The Radical Reformation, 3rd edition.  By Georege Hunston Williams. Volume 15 of Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies. Ann Arbor, MI: Edwards Brothers, 1992, 1513 pages. Softcover, $75.00.

This is the third edition of Williams’ magnum opus. The first edition was published in 1962 and quickly became a standard reference work for what had hitherto been referred to in nonpolemical modern scholarship as “the left wing of the Reformation” (a phrase coined by Roland Bainton). From the outset, it should be affirmed that this is an indispensable secondary source for any serious student of the radical Reformation. That said, the reader should also be forewarned of Williams’ underlying Unitarian polemic, mildly rambling literary style, and numerous typographical errors.

Williams seeks to cover the multitudinous personalities and movements in the radical Reformation temporally from 1517 to approximately 1578 and geographically from Spain in the southwest to Lithuania in the northeast, and Transylvania in the southeast to the Netherlands and England in the northwest. In general, the narrative moves forward in time and from south to north in geography.

There are thirty-three chapters, most of which follow a narrative format intermingled with theological and ethical ruminations. Three chapters are dedicated to systematic reviews of the radicals’ theology and ethics: chapter 11 on unusual doctrines and institutions; chapter 20 on marriage, family life, and divorce; and chapter 32 on hermeneutics and ecumenicity.

Williams begins with a discussion of evangelical Catholicism in Spain and sacramentalism in the Netherlands before moving on to the Lutheran spiritualists and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1524-25. The interdependence of the radicals with the “magisterial” reformers comes to the fore in the early Eucharistic controversies discussed in chapter 5. Chapters 6 through 10 survey the early development of Swiss, South German, Austrian, and Moravian Anabaptism. The Melchiorite Anabaptism of the Lower Rhine region centering on Münster is studied in chapter 12 and 13. Chapters 14 through 19 canvass the development of Anabaptism during the middle years of the sixteenth century in the north under Menno Simons, in middle Germany under Peter Tasch and George Schnabel, in south Germany under Pilgram Marpeck, and in Moravia under Jacob Hutter.

The definitive encounter between the covenantal Anabaptism of Pilgram Marpeck and the irenic spiritualism of Caspar Schwenckfeld is scrutinized in two separate chapters, 18 and 31. Chapters 21 through 29 cover “evangelical rationalism,” a movement which ends in Antitrinitarianism (or Unitarianism). The last chapter of which traces the movements of the Italian refugees Laelius and Faustus Socinus as they encounter the Swiss Reformed theologians (most notably John Calvin) and move into prominence in the east.

The development of Anabaptism in Moravia, the Netherlands, England, Switzerland, and Germany is brought up to date in chapters 26, 30, and 31. Williams’ organizing hermeneutic can be seen in the three introductions and the concluding chapter. Over one hundred pages dedicated to an extensive bibliography and five indices conclude the work.

Williams’ organizing hermeneutic must be critiqued at this point. He seeks to trace the histories and theologies of innumerable radical individuals and movements. In Williams’ opinion, such a comprehensive effort necessitates a comprehensive perspective to unify the radicals. Williams’ own context—he is a Harvard professor seeking to bring Unitarianism to the fore in the ecumenical movement of the twentieth century –unfortunately colors his views of the radicals. He finds an underlying unity among them which is radically rationalistic, mostly irenic, overwhelmingly experiential, and covertly ecumenical. This attempt at unity confuses the real divisions within the radical Reformation and involves numerous interpretive conflations.

His later chapters are especially replete with hermeneutical leaps. For example, he states that a redefinition of the Atonement away from its Anselmian and medieval sacerdotalistic aspects is the motivating force for the entire Reformation. “The whole of their [the magisterial and radical Reformations in all of their manifestations] theological structure was erected, in fact, on this foundation, concealed as much to themselves as to others.” Williams, of course, believes that he has discovered this universal truth but offers only two pages of speculation as evidence (948-949).

Another example is Williams’ belief that the various radical movements eventually coalesced with one another. In chapter 30, late in the narrative and definitive for him, is the statement, “A distinctive feature of radical movements in England was the mutual overlapping of Libertinism (Antinomianism), Antitrinitarianism, Anabaptism of the Melchiorite strain, and Spiritualism” (1197). As proof, he offers the successive trials of various individuals before Cranmer. However, Williams cites no substantive statements that these various individuals were even connected with one another, and his narrative suggests that they were unrelated other than in their separation from mainstream Anglicanism and in their trial before Cranmer.

In his concluding chapter, the author delineates “the themes that have made of the three far-flung actions—the Anabaptist, the Spiritualist, and the Rationalist—a coherent, gripping, and dramatic unity” (1296). These themes include the restitution of the church, an eschatological mood, separation of church and state, the ban, new leadership, the lay apostolate, redefinition of the Atonement, believers’ baptism, psychopannychism, and eschewal of the doctrine of predestination (1303-10). He wants to assign a rejection of solafideism to the radical Reformation, but most of the radicals embraced solafideism at the same time they stressed the sanctified life. Even with his constantly qualified list of common traits, he is forced to admit the radical Reformation is more a tapestry of intertwining and often diverse threads than a united movement. What he will not admit is that the tapestry eventually unravels, and some of the common threads are disowned by almost all of the resultant denominations (e.g., the “celestial flesh”).

Williams also seeks with his three major groupings to legitimatize his favorite group, the Unitarians, by reference to the “Evangelical Rationalists.” The other major groups are the Anabaptists and the Spiritualists. He divides the Anabaptists further into evangelicals, revolutionaries, and spiritualists. He also subdivides the Spiritualists into evangelicals, conformists, and revolutionaries. There is, however, no further division of the Evangelical Rationalists. He twice defends his usage of the term “evangelical” in its application to Rationalists by stressing that the Rationalists gave precedence to the New Testament, especially the Gospels, over the Old Testament and were morally perfectionistic in imitation of Jesus (16, 1300).

The important issue of whether a denial of the divine nature of Jesus Christ disqualifies one for the designation of “Christian” is most conspicuous by its absence. Williams ignores and stretches both the biblical and historical uses of the term “evangel.” Thus, the threefold designation is built around Williams’ attempt to legitimize and elevate the third group. A better means must be found with which to classify the various strands of the radical Reformation. A fivefold division—Evangelical Anabaptists, Communitarian Anabaptists, Revolutionaries, Spiritualists, and Unorthodox Rationalists—seems to be more legitimate than Williams’ threefold polemic for nonevangelical Unitarianism.

This polemic hinders the narrative in other ways, too. For instance, his oft-repeated statement that Marpeck’s theology deviates from Trinitarianism and Chalcedonian Christology is based on one obscure reference which is pressed far beyond Marpeck’s own intent, literary style, and very orthodox theology (684-85, passim).

However one classifies the various individuals and groups which made up the radical reformation, these designations would be partially anachronistic. If there is one prefix which could describe the radical Reformation, it would not be “uni-,” but “poly-.” The radical restitution was polygenetic, polycentric, polyglot, polysemous, and polymorphous. Unlike the historical renderings of Lutheranism, which picture a Mt. Everest (Luther) towering above a range of hills, or the Reformed, which pictures a mountain range with one large peak (Calvin) and several lesser ones (Zwingli, Bucer, Bullinger, and Vermigli), the historical tale of Radicalism must be described in terms of a region with a few low peaks and many small hills of numerous shapes, covered with strange and various foliage interspersed with many rivers, valleys, and wastelands.

The disjointed nature of the radical Reformation forces Williams to scatter his discussions of periods, theological concepts, regions, and individuals throughout the entire work. Fortunately, there are numerous parenthetical references to other chapters and sections to tie the story together. Furthermore, the indices are helpful to the student who is attempting to track one individual or movement across the time period covered by the work.

Williams’ form is lacking at times, as well. There are a number of sentences of over one hundred words and at least one sentence of over five hundred words (19-20). This phenomenon increases with later editions. For instance, the introduction to the first edition is relatively readable whereas that to the third edition is disjointed and meandering. In the midst of this, however, Williams does come forward with some brilliant analyses, often hidden as obscure qualifying clauses. There are also numerous typographical errors, repeated lines, and misplaced references.

Williams covers most of the major figures in the radical Reformation. One wishes, however, that he had put more effort into examining the recent theories that Anabaptism arose in the Tyrol years before it appeared in Zurich. French Anabaptism, outside of its encounter with Calvin, is left untouched. One must also question whether a faithful Romanist such as Paracelsus and a few other members of the territorial churches really deserve the title “radical.” This brings into question Williams’ use of “radical” to mean the pushing to its logical conclusion of any thesis—again reflecting his own Unitarian rationalism. He also largely fails to account for the social sources of the radical Reformation by concentrating almost entirely on intellectual and ecclesiastical sources.

In spite of its weaknesses, Williams’ tome is indispensable to the student of the radical Reformation. This is primarily because of its breadth and references. It is an excellent starting point for any research on the radical Reformation, but Williams’ own conclusions must be carefully scrutinized, and other secondary sources, such as The Mennonite Quarterly Review and The Mennonite Encyclopedia must be consulted—after the original sources, of course.

Malcolm B. Yarnell III
Pastor, Tabbs Creek Baptist Church, Oxford, NC
Originally published in Faith & Mission, 14.1 (1996): 103-6
Reprinted with Permission of the Editor