some writers did what their polemical forebears had done: combine them all into a grand conspiracy overseen by Satan, with a whiff of witchcraft thrown in.

During the question period, I was asked by one astute listener if the material that I was studying wasn’t in fact hate literature. I had to agree, for the goal of many of these polemical writers was to incite hatred toward identifiable groups. And given the prejudice and persecution they helped induce, their demonizing tactics worked. And such tactics are in use today, successfully distorting the opponents’ ideas into extremes that make no sense, perverting reality so much that the bizarre conspiracies that are being cobbled together seem to be as reasonable as the truth.

I’ve been reworking this lecture into a small book, and as I do so, I’m constantly looking over my shoulder to see the latest shape of the current conspiracy mongering. Influencers on social media can spread their messages far more quickly than my seventeenth-century writers using the printing press, but the process is the same. Falsify your opponent’s ideas to make them more fearful and insist that these are what your opponents secretly believe or are doing.

Learning from history, and moving forward

I’m convinced more than ever that we must fight back. But figuring out how to reason with people who prefer to live in an alternate universe where commonly agreed upon facts are not what they appear, is a serious challenge. Religious leaders and preachers need to be involved in this battle, counteracting the distorted versions of Christian theology interwoven with these conspiracies. In the meantime, I will do what I can as an historian to explain how the demonizing of one’s opponents only leads to misunderstanding and hatred, knowing that most of our fellow citizens do listen to reasoned arguments and care about the historical record, about truth itself.

Submitted by Gary Waite

[1] Gary K. Waite, David Joris and Dutch Anabaptism, 1524-1543 (Waterloo, 1990).
[2] The biography of Martin Luther by the great intellectual historian, Heiko A. Oberman, ended up making this point very clearly: Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil (New Haven and London, 1989). See also Andrew Cunningham and Ole Peter Grell, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Religion, War, Famine and Death in Reformation Europe (Cambridge, 2000).
[3] Nicholas Terpstra, Religious Refugees in the Early Modern World: An Alternative History of the Reformation (Cambridge, 2015); and my own discussion, Heresy, Magic and Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (Basingstoke, 2003).
[4] Gary K. Waite, Reformers on Stage: Popular Drama and Religious Propaganda in the Low Countries of Charles V, 1515-1556 (Toronto, 2000).
[5] Gary K. Waite, Eradicating the Devil’s Minions: Anabaptists and Witches in Reformation Europe, 1535-1600 (Toronto, 2007, pb 2009).
[6] Gary K. Waite, Jews and Muslims in Seventeenth-Century Discourse: From Religious Enemies to Allies and Friends (London, 2019).
[7] www.amsterdamnified.ca/project/. This project has produced numerous publications as well as the website, most recently Spiritualism in Early Modern Europe, a special double issue of Church History and Religious Culture, co-edited with Michael Driedger, Francesco Quatrini, and Nina Schroeder, 2021 (vol. 101, issues 2/3), 135-398: https://brill.com/view/journals/chrc/101/2-3/chrc.101.issue-2-3.xml; and my “The Devil of Delft in England: the Reception of the Dutch Spiritualist David Joris in 17th -Century English Polemics,” Church History and Religious Culture 101/4 (Winter 2021), 429-95, Open Access, https://brill.com/view/journals/chrc/101/4/article-p429_1.xml, among several others.
[8] See, for example, the CBC report on the controversy in Fredericton: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/fredericton-protest-freedom-rally-new-brunswick-1.6353750
[9] Lisa Todd and Gary Waite, “Protesters distorted history by wearing Holocaust symbol,” commentary column for Daily Gleaner/ Telegraph Journal, December 27, 2021.
[10] A good introduction to QAnon is Mike Rothschild, The Storm is Upon Us: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything (Brooklyn, 2021).
[11] On the Satanic Ritual Murder panics, a good place to start, actually, is the Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satanic_panic.
[12] An excellent work emphasizing the role of mendicant preachers in the coalescence of the demonic witch stereotype, is Ronald Hutton, The Witch. A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present (New Haven, 2017).
[13] “The Use and Misuse of Dutch Anabaptism by English Opponents of Baptists, Independents, and Quakers, c. 1560-1660,” delivered virtually as the Jarold K. Zeman Memorial Lecture in Anabaptist Studies, Acadia University, Wolfville, NS, Sept. 20, 2021. I am reworking this into a monographic essay provisionally entitled “‘brethed and blowen into the brothels brestes’: Dutch Anabaptism in the Demonizing Polemics of English Opponents of Independents, Baptists, and Quakers, c. 1560-1660,” to be submitted to Pandora Press.