Play Brings into Focus the Faith of the Anabaptists

The Radicals highlights a movement significant to Seventh-day Adventist heritage.

Laura Gang, Pacific Union College
<strong>Play Brings into Focus the Faith of the Anabaptists</strong>
Cast of “The Radicals,” which traces the faith experience of the Anabaptists. [Photo: Pacific Union College]

The Radicals is a stage production about the Reformation — but not the one you’re probably thinking of.

Written by Pacific Union College (PUC) professor Laura Wibberding and produced in collaboration with the college’s History Department and PUC Preparatory School, the play tells the story of early Anabaptist leaders. Their role in the Reformation was arguably more impactful to the heritage of the Seventh-day Adventist Church than even Martin Luther himself.

In the early 1500s, two Protestant Christian movements were sweeping across Europe. The Magisterial Reformation, with leaders like Luther in Germany and Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland, was supported by rulers — civil magistrates — who enforced conformity to the faith.

At the same time, the Radical Reformation also opposed the Catholic Church but firmly eschewed state support. The most well-known group was the Anabaptists, who held that Christianity was a personal decision. That conviction was signified by the “believer’s baptism,” contrary to the christening ceremony of infants.

The play features a conversation between Menno Simons, a former Catholic priest who became a prominent Anabaptist leader, and a young female character named Rachel. Their conversation frames each of the play’s episodes, which center on the critical leaders and moments in the early part of the movement.

The first few scenes focus on Conrad Grebel, the father of Anabaptism; Felix Manz; and George Blaurock. They began as students of Zwingli, but soon their direct study of the Bible led them to stronger convictions about reform. Later scenes show how these men and their wives went on to baptize each other and preach. Along with other Anabaptists like Michael Sattler and Margret Hottinger, they were persecuted, imprisoned, and tortured. Eventually, all were martyred for their “radical beliefs.”

“The radical ideas the Anabaptists were promoting — believer’s baptism, separation of church and state, freedom of conscience, social equality — don’t seem radical to us today,” Wibberding said. “The big deal is that they embraced them, not as a way out of the endless religious wars of their time but because of their reading of the Bible.”

Indeed, all of these ideas are part of the Seventh-day Adventist heritage, along with, Wibberding points out, the role of women. Like the Anabaptists, early Adventist women chose to evangelize and lead instead of assuming their “traditional roles,” she notes.

Greg Schneider, professor emeritus of psychology at PUC, played Simons in the production and agrees with Wibberding on the importance of the Anabaptist movement.

“The profound respect for individual conscience, the insistence on a religion that shapes the whole of life and sets believers apart from the world’s powers and authorities, the hunger for authenticity and perfection in the service of God’s kingdom — all these things are themes found repeatedly in many American religions,” he said. “Adventism not least.”

In one scene from The Radicals, authorities arrest Anna Manz, mother of Felix Manz, and interrogate her for names of Anabaptist pastors.

For Schneider, this was a favorite part of the play. Anna says the group in her home is “just some women.” The magistrates, the men in authority, never deduce that the women “were, in fact, the preachers,” Schneider said.

Wibberding, assistant professor of history, said the idea for the play originated several years ago during a Bible costume party her church held in place of Halloween.

“I thought — why not do Reformation Day?” Wibberding said. She began to create Saturday (Sabbath) programs every year to share some of the stories of the Reformation with others — focusing on different characters or events.

“At first, it was just church participants in costumes telling a little history. Next, I took the sermon time to tell about history but broke it up with short skits,” she said. “Eventually, I replaced the narrator with a conversation between two people, and it became a full drama.”

PUC Prep senior Lawren Slack played Rachel and connected with the character’s journey. In the play, Rachel wrestles with belief and conviction. “I’m a teenage girl fighting to figure out how faith will guide my future,” she said. “Rachel was a teenage girl whose faith determined hers.”

At one point, Rachel questions Simons about these radical reformers in a quest to solidify her own beliefs and convictions.

“Her struggle was defining right and wrong; what she wants, what God wants, and the compromising area between them both,” Slack said of Rachel.

Along with Wibberding, PUC church student pastor Audry Guzman, a theology and history double major, and PUC Prep principal Heather Denton helped direct the play.

The Radicals was performed most recently at PUC Church on November 5, 2022. Most actors were PUC Prep students, and a few PUC professors and current students were in the production.

Although the play wasn’t meant to be a deliberate educational experience for the Prep students, Wibberding said, they did have the opportunity to discuss Reformation history during rehearsals.

“I think they enjoyed talking about history in that format,” she said. “I mean, it’s a lot more fun with costumes and props, right?”

Prior to acting in the play, few of the students knew much about this period of church history.  Slack said she was inspired by learning about the lives of the martyrs who died for their devotion to the truth.

“I have so much respect for their bravery,” she said. “It took guts to be faithful in such dangerous times. But it’s in the raging fire that God appears, right? Rachel realized that at the end of the play.”

The Anabaptists were witnesses to the truth that God speaks to each person directly through His Word — the Bible. They were witnesses to the truth that the Christian life is a choice, and as Simons says in the play, “no one can force you to make it.”

Similarly, in the final scene, Rachel makes her choice. The lights dim, and she begins to sing, “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus.”

The original version of this story was posted on the Pacific Union College news site.

Laura Gang, Pacific Union College