(Bridgefolk / Mennonite Church USA)—On May 26–27, a group of Mennonite and Catholic scholars and church leaders will gather at the Benedictine monastery in Collegeville, Minn., to jointly mark the anniversary of Michael and Margaretha Sattler’s martyrdom in 1527.
The event is jointly sponsored by Mennonite Church USA and by Saint John’s Abbey, and marks a significant step in the changing relationships between Mennonites and Catholics, who have been divided for centuries by the persecution of Anabaptists during the Reformation era.
Michael Sattler has long been regarded as one of the major founders of the 16th-century Anabaptist tradition, from which the Mennonite and Amish churches emerged, and is widely regarded as the primary author of the foundational Schleitheim Confession. He and his wife, Margaretha, were arrested and martyred shortly after it was written.
Because Sattler had been a prior in his Benedictine monastery in South Germany (its second in command) before joining one of the dissident evangelical communities that emerged during the 1525 Peasants’ Revolt, his martyrdom had a major impact at the time and several reports were published.
One was included in the 17th-century Martyrs Mirror, a large compilation of 16th-century Anabaptist martyr accounts, many of them at the hands of Catholic authorities.
The conference organizer, Ivan J. Kauffman, who has long identified as both Mennonite and Catholic, says, “It has only been in recent years that Catholics have been able to recognize the justice of Sattler’s break with the medieval Catholic establishment, and to consider him an early witness to nonviolence, religious liberty and social justice—values now widely recognized as part of the Catholic tradition.”
The conference will open Sunday afternoon, May 26, with a keynote address by Arnold Snyder, professor of history at Conrad Grebel College in Waterloo, Ont., and a Mennonite historian of 16th-century Anabaptism. He is the author of the most recent biography of Michael Sattler, and will trace the changing views of Sattler that have appeared over the nearly five centuries since his death.
Professor Carol Neel, a historian of pre-Reformation evangelical reform movements, will discuss the medieval background from which the Sattlers emerged. Emphasizing the necessity of “reading history forward,” she will present the perspective of those who lived at the time rather than projecting current beliefs onto past events. Neel is chair of the history department at Colorado College, Colorado Springs, Colo., and author of several articles and books dealing with the medieval reform movements.
Her presentation will be followed by a report of recent historical research on the 1525 Peasants’ Revolt, a formative event that took place during the Sattlers’ final years. The presenter will be Ivan Kauffman, author of a recent account of evangelical movements throughout church history entitled “Follow Me”: A History of Christian Intentionality.
On Monday afternoon, a panel of Mennonite, Catholic and Protestant church leaders and scholars will discuss the relevance of the Sattler’s witness for the future. The moderator will be Gerald Schlabach, professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., and one of the founders of the Bridgefolk conferences, which each year bring Mennonites and Catholics together for informal dialogue.
Abbot John Klassen, the leader of Saint John’s Abbey, will present a Catholic response. He has been a long-time supporter of Mennonite-Catholic dialogue and has served as Catholic co-chair of Bridgefolk since its inception, along with Rev. Marlene Kropf, the Mennonite co-chair.
Two leading Mennonite pastors will present Mennonite responses. Dr. Phil Waite is lead pastor of College Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind., and Rev. Weldon Nisly is pastor of Seattle Mennonite Church. Others will join them in discussing the relevance of the Sattlers’ witness from an ecumenical perspective.
The conference will conclude with a commemorative meal. Abbot Klassen will preside, using a liturgy developed at the Bridgefolk conferences.
The initial Mennonite connection with Saint John’s Abbey was made in 2001 by Rev. Nisly, who came to the Collegeville Institute at Saint John’s for a pastoral sabbatical, studying ways Sattler’s Benedictine formation influenced him and the Anabaptist movement.
“While it is difficult to document explicit ways Sattler and the early Anabaptist movement drew on monasticism,” says Nisly, “there are implicit indications. That a Michael Sattler House connected to Saint John’s Abbey now exists and that Mennonites and Catholics can join in marking Sattler’s martyrdom exceeds my wildest imagination back in 2001, and is tremendously inspiring.”
Nisly will serve as the conference’s moderator.
The first joint commemoration of Sattler’s martyrdom took place last year at the Michael Sattler House. The response—both Mennonite and Catholic—was positive, which led to plans to hold annual Mennonite-Catholic commemorations of the Sattlers’ martyrdom.
—Michael Sattler House/Bridgefolk staff