Tag Archives: Waterlander Mennonites

Anabaptists Then (1600-1860s): “It Is Clearly to Be Seen”

This is the second of several historical posts surveying how Anabaptists have interpreted Jesus’ exception clauses (Matt. 5:32; 19:9) regarding divorce and remarriage in cases of porneia (“sexual immorality”). The first post presented the views of the earliest Anabaptists, in the 1500s. This current post continues our survey up to the 1860s.

After this post, I’d like to pause my historical survey to attempt a summary of how Anabaptists approached the task of interpreting Jesus’ exception clauses. After that summary, a third historical survey post is in the works, examining how Anabaptist interpretations evolved in the late 1800s to result in an inflexible stance against all divorce and remarriage, with no exceptions.

This series of historical posts springs from an earlier post summarizing how conservative Anabaptists today handle Jesus’ exception clauses.

Introductions aside, let’s resume our historical survey. I have found less evidence for the years 1600 through the 1860s than for the 1500s—probably in part because churches in these centuries sometimes relied on existing documents rather than producing new ones and also partly because historians have tended to focus on the first generations of Anabaptists. But the evidence I’ve found reveals the general pattern of belief quite clearly: Anabaptists in these centuries did not contradict the interpretation of the earliest Anabaptists. Rather, they repeatedly affirmed that Jesus’ exception clauses allow a believer to divorce a spouse who has committed adultery.

About the year 1600 a “Confession of Faith, According to the Holy Word of God” was written, which was later included by Thieleman J. van Braght in his 1660 compilation Bloody Theatre or Martyrs Mirror. The original authors may have been “two Old Frisian preachers, Sijwaert Pietersz and Peter J. Twisck,” but it “is primarily composed of sentences borrowed from the works of Menno Simons.”1 Its inclusion in the Martyrs Mirror has made it influential. Article XXV of this confession, “Of Marriage,” includes the following excerpt:

Christ as a perfect Lawgiver, rejected and abolished the writing of divorcement and permission of Moses, together with all abuses thereof, referring all that heard and believed Him to the original ordinance of His heavenly Father, instituted with Adam and Eve in Paradise; and thus re-establishing marriage between one man and one woman, and so irreparably and firmly binding the bond of matrimony, that they might not, on any account, separate and marry another, except in the case of adultery or death.2

The title page of my maternal grandfather Edwin Gingrich’s copy of the Martyr’s Mirror. Few other books have shaped Anabaptist self-identity so powerfully.

In 1618 the Dutch Mennonite Hans de Ries, who helped author a couple Waterlanderer confessions I quoted in my last post, wrote another short confession. This one was designed to forge unity with a non-Anabaptist group of Christians who had arrived in Amsterdam after being persecuted as Independents in England. This confession’s brief article on marriage opens with these lines:

We hold marriage to be an ordinance of God, instituted in such manner that every husband shall have his own wife and every wife her own husband. These may not be separated except for reasons of adultery.3

About 1625, Pieter Pietersz of the Waterlander branch of the Dutch Mennonites wrote The Way to the City of Peace, a treatise or allegory written in conversation form which became a sort of statement of faith for the Waterlanderers. In one passage Pietersz rebukes those who taught “that a wife must leave her husband if he has fallen into sin”:

Here they ban innocent women who have not overstepped the law of the Lord, God having commanded that they should not leave their husband, except for adultery, Matt. 19:9; 5:32.4

In 1627 in Amsterdam a confession called “Scriptural Instruction” was drawn up and sent as an “olive branch” to congregations in over half a dozen nearby provinces. This confession was designed to imitate and join the example of Hans de Ries, “who had given much thought and effort to reuniting the discordant and divided body of the Mennonite church in Holland.”5 Evidently the four preachers who drafted this confession thought the following statement on marriage could be affirmed by all Dutch Mennonites:

The marriage of the Children of God… must be… kept inviolate, so that each man shall have his own, only wife, and each wife her own husband; and nothing shall separate them, save adultery. Lev. 18; 20; 1 Cor. 5:1; Matt. 19; Rom. 7:2; 1 Cor. 7:2; Matt. 5:32; 1 Cor. 9:5.6

The Dordrecht Confession of Faith (1632) is the most famous and influential of the old Anabaptist confessions. It includes Article XII, “Of the State of Matrimony.” This article does not mention divorce or remarriage, saying only that “the Lord Christ did away and set aside all the abuses of marriage which had meanwhile crept in.” 7 This language (“abuses,” etc.) mirrors the confession from c. 1600 printed in the Martyrs Mirror (which in turn mirrors earlier Anabaptist writings on the topic) and thus should not be misunderstood as a claim that Christ forbade all divorce.8

The Dordrecht Confession of Faith was included in the Martyrs Mirror (1660). Theileman J. van Braght, the compiler of that volume, shows by his editorial comments that he, too, affirms the historic Anabaptist understanding of Jesus’ exception clause. After describing the martyr John Schut’s belief that a marriage “may not be dissolved, save on account of adultery,” van Braght comments that Schut was “following herein the teaching of Christ. Matt. 19.”9 His inclusion of the c. 1600 confession cited above is additional evidence of his beliefs.

In 1702 Gerhard Roosen, a minister in Hamburg, Germany, produced the first comprehensive Anabaptist catechism in the German language, called Christian Spiritual Conversation on Saving Faith. This became “one of the most popular catechisms among the Mennonites of Europe and America,” with at least twenty-two editions published by 1950.10 The article “On Matrimony” discusses Malachi 2:14-15, Matthew 19:4-9, and 1 Corinthians 7:39 in support of the following conclusion:

Concerning the state of matrimony, Christ made amends for the abuses and decline which had crept into it… Christ also again brought the first state of matrimony to its primitive order…  From this [Matt. 19:4-9] it is clearly to be seen, that Christ teaches all christians [sic], that a man (except in case of fornication [Hureren; “whoring”11],) is bound to his wife by the band of matrimony, as long as she lives, and that the wife is also bound to her husband by the same tie as long as he lives.12

Roosen’s book also includes a document called “Brief Instruction: From Holy Scripture, in Questions and Answers, for the Young.” This is actually a reprint of the very first German Anabaptist catechism, which appeared in Danzig, Prussia, in 1690.13 This brief catechism became widely known in English as “The Shorter Catechism.” There the following is found:

Quest. 27. Can also a lawful marriage, for any cause, be divorced [getrennet; “separated”]? Ans. No. For the persons united by such marriage are so closely bound to each other, that they can in no wise separate [scheiden; “divorce”], except in case of “fornication [Ehebruch; “adultery”].” Matt. 19, 9.14

Also in 1702, the Swiss Brethren published an adapted version of the Dordrecht Confession of Faith in their compilation Golden Apples in Silver Bowls. For this book they added the underlined clause below to the article on marriage:

The Lord Christ, too, renounced and swept away all the abuses within marriage which meanwhile had crept in, such as separation, divorce, and entering into another marriage while the original spouse is still living. He referred everything back to the original precept and left it at that (Mt. 19:4-6).15

Does this represent a new, firmer line, rejecting divorce and remarriage even in cases of adultery? It is hard to know. On the one hand, the additional clause certainly strengthens this confession’s stance against the “abuses” of marriage by listing them explicitly. In particular, the rejection of “entering into another marriage while the original spouse is still living” a very clear warning. It is noteworthy that, when these Swiss Brethren chose to add to the original confession, they chose to strengthen the warnings against abuses rather than add a reference to Jesus’ exception clause.

On the other hand, previous confessions had already spoken explicitly against separation and divorce, so such language is not new. Warnings against wrongful remarriage were also previously given, including in the earliest Swiss document on divorce.16 The mere inclusion of these additional comments, then, does not prove the Swiss Brethren had abandoned their understanding of Jesus’ exception clause. After all, the original Dordrecht Confession likewise fails to mention Jesus’ exception clause, yet the historical context of its Dutch Mennonite authors makes it virtually certain that they nevertheless recognized an exception for adultery. For us to confidently state that this adapted confession represents a change in Swiss Brethren thinking, a clear alternative explanation of Jesus’ exception clause would need to be present.

In short, the most we can say for sure is that the Swiss Brethren felt a need to specify what sort of abuses Christ renounced, rather than feeling a need to mention Jesus’ exception clause. Several possibilities could explain this choice, including (a) that they were growing less confident in their historic interpretation of the exception clause or (b) that their historic consensus affirmation of the exception clause was still strong enough that they felt no need to mention it. In support of option (b) is the fact that Roosen’s catechism book (see above) and the Elbing catechism (see below), which both clearly permit divorce in cases of adultery, became very popular from the later eighteenth century on among the Swiss Brethren and their descendants in American (the “Mennonite Church” or “Old Mennonite Church”).17 Given the lack of any similar supporting evidence for option (a), I think option (b) is the better reading of the Swiss Brethren adaptation of the Dordrecht Confession.18

In 1766 a Dutch Mennonite preacher named Cornelis Ris compiled several previous confessions into his own in an attempt to unify the congregations of his time on the “old foundation of the recognized confessions.” His confession, “like the Dordrecht Confession, had only temporary significance in the Netherlands, but attained a true and wide significance outside its home” and was published by the General Conference Mennonite Church as recently as 1906 as its recognized confession.19 The 1904 English printing contains the following excerpt:

The will of God concerning this state is clearly expressed, viz., that only two persons free from all others and not of too close blood relationship may enter into it, to be united and bound together without any reserve even unto death. Matthew 19:5; Ephesians 5:28. The separation of such is moreover, altogether prohibited except for the cause of fornication. Matthew 5:31, 32; 19:7-10; 1 Corinthians 7:10, 11.20

In 1778 a catechism was published at Elbing, Prussia. It is hard to overstate how popular this catechism became among diverse groups of Anabaptists in both Europe and North America, continuing to be used even as recently as the mid-twentieth century.21 It was first translated into English in 1848 and the General Conference authorized a revision of the English translation in 1896. The 1904 printing of this document includes the following question and answer:

May married persons be divorced? No: they shall not be divorced, save for the cause of fornication [Ehebruch; “adultery”]. – Matt. 19:3-9, Matt. 5:22.22

I have not been able to find any early North American Mennonite writings that discuss Jesus’ exception clauses. There is good reason, however, not to read this silence as a rejection of the historic Anabaptist position.  

In 1804 a small book was published in Pennsylvania by a bishop named Christian Burkholder. An enlarged reprint published later that year carried the signatures of twenty-seven ministers of the Lancaster Mennonite Conference and “was probably adopted as an official church edition.”23 The book went through at least eight German and five English editions during the nineteenth century. It was first translated into English in 1857, with title “Useful and Edifying Address to the Youth,” when it was included as Part IV in Roosen’s Christian Spiritual Conversation on Saving Faith.

This book includes a brief discussion of marriage. There is no mention of Jesus’ exception clause, but near the end of the discussion we read this: “Further I would recommend you to consider the 12th article in our small Confession of Faith, and the 25th in the large one.” The references are almost certainly to the Dordrecht Confession of Faith (“small”) and the confession from c. 1600 (“large”; see above).24 The Dordrecht Confession was “the first Mennonite book printed in America” (in 1727),25 and both of these confessions were included in the Martyrs Mirror, which was translated into German and published in the Ephrata Colony in 1748.

What is important for our discussion here is that Burkholder’s book demonstrates that American Mennonites in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century were directing their members to the large confession of c. 1600, which states that a husband and wife may “not, on any account, separate and marry another, except in the case of adultery or death.”

Even apart from this explicit comment in Burkholder’s book, we know from publication data that from early colonial times up through the nineteenth century and beyond North American Mennonites were actively publishing, translating, and using multiple European Mennonite documents that taught the historic Anabaptist interpretation of Jesus’ exception clauses. For example, here are some North American republication dates for some relevant documents:26

  • Menno Simon’s Foundation of Christian Doctrine: In German: 1794, 1835, 1849, 1851, 1853, and 1876. In English: 1835, 1863, 1869.
  • Martyrs Mirror: In German: 1748, 1814; 1848-49; 1849; 1870; 1915. In English: 1748-49; 1837; 1886; 1938.
  • Roosen’s catechism, Christian Spiritual Conversation on Saving Faith: In German: 11 editions (1769-1950). In English: 5 editions (1857-1950).
  • Elbing catechism: In German: 1824, etc. In English: 1848, etc.
  • Confession of Cornelis Ris: In German, 1904, 1906. In English: 1850, 1895, 1902, 1904.

It is also true, of course, that Mennonite immigrants brought European copies of these documents to American and used them there long before they republished them. The fact that they republished them shows that these documents, and the teachings they contained, were important to early Mennonite generations in North America.

Our chronological journey takes us next to 1853 in South Russia, where the Church in Rudnerweide in Odessa published a “Confession or Short and Simple Statement of Faith of Those Who are Called the United Flemish, Frisian, and High German Anabaptist-Mennonite Church.” This confession quotes emphasizes the strength of the marriage covenant or “bond of matrimony”:

In matrimony man and wife are so bound together and mutually obligated that for no reason and for no cause whatever may they be parted from each other, except for fornication and adultery, even as we read concerning this in the evangelist Matthew, where the Pharisees and Sadducees came to Christ, tempted Him and said, “Is it right that a man should be divorced from His wife for any cause?” …He said to them, “…Whoever divorces his wife, except for causes of fornication, and marries another, he breaks the marriage bond and he who marries a person who has been divorced also breaks the marriage bond.” From this it may be clearly seen and understood that the bond of matrimony is a firm indissoluble bond which may not be broken nor may the parties be divorced from each other except for cause of fornication, even as the Lord Christ said.27

The previous confession raises the question of what Bible translations were used by early Anabaptists. Where our English versions quote Jesus as saying that the one who wrongfully divorces and remarries “commits adultery,” this confession says “breaks the marriage bond.” This phrase probably means “violates the marriage covenant,”28 which accurately expresses the central idea of what it means to “commit adultery.” This wording almost certainly is borrowed from Luther’s translation.29 I will return to this question of Bible translations later.

1864 marked the beginning of a new era for the Mennonite Church in North America.30 In January of that year, John F. Funk published the first issue of a new periodical that would track and shape the thinking of Mennonites for nearly half a century: the Herald of Truth. Funk was not the first Mennonite publisher in America,31 but his publishing efforts were so prolific and his influence so large that he has been called “more than any one leader the founder of the publication and mission work of the Mennonite Church” and “the most important figure in the life of the Mennonite Church in the nineteenth century.”32 Funk’s paper would document and enable many important conversations among Mennonites, including debates about divorce and remarriage.

The first clear evidence that I have found of Mennonites who disagreed with the historic Anabaptist interpretation of Jesus’ exception clause comes from an 1867 issue of Herald of Truth.33 I plan to begin my next historical survey post with that story.

I’ll end this post, however, with the earliest reference to divorce that I found in this periodical, from February, 1865:

I cannot find anywhere in the Scriptures that husband and wife are permitted to separate from [scheiden; “divorce”] each other, except in case of fornication [Hurerei; “whoring”]; and even then they are at liberty to do as they choose, to separate [scheiden; “divorce”], or not…34

The way that this author expresses his interpretation of Jesus’ exception clause is telling. His offhand manner suggests that he was confident his interpretation was shared by many of his readers; if a spouse was sexually promiscuous, their husband or wife was permitted to divorce.35

How should we summarize the evidence from 1600 to the 1860s? Did Anabaptists in these centuries continue to understand Jesus’ exception clauses as their forebears did?

In support of a Yes answer are the following facts:

  1. I have not found any Anabaptist writing from this period that explicitly contradicts the early Anabaptist interpretation of Jesus’ exception clauses. Some speak against divorce without mentioning Jesus’ exception clause at all, but none offers an alternative interpretation of Jesus’ words.
  2. Anabaptist writings from the 1500s that affirmed both divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery or fornication continued to be republished without revision and used widely during this period.
  3. Multiple new writings from this period (at least ten quoted above) explicitly mention an exception for divorce in cases of adultery or fornication, including several catechisms which gained wide usage.

Three facts should be considered in support of a No answer, however:

  1. The latest document quoted above that explicitly affirms that remarriage is permitted in cases of adultery is the oldest one quoted in this post—the confession from c. 1600 that was included in the Martyrs Mirror. Probably many (all?) of the authors of these documents assumed that remarriage was permitted alongside divorce.36 But, except for the c. 1600 confession, the documents above explicitly mention only divorce when citing Jesus’ exception clause.
  2. The confession that was most widely used during this period, the Dordrecht Confession, makes no mention of Jesus’ exception clause, and thus did not reinforce the historic Anabaptist interpretation of his words for the generations of Anabaptists who used it.
  3. As I mentioned above, there is explicit evidence that in the 1860s some members of the Mennonite Church thought remarriage was wrong in cases of adultery and, further, that they affirmed separation but not actual divorce. Such views may have begun decades or more before Funk’s paper preserved them for our discovery.

Despite these important qualifications, the following reality remains highly significant:

From what I can discover, no extant Anabaptist writings from 1600 until the 1860s deny that Jesus’ exception clause permits both divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery. All documents either affirm this historic Anabaptist interpretation as part of what is “clearly to be seen” or do not address the question at all.37

This is very striking because, within fifty years, it would be commonplace for North American Mennonite writings to deny that Jesus’ exception clause permits either remarriage or divorce.

It often takes time for theological beliefs to change, and changes in official church positions take even longer. I hope to explore the contours and possible causes of these changes in a future post.

But first, I’d like to consider how early Anabaptists went about the task of interpreting Jesus’ exception clauses. Where did they begin? How did they synthesize these clauses with other biblical texts? Did they do this well? Did they make mistakes? Do they have things to teach us? I welcome your prayers as I ponder these questions.


What strikes you most about the evidence from the period 1600 through the 1860s? How should we assess both the continuity of belief and the subtle hints of change? Are you aware of historical evidence or dynamics that I should add to my evaluation? I welcome your comments below—and thanks for reading!


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  1. “The Confession of Faith (P.J. Twisck, 1617),” Global Anabaptist Wiki, “initiated by the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College,” last modified March 24, 2016. https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=The_Confession_of_Faith_(P.J._Twisck,_1617)
  2. “Confession of Faith, According to the Holy Word of God,” The Bloody Theater of Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians, ed. Theileman J. van Braght, trans. Joseph. F. Sohm (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1951), 401. Emphasis added. Available online: https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=The_Confession_of_Faith_(P.J._Twisck,_1617)
  3. Hans de Ries, “Short Confession of Faith and the Essential Elements of Christian Doctrine,” 1618; “A Short Confession of Faith by Hans de Ries (1618),” trans. Cornelius J. Dyck, Global Anabaptist Wiki, “initiated by the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College,” last modified March 24, 2016. https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=A_Short_Confession_of_Faith_by_Hans_de_Ries_(1618). Emphasis added. From Cornelius J. Dyck, “A Short Confession of Faith by Hans de Ries,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 38 (January 1964): 5-19.
  4. Pieter Pietersz, The Way to the City of Peace, Spiritual Life in Anabaptism, trans. and ed. by Cornelius J. Dyck (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1995), 267. Emphasis added.
  5. Christian Neff and Nanne van der Zijpp, “Olive Branch Confession (1627),” Global Anabaptist Wiki, “initiated by the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College,” last modified March 24, 2016. https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Olive_Branch_Confession_(1627)
  6. “Scriptural Instruction,” The Bloody Theater of Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians, ed. Theileman J. van Braght, trans. Joseph. F. Sohm (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1951), 32; also 27. Emphasis added. Available online: https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Olive_Branch_Confession_(1627)
  7. Here is the entire Article XII: “We confess that there is in the church of God an honorable state of matrimony, of two free, believing persons, in accordance with the manner after which God originally ordained the same in Paradise, and instituted it Himself with Adam and Eve, and that the Lord Christ did away and set aside all the abuses of marriage which had meanwhile crept in, and referred all to the original order, and thus left it. Genesis 1:27; Mark 10:4. In this manner the Apostle Paul also taught and permitted matrimony in the church, and left it free for every one to be married, according to the original order, in the Lord, to whomsoever one may get to consent. By these words, in the Lord, there is to be understood, we think, that even as the patriarchs had to marry among their kindred or generation, so the believers of the New Testament have likewise no other liberty than to marry among the chosen generation and spiritual kindred of Christ, namely, such, and no others, who have previously become united with the church as one heart and soul, have received one baptism, and stand in one communion, faith, doctrine and practice, before they may unite with one another by marriage. Such are then joined by God in His church according to the original order; and this is called, marrying in the Lord. 2 Corinthians 7:2; 1 Corinthians 9:5; Genesis 24:4; Genesis 28:2; 1 Corinthians 7:39.” “Dordrecht Confession of Faith (Mennonite, 1632),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1632. Accessed June 17, 2020.  https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Dordrecht_Confession_of_Faith_(Mennonite,_1632)#XII._Of_the_State_of_Matrimony
  8. Over two-thirds of this brief article focuses on a primary concern of early Anabaptists, that an “honorable state of matrimony” consists of “two free, believing persons” (emphasis added) and that Christians must marry only “in the Lord.” Another confession from 1630 that is included in Martyrs Mirror likewise devotes over half of the space of its marriage article to the importance of marrying only a believer, without any mention of divorce. In addition, it contains another lengthy portion (about three times the length of its marriage article) that discusses church discipline in cases when a believer marries an unbeliever (“Confession of Faith,” The Bloody Theater of Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians, ed. Theileman J. van Braght, trans. Joseph. F. Sohm (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1951), 36-37). The 1627 confession cited above also devotes nearly its marriage article to marrying “only in the Lord.” Such evidence illustrates how, for early Anabaptists, marriage between a believer and an unbeliever was a much more urgent point of debate and concern than the topic of divorce after adultery.
  9. “John Schut, A.D. 1651,” The Bloody Theater of Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians, ed. Theileman J. van Braght, trans. Joseph. F. Sohm (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1951), 654.
  10. Robert Friedmann, “Christliches Gemütsgespräch (Monograph),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. July 12, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Christliches_Gem%C3%BCtsgespr%C3%A4ch_(Monograph)&oldid=155562
  11. The English translations of some of these documents appear to be rather loose. I will add alternative translations in brackets for some key words, also providing the original German word. (I used this online dictionary to help me understand the German terms and also ran phrases through Google Translate.) In this case, I am not certain of the part of speech of Hureren, but the family of words clearly refers to “whoring,” not premarital sex. The German original for this passage can be found on page 124 of this scanned book: https://www.google.com/books/edition/_/397qR_AMjOQC?hl=en&gbpv=1
  12. Gerhard Roosen, Christian Spiritual Conversation on Saving Faith, for the Young, in Questions and Answers, and a Confession of Faith of the Mennonites (Lancaster, PA: John Baer and Sons, 1857), 108-109. Emphasis added. Available online: https://archive.org/details/christianspiritu01menn/page/108/mode/2up
  13. Christian Neff and Harold S. Bender, “Catechism,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. July, 2 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Catechism&oldid=162939
  14. Roosen, ibid., 147. Emphasis added. Bontrager says that “a rigid view” of divorce and remarriage “was taken from 1690 to 1800” (G. Edwin Bontrager, Divorce and the Faithful Church (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1978), 104). He gives no evidence or additional comment for this assertion, but it seems likely that his starting date is an allusion to this “Shorter Catechism.” Does this catechism present a “rigid view”? The English translation could suggest so; after all, the question is about whether “divorce” is permitted, the answer is “no,” and the follow-up statement only offers permission to “separate.” However, the original German question asks about whether a marriage can wiederum getrennet werden, and the answer uses the word scheiden. While both terms can mean “separate,” it appears that the former term is a more general reference to separation (or “splitting up”), while the latter term is more often explicitly a reference to divorce. Further, the word translated “fornication” above is Ehebruch, which is more accurately translated “adultery” (or, in a translation that reflects etymology, “marriage-breaking”).  In summary, it appears to me that a more careful translation of the original German would read like this: “Can also a lawful marriage, for all sorts of reasons, be separated? Ans. No. For the persons united by such marriage are so closely bound to each other, that they can in no wise divorce, except in case of adultery.” This reading hardly indicates a more “rigid view” than that of the early Anabaptists. (Note: I found the original German catechism question here: https://www.google.com/books/edition/_/397qR_AMjOQC?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=eine%20ordentliche.
  15. “Christian Confession of Faith Of the Peace-Loving And Distinguished Christians Who are called Mennonites,” trans. Elizabeth Bender and Leonard Gross, Golden Apples in Silver Bowls, ed. Gross (Lancaster, Pa.: Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, 1999), 252.
  16. “And he who separates or permits to separate except for the one cause of fornication, and changes {companions}, commits adultery. And he who marries the one divorced causeth her to commit adultery… We declare that when a man or woman separates except for fornication (that is, adultery), and takes another wife or husband, we consider this as adultery and the participants as not members of the body of Christ, yea, he who marries the separated one we consider a fornicator” (“Concerning Divorce,” c. 1525-1533). This document explicitly mentions all three abuses listed in the 1702 expanded confession: separation, divorce, and marrying another.
  17. Christian Neff and Harold S. Bender, “Catechism,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. July 10, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Catechism&oldid=162939
  18. In a recent article, Andrew V. Ste. Marie cites this adapted confession as evidence that a firm stance against all divorce and remarriage (no exceptions) was not a new idea in the time of Daniel Kauffman: “Among the Mennonites whose origins could be traced to the Swiss Brethren Anabaptist tradition, the roots of the diversity in the discussion on divorce and remarriage go all the way back to the sixteenth century. A tract from the first generation of Swiss Brethren titled On Divorce argues that adultery is grounds for divorce and the innocent party may remarry. The Swiss Anabaptist Short Simple Confession from 1572 argues for the same position. However, even in Europe, there is evidence of another view. The modified version of the Dordrecht Confession printed in the Swiss Brethren devotional book Golden Apples in Silver Bowls in 1702 teaches… {The same quote I provided above.} Jacob Stauffer, founder of the “Stauffer” or Pike Mennonites, also expressed a stricter view, writing c. 1850 that ‘the covenant of marriage cannot and dare not be broken to marry another except through natural death.’ Thus, the roots of the multiple views on divorce and remarriage go all the way back to Europe in the Swiss Brethren experience.” (“Research Note: Nineteenth-Century Mennonites Deal With Divorce and Remarriage,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 94 (April 2020), 249.) It seems to me that Ste. Marie overstates his evidence here in two ways. First, he does not consider other possible ways to understand the Swiss Brethren additions to the Dordrecht Confession, as I have done above. (In fact, he is somewhat misleading in failing to clarify that most of quotation he provides was actually part of the original document.) Second, even if this adapted confession should be understood to outlaw all divorce and remarriage, with no exceptions, this still provides evidence of “diversity in the discussion on divorce and remarriage” only as early as the eighteenth century, not “the sixteenth century.” Despite my disagreements on these points, I found much of the rest of Ste. Marie’s article helpful and am grateful he mentioned it to me.
  19. “Mennonite Articles of Faith by Cornelis Ris (1766),” Global Anabaptist Wiki, “initiated by the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College,” last modified March 24, 2016. https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Mennonite_Articles_of_Faith_by_Cornelis_Ris_(1766)
  20. Cornelis Ris, Mennonite Articles of Faith as Set Forth in Public Confession of the Church: a Translation (Berne, IN: Mennonite Book Concern, 1904). Emphasis added. Available online: https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Mennonite_Articles_of_Faith_by_Cornelis_Ris_(1766)#XXXI._Of_Marriage
  21. “This catechism… became not only the catechism of the Amish in America, but also of the Mennonite Church (MC), the General Conference Mennonite Church, the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren (now Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches), and the Kleine Gemeinde (now called Evangelical Mennonites). It is nothing short of astounding to discover that the Elbing-Waldeck catechism became the standard source of doctrinal, prebaptismal instruction for such widespread groups as the American groups just listed, the Mennonites of Russia (except the Mennonite Brethren group 1860ff.), those of West Prussia, and those of France; further that it is still in widespread use in North America wherever catechisms are used, in both English and German; and finally, that no other catechism, except the much larger and somewhat different Gemüthsgespräch — and that only among the Mennonite Church (MC) of Eastern Pennsylvania — has ever successfully competed with it in any language in these countries” (Christian Neff and Harold S. Bender, “Catechism,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Accessed June 17, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Catechism&oldid=162939).
  22. The Catechism or Simple Instruction From the Sacred Scriptures, as Taught by the Mennonite Church (Berne, IN: Mennonite Book Concern, 1904). Emphasis added. Available online with an introduction: https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Elbing_Catechism_(Mennonite,_1778). German version available here: https://archive.org/details/katechismusoderk00elbi_7/page/48/mode/2up
  23. Ira D. Landis, and Robert Friedmann, “Burkholder, Christian (1746-1809),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. July 12, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Burkholder,_Christian_(1746-1809)&oldid=143506
  24. I did not find any other confession that has a 25th article on marriage, and the only other one I found having a 12th article on marriage is the Strasbourg Discipline from 1568 (https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Strasbourg_Discipline_(South_German_Anabaptist,_1568)), a document with far less historical importance.
  25. John A. Hostetler, God Uses Ink: The Heritage and Mission of the Mennonite Publishing House After Fifty Years (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1958), 9.
  26. I have made no attempt to be exhaustive. Documentation for these dates can be found on GAMEO.com or in God Uses Ink (Hostetler, ibid.).
  27. “Confession, or Short and Simple Statement of Faith (Rudnerweide, Russia, 1853),” trans. Peter J. Klassen, Global Anabaptist Wiki, “initiated by the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College,” last modified March 24, 2016. https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Confession,_or_Short_and_Simple_Statement_of_Faith_(Rudnerweide,_Russia,_1853). Emphasis added. Quotation marks and spelling of “Sadducees” corrected for clarity. This confession was adopted by a congregation in Oregon in 1878 and also reprinted a couple times in the late 1800s in Elkhard, Indiana–once for use by a church in Turner County, South Dakota and once by an elder of the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren.
  28. It may be incorrect to interpret the phrase as “ends the marriage” although violating the marriage covenant certainly puts the marriage itself in question.
  29. It is probable that the other confessions I have quoted in my historical survey likewise used Bible versions shaped by Luther’s translation. It is common for English translators of historical documents to simply use a common English translation such as the KJV whenever Bible quotations occur, rather than directly translating from the historical document. This can make it difficult to trace how the authors of historical documents were influenced by the translations they used. In this case of this confession, it appears Klassen translated biblical quotations directly from the German text of the confession, rather than substituting any existing English translation.
  30. For an historical overview of this largest of the American Mennonite groups, see: Harold S. Bender and Beulah Stauffer Hostetler, “Mennonite Church (MC),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. January 2013. Web. July 13, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Mennonite_Church_(MC)&oldid=167350
  31. Henry Funk in Pennsylvania (d. 1760), Joseph Funk in Virginia (1778-1862), and Benjamin Eby in Ontario (1785-1853) were important predecessors—two of them being relatives! None of these, to my limited knowledge, published anything on divorce that I have not mentioned in this post.
  32. Cornelius J. Dyck, An Introduction to Mennonite History, 2nd ed. (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981), 220, 217.
  33. Andrew V. Ste. Marie writes that “Jacob Stauffer, founder of the “Stauffer” or Pike Mennonites, also expressed a stricter view, writing c. 1850 that ‘the covenant of marriage cannot and dare not be broken to marry another except through natural death’” (Ste. Marie, Ibid., 249, quoting from A Chronicle or History Booklet About the So-Called Mennonite Church, trans. Amos Hoover (Lancaster, PA: Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, 1992), 186). Ste. Marie may be correct that Jacob Stauffer did not understand Jesus’ exception clause to provide any permission for divorce or remarriage; I have not been able to check the context of this quote to get a clearer sense of what Stauffer may have meant. At any rate, Stauffer’s statement is less than twenty years older than the 1867 Herald of Truth article, so the historical picture is similar either way.
  34. “Answer to ‘A Brother’s Question,’” Herald of Truth, Vol. 2, No. 2, 11, https://archive.org/details/heraldoftruth02unse/page/n6/mode/1up  This sentence occurs in the context of the writer arguing against a husband and wife shunning each other in cases of church discipline.
  35. In coming decades Mennonites would increasingly draw a distinction between divorce and mere separation, but I don’t think such a distinction is intended here. In this sentence the word translated “separate” (twice) appears in the German (in Der Herold der Wahrheit, the German twin publication to Herald of Truth; see here) as scheiden, which is a word that is regularly used to refer to divorce, not merely informal separation. (See footnote to “Shorter Catechism” above for more discussion of this word.) In place of the word “fornication,” the German text has Hurerei; “whoring,” thus referring not to premarital sex but to sexual promiscuity.
  36. Some arguably imply as much, given the way they cite or quote Jesus’ exception clauses and given the prior Anabaptist interpretation of those clauses. For example, Roosen’s 1702 catechism quotes Jesus’ words about both divorce and remarriage (Matt. 19:9) immediately before offering the following commentary: “From this it is clearly to be seen, that Christ teaches all christians, that a man (except in case of fornication,) is bound to his wife by the band of matrimony, as long as she lives…” This suggests that “bound to his wife” means “not free to divorce and remarry,” which suggests that “in case of fornication” a man would be free to do both.
  37. Of course, it is possible I have missed important evidence, for (a) I am not formally trained in Anabaptist historical study, (b) I do not have physical access to any Mennonite archives, and (c) I do not read German. If I have missed evidence, I am eager to update my post and adjust my conclusions as needed. That said, I have seen nothing in primary or secondary literature to suggest that my conclusions here are inaccurate. It appears to me that, even if contradictory evidence were found, it would only offer an exception to the rule, which would still stand.

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Anabaptists Then (1500s): An “Unchangeable Plain Word of Christ”

The early Anabaptists earned an undeniable reputation for holding firmly to the teachings of Jesus as they understood them, no matter the cost. Though they shared many theological beliefs with the magisterial Reformers, the Anabaptists often accused the Reformers of “explaining away” the “hard sayings” of Jesus. ”1 The Anabaptists were committed to both (a) beginning their interpretation of Scripture with Jesus’ words and (b) obeying the hard teachings of Jesus. The topic of divorce and remarriage raises an interesting possible tension between these two commitments.

On the one hand, Jesus repeatedly gave uncompromising warnings against divorce and remarriage, even equating it with adultery. Yet he also gave the New Testament’s only words that explicitly suggest divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery may be permissible. How did the Anabaptists resolve this tension? Which words of Jesus did they consider to be “clear”?

The short answer is that the early Anabaptists displayed no anxiety over Jesus’ exception clauses about divorce and remarriage, unlike many conservative Anabaptists today. Rather than push these texts to the periphery of their discussions about divorce, they made them central pillars in their teaching. They did not seem to think that these exception clauses were “loopholes” that enabled people to avoid Jesus’ harder sayings. Rather, they appear to have seen them as reflecting the seriousness of adultery and the radical tension that exists between a true disciple of Christ and anyone who persists in sexual sin.2

Divorce and remarriage were topics that the Anabaptists engaged from their earliest years. If a single event can be pinpointed as the “official” birth of the Anabaptist movement (a debated question), it is probably a secret meeting on January 21, 1525, in Zurich, Switzerland, where some radical students of Zwingli rebaptized each other. The earliest Anabaptist document discussing divorce and remarriage that I have found could have been written as early as within two years of that meeting and definitely no later than 1533. It has been attributed to Michael Sattler (1490-1527), but scholars are uncertain.3

Titled “Concerning Divorce,” this tract synthesizes Jesus’ exception clauses with other Scriptures with seeming ease. Here are some excerpts:

We, like Christ, do not permit a man to separate from his wife except for fornication; for when Christ in Matthew 5 often saith, “But I say unto you,” he thereby annuls the Law insofar as it is grasped legalistically and not spiritually… Therefore He does away with the old divorcing, no longer permitting hardness of heart to be a valid occasion for divorce but renewing the regulation of His Father, saying, “It hath not been so from the beginning, when God ordained that man and wife should be one; and what God hath joined together man shall not separate.” Therefore one may not separate for trifling reasons, or for wrath, that is, hardness of heart, nor for displeasure, aversion, faith or unbelief, but alone for fornication. And he who separates or permits to separate except for the one cause of fornication, and changes [companions], commits adultery. And he who marries the one divorced causeth her to commit adultery, for Christ saith, “These two are one flesh.” But he who cleaves to a harlot, as Paul says, sinneth against his own body and is one flesh with the harlot, 1 Corinthians 6. Therefore he is separated from his own flesh in that he has attached himself to the alien flesh of the harlot, and his marriage is broken for they are no more one flesh, but the fornicator has become one flesh with the harlot. Therefore the abandoned one [innocent companion] may marry whomsoever he wishes to, only it must be in the Lord…

Paul teaches in I Corinthians 7, If the unbelieving one doth not desire to dwell with the believer and departs, so let him depart; a sister or brother is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us in peace. This cannot weaken the words of Christ, nor does it contradict Him… There are many reasons for the unbeliever to separate, one this, the other that; yea, furthermore because unbelief hates and persecutes faith with its works, just as Christ testifies in Matthew 10, “They of thine household shall be thy foes.” And therefore from aversion and wrath the believer will be driven out and expelled. Nevertheless that is not a separation in God’s sight for they are still one flesh inasmuch as neither of them has attached his own flesh to the alien flesh of a harlot and become one flesh with the harlot. Therefore, it is only fornication which can effect a divorce.

Hardness of heart and unbelief may not occasion divorce, but only fornication, and as long as there is not a change to another flesh, we declare that when a man or woman separates except for fornication (that is, adultery), and takes another wife or husband, we consider this as adultery and the participants as not members of the body of Christ, yea, he who marries the separated one we consider a fornicator according to the words of Christ, Matthew 5, 19.

He who further divorces and will not hearken to Christ, scatters abroad and knows nothing, and him we will avoid as faithless, as one who damns himself, Titus 3. To the wise I am speaking; judge ye what I say. May God give us understanding from above in all things, to the knowledge of Himself and to His glory. Amen.”4

This tract appears even more fascinating when we consider its historical context. The first Swiss Anabaptists, long before their baptismal meeting, were Bible students. Under Zwingli’s teaching in Zurich, they boldly evaluated the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church in the light of the Bible and grew increasingly determined to live as true disciples of the Jesus they encountered in its pages. This stance is evident in the tract above; biblical quotations and references abound, but there is no hint of any dependence on the official teachings of the Catholic Church. Standing on Jesus’ words, the Anabaptists, like Luther and Zwingli before them, were not afraid to break with “the Church’s absolute prohibition of divorce.”5 From this perspective, “Concerning Divorce” could appear to be a radical, perhaps even libertarian, tract.

But there is another historical context that may be more important. In 1525—the same year that the Anabaptists broke from Zwingli—the city of Zurich, under Zwingli’s leadership, drafted what has been called “the first modern divorce law.”6 This law authorized divorce not only for adultery, but also for “greater reasons than adultery, as destroying life, endangering life, being mad or crazy, offending by whorishness, or leaving one’s spouse without permission, remaining abroad a long time, having leprosy, or such other reasons, of which no rule can be made on account of their dissimilarity.”7 The law also authorized divorce for those “who are not fitted for the partners they have chosen,” which was probably a reference to impotence.8 Zwingli was the first to turn Reformation views of marriage and divorce into law, and the revolutionary laws in Zurich became a model for surrounding cities—though most cities retained somewhat greater restrictions on divorce.9

In this context, “Concerning Divorce” is clearly a conservative tract, arguing strongly against permissive new laws that permitted divorce “for trifling reasons.”10 In addition, as the tract is directed to those who face persecution, it argues that being “driven out and expelled” by one’s own household is not grounds for divorce.

It is doubly striking, perhaps, in this context of arguing strongly against divorce, that the tract also argues that adultery is indeed grounds for both divorce and remarriage. Jesus’ exception clause was not considered a loophole; rather, for the Swiss Anabaptists it was one of the hard sayings of Jesus that he permitted divorce and remarriage only in cases of adultery.

The early Dutch Anabaptists clearly agreed, as multiple strands of evidence demonstrate. Menno Simons (1496-1561) is a good place to begin.

The following statements leave no doubt that Simons understood Jesus to permit both divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery:

These two, one husband and one wife, are one flesh and can not be separated from each other to marry again otherwise than for adultery, as the Lord says. Matt. 5; 19; Mark 10; Luke 16. This is our real position, doctrine, and practice concerning marriage, as we here confess with the holy Scriptures. By the grace of God it will ever remain the position of all pious souls, let them lie and slander as they like. We know and confess truly that it is the express ordinance, command, intent, and unchangeable plain word of Christ. (“Reply to False Accusation,” 1552)11

We acknowledge, teach, and assent to no other marriage than that which Christ and His apostles publicly and plainly taught in the New Testament, namely, of one man and one woman (Matt. 19:4), and that they may not be divorced except in case of adultery (Matt. 5:32); for the two are one flesh, but if the unbelieving one depart, a sister or brother is not under bondage in that case. 1 Cor. 7:15. (“Foundation of Christian Doctrine,” 1539-40; revised 1558)12

We know too that the bond of undefiled, honorable matrimony is so firm and fast in the kingdom and government of Christ, that no man may leave his wife, nor a wife her husband, and marry another (understand arightly what Christ says), except it be for adultery. Paul also holds the same doctrine that they shall be so bound to each other that the man has not power over his own body, nor the woman over hers. (“Instruction on Excommunication,” 1558)13

According to Menno Simons, the teaching that a husband and wife who are joined as “one flesh” can later, by adultery, be “separated from each other to marry again” is part of “the express ordinance, command, intent, and unchangeable plain word of Christ” concerning marriage. This belief comes through clearly even though Simons, like the Swiss Brethren before him, was clearly intent on reducing divorces, not justifying them.

Simons’ fellow bishop Dirk Philips (1504-1568) taught the same. In this excerpt, he indicates by his Scripture citations that he thought divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery was consistent with God’s one-flesh creation mandate for marriage:

Christ wanted… to forbid the separation and rejection which the Jews practiced with their wives because of all kinds of reasons which they thought good or preferred, and that in order to marry another… The Lord willed and commanded that one should do that [separate] no more except in the case of an act of adultery, which is the only and true reason for which a husband may leave or reject his wife and take another, Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:3[ff.]; Matt. 5:32. (“Omitted Writing About the Ban and Avoidance,” 1567?)14

According to Philips, adultery does not offer a loophole from Jesus’ teachings against divorce, but a “true… reason” for permitting one to both “leave” a spouse and “take another.” Philips had exegetical evidence for this belief; in the following excerpt he states that divorce and remarriage are “joined” in Jesus’ Matthew 19:9 statement, so that adultery is grounds for both:

Christ said in the Gospel: “Whoever repudiates his wife (except because of fornication) and marries another, he commits adultery,” Matt. 19:9… Jesus Christ (in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, Col. 2:3…)… named adultery as the only true ground for divorce… Christ does not mention only repudiation and dissolution of marriage, but also being married to one another. This proposition is joined, the one to the other. (“Evangelical Excommunication,” 1567?)15

This interpretation of Jesus’ words was official church policy among the Dutch Anabaptists. In 1554 a conference of bishops was held where Menno Simons was then living—at Wismar in Mecklenburg, Germany. Those present, besides Simons, included Dirk Philips, Leenaert Bouwens, Gillis van Aachen, Herman van Tielt, Hans Busschaert, and Hoyte Riencx. The conference produced a series of statements known as the Wismar Articles. These articles address difficult questions the Dutch Mennonite churches were facing on topics such as shunning, marriage, divorce, and bearing arms. The articles were printed that same year in Amsterdam and reprinted several times afterward.16

Several of the articles in this document address questions of marriages between believers and unbelievers. Two of these clearly permit remarriage in cases of adultery:

Article IV.

In the fourth place, if a believer and an unbeliever are in the marriage bond together and the unbeliever commits adultery, then the marriage tie is broken. And if it be one who complains that he has fallen in sin, and desires to mend his ways, then the brethren permit the believing mate to go to the unfaithful one to admonish him, if conscience allows it in view of the state of the affair. But if he be a bold and headstrong adulterer, then the innocent party is free—with the provision, however, that she shall consult with the congregation and remarry according to circumstances and decisions in the matter, be it well understood.

Article V.

In the fifth place, concerning a believer and a nonbeliever–if the nonbeliever wishes to separate for reasons of the faith, then the believer shall conduct himself honestly without contracting a marriage, for as long a time as the nonbeliever is not remarried. But if the nonbeliever marries or commits adultery, then the believing mate may also marry, subject to the advice of the elders and the congregation.17

It was not just Swiss and Dutch Anabaptists who held this interpretation of Jesus’ exception clauses. According to all the evidence I have found, early Anabaptists across Europe shared these beliefs.

In 1540-41, the Hutterite leader Peter Reidemann wrote his Rechenschafft unserer Religion, Leer und Glaubens (“Account of Our Religion, Doctrine, and Faith”), which “represents the official position of the Hutterites in matters both of doctrine and practice.”18 The section of his book titled “Concerning Adultery” includes the following:

If one or the other of the partners in marriage go to another man or woman… where one committeth adultery in this way, the other should put him or her away and have no more in common with him or her before he or she hath shown real fruits of repentance. For where one mixeth with the transgressor before he or she hath repented, one committeth adultery with the other even though they were husband or wife before. For it is no longer a marriage, because it is broken until through repentance it is healed, therefore this should be punished by separation.19

In 1561, a “valiant hero and soldier of Jesus Christ, named John Schut,” was executed for his faith in the city of Vreden in Westphalia (northwestern Germany). According to the account in the Martyrs Mirror, the lords who tried Schut questioned him about his beliefs, including “what he held in regard to marriage”:

He replied that a man and a woman are united together in marriage, and that such union may not be dissolved, save on account of adultery; following herein the teaching of Christ. Matt. 19.20

In 1571, a Calvinist prince called a disputation at Frankenthal in the Palatinate (in southwestern Germany), hoping to unify his subjects. A diverse group of fifteen Anabaptist leaders came, representing not only the Palatinate, but also Switzerland, the Netherlands, Moravia, and the imperial cities of southern Germany.21 They were asked many questions, including whether the ban and unbelief separates a marriage. They responded, “We believe that nothing may part a marriage but adultery.”22

An official government report (protocol) of this Frankenthal Disputation was published, to which the Anabaptists wrote a response. Their response was published several times in several versions, the most complete extant version being published in 1590. In this version, the ninth article titled “Concerning divorce: Whether the ban and unbelief are reasons for divorce” opens with the following paragraph:

Christ our Lord and Savior, of whom Moses and the prophets, indeed even the great glory of God itself testify, says: “It has been said that whoever wants to divorce his wife shall give her a bill of divorcement; but I say unto you, whoever divorces his wife, except for adultery, forces her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” [Matthew 5:31-32] All God-fearing Christians will allow these words to suffice, nor will they add to or detract from them. Therefore, adultery alone is cause for divorce for Christ says: two will become one flesh. Whoever commits adultery sins against his own flesh, becoming one flesh with a whore, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6[:15-18]. Therefore he is now divided from his own flesh in that he has attached himself to the foreign flesh of a whore. Thus is the marriage ended, for they are no longer one flesh, for the adulterer has become one flesh with the whore. Thus the divorced party may now marry anyone he or she desires, as long as it takes place in the Lord.23

In 1577 five ministers of the Waterlander Dutch Mennonites drafted a confession in an attempt to unify their church. The Waterlanders “had arisen as a movement in large measure in protest against the rigor of church discipline among the Mennonites, particularly after the Wismar Articles had been drafted” by Simons, Philips, and others.24 The Waterlanders “were the first Dutch Mennonites to have a confession of faith.”25 In fact, their 1577 confession “is probably the oldest in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition” in the sense that (a), unlike Anabaptist confessions before it, it “was meant to be a statement for the church” rather than a personal statement and (b) it was designed as “a complete theological formulation” rather than a narrow statement “on specific doctrines.”26

This confession includes the following statement:

When a husband and wife have, in chastity, been united in the state of marriage, this marriage is so binding that it may not be separated or broken for any reason except adultery, according to the words of Christ, Matthew 18.27

The following year (1578) Hans de Ries, one of the authors of the Waterlander Confession, was imprisoned for his faith. While in prison he wrote another confession to explain to the town council of Middelburg what he and his fellow Mennonites believed. This confession contains one sentence about marriage:

Marriage is honorable when one man and one woman live virtuously together, being two souls but one body, one flesh, which may not be separated except for the cause of adultery, as Christ taught and commanded (Matthew 19, Hebrews 13, Genesis 2).28

Also in 1577, Peter Walpot (1521-78), “bishop of the Hutterian Brethren in Moravia during their Golden Age,”29 completed his magnum opus, commonly called the “Article Book.”30 The fourth article is titled “Concerning Divorce Between Believers and Unbelievers.” Since this article apparently has not yet been published in English, it deserves a brief introduction.31

As with most early Anabaptist theological writings, this is clearly an occasional work; we are joining a conversation midstream, with specific names and current events being discussed. Apparently this article is addressed to some other Anabaptist-type group, for they are addressed as “dear friends” and reportedly “want to avoid infant baptism.” But the disagreement is fierce between the Hutterites and Walpot’s unknown audience, for he also calls them “negligent shepherds,” says they are “of little understanding and completely unenlightened,” and warns them, “You have completely departed from the mind and judgment of Christ.”

The main point of disagreement is over how to counsel Christian converts who have unbelieving spouses. Walpot accuses his audience of insisting that a converted wife must remain with her husband even if the husband is not “pleased” to live with her (cf. 1 Cor. 7:12-13)—for example, if he does not permit her to attend the Anabaptist preaching; if she “must watch her children get mixed among the heathen… and grow up completely like the world”; and “even if her husband strikes her and puts her out the door.” As a result, she “will finally come to the point of despair about you and melt into the world.” Without having heard the proverbial “other side of the story,” my best guess is that most of us would have some disagreement with both Walpot and his audience; one may have been too slow to counsel separation, the other too quick.

For our purposes, what is significant about this article is the agreement found in the midst of the vigorous debate. Clearly, it was axiomatic for both the Hutterites and their dialogue partners that, according to Jesus’ exception clauses, adultery “parts a marriage.” Here is Walpot’s explanation of his own understanding:

Marriage is [a] special picture and direction to the godly of the union and continuing obligation that they owe and have vowed to God’s Spirit and the Lord… Therefore Christ was moved to cut off all frivolous, unimportant and bad reasons [for divorce] arising from or originating in human loathing or displeasure (as was common, acceptable practice among the Jews) and rescind it among his people. Thereby the original institution [of marriage] was re-established in its first status and no one could break it off for his human wishes or will (except for adultery). 32

Later, Walpot indicates that his opponents use Jesus’ exception clauses to argue against allowing a believer to be separated from an unbelieving spouse:

You force the verse in Matthew 5 and 19, that nothing but adultery and unchastity should break the marriage, no matter what attitude of [sic] the unbelieving one takes toward the believer. You don’t ask very much whether the unbeliever does so willingly, of which Paul speaks and to which he attaches everything else.33

The last document I’ll quote in this post takes us back to where we started: the Swiss Brethren. In 1578—roughly fifty years after the tract “Concerning Divorce” from Sattler’s day—the Swiss Brethren at Hesse produced a confession that included an article by the same name: “Concerning Divorce.” It is a near-perfect summary not only of their own historic position regarding Jesus’ exception clauses, but of the position of most Anabaptists in the 1500s:

We believe, acknowledge and confess that husband and wife, who through a providential bringing together in holy matrimony have become one flesh, cannot be separated by anything, neither by ban, belief or unbelief, anger, quarrels or hardness of heart, with the exception of adultery.34

(The remaining Anabaptist confessions I have found from the 1500s do not offer evidence that either agrees or disagrees with the documents I have shared in this post.35)

In summary, the early Anabaptists were mostly unified on the question of grounds for divorce and remarriage; most said there was one and only one such ground: adultery. All agreed that Jesus’ exception clause did mean adultery was grounds for both divorce and remarriage.

There was one clear point of disagreement; a minority of early Anabaptists argued for an additional ground: having an unbelieving spouse. The Hutterites certainly taught that when an unbelieving spouse was not pleased to live with a Christian convert, the Christian should separate. (See Peter Walpot above.) According to court records, the Swiss Brethren disagreed with how the Hutterites “separate marriages.”36 Some have said that “this kind of divorce for the reason of unbelief was a phenomenon peculiar to Hutterites,”37 but it is possible that the teaching of Dirk Philips regarding Christians who married unbelievers after conversion may also have produced similar results.38 In Philips’ case, he clearly disallowed remarriage in such situations; in some sense the marriage was still seen to exist. In the case of the Hutterites, I am unaware whether remarriage was ever counseled; the sources I read affirmed only divorce.

It is telling that divorce of a spouse because of unbelief was a point of disagreement and contention among early Anabaptists. Going beyond Scripture is one sure cause for theological and pastoral conflict, in our time as surely as that of the early Anabaptists.

On the other hand, I have not found any hint of any dispute among early Anabaptists about whether adultery was grounds for both divorce and remarriage. Anabaptists repeatedly and firmly rebuked the easy divorce permitted by many Protestant leaders such as Zwingli. They eagerly began their teaching with Jesus’ “hard sayings” about divorce, emphasizing that he did away with “the old divorcing” of the Jews. Yet, Menno Simons speaks for all early Anabaptists when he says that a husband and wife who are joined as “one flesh” can later, by adultery, be “separated from each other to marry again.”

This, the early Anabaptists insisted, is part of “the express ordinance, command, intent, and unchangeable plain word of Christ” concerning marriage.


What strikes you most about how the early Anabaptists read Jesus’ divorce and remarriage exception clauses? What do you make of the contrast between their beliefs and the beliefs of most conservative Anabaptists today (see my last post)? Share your insights in the comments below!

I have at least three more goals for this historical survey. In my next post I hope to (1) share a handful of documents from the 1600s to 1900 and then (2) reflect on how the Anabaptists prior to 1900 seem to have synthesized other biblical texts with their understanding of Jesus’ exception clauses. Did they do this well? Where were they mistaken? What can they teach us? Then I’d like to (3) ask how conservative Anabaptists got “from there to here” in their understandings about divorce and remarriage.

Here are two ways you can help: (1) Please pray God will guide my understanding and writing about divorce and remarriage. I sincerely want to honor Christ. (2) If you have any relevant historical documents or insights, please share them. I am missing many pieces of the historical puzzle and would be happy to update even this current post if more relevant evidence is found. Thank you!


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  1. “The Reformers were more inclined than the Anabaptists to view the Bible as a flat book and to concentrate on the more immediate context, or to interpret all texts in light of certain doctrines seen as central to the whole of Scripture. Indeed, rather than interpreting other texts in relation to the example and teachings of Jesus, some of the ‘hard sayings’ of Jesus were interpreted (Anabaptists would say ‘explained away’) in light of other passages thought to be clearer. This was a major point of dispute between Reformers and Anabaptists and led to considerable divergence in ethical and ecclesiological conclusions. How does one decide which passages are clear and which obscure?” (Stuart Murray, Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition, Studies in the Believers Church Tradition (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2000), 62.
  2. Disclaimer: I am not a historian, so am not equipped to assess all the nuances of early Anabaptist understandings on this topic. I am sure I am missing some valuable evidence (despite some Facebook friends graciously sending me images of several important documents). I am also focusing my attention on a narrow question—How did the early Anabaptists understand Jesus’ exception clauses?—so am not trying to present a complete picture of their views on divorce and remarriage. But disclaimers aside, I am confident that the quotes in this post accurately represent what early Anabaptists normally taught about Jesus’ exception clauses. I have not found any statement from early Anabaptists that contradicts the evidence presented here.
  3. “P. J. Twisck (1565-1636), who was married to Menno Simons’ granddaughter, assigned it to Sattler” (J. C. Wenger, Even Unto Death: The Heroic Witness of The Sixteenth-Century Anabaptist (John Knox Press, 1961). Available online: http://www.bibleviews.com/evenuntodeath.html ), but “is signed by the initials ML, which argues against Sattler’s authorship” (The Legacy of Michael Sattler, John Howard Yoder, ed. (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2019), vii.). This tract was found published in a 1533 collection that included influential Schleitheim Confession (1527), also thought to have been written by Sattler (Ernest A. Payne, “Michael Sattler and the Schleitheim Confession,” Baptist Quarterly 14.8 (October 1952): 337-344. Available online: https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/bq/14-8_337.pdf).
  4. Concerning Divorce, trans. J.C. Wenger, Mennonite Quarterly Review (April 1947):114-119. Available online: https://forum.mennonet.com/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=195&sid=757d9d661ee2fb957171da3e40019591&start=10#p4873. Emphasis added. Another translation of the end of the first paragraph uses female pronouns: “The one who finds herself thereby divorced may now marry, whom she will, only let it be in the Lord.” Source unknown. Available online: https://coveredbaptists.proboards.com/post/5466/thread
  5. Judith C. Areen, “Uncovering the Reformation Roots of American Marriage and Divorce Law,” 26 Yale J.L. & Feminism 29-89 (2014), 42. Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. 1642. https://scholarship.law.georgetown.edu/facpub/1642
  6. Ibid., 44.
  7. Zurich Ordinance, quoted in Areen, 46.
  8. Areen, 46-47.
  9. Ibid., 44, 48.
  10. I am tempted to see a veiled reference to Zwingli in the final paragraph of this tract: “He who further divorces and will not hearken to Christ, scatters abroad and knows nothing, and him we will avoid as faithless, as one who damns himself, Titus 3. To the wise I am speaking; judge ye what I say.”
  11. Menno Simons, The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, trans. Leonard Verduin, ed. J. C. Wenger (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1984), 561. Emphasis added.
  12. Ibid., 200. Emphasis added. C.f. also: “Again, under this kingdom, and under this King, no other wedlock must be tolerated, except between one man and one woman, as God had in the beginning established in the union of Adam and Eve; and Christ has further said, that these two are one flesh, and that they shall not separate, save for the cause of fornication, Matt. 5:32” (Menno Simons, “Appeal to Corrupt Sects,” A Foundation and Plain Instruction of the Saving Doctrine of Our Lord Jesus Christ, pub. in The Complete Works of Menno Simons (Elkhart, IN: John F. Funk & Brother, 1871). Available online: http://www.mennosimons.net/ft019-corruptsects.html).
  13. Ibid., p.970. Emphasis added.
  14. Dirk Philips, The Writings of Dirk Philips, trans. and ed. by Cornelius J. Dyck, William E. Keeney, and Alvin J. Beachy, Classics of the Radical Reformation (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1992), 586). Emphasis added.
  15. Ibid., 605-606. Emphasis added. In context, Philips is contrasting shunning one’s spouse in cases of church discipline with divorcing them in cases of adultery. A Christian who avoids his spouse for the sake of church discipline is different from a Christian who divorces his spouse for adultery. In shunning, unlike a case of adultery, a believer does not remarry, but instead must be “waiting patiently on the spouse” and praying to “be reconciled” to them. The fact that Jesus joins (re)marriage to divorce in Matthew 19:9 shows that Jesus is talking about a kind of separation (divorce) that is more than just shunning, Philips argues. Therefore Jesus’ words against divorce in Matthew 19:9 cannot be used to argue against asking a Christian to shun their spouse who is under church discipline.
  16. “Wismar Articles (Dutch Anabaptist, 1554),” Global Anabaptist Wiki, “initiated by the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College,” last modified March 24, 2016,  https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Wismar_Articles_(Dutch_Anabaptist,_1554)#Article_IV. There are some problems with parts of the text we now possess of the Wismar Articles. According to John Horsch,“These Wismar Decisions have been preserved, but evidently not in their original form. The articles, in the form in which they have been handed down to us, are of doubtful authority; the text is in part clearly corrupt and unreliable” (John Horsch, Menno Simons. His Life, Labors, and Teachings (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1916), chap. VIII. Available online: http://www.mennosimons.net/horsch08.html). Likewise, Harold Bender stated that “unfortunately the text in which these resolutions have been persevered is so corrupt that it is impossible to be sure of the original meaning” (Harold S. Bender, Brief Biography of Menno Simons, “V. Labors in Holstein, 1546-1561,” The Complete Writings of Menno Simon, trans. Leonard Verduin, ed. J.C. Wenger (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1984), 43). It is unlikely, however, that these concerns threaten the authenticity of the statements on divorce and remarriage quoted above, for, despite the fact that these textual questions were raised in Herald Press publications, the same publisher later printed a book by G. Edwin Bontrager that quotes Article IV of the Wismar Articles without qualification as part of a survey of historical Anabaptist beliefs on divorce and remarriage (Divorce and the Faithful Church (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1978), pg. 104). Graber likewise quotes Article IV in his 1956 article on divorce and remarriage on GAMEO (J. D. Graber and Leo Driedger, “Divorce and Remarriage,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Accessed Jun 17, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Divorce_and_Remarriage&oldid=161405). To my knowledge, no one has suggested that Articles IV and V as we know them misrepresent the early Dutch Anabaptist position on divorce and remarriage. To the contrary, they fit perfectly with other available evidence.
  17. “Wismar Articles,” Global Anabaptist Wiki. Emphasis added.
  18. Robert Friedmann, “Rechenschafft unserer Religion, Leer und Glaubens,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. July 21, 2020, https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Rechenschafft_unserer_Religion,_Leer_und_Glaubens&oldid=149028
  19. Peter Rideman, Confession of Faith (Rifton, NY: Plough Publishing, 1970), 97-102. This translation was made from the 1565 published German edition. Emphasis added. This excerpt clearly extends hope for repentance and reconciliation. Yet, when read alongside (a) the response to the Frankenthal disputation and (b) Walpot’s Article Book (see both below), it also appears to affirm divorce in cases of adultery. It makes no statement about the possibility of remarriage.
  20. “John Schut, A.D. 1651,” The Bloody Theater of Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians, ed. Theileman J. van Braght, trans. Joseph. F. Sohm (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1951), 654-55. Emphasis added.
  21. Christian Hege, “Frankenthal Disputation (1571),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. June 27, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Frankenthal_Disputation_(1571)&oldid=145061
  22. Ernst H. Correll, Harold S. Bender, and J. Howard Kauffman, “Marriage.” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. June 18, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Marriage&oldid=143645
  23. “Concerning divorce: Whether the ban and unbelief are reasons for divorce,” A Short, Simple Confession, 1590, trans. Abraham Friesen, Leonard Gross, Sydney Penner, Walter Klaassen, and C. Arnold Snyder, Later Writings of the Swiss Anabaptists: 1529-1592 , ed. C. A. Snyder (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2017), 322. Emphasis added.
  24. Cornelius J. Dyck, “The First Waterlandian Confession of Faith,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 36 (January 1962): 5-13. Available online: https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Waterlander_Confession_of_Faith_(1577)
  25. Nanne van der Zijpp, “Waterlanders,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. June 28, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Waterlanders&oldid=134967
  26. Dyck, ibid.
  27. Hans de Ries, Albert Verspeck, Jacob Jansz, Simon Michielszoon, and Simon Jacobszoon, “Waterlander Confession of Faith (1577),” trans. by Dyck, quoted by Dyck, ibid. Emphasis added. It is curious why this statement cites Matthew 18 rather than 19. Evidently there was an error either in writing, translating, or publishing.
  28. Hans de Ries, “The Middelburg Confession of Hans de Ries (1578),” trans. Cornelius J. Dyck, published with commentary in Dyck, “The Middelburg Confession of Hans de Ries, 1578.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 36 (April 1962): 147-154, 161. Emphasis added. Available online: https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=The_Middelburg_Confession_of_Hans_de_Ries_(1578)
  29. Robert Friedmann, “Walpot, Peter (1521-1578),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. June 27, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Walpot,_Peter_(1521-1578)&oldid=146324
  30. Robert Friedmann, “Hutterite Article Book,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. June 27, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Hutterite_Article_Book&oldid=121143
  31. I was given a copy of a mostly-complete English translation on June 25, 2020 by Kenny Woolman of the Hutterian Brethren Book Centre (https://www.hbbookcentre.com/), who told me, “I believe I got it from the Archives in Goshen, now Elkhart.” Jason Kauffman, Director of Archives and Records at Mennonite Church USA Archives, gave me permission to post this document, and I have done so here.
  32. Peter Walpot, “Article Four: Concerning Divorce Between Believers and Unbelievers,” A Beautiful and Pleasant Little Book Concerning the Main Articles of our Faith or The Five Articles of the Greatest Conflict Between Us and the World, trans. Elizabeth Bender (wife of Harold S. Bender), unpublished manuscript, pg. 7. Available online: http://dwightgingrich.com/concerning-divorce-between-believers-unbelievers-hutterite-document/. Emphasis and bracketed portions added. This translation leaves a few blanks for untranslated words (none affecting passages quoted here) and shows other evidence of being a rough draft. After the above excerpt, Walpot continues by asserting that when the “Word causes such disharmony and disunity in the unbeliever that he becomes hostile to the believing spouse,” then “it is more needful for the believer to keep his eyes on what is godly to keep his heart in peace and not make too many concessions… be it for fear or love of the spouse.” In short, in such cases, despite Jesus limiting divorce to cases of adultery, a Christian spouse must separate.
  33. Ibid., 13. Emphasis added. Cf. page 10, where Walpot argues that when an unbeliever is not pleased to live with a believer, “a sister or brother is in such a case as if unmarried and not bound.” Walpot asks, referring to Paul, “Where does he give the verse and cause of adultery, that besides it nothing parts a marriage?” Walpot is arguing, against his opponents, that Jesus’ solitary exception does preclude separation from an unbelieving spouse who is not pleased to live together in a way that honors the believer’s conscience. Walpot’s argument, again, is based on shared ground; both he and his opponents agree on Jesus’ exception.
  34. “Swiss Brethren Confession of Hess” (1578), trans. Werner O. Packull, Confessions of Faith in the Anabaptist Tradition, ed. Karl Koop, Classics of the Radical Reformation II (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2019), 79. Emphasis added. An older translation is available online: “We believe and confess, that man and woman who have by the divine foreordination, destiny and joining in marriage become one flesh, may not be divorced by ban, belief or unbelief, anger, quarreling, hardness of heart, but only by adultery” (Theodor Sippell, ed., “The Confession of the Swiss Brethren in Hesse, 1578.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 23 (1949): 22-34, p. 32). Quoted in Robert Friedmann, “Divorce from Unbelievers,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. July 30, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Divorce_from_Unbelievers&oldid=143540.
  35. One document, Pilgram Marpeck’s “Confession of Faith,” does not appear to discuss divorce or marriage at all (available in German here: https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/images/1/15/Confession_of_Faith_by_Pilgram_Marpeck.pdf). Two others discuss marriage but focus on the problem of marriages between believers and unbelievers. See the Strasbourg Discipline from 1568 (https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Strasbourg_Discipline_(South_German_Anabaptist,_1568)) and the Concept of Cologne from 1591 (https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Concept_of_Cologne_(Anabaptists,_1591)).
  36. Hans Pauly, TäuferAkten (i.e., court records of trials of Anabaptists, sentences pronounced upon them, etc.) of Hesse, ed. Theodor Sippell, “The Confession of the Swiss Brethren in Hesse, 1578,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, 23 (1949), 22-34, 22. Available online: https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/images/a/ac/SwissBrethrenConfession1578.pdf
  37. Ernst H. Correll, Harold S. Bender and J. Howard Kauffman, “Marriage,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. June 27, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Marriage&oldid=143645
  38. Cornelius J. Dyck, William E. Keeney, and Alvin J. Beachy, trans. and eds. of The Writings of Dirk Philips (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1992), 553, 577 (n. 5). This possibility is raised in the editors’ introduction and endnotes to Philips treatise “About the Marriage of Christians,” Ibid., 552-577.

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