In this special issue of Nova Religio four historians of medieval and early modern Christianities offer perspectives on basic conceptual frameworks widely employed in new religions studies, including modernization and secularization, radicalism/violent radicalization, and diversity/diversification. Together with a response essay by J. Gordon Melton, these articles suggest strong possibilities for renewed and ongoing conversation between scholars of “old” and “new” religions. Unlike some early discussions, ours is not aimed simply at questioning the distinction between old and new religions itself. Rather, we think such conversation between scholarly fields holds the prospect of productive scholarly surprise and perspectival shifts, especially via the disciplinary practice of historiographical criticism.
This essay uses the method of historiographical criticism to reexamine the frameworks used to research the relationship between apocalypse and violence. Its focus is the presentation of Anabaptist rule at Münster in the mid-1530s. New religions scholars and historians alike often cite this case as evidence of how millenarian prophecy can lead believers to violent actions. The essay demonstrates that this view is based largely on anti-Anabaptist and anti-sectarian propaganda that has its origins in the medieval and early modern eras. Partly because of the popularity of Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957), which translated older polemical interpretations of religious outsiders into a modern scholarly form, hostile assumptions about Anabaptist violence have found their way into academic debates today. The essay shows that the distorting effects of these kinds of assumptions are not limited at all to the case of Anabaptist Münster, but in fact shape unhelpfully the way scholars conceptualize more generally the relationship between dissenting “sects” and established “churches.” “Thinking outside the cages” of polemically derived conceptualizations can form the basis for cross-disciplinary research on believers under siege.