The Protestant (Radical) Reformation Through 2017
by Dr. Royden Loewen
In 1496 a boy named Menno was born to Dutch dairy farmers. The father’s name was Simon; the mother’s we don’t know. Neither do we know whether Menno was born in the springtime when the warm air shines on the flat lush green pastures of the province of Friesland, or in the fall when cold and wet northerly winds bear down from the nearby North Sea.
Whatever the case, it was here in Friesland that Menno was raised, where he studied and began his work as a Catholic priest, installed to that position at age 28, near his home village of Witmarsum.
His early years in the church were routine. He carried out his duties as priest, seemingly without caring to use knowledge of Greek or Latin to pursue “biblical truth,” and using what spare time he had to cavort with his fellow priests, living a life that he later described as frivolous and greedy, “without spirituality or love.”
Then something happened to change his life. Around 1530 Menno began to hear of Anabaptists, a religious movement originating in Switzerland, but spreading quite quickly northward, reaching his very village. He heard the Anabaptists preach that Christ could only be truly known by following his radical message of peace and service daily, not through communion, for example, where Christ was relegated to ritual and symbol.
By 1531 he heard, too, that an Anabaptist, Sicke Freerks, had been executed for baptizing adults—to follow Christ for this believer was a matter of decision and will, not one of inheritance and custom. Menno turned to the Scriptures to seek the pure gospel and there discovered the essence of religious faith—to “live in Christ.” Menno felt the strong pull now to leave the old church and join the Anabaptists, but later he noted how the lure of money and status had made this an almost impossible step to take.
In 1536, however, Menno made the break—a true conversion, he said, that followed a tearful plea for the gift of God’s grace and a clean heart.
Menno was out of the old church, out of money, and, after he agreed to lead the Anabaptists of his region, suddenly also out of luck. He was on the run.
As he raced ahead of the authorities, he preached, baptized, and wrote profusely on being a person of peace, of sacrifice, of service, of purity. He was neither a great theologian nor a charismatic preacher. He was a common man, strongly identifying with the simple and devout craftspeople and farmers of his region.
Yet Menno rarely shied from stopping in the cities—Bonn, Amsterdam, Cologne, Gdansk, Luebeck, Wismar—to debate publicly or secretly with the “learned” men. His stand was unequivocal: the Bible is the sole authority; Christ is the full model of life; salvation means being a “new creature” implanted in Christ; this “new life” is revealed in community as peace, purity, simplicity, and the willingness to suffer.
Menno Simons was not the founder of the movement that acquired his name. But, at their request, he became their leader, a shepherd to the scattered, persecuted flock. He became widely known through his travelling, debating, counselling and prolific writing—loved by his friends, hated by his enemies.
Menno says, “In this it is evident that where sincere faith and true faith exists, the faith which avails before God and is a gift from God, which comes from hearing the holy Word, there through the blossoming tree of life all manner of precious fruits of righteousness are present, such as the fear and love of God, mercy, friendship, chastity, temperance, humility, confidence, truth, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Menno’s life verse, 1 Corinthians 3:11, appeared on the front of all his books and pamphlets: “For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
Brushes With Death
With a 100 gold guilder reward on his head, Menno’s brushes with death were close. In 1539 Tjard Reynders had been severely tortured (“broken on the wheel”) for having given Menno refuge in his house. Then in 1544 Menno’s publisher Jan Claeszoon (Klassen) was beheaded for possessing 600 copies of Menno’s book. In 1545 a boatman whisked Menno down the Mass River to escape Holland, but the ferryman was caught and killed. Once Menno escaped when sheriffs stopped a stagecoach, but failed to recognize him.
In his later years Menno’s energy began to run out and he became disabled. To add to this difficulty, his wife Geertrudyt and two of his three children, a boy and a girl, died probably sometime in the mid-1550s.
Moreover, Menno’s own idealistic vision of a church as the very expression of Christ’s love generated almost continual debate within the church. He readily confronted men and women who he thought were too easily given to strict doctrine, to violent lifestyles, to spiritual apathy, to faintheartedness.
Menno died in 1561 and was buried in a private garden in Bad Oldsloe, Germany. His work would not be forgotten, for he had left a legacy of having been a leader of a people and a church formed around his undying motto: “For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is . . . Jesus Christ.”
Dr. Royden Loewen, with roots in the Blumenort EMC, is Chair of Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg. This article is reprinted. It first appeared in The Messenger on Sept. 18, 1996.