Menno Simons (1496-1561) was the intrepid Bible teacher and evangelist among the besieged and harried brethren who lived without government protection during the times of the Reformation in northern Europe. His enemies in the state-churches thought he was immortal too. Immortal because after they had tortured, drowned, or burned almost every prominent Anabaptist preacher, for some reason they could never coax Menno to visit them in the public square where they piled kindling wood around the stake. This slippery Menno is distinguished as being one of the few luminaries among the brethren who actually died in bed of natural causes.
When young Menno was ordained into the Roman Catholic priesthood in Utrecht at the age of 28, Martin Luther had already nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the church door at Wittenberg. The havoc and political unrest of the Reformation created a window of opportunity to the long persecuted brethren. By taking advantage of the social upheaval of the time, the underground church of the Dark Ages was prepared to go public. Converted Catholic priests and monks began holding conferences, and performing mass public baptisms. They traveled as missionaries through central Europe, holding meetings among brethren who previously had been secretive.
But these brethren faced a problem. They were neither Lutheran nor Catholic, and were therefore unrecognized and unincorporated under the laws of the land. These illegal preachers who raised their illegal lanterns into that inky night, soon discovered the executioner’s fury. One edict said, “Out of the ashes of Waldo many new shoots arise and it is necessary to impose a severe and heavy punishment as an example.”
Conrad Grebel was arrested and imprisoned for three months in the tower at Zurich. He escaped in 1526, but he did not live out the year. Existing as a fugitive, he narrowly missed martyrdom by dying of the plague. Felix Manz was repeatedly arrested and finally drowned in the Limmat River by order of the Zurich Council in 1527. His execution was the first of a long line of Anabaptist martyrs. Michael Sattler was burned at the stake in Rottenburg in 1527. His faithful wife followed him, being drowned in the Neckar River eight days later. In that same year of 1527, a conference of Anabaptists was held in Augsburg which became known as “The Martyrs’ Synod” because so many of those in attendance lost their lives for the name of Christ. Hans Denck took a leading part in that conference. Before the year was out, the weary fugitive would die of the plague. George Blurock was captured at Tyrol and burned at Innsbruck in 1529. All of these gifted servants of Christ were in their mid-thirties, except Balthaser Hubmaier, who endured a lengthy interrogation before he was burned in Vienna in 1528; he was about 48 years old. Three days after his martyrdom, his wife was drowned in the Danube River.
Not only the preachers suffered. The brethren in general became targets of the ruthless Catholic or Reformation state-church persecutions. Twelve would be drowned in this town, and thirty burned in that village, until the death toll mounted from the hundreds to the thousands in Austria, Germany, and Holland.
The followers of this fledgling movement had barely poked their heads out of the caves and dens in which they were hiding when they were stripped of their most promising Bible teachers and evangelists. And these tremors reached across Europe until they touched a Friesian named Menno Simons.
Menno’s awakening was not due to his Roman Catholic education for the priesthood. His formal training was limited as the Bible was virtually unknown to him. “I had not touched [the Scriptures] during my life, for I feared, if I should read them they would mislead me. Behold! such a stupid preacher I was.”
Around 1528, he began to have severe doubts about the sacraments of the church. He obtained some of the Reformers’ writings, which only highlighted to him the confusion of men’s natural reasoning. Then around 1531, he shook the dust off his Bible to discover grave discrepancies in what he himself practiced and what the Bible actually said. He was shocked.
Among other things, he saw what the Scriptures actually taught about infant baptism and the Lord’s Supper. To renounce your infant baptism was not considered to be in your best interests at that time. Emperor Charles V mandated all rulers and officers in his empire “…that all and every one baptized again or baptizing again, man or woman, of an age to understand, shall be judged and brought from natural life to death with fire and sword or the like according to individual circumstance, without previous inquisition of the spiritual judge.”
Menno knew about these hapless victims of state persecution. They included his own brother, who died in 1535 while defending himself with a group of evangelicals at the Old Cloister at Bolsward. Such events would sober anyone who ventured to join the brethren, who were all notorious “re-baptizers.” Menno had endured four anguishing years while counting this cost, until his conversion soon after his brother’s death.
Menno strongly opposed any fanaticism such as use of force or revolt, and here calls it an “error.” He said, “I saw that these zealous children, although in error, willingly gave their lives and their estates for their doctrine and faith…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 manly spirit so that I might preach His exalted and adorable name and Holy Word in purity.”
Two years after his spiritual birth, 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.”
Once he renounced Roman Catholicism, he became a marked man. He soon joined fellowship with the brethren. Already, by October 24, 1536, there is a record that some were arrested for lodging Menno. That was the same year that Jacob Hutter, another Anabaptist preacher, was burned at the stake in Innsbruck in the Tyrol.
To fix the dates, details, and places of Menno’s feverish pilgrimage have not been easy for the historian. Strangely, the spiritual revival among those brethren has, until the Twentieth Century, gone largely unnoticed. Whole histories of the Reformation give the Anabaptists the silent treatment, while others perpetuated the slanders that their persecutors had used against them. They have endured the slur of being munsterites, heretics, radicals, and even communists.
If Menno’s enemies could not burn him, they certainly burned many of his books and many of the brethren that owned them. Much of what we know of those times comes to us via court records and the slander of Menno’s enemies.
We do know that his wife was named Gertrude, and that they had children. In the years 1536-39, he traveled about Groningen until he was forced to flee to the Dutch province of Friesland, after an edict told all Anabaptists to “get out.” Menno continued his itinerant work in eastern Friesland until 1540.
Menno proved to be a energetic, feisty writer. Already he had written on Christian Baptism in 1539, and a book called the Foundation of Christian Doctrine in 1540. Throughout his writings he would repeatedly come back to the reference point, “For other foundation can no man lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” Menno saw where the creedal churches had stopped short, and he was determined, as much as possible, to move the church of God back to its primitive simplicity.
In 1541, he fired another canon blast called the True Christian Faith. Many that read Menno are disappointed that he did not teach the Reformation doctrines of justification by faith more clearly. Perhaps those brethren would have been more receptive to the reformers’ Bible teaching on this subject if the Reformers had not aligned themselves with the civil authorities, and thereby become the brethren’s own persecutors. The greatest scandal of the Reformation was the way men like Bucer, Calvin, and Zwingli treated these poor of the flock.
Perhaps a second reason why the brethren did not progress farther than they did doctrinally is due to the sparsity of well-taught, stable Bible teachers among them. Many of them were burned at the stake early on.
There was a third reason why the brethren were unimpressed by Reformation doctrine. They saw many who claimed to have become Lutherans living no better than they had when they had been in the darkness of popery. No doubt, the low moral state of many Reformation churches owes itself to the fact that they were populated by a mixed multitude of saved and lost, and in fact, the Reformers thought that the church had to be that way. They looked at “a believing membership” in the local church as youthful idealism, while their Anabaptist contemporaries insisted that a believing membership is a vital necessity to any biblical church.
For these and other reasons, those brethren called Anabaptists were, and are, largely Arminian in doctrine. And Menno Simons had as much to do with crystallizing their doctrinal stance as anyone. Regrettably, we have to conclude that Luther and Menno each had a great deal they could have learned from one another.
Menno’s collected writings fill more than a thousand pages. He lived long enough to contribute a few poems to the brethren’s hymn collection, to teach on the finer points of church discipline, and child rearing, and to engage in tractarian debates with Catholics and Reformers on the great issues of the faith. Menno’s greatest contribution was his steady hand to hold back the fanatic tendencies of the brethren and to tend the festering wounds of afflicted saints.
For his efforts the authorities determined to seize Menno, but he so successfully evaded them that pardon was offered to any Anabaptist then in confinement who would deliver Menno. As William Estep says, “…No Judas was forthcoming.”
From 1541 to 1543, he energetically labored in and around Amsterdam. The baptisms he performed were followed by executions, but Menno remained free. In late 1543, he moved his family to a more tolerant northern Germany, where he remained (except for two years in Cologne) until his death.
From 1546 to 1551, he conducted meetings in Holstein and along the Baltic seacoast region. In 1554, he was forced to move again, this time to Hamburg at Oldesloe.
Regarding these incessant persecutions, he wrote, “I hope also, through the Lord’s help, that no one in the whole world may be able truthfully to accuse me of covetousness or of luxurious living. Gold and riches have I none, do not even desire them, although there are some who, out of an honest heart, say that I eat more roast than they do mince, and drink more wine than they do beer…He who…has bought me…and called me to His service, knows me and knows that I seek neither money nor goods, neither pleasure nor comfort on earth, but only my Lord’s praise, my own salvation, and that of many. On which account I have had to suffer, with my poor, weak wife and little children. We have for eighteen years endured excessive anxiety, oppression, affliction, misery, and persecution, that I have to live in poverty and in constant fear and danger of our lives. Yes, when the preachers repose on easy beds and soft pillows, we generally have to creep secretly into out-of-the-way corners. When they openly enjoy themselves at weddings, etc., with pipes, drums, and flutes, we have to look around every time a dog barks for fear the arresting officer has arrived. Whereas they are greeted by everyone as Doctor or Master, we must let ourselves be called Anabaptists, Corner-preachers, Deceivers, and Heretics, and are greeted in the Devil’s name. Finally, instead of being rewarded, as they are, for their service, with high salaries and good days, our recompense and portion from them is fire, sword, and death.”
On January 31, 1561, an arthritic, tired man looked up from his sickbed and said that “nothing on earth was as precious” to him “as the church.”
The Complete Writings of Menno Simons translated by Leonard Verduin, Herald Press
Menno Simons by John Horsch, Mennonite Pub. House
The Anatomy of a Hybrid by Leonard Verduin, Eerdman
The Pilgrim Church by E. H. Broadbent, Marshall Pickering
The Anabaptist Story by William Estep, Eerdman
The Anabaptist View of the Church by Franklin H. Littell, Macmillan
The 1948 portrait of Menno Simmons is by Arend Hendriks