Menno Simons

(1496-1561)

 

 

It was not by accident that the Dutch Anabaptists became known as Mennonites. There is no greater name among Anabaptists of the sixteenth century than that of Menno Simons. In fact his influence was such that the history of the Anabaptist movement in the Lowlands could well be divided into three periods: before Menno, under Menno, and after Menno. His accession to Anabaptist ranks signaled the beginning of a new era in the history of Dutch Anabaptism. The former parish priest of Witmarsum could not remain in seclusion for long. The call had come through the brethren, but there was no mistaking its origin. It was from God, and Menno answered. [19]

Menno had begun his service in the Roman Church inauspiciously enough. He was ordained a priest at Utrecht in 1524, his twenty eighth year. He came from Frisian peasant stock, and his education was limited to the formal training for the priesthood of his day. [20] The Bible was an unknown book to him and was to remain so for two or three years. Finally in desperation he dared to search its pages for an answer to his questions over the doctrine of transubstantiation. Thus began a pilgrimage which was eventually to lead the young man out of the Roman fold and subsequently to the Anabaptists. In his Reply to Gellius Faber, Menno wrote of these early doubts in characteristically forthright manner.

 

My reader, I write you the truth in Christ and lie not. In the year 1524, being then in my twenty-eighth year, I undertook the duties of a priest in my father's village, called Pingjum, in Friesland. Two other persons of about my age, also officiated in the same station. The one was my pastor, and was well learned in part; the other succeeded me; both had read the scriptures partially; but I had not touched them during my life, for I feared, if I should read them they would mislead me. Behold! such a stupid preacher was I, for nearly two years.

In the first year thereafter a thought occurred to me, as often as I handled the bread and wine in the mass, that they were not the flesh and blood of the Lord. I thought that it was the suggestion of the devil, that he might lead me off from my faith. I confessed it often-sighed and prayed, yet I could not be freed from this thought.

 

Menno admitted that his knowledge of the Scriptures was so limited that he could not discuss biblical concepts intelligently. "I could not speak a word with them [his fellow priests] without being scoffed at, for I did not know what I was driving at, so concealed was the Word of God from my eyes."

Eventually, Menno felt compelled to resolve his doubts by turning to the Scriptures. "Finally, I got the idea to examine the New Testament diligently. I had not gone very far when I discovered that we were deceived, and my conscience, troubled on account of the aforementioned bread, was quickly relieved, even without any instructions."

The source of Menno's doubts regarding the Eucharist is not revealed. There may have been no other than that of his own thoughts on the matter. He certainly was not the first priest to doubt the alleged miracle of transubstantiation. Whether the writings of Luther had influenced him in this regard is not known. They did prove to be a source of help in the initial stages of the pilgrimage already begun.

That which Menno learned from the Scriptures, he began to use in his ministry, thereby gaining a reputation as an evangelical preacher. This was a false impression, he confessed, but it had its compensations: "Everyone sought and desired me; the world loved me and I loved the world. It was said that I preached the Word of God and was a good fellow." [21] At this stage it is doubtful that Menno was farther along the evangelical road than his renowned contemporary and fellow Dutchman, Erasmus. He described his life as empty and frivolous, full of gambling and drinking, and "diversions as, alas, is the fashion and usage of such useless people." Apparently, it had suffered not even the slightest alteration at this time.

Not realizing the full implication of his Protestant stance, Menno seems to have accepted the Scriptures as doctrinally authoritative in a strictly propositional sense. In an easygoing manner he had apparently arrived at the rather secure and respected position of an evangelical humanist. He knew much the same success as that of Zwingli at Einsiedeln and during his early Zürich years. However, Menno was shocked into a fresh examination of the Scriptures in 1531. He heard of the execution of an otherwise unknown Anabaptist in Leeuwarden. Of this experience he wrote in his Reply to Gellius Faber:

 

Afterwards it happened, before I had ever heard of the existence of the brethren, that a God-fearing, pious hero named Sicke Snijder was beheaded at Leeuwarden for being rebaptized. It sounded very strange to me to hear of a second baptism. I examined the Scriptures diligently and pondered them earnestly, but could find no report of infant baptism. [22]

 

The new-found knowledge set off a whole chain of events. First, Menno discussed the problem of infant baptism with his pastor, his immediate superior in the church at Pingjum, but to no avail. The result was that "after much talk he had to admit that there was no basis for infant baptism in Scripture." Next, he turned to a study of the Fathers who, he related, "taught me that children are by baptism cleansed from their original sin. I compared this idea with the Scriptures and found that it did violence to the blood of Christ.”

Menno's search in hope of finding some scriptural basis for infant baptism subsequently led him to the writings of Luther, of Bucer, and finally, of Bullinger. Once again his efforts to uncover a satisfactory reason for the practice of infant baptism were disappointing. He registered his disappointment with these words: "When I noticed from all these that writers varied so greatly among themselves, each following his own wisdom, then I realized that we were deceived in regard to infant baptism."

In such a state of mind Menno was transferred from Pingjum to Witmarsum, his native village, "led thither," he confessed, "by covetousness and the desire to obtain a great name." By this time he was a thoroughgoing evangelical humanist whose life was still quite unaffected by his commitment to biblical authority.

At Witmarsum he wrote, "I spoke much concerning the Word of the Lord, without spirituality or love, as all hypocrites do, and by this means I made disciples of my own kind, vain boasters and frivolous babblers, who, alas, like myself did not take these matters too seriously." [23]

Menno had not served in his native village for more than a year when some unknown Anabaptists came to Witmarsum, preaching and practicing adult baptism. Sometime later emissaries of Münster came. Menno quickly discerned that they possessed zeal without knowledge. He did what he could to stem the tide of fanaticism. "I conferred twice with one of their leaders, once in private, and once in public, but my admonitions did not help, because I myself still did that which I knew was not right."

Menno was gaining a new reputation as a defender of the faith against the Münsterites. Yet his own soul was becoming more deeply involved in an indissoluble paradox. "My soul was troubled and I reflected upon the outcome, that if I should gain the whole world and live a thousand years, and at last have to endure the wrath of God, what would I have gained?" The source of his struggle was increasingly evident. He saw in the misled fanatics a devotion to the truth, as they understood it, that put to shame his own love of security, position, and luxury. Also, he felt an underlying sympathy for their views of the Scriptures, the church, and Christian discipleship-which only increased his suffering. It is true that he considered them misled but only in certain matters.

His agony of soul became intolerable with a tragedy at the Old Cloister. Some three hundred Anabaptists, who had sought refuge there from persecution, were put to death. Among the dead was Menno's own brother. This event more than any other intensified the inner conflict of his soul which had been raging for at least four years. He wrote:

 

After this had transpired, the blood of these people, although misled fell . . . hot on my heart. . . . I reflected upon my unclean, carnal life, also the hypocritical doctrine and idolatry which I still practiced daily in appearance of godliness, but without relish. I saw that these zealous children, although in error, willingly gave their lives and their estates for their doctrine and faith. And I was one of those who had disclosed to some of them the abominations of the papal system. But I myself . . . acknowledged abominations simply in order that I might enjoy physical comfort and escape the cross of Christ. [24]

 

It was in April, 1535, that the Old Cloister near Bolsward fell. Menno was to know no peace of mind or heart from that day until the day of his conversion. "Pondering these things my conscience tormented me so that I could no longer endure it," he confessed. Such thoughts drove him to throw himself on the mercy of God in Christ for forgiveness and cleansing. Then and then only was Menno converted. Until that moment his faith had been assensus, not fides. There was intellectual acceptance but no life commitment. But all of this was to change.

 

My heart trembled within me. I prayed to God with sighs and tears that He would give to me, a sorrowing sinner, the gift of His grace, create within me a clean heart, and graciously through the merits of the crimson blood of Christ forgive my unclean walk and frivolous easy life and bestow upon me wisdom, Spirit, courage, and a manly spirit so that I might preach His exalted and adorable name and holy Word in purity. [25]

 

The Reply to Gellius Faber, in which the above passage occurs, was written some eighteen years after Menno's conversion. An account of the same experience, but one which is far more revealing, occurs in his Meditation on the Twenty-fifth Psalm. This was written only two years after his fateful decision. The intensity of feeling had not yet subsided when he wrote:

 

I, a miserable sinner, did not know my faults and shortcomings as long as Thy Spirit had not pointed them out to me. I considered myself a Christian, but when I looked upon myself, I found myself to be very worldly, fleshly and outside Thy Word. My light was darkness, my truth falsehood, my justice sin, my religion public idolatry and my life certain death. [26]

 

In the meditation of the eighth verse, the plaintive cry of the sinner has become the song of the redeemed. Menno had referred to the faithful prophets of the Old Testament. Their message was not received, and they were often put to death because of their fidelity. Menno then declared:

 

Nor did this exhaust the springs of Thy mercy, but Thou didst send Thy beloved Son, the dearest pledge of Thy grace, who preached Thy Word, fulfilled Thy righteousness, accomplished Thy will, bore our sins, blotted them out with Thy Blood, stilled Thy wrath, conquered the devil, hell, sin, and death, and obtained grace, mercy, favor, and peace for all who truly believe on Him. . . . He sent out His messengers preaching this peace, . . . so that they might lead me and all erring sinners into the right way. . . . Their words I love, their practices I follow. Thy dear Son, Christ Jesus, whom they preached to me, I believe. His will and way I seek. [27]

 

The will and way of Christ for Menno became the way of the cross. To this concept he already had alluded in the Meditation:

 

Although I resisted in former times Thy precious Word and Thy holy will with all my powers, . . . nevertheless Thy fatherly grace did not forsake me, a miserable sinner, but in love received me, . . . and taught me by the Holy Spirit until of my own choice I declared war upon the world, the flesh and the devil, . . . and willingly submitted to the heavy cross of my Lord Jesus Christ that I might inherit the promised kingdom. [28]

 

The deep sense of sin reflected in these passages from the Meditation did not come from one who had lived a life of sexual promiscuity. Menno's sensitive nature had come under the judgment of the Bible. He realized the sinfulness of the human heart in the light of the holiness of God. Specifically, Menno felt that his sins included several things. Among these were false pride, love of ease and security, an aimless existence, and a timidity that caused him to shrink from the unpleasant. Even after commitment had been made, however, the Rubicon remained to be crossed.

For nine months he attempted to preach the gospel in the old pulpit:

 

I began in the name of the Lord to preach publicly from the pulpit the word of true repentance, to point the people to the narrow path, and in the power of the Scripture openly to reprove all sin and wickedness, all idolatry and false worship, and to present the true worship; also the true baptism and the Lord's Supper, according to the doctrine of Christ, to the extent that I had at that time received from God the grace.

 

Finally, the sheer impossibility of Menno’s course of action was thrust upon him. His timidity and cowardice were overcome. The new man in Christ Jesus contemplated the incongruity of an Anabaptist in a Roman Catholic pulpit. In a moment of decisive action he turned his back on Rome to cast his lot with a variegated movement which was everywhere spoken against: "Then I, without constraint, of a sudden, renounced all my worldly reputation, name and fame, my unchristian abominations, my masses, infant baptism, and poverty under the heavy cross of Christ. [29]

For more than eighteen years Menno had been bearing the "heavy cross of Christ" when he wrote these lines. He knew well the cost of discipleship. It may well have been that he waited nine months before identifying himself with the Brethren because he wished to count the cost before taking the cross. [30]

Immediately he sought out the Anabaptists in the area and began to admonish them, reclaiming not a few from the Münsterite errors. Longing for a time of peace and quiet in order to meditate more fully over his new relationship, Menno slipped away to eastern Friesland. Here, a year after his departure from the Roman Church, a delegation of seven or eight persons from among the biblical Anabaptists found him. Menno characterized them as

 

men who sincerely abhorred not only the sect of Münster, but the cursed abominations of all other worldly sects…. They prayerfully requested me to make the great sufferings and need of the poor oppressed souls my concern…. They urged me to put to good use the talents which I, though unworthy, had received from the Lord. [31]

 

At this invitation of the Brethren, Menno confessed, “my heart was greatly troubled.” The sources of his concern were analyzed with utmost frankness. “I was sensible of my limited talents, my unlearnedness, my weak nature, the timidity of my spirit, the exceedingly great wickedness, perversity, and tyranny of the world, the great and powerful sects, the subtlety of many minds, and the woefully heavy cross that would weigh on me.” [32] But Menno complied. As Calvin heard the voice of God through William Farel, Menno was called to become an apostle of the Anabaptists through a handful of Frisian peasants.

When Menno was baptized into the Anabaptist fellowship is unknown. On October 24,1536, Herman and Gerrit Jans were arrested. They were charged with having "given lodging to Mr. Menno Simons, recently parish priest at Witmarsum”, who was reported to have "received the covenant of the Anabaptists”. [33] By October,1536, Menno's defection from the Roman Catholic Church and affiliation with the Anabaptists must have been well known to the authorities. Probably, he was baptized shortly after leaving Witmarsum early in 1536. A year or so later, he was ordained in Groningen. Ordination as an elder in the Anabaptist fellowship came to him by the laying on of hands by Obbe Philips. As this was done at the request of the brotherhood, Menno immediately began an active ministry among the nonresistant, biblical Anabaptists.

 

 

19. Simons, Reply to Gellius Faber, op. cit., pp. 671-72.

20. Cornelius Krahn, "The Conversion of Menno Simons, a Quadricentennial Tribute", MQR, X (January, 1936), 46.

21. Simons, op. cit. p. 668.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid., p. 669.

24. Ibid., p. 670.

25. Ibid., p. 671.

26. This translation in the main is from p. 329 of the Opera Sommarie of 1646 as found in Nan Auke Brandsma, The Transition of Menno Simons from Roman Catholicism to Anabaptism As Reflected in His Writings, unpublished B.D. thesis, Baptist Theological Seminary, Rüschlikon-Zürich, 1955, p. 16. It is the best work on the conversion of Menno Simons this writer has seen.

27. Meditation on the Twenty-fifth Psalm, Complete Writings, pp. 70-71.

28. Ibid., p. 69.

29. Reply to Gellius Faber, Writings, p. 671.

30. Krahn, op. cit., 52, criticizes Menno for delaying so long after reaching convictions which led him to doubt the validity of transubstantiation and infant baptism before leaving the Roman Catholic Church. This criticism is unfounded when one takes into consideration that Menno was not converted until 1535 as Brandsma, op. cit., has pointed out. Before this time, he was evangelical in head but not at heart. When one considers his relative freedom in his home village and his naturally timid and retiring nature, nine months appears to be a rather brief period in which to make such an awesome decision.

31. Reply to Faber, Writings, p. 671.

32. Ibid., p. 672.

33. Brandsma, op. cit., p. 36.

 

From: William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story, Grand Rapids, Michigan 1992, pag. 114-121

 

 

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