“We ask for forgiveness — from God and from our Mennonite sisters and brothers — for the harm that our forebears in the sixteenth century committed to Anabaptists,” says the statement adopted unanimously on October 26 by the LWF’s main governing body, its council.
“We pray that God may grant to our communities a healing of our memories and reconciliation,” states the apology that is now recommended for formal adoption by the highest LWF governing body, its assembly, meeting in Stuttgart, Germany, in July 2010.
Anabaptists, whose originally pejorative name means “re-baptizers,” stressed the need to baptize Christian believers including those who had been baptized as infants. Catholics persecuted them as heretics both by Protestants and, and many of them fled to America.
Larry Miller, general secretary of the Mennonite World Conference, who attended the Geneva meeting, welcomed the vote by the LWF council. He recalled how the July 2009 MWC assembly meeting in Asunción, Paraguay, had warmly received the news that Lutherans might take such an action.
Miller said this request for forgiveness would require that Mennonites also would change.
“Mennonites have learned from Lutherans that we are justified by faith alone, because we know that justification produces not only relations between oneself and God but also communion between the churches,” said Miller.
The LWF president, Bishop Mark Hanson, was asked at a press conference on October 27 why it had taken so long for Lutherans to seek forgiveness. He said it was difficult to answer for ancestors, but that for him the process had begun 25 years ago, “when we began to examine Luther’s anti-Semitic writings.”
“We are also heirs of a tradition that has borne pain in the lives of others because of how our ancestors have written, spoken, and communicated,” said
Hanson. “And I think it is a responsible thing for descendants in their understanding of faith to also speak words of repentance and ask for forgiveness, and to say that in some things our ancestors were simply wrong.”
A document presented to the LWF council about the apology described repentance as “the only fitting response to the persecutions of the 16th century and the continuing Lutheran characterizations of Anabaptists in the centuries which followed.” It noted how the Augsburg Confession of 1530, a central Lutheran statement of faith, explicitly condemned Anabaptists and their teachings.
The document referred to how some 16th-century advocates of Lutheran reforms such as Johannes Brenz opposed the execution of Anabaptists.
“Yet this very resistance to persecution in a contemporary of Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon demonstrates that this position was a possible alternative for them also,” it stated. At the same time there were also, “resources in Luther’s own thought which could have been used for opposing execution of Anabaptists.”
The process leading up to the statement began in 1980, the 450th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, when Mennonites questioned how they could join in celebrating a document in which Anabaptists were condemned. This led to the establishment in 2002 of a Lutheran-Mennonite International Study Commission, whose report focused on an examination of the history of the 16th century and its consequences.