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Terry Smith: Menno Simons and Martin Luther

by Terry M. Smith

What does a priest do when struggling with his beliefs? He might study to gain knowledge and peace. The priest was Menno Simons; the one who helped him toward peace was Martin Luther, a former priest.

Luther (1483-1546) earned BA and MA degrees before entering a monastery because of a vow made in a storm that frightened him. He studied theology and was ordained as a priest in 1507. He later earned a doctorate in theology.

On Oct. 31, 1517, Luther displayed a written protest against the practice of indulgences. Instead, he highlighted the grace of God revealed in Christ. By 1521 Luther was declared an outlaw and for the next 25 years he was a reformer.

Menno Simons (1496-1561) was born in the village of Witmarsum, Friesland, now part of the Netherlands. After lengthy studies, he was ordained as priest in 1524 and served for 12 years. During that period he struggled with the doctrines of transubstantiation and infant baptism. He read the Bible and found it at odds with some of what he practiced.

In his struggle, Menno found some peace through the writings of Martin Luther: “He was always grateful to Luther for . . . the fundamental principle of the authority of Scripture as over against any human authority” (H. S. Bender). While indebted, Menno disagreed with Luther on infant baptism.

In 1535 Menno left the Roman Catholic Church; within a year or so he was approached and then ordained to lead a group of Anabaptists. For the next quarter-century Simons sought to provide stable leadership to a persecuted group that was too often at odds with itself.

Luther and Simons each married, had children, and died of natural causes. Near the end of Menno’s days, the influence of Martin on Simons remained clear. In 1556, five years before he died, Menno was disturbed by the actions of Anabaptist leaders at Emden who ordered a woman to shun her husband or be excommunicated.

“I can neither teach nor live by the faith of others,” he wrote, disagreeing. “I must live by my own faith as the Spirit of the Lord has taught me through his Word.” The Word had final authority, not the questionable practices of people—whether Catholics or Anabaptists.

“I desire, according to my humble talents, to teach a Gospel that builds up, and not one that breaks down” wrote Simons, “one that gives off a pleasant odor, not a stench, and I do not intend to trouble the work of God with something for which I have no certain Scriptural grounds.”

Terry M. Smith

Menno, like Luther before him, had earlier sought spiritual peace and found it in Christ. Now, later in life, Menno did not want to unnecessarily add to another’s distress.

Sources: W. Klaassen, Anabaptism: Neither Catholic nor Protestant (Conrad Press, 1981); Menno Simons, The Complete Writings of Menno Simons (Herald Press, 1956, 1984), H. S. Bender, biographer, and L. Verduin, trans.; C. S. Meyer, “Luther, Martin,” in Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. J. D. Douglas (Zondervan, 1981); R. H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Mentor, 1950).

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