Tag Archives: Radical Reformation

Dr. Royden Loewen: A Tribute: Menno Simons (1496-1561)

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.”

A Movement

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.

A Break

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.

A Leader

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.

Later Years

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.

Dr. Royden Loewen

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.

Terry Smith: A Reformation Fantasy

by Terry M. Smith

What if I’d lived in 16th century Zurich? I would not have been baptized at the home of Feliz Manz, nor would I have challenged Zurich’s city council. I would not have been burned at the stake.

Rather, I would have consented to attend Reformed services and, if married with a family, to have my children baptized. It is pure fantasy to think that I would have exhibited Anabaptist heroism of the type that inspires 500 years later. Yet this fantasy is only a minor one.

The real fantasy is much greater than this. It is to think that I would have been alive long enough to make any of these choices at all.

Infant mortality rates were much higher then and medical services much poorer. Being born three months prematurely and then having pneumonia, I would have died as an infant and, possibly unnamed, been placed in a small grave and then replaced.

If I had lived for a few years, my physical limitations would have forced me, if fortunate, to be perhaps a cobbler’s apprentice; at worse, to beg on the street. Education, regular employment, marriage, and children would likely have been but bitter dreams.

Four related surgeries during my childhood and as a teen would not have happened; my limitations would have been clearer. A third of a century of marriage, 20 years of education (eight higher), a call to the pastorate, 20 years in the national office, and an enjoyment of the outdoors would not have happened.

This is the only time in history in which I want to live because it is the only time that I would have lived.

Looking around at the world’s situation, much is troubling. Yet I also know that I have received much of Christ’s grace, Canadian privilege, white privilege, and male privilege—as complicated a package as this is. Much of my life is good even as it includes a few obstacles that seem challenging to some observers.

What does this mean? The key question is not what I would have done five centuries ago, but what I am doing today. My privilege involves an obligation to stand up now for people less fortunate. The question includes the risks taken for others today.

One last thought. Many people five centuries ago, under pressure of potential banishment, agreed to attend Reformed services and to present their children for baptism. It’s wrong to think that all of them somehow deserted Christ—to view them as akin to Demas or Judas.

They were not forced to choose between following Christ and not following Christ. They were forced to choose between following Christ as a Reformed member or as an Anabaptist. These choices are not on the same level.

Apparently one of my relatives was born in 1530 in the canton of Berne, five years after and 125 kms away from the start of the Swiss Anabaptist movement in Zurich. By the time of his birth, the movement was active in Berne where many Anabaptists suffered.

Terry M. Smith

If the information about a possible relative is accurate, I don’t know what choices his parents made then. But I know this: their choices during the Reformation were actual, not fantasy. This makes me respect people then who served Christ, both those who stood in a bonfire and those who did not.

Terry Smith: Felix Manz and a Sympathetic Pastor

by Terry M. Smith

Who was the first person killed for being an Anabaptist? It wasn’t Felix Manz.

Manz (ca. 1498-1527) was drowned on Jan. 5, 1527, “in the River Limmat, the first Protestant martyr at the hands of Protestants” (J. G. G. Norman). 

Hippolytus (Bolt) Eberle, an Anabaptist, had been killed much earlier on May 29, 1525, in the Catholic canton of Schywz. (An unnamed Catholic priest was killed that same day for associating with Eberle.)

Felix Manz is better known. He knew Latin, Hebrew, and Greek, and had joined Ulrich Zwingli’s Bible classes in 1522. With others, he pressed for reform. When Zwingli deferred to the pace of the city-state’s council, Manz and others began to meet separately.

When some parents refused to have their children baptized, they were fined. On Jan. 17, 1525, Manz made the case for believer baptism before city council; the council rejected this. The next day council threatened to banish people who did not present their children for baptism within eight days; Manz was to submit to the order and cease arguing. On Jan. 21, 1525, he and others were baptized as believers.

During the next two years Manz was repeatedly arrested and imprisoned; he escaped once only to be recaptured. He would emerge to strengthen his brothers and sisters in the faith, and, when allowed, make the case for believer baptism before Zurich’s city council.

He said he had never rejected government, preached in other pastorates only as any disciple would do, denounced both capital punishment and the use of the sword, and taught to share with the needy.

Once, when released from prison, Felix left Zurich for the canton of Grison. He was arrested and returned to Zurich with a letter dated July 13, 1525, that shows the magistrate’s frustration with him and, perhaps, Zurich’s city council: “But because he is an obstinate and recalcitrant person we released him from prison and because he is one of yours we have sent him to you, with the friendly request that you look after him and keep him in your territory, so that we may be rid of him and our people remain quiet, and that in case of his return we are not compelled to take severe measures against him” (H. Bender and C. Neff).

On March 7, 1526, Zurich city council made believer baptism punishable by drowning. On Dec. 3, 1526, Manz was arrested and on Jan. 5, 1527, sentenced to death. That afternoon he was taken in a boat onto the Limmat River.

There, he heard his mother call out for him to be steadfast. Manz spoke out in Latin: “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.” An executioner forced Felix’s bound hands over his knees, put a stick between his arms and knees, and pushed Manz into the water. Four centuries later a memorial plaque would be placed on the riverbank.

Ironically, as Felix Manz had prepared to die, a “preacher at his side spoke sympathetically to him encouraging him to be converted.” Converted to whom? If to Christ, Felix was that already.

Terry M. Smith

It is a tragedy for Christians to die at the hands of non-Christians. It is an even greater tragedy, and a more curious form of martyrdom, when a Christian dies at the hands of other Christians—especially when a sympathetic pastor is present.

Sources: C. J. Dyck, ed., An Introduction to Mennonite History (Herald Press, rev. 1981); C. Neff, “Eberle, Bolt” (GAMEO, 1953); W. Klaassen, Anabaptism: Neither Catholic nor Protestant (Conrad Press, 1981); J. G. G. Norman, “Manz, Felix,” Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. J. D. Douglas (Zondervan, 1981); H. Bender and C. Neff, “Manz, Felix” (GAMEO, 1957); H. J. Hillerbrand, The Reformation (Baker, repr. 1987); Southwestern News, Fall 2012 (SBTS).

Dr. John J. Friesen: Martin Luther and the Anabaptists

by Dr. John. J Friesen

This year, 2017, is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting 95 theses on the doors of the churches in the city of Wittenberg, including the All Saints Church. What Luther intended as a debate over how to reform abuses in the Roman Catholic Church resulted in the break-up of the Catholic Church and the start of the Protestant Reformation.

Why should Anabaptists-Mennonites care about Martin Luther, a young university professor, and his reforms? Why should this anniversary be noted in Mennonite-Anabaptist denominational papers?

No Luther, No Anabaptists

The principal reason why Mennonites-Anabaptists should care about Luther’s reform is that Luther is the reason why there was an Anabaptist-Mennonite reform movement at all. Luther’s reforms, and the conflicts they spawned between Catholics and Protestants, created space for the Anabaptist movement to take root.

They sprang up in German states, northern Switzerland, Moravia, and the Netherlands. Without Luther, and the other reformers who followed his lead, there would have been no Anabaptist movements.

Inspired by Key Ideas

Mennonites should also care about Luther’s reform because the early Anabaptist leaders were inspired by Luther’s key ideas. Luther’s reform began as a critique of the Catholic Church selling indulgences. In response Luther formulated his central view that salvation is by grace, that is, a gift from God, and not by works.

When challenged about how he could make such a claim since it deviated from the beliefs of most of the great teachers of the medieval church, Luther said his authority was the Bible, not tradition. Specifically, he based his view of grace on the Apostle Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians. It was the Bible alone, Luther said, on which he based his view that salvation is by faith through grace.   

Following this claim, Luther decided to make the Bible available to the masses by translating it into the German language. Widespread distribution was made possible by the newly invented moveable type printing presses. Access to the Bible allowed people to read scripture for themselves, and to implement reforms that they believed were consistent with scripture.

Luther also rejected the control that the Catholic priesthood had over access to forgiveness. Luther believed that all believers had direct access to God—no priestly mediation was necessary. Luther called this the priesthood of all believers. All these emphases Anabaptists applauded.

A Parting 

Even though at first Luther seemed to empower common people, he also spoke highly of the role German princes should play in any reform. When the peasants revolted in the years 1524-25, Luther condemned them harshly.

He cast his lot with the princes and adopted the state-church model for his reform. Luther looked to the German princes both for protection and direction. This decision set Luther and the Anabaptists against each other.

A ‘Should Have’

Anabaptists believed that Luther’s reform ideas should have resulted in a believers’ church. Such a church would have consisted of those who truly had faith in God and had committed themselves to a life of Christian discipleship. This option would have resulted in a church that was a minority in the population.

Accepting a believers’ church would have resulted in a pluralist society in which minority church groups were tolerated. When Luther opted for the state-church model, placed the Lutheran church under the authority of the state, and persecuted minority churches, Anabaptists believed that Luther had betrayed the teachings of the Bible.

This commitment to a believers’ church allowed Anabaptists to reshape basic Christian beliefs and practices. Anabaptists emphasized baptism on the basis of adult confessions of faith, instead of infant baptism. Church leaders were chosen from within the community of believers instead of being appointed by church hierarchies, or by state officials.

Reforms were based on the church community’s reading of scripture, rather than on the basis of what was politically expedient and approved by princes. Church discipline and social shunning replaced trials and executions of those with whom they disagreed.   

For worship, Anabaptists gathered in houses, barns, and caves to read scripture together. They discussed biblical texts and discerned together, under the leading of the Holy Spirit, how to apply them to daily living. They sang songs composed by their own members based on experiences of persecution and martyrdom. No more majestic cathedrals, chants, organs, monastic choirs, and elaborate liturgies where members were largely spectators.

They rejected feudal oaths since their primary loyalty was to God and not to princes and emperors. They advocated a life of peace, rejected violence, refused to carry swords, forgave those who wronged them, and reconciled conflicts between members of the church.

One cannot imagine the Anabaptist movement without Luther’s reforms. And yet, the direction that Luther’s reforms took resulted in Luther becoming one the Anabaptists’ bitterest enemies.

Even the Augsburg Confession of 1530, the basic Lutheran confession, included the following among a number of condemnations: “We condemn Anabaptists who forbid Christians to hold office,” and “We condemn Anabaptists who reject the baptizing of children, and say that children are saved without baptism.” Most Lutheran states crushed Anabaptist groups within their borders.


This sharp break between Luther and the Anabaptists, however, is not the end of the story of Luther’s influence on Anabaptist Mennonites. In the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Lutheran Church spawned a Pietist movement, which has in many ways positively influenced Mennonites.

Pietism emphasized Bible reading by laity, a warm devotional life, an experience of conversion and personal commitment to God, a life of discipleship, and an extensive hymnody. Pietists drew upon the early emphases of Luther and thus, in many respects, were close to the emphases of the sixteenth century Anabaptist movement.

Dr. John J. Friesen

Martin Luther and his followers have had a powerful shaping influence on Anabaptists-Mennonites, then and now. It is appropriate to remember Luther and the significant contributions he made to all denominations of the Christian Church, including the Anabaptists-Mennonites. Luther was a giant in his age and will always be honoured for the major impact he made.   

Dr. John J. Friesen is Professor Emeritus for History and Theology, Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Man. This article was produced for Meetinghouse, an association of Anabaptist periodicals and editors in Canada and the U.S.

Terry Smith: A History We Stand Upon

by Terry M. Smith

This year, 2017, is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s presentation of his 95 Theses. It was a protest to uphold Christ’s grace within Roman Catholic teaching and practice.

Luther’s protest led to the Protestant Reformation, and, within that, the Radical Reformation. Anabaptists are linked to both parts. That’s why referring to the Protestant (Radical) Reformation illustrates that one is housed within the other. Our indebtedness is to the whole and to the particular.

This year the Lutheran World Federation is celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Also this year the Mennonite World Conference is also starting a multi-year study of the Reformation. In gratitude to our Lord Jesus Christ, in 2017 we will celebrate the Protestant (Radical) Reformation through lead articles and vignettes.

Neither Luther nor Menno wanted part of the Christian Church to be named after them. It is enough to be called Christian, a high and holy calling. Sadly, the churches that developed under their leadership would, over centuries, be critical of each other. One would persecute the other.

Remarkably, the Lutheran World Federation recently apologized for the persecution of

Anabaptists by its forebears and Mennonite World Conference responded with forgiveness. It was a time of reconciliation, tears, and joy.

Terry M. Smith

Reflecting on the Church then and now, on both our indebtedness and modern challenges, is complex. The task, with prayer, is necessary.

“And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” (2 Cor. 9:14-15).