The Neglected Role of Dutch Mennonite Innovators in the Scientific Revolution and Early Enlightenment: 2023 John and Margaret Friesen Lectures


Thursday, March 9, 2023

These interconnected lectures foreground the neglected role played by Dutch Mennonites in the development of new ideas in theology, scripture interpretation, social and religious organization, the promotion of religious toleration, and in technology, science, and philosophy.

Lecture 1 | Mennonites as Social and Technological Innovators in the Sixteenth-Century Netherlands

Mennonites as Social and Technological Innovators in the Sixteenth-Century Netherlands, traces these developments among Mennonite groups from the end of the apocalyptical Münsterite Anabaptist movement into the seventeenth century. As most Anabaptists turned away from their earlier eschatological expectations, they followed Menno Simons in establishing a godly community of the faithful focused on obedience to the gospels and separation from the world. Many also practised a form of spiritualism which privileged the inner spiritual experience over the literal reading of scripture and external rites and confessions. This latter approach dominated the Doopsgezinden, as seen in their two-Word hermeneutic giving precedence to the “Inner Word” or Spirit over the literal text. This approach provided greater flexibility in breaching tradition not only in theology, but also in medicine (many Doopsgezind preachers were medical practitioners), science, and technology, leading to significant innovations like Pieter Pietersz’s new windmill technology or Cornelius Drebbel’s invention of a working submarine that amazed England’s King James I.

Lecture 2 | Mennonites as Innovators of Philosophical Thought in the Dutch Golden Age

Mennonites as Innovators of Philosophical Thought in the Dutch Golden Age, highlights examples of Mennonites contributing in significant ways to new philosophies, whether through their own writings or through their participation in the Collegiant meetings which pioneered a non-clerical, democratic form of worship and whose members discussed scripture and philosophy in innovative ways. We will focus on three thematic case studies: 1. Spirit and Reason, or how spiritualism and rationalism worked together in Doopsgezind and Collegiant circles to lay the groundwork for René Descartes’s Cartesian philosophy as well as for Spinoza’s Theological-Political Tractatus of 1670. 2. Ecclesiology and Liberty: how Collegiants and Mennonites contributed to arguments in favour of religious diversity and tolerance and to the development of practical forms of egalitarian organization leading into the Enlightenment. And 3. How Doopsgezinden carried the scepticism of the devil from the Spiritualist/Anabaptist David Joris through to the Enlightenment, publishing the region’s major anti-witch-hunt treatises and profoundly shaped the thinking behind the Cartesian Reformed preacher Balthasar Bekker’s The World Bewitched of the 1690s, which explicitly removed demons from the natural world. These are merely a few examples of the major ways in which Mennonites were actors, rather than mere spectators, in the intellectual discourse of their day.

Dr. Gary K. Waite has been involved in innovative research in Anabaptist Studies for much of his career as part of his speciality in the history of religion in the early modern era. His most well-known book is titled Eradicating the Devil's Minions: Anabaptists and Witches in Reformation Europe (Univ. of Toronto Press, 2009). He’s currently involved in “Amsterdamnified!”, a research project based in Canada (UNB-Fredericton and Brock University) with European partners. For the period from 2015 to 2022 the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) is providing generous funding. The full title of the project is Religious Dissenters, Spiritualist Ideas and Urban Associationalism in the Emergence of the Early Enlightenment in England and the Low Countries, 1540-1700. The short title is derived from a 1641 pamphlet by the English poet John Taylor.

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