The Anabaptist movement travelled throughout Europe like wildfire. Despite severe persecutions, from both Catholics and Protestants, their number multiplied rapidly; where one died at the hands of the persecutors, there were many more willing to take his place.One of the followers of Luther, named Melchior Hoffman had travelled to Strasbourg where he first came across Anabaptists. Convinced of their teaching, he was baptised as a believer in 1530. From Strasbourg, Hoffman travelled to other parts of Europe, including an area of Holland called East Friesland. Hoffman baptised wherever he went and people accepted his teaching, including one Sicke Freerks Snijder. This latter went to Leeuwarden, the capital of the Dutch province of Friesland, where he was burned to death for his believer’s baptism in 1531. The news of his martyrdom came to the ears of a priest in Leeuwarden, named
[click on the name to see a complete biography]
Menno Simons was born in the year 1496 in the village of Witmarsum. All that is known about his family is that his father was named Simon, hence Menno’s surname – Simons, or ‘Simonszoon’ (son of Simon) and he may have had a brother named Pieter.At the age of 28, Menno was ordained to the priesthood at Utrecht in 1515 or 1516 and became the chaplain in the village of Pingjum in 1524. He was familiar with the Latin Fathers’ writings and knew Latin and Greek, but he did not read the Bible at all, for fear it would prejudice his learning. In later years he said his former view of the Bible was ‘stupid’. Ten years after his ordination, news had arrived in Holland of the dispute over the status of the bread and wine at communion. It was at this time Menno began to study his Bible. It was not until 1531 however that Menno’s views began to change.
He was aware that Snijder had been executed for having been ‘re-baptised’. This was something Menno found strange; until that time, he had never been aware of baptism on confession of faith, but had followed the church’s teaching on infant baptism. The news aroused in him a desire to look further at the matter and he did an in depth study of what the Bible taught about the baptism of infants. To his surprise, he found that infant baptism is nowhere taught in the New Testament. He also studied the writings of Martin Luther and Heinrich Bullinger. Around this time, he was transferred to Witmarsum as a priest. It was at Witmarsum that he came into direct contact with Anabaptists for the first time. He was attracted by their zeal for God and their understanding of the Bible, but it wasn’t until 1536 that he was truly converted, after the death of his brother Pieter at Bolsward. In January 1536, he left the priesthood and rejected the Catholic church and was probably baptised at this time, though the exact date is unknown, throwing in his lot with the Anabaptists. By October that same year, it is clear his attachment to the Anabaptists was well known to the authorities, for two Anabaptists, Herman and Gerrit Jans, were arrested and charged with having lodged at the home of Menno Simons.Melchior Hoffman had introduced the first Anabaptist congregation in Holland and Menno became a part of this. His doctrine focused on separation from the world, symbolised by baptism. He believed that the true Christian faith would manifest itself not in fighting and war, but in good works and love:
“For true evangelical faith...cannot lie dormant, but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love; it...clothes the naked, feeds the hungry, consoles the afflicted, shelters the miserable, aids and consoles all the oppressed, returns good for evil, serves those that injure it, prays for those who persecute it,” Menno Simons, 1539 Why I Do Not Cease Teaching and Writing.Menno rose quickly to prominence in the Anabaptist movement in Holland. Prior to 1540, the most influential leader in the Dutch Anabaptist church was David Joris; by 1544, the Anabaptists were being known as ‘Mennists’ or ‘Mennoists’. That term was later replaced with the word ‘Mennonites’. He was not the founder of the Anabaptist movement in Holland, but he was certainly a crucial leader at a time when Anabaptism was in danger of losing its distinctive identity in the Netherlands. His prolific writing and moderate leadership were essential in unifying the non-violent wing of the Dutch Anabaptists, after the Munster uprisings, which he vigorously denounced.
Of his private life, it is recorded that he married a woman named Gertrude and had three children, two daughters and a son. He died of old age, some twenty five years after he renounced Catholicism, on January 31st 1561, at Wüstenfelde, Holstein. He was buried in the garden of his home.
Distinctive Teachings of Menno Simons and the Anabaptists
- Salvation is by faith in Christ and not through sacraments or good works
- The Bible not the church is the final authority for all matters of faith and practice and is interpreted by the Holy Spirit, not priests, bishops or Popes
- Believers’ baptism, by which is meant the inner work of cleansing of sin at the time of coming to faith together with the outward expression of that inner faith, being baptised in water. The Anabaptists also spoke of a ‘baptism of blood’ whereby they expected to be persecuted even to the death.
- Discipleship, which was the outward evidence of the inward change of heart and included separation from the world (ie living differently from the rest of the world, such as feeding the hungry and not accumulating personal wealth)
- Church discipline, as explained in Matthew 18v15-18; including shunning, or ‘the ban’ whereby a person who had fallen into sin would be excommunicated.
- Communion as a commemoration, not a re-sacrifice, and shared between believers only
- Separation of church and state
- Separation from the world