“True evangelical faith is of such a nature it cannot lie dormant, but spreads itself out in all kinds of righteousness and fruits of love; it dies to flesh and blood; it destroys all lusts and forbidden desires; it seeks, serves and fears God in its inmost soul; it clothes the naked; it feeds the hungry; it comforts the sorrowful; it shelters the destitute; it aids and consoles the sad; it does good to those who do it harm; it serves those that harm it; it prays for those who persecute it; it teaches, admonishes and judges us with the Word of the Lord; it seeks those who are lost; it binds up what is wounded; it heals the sick; it saves what is strong (sound); it becomes all things to all people. The persecution, suffering and anguish that come to it for the sake of the Lord’s truth have become a glorious joy and comfort to it.” – Menno Simons
Menno Simons was born in 1496 in Witmarsum, Friesland, a war-torn country that was a part of the Holy Roman Empire. Not much is known about his early life. His parents were poor dairy farmers and he probably was taught at a local monastery where he learned about the Church Brothers*, Latin, and a little Greek. At the age of 28, he became a Dutch Catholic priest which he thoroughly enjoyed. For Simons, the priestly life consisted of “playing cards, drinking, and in diversions as, alas, is the fashion and usage of such useless people”.
But only after a year of being a priest, while going through the ceremonies of mass, a thought occurred to him that the bread and wine he was handling couldn’t be the real flesh and blood of Jesus. At first he dismissed the thought as coming from the evil one and prayed and confessed but the thought wouldn’t leave him. But like many priests of the day, he had little biblical knowledge. In fact, he purposely avoided reading the Bible. Concerning the scriptures, he said, “I had not touched them in my life, for I feared if I should read them, I would be misled.” So because he couldn’t shake the thought he had while serving the Eucharist, he decided to the Bible to look for his answer. Through his study, he came to the conclusion that the Eucharistic elements were not the actual body and blood of Jesus, but that they were symbolic representations.
In 1531, Simons heard about an Anabaptist who had been beheaded because he was rebaptized and later wrote, “It sounded strange to me to hear of a second baptism.” Again, he turned to the scriptures and after comparing the views of the Catholics, Luther, Zwingli and others, he changed his mind on infant baptism. He couldn’t find justification for it in Scripture. Even though he was also being influenced by the writings of Erasmus and Luther, he continued to be a part of the Catholic Church. In April of 1535, a few hundred Anabaptists who had taken refuge near his home were killed in a siege and the survivors were executed, his own brother being among them. This event undoubtedly made an impression upon him but it wasn’t until a year later that he renounced Catholicism at the age of 40 and embraced Anabaptism.
It wasn’t long after Simons embraced Anabaptism and was baptized as an adult by Obbe Philips (one of the leaders of the movement who later abandoned Anabaptism) and was asked to become an elder in the movement. He spent the rest of his life proclaiming the gospel of peace throughout Holland and northwestern Germany, mostly while in hiding. During this time, he was able to write 25 books and tracts along with many letters to strengthen the cause of Anabaptism. His book, A Foundation and Plain Instruction of the Saving Doctrine of Our Lord Jesus Christ, is considered to be his most influential book, sometimes compared to Calvin’s first Institutes due to length and style. It was instrumental in helping the Anabaptists gather together into one group of peaceful believers. It provided doctrine and ethics in simple language based on the teachings of the New Testament. His book was met with widespread acceptance among the Anabaptist community and helped gather them together into one group, therefore, preventing their disintegration.
It’s commendable that Simons gave up his easy going, priestly lifestyle for his convictions. Being an Anabaptist, especially one of their main leaders, wasn’t easy. He was always in fear of his life because of the continued persecution by both Catholics and Protestants who considered the Anabaptists to be heretics. In 1544, he wrote that he “could not find in all the countries a cabin or hut in which my poor wife and our little children could be put up in safety for a year or even half a year.” At one point, a reward of 2,000 guilders (gold coins, equivalent to $2,000 today) was to be paid to anyone who turned him over to the Catholic Church. Many of his close friends paid with their lives for giving him food and shelter, speaking with him, and even for reading his books.
Even though he was always under a constant threat, Simons was always able to remain a step ahead of those seeking to end his life. He lived until 1561 at the age of 65, dying a natural death, 25 years after being converted to Anabaptism. He was buried in his home garden.
To this day, Menno Simons is still considered the most influential Anabaptist leader and many of the core doctrines practiced and taught by Simons and the first Anabaptists are still observed today. Adult/believer baptism was what they were most known for during the time of the reformation. That is where they received their name, Anabaptist means “rebaptizers.” Since everyone was baptized as infants and the Anabaptists believed that only people who made a conscious decision to follow after Jesus should be baptized, they would rebaptize their converts.
This was also connected to their view of church and state. During that time period, countries and regions had state religions, meaning it was up to the people in charge to determine what form of Christianity would be practiced. When someone was baptized in an area controlled by Catholics, they would become a part of the Catholic Church and a citizen of that country. The same goes for protestant controlled areas. When an infant was baptized into a Lutheran state, that person became part of the Lutheran denomination and a citizen of that state. So by not performing infant baptism, the Anabaptists were subverting the state system and religion. Instead, they taught that Christian’s first allegiance is to be citizens of God’s kingdom above any man made state.
Since a lot of protestant churches now practice believer’s baptism and think that the separation of church and state is a good thing, those distinctives don’t really stick out as much as they used to. Modern day Anabaptists (Mennonites, Brethren in Christ, etc.) are mostly known for their stance on violence. They believe that when Jesus and Paul said to love our enemies and not to repay evil for evil, that Christians should actually listen to and obey those teachings.** While not and easy doctrine for most Christians, enemy love has been lived out by the Anabaptists for the last 500 years. The example that Menno Simons set along with the faithfulness of his followers throughout the centuries to follow in the footsteps of enemy love is a powerful witness to his legacy.
Matthew 5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
– Andrew Harshman
* Matthew 12:46-50; 23:8-12
** Matthew 5:43-45; Romans 12:14-21
*** If you found any of the doctrines of the Anabaptists intriguing and would like to learn more about them, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
(This summer, The Evangelical Orphan will feature several postings from my students at Phoenix Seminary. They have be encouraged to meet long-lost relatives from our ecclesiastical family, and introduce them to us all – in class, and through this blog. We’re hoping these offerings will serve as a whet for your ongoing appetite to learn more about our history. Enjoy! -bh)