Essay: Menno Simons

This paper was initially written for the course Reformation and Revival in Winter 2012.

Of any of the Anabaptist leaders, the name Menno Simons is likely to be the most familiar. In fact, most would probably mistakenly assume that he was the founder of the Anabaptist movement, or at least of the Dutch Anabaptist movement. In reality, Simons did not even convert to Anabaptism until the movement was already a decade old in Switzerland and six years old in Holland. Instead, as this paper shall examine, “his real significance lies in the fact that he assumed leadership among the Dutch Anabaptists at a crisis point in their history, following the Munsterite debacle.”[1] Because of this and despite the fact that he inherited the movement from others, and initially conferred by the Reformed Minister John a Lasco, the name Mennonite stuck as the label for the biblical Anabaptists.[2] Although Simons was not the starting point for Anabaptism or even Dutch Anabaptism, for this reason it is fair to divide the eras of Dutch Anabaptism around Menno Simons: the before-Menno era, the with-Menno era, and the after-Menno era.[3]

Dutch Anabaptism before Menno Simons

Even though Simons was not the first of the Anabaptists, it is hard to argue that anybody else had more lasting influence.[4] Unlike the other locations of early Anabaptism, Dutch Anabaptism can be traced back to one man’s influence:[5] the first to bring Anabaptism to the Netherlands, Melchior Hofmann.[6] Hofmann was originally a follower of Martin Luther, who initially supported him but later withdrew that support over the issue of the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.[7] He went to the Zwinglians briefly before becoming baptized with the Strasbourg Anabaptists and from there began to introduce the Anabaptist message with a strong eschatological theme to the Netherlands.[8]

The events of Munster would become the turning point for Anabaptism. Leading up to this point was a decree that Anabaptists must repent within 24 hours to save their lives. Many took refuge in Munster, which was being called the city of God or the New Jerusalem by many eschatological Anabaptists. This movement became militant and the Anabaptists used the sword in defense of the city for over a year.[9] After extensive violence and the loss of Anabaptist control of the city, according to the distinctions of James Stayer there were five groups of Dutch Anabaptists remaining:

  1. The pacifist group, critical of Munster, gathered under Dirk and Obbe Philips and David Joris.
  2. Followers of Jan van Batenburg in the Netherlands, who continued to wield the “sword of righteousness.”
  3. Munsterite refugees in Westphalia grouped around Heinrich Krechting.
  4. Rhineland and Hessian Melchiorites led by Georg Schnabel and Peter Tasch.
  5. The remnants of the Melchiorites in Strasbourg, gathered around Lienhart Jost.[10]

Although the eschatological and violent branches of Anabaptism remained after Munster, it is the first that is particularly of note here. The moderate groups emerged to become the main stream of Anabaptism, primarily at first through Obbe and Dirk Philips. Obbe and his followers would be some of the first to champion a non-violent Anabaptism in the Netherlands in opposition to the Munsterites. As we think of Anabaptists today, one of the first things to come to mind is likely their peace teaching, and this can be clearly traced to this post-Munster period. [11] Obbe also was responsible for baptizing and ordaining the man who would become the most influential of the Anabaptists, Menno Simons, who would continue to establish this non-violent moderate stream as the main group of Anabaptism.

The Life of Menno Simons

It was into this context that Menno Simons would enter the Dutch scene. Menno had been a priest in the Roman Catholic Church, like so many of the other reformers, having been ordained in 1524 at Utrecht.[12] He was of limited education, having come from the peasant class and having only what was supplied for formal training of priesthood. At first he knew nothing of the Bible which would become central to the call of the Anabaptists like their fellow Lutheran and Reformed movements.[13] The first hints of his doubt of the Roman Church came with questions about the Eucharist:

It occurred to me, as often as I handled the bread and wine in the
Mass, that they were not the flesh and blood of the Lord. I thought that the devil was suggesting this so that he might separate me off from my faith. I confessed it often, sighed and prayed; yet I could not come clear of the idea.[14]

He thus began to drift toward the other Protestants, and began to learn more about the Scriptures and use them in his teachings even while remaining a Catholic priest.[15]

True to the Anabaptist name, it would be the issue of baptism that would push Simons farther from his Catholic past as well as from the other Protestant movements. He heard news of an Anabaptist being killed for his second baptism and decided to investigate. Through his investigation, he “examined the Scriptures diligently and pondered them earnestly, but could find no report of infant baptism.”[16] He went from here to conclude that not only was it missing from Scripture, but the church Fathers’ teaching that baptism released the recipient from original sin was actually contradictory to the power of the sacrifice of Christ. After examining all of the other major Reformation movements that still supported infant baptism, he concluded that they were wrong. Through all this, he remained a Catholic, even as he debated against the zealous Munsterites. [17]

The conversion finally came after the death of his brother among 300 other Anabaptist martyrs and the subsequent soul torment[18] leading to his baptism by Obbe Phillips in 1536 followed by his ordination, also by Philips, a year later.[19] Once converting to the Anabaptist movement, Menno’s main task was to distinguish the pacifist Anabaptists from the violent Anabaptists of Munster just as he had defended Catholicism from those same Munsterites.[20]

Like many of the early Anabaptists, Menno had to deal with great persecution in his life. He contrasts the comfortable life as a Roman Catholic priest that he left behind with his new life as an Anabaptist leader:

I with my poor, weak wife and children have for eighteen years endured excessive anxiety, oppression, affliction, misery, and persecution. At the peril of my life I have been compelled everywhere to drag out an existence in fear. Yes, when the preachers repose on easy beds and soft pillows, we generally have to hide ourselves in out-of-the-way corners… We have to be on our guard when a dog barks for fear the arresting officer has arrived… In short, while they are gloriously rewarded for their services with large incomes and good times, our recompense and portion must be but fire, sword, and death.[21]

After leaving north Holland, Simons spent a brief period of time in Amsterdam before moving to north Germany where he would minister for his remaining 18 years. In this time he not only led the church and survived threats of persecution, but he actually managed to write a significant amount as well. During his time in Germany, he wrote his most popular text, Foundation of Christian Doctrine, in 1540. This text had two main purposes: to disassociate from the Munsterite movement and to provide some clear theological teaching to his fellow Anabaptists.[22] It would become the primary theological text of the Mennonites, although with some exceptions,[23] somewhat analogous to the role that Institutes of the Christian Religion played for the Reformed movement.

Theology of Menno Simons

Although there were important theological differences, a common statement is that in general, Anabaptists are less interested in systematic theology than biblical theology or practical life teachings. This helps explains why the things that became central to Anabaptism were so central.

Extending beyond just the non-violence mentioned previously in the discussion of distinguishing themselves from the Munsterites, a major theme of Simons’ theology was “the separation from the world.”[24] With other Anabaptists, baptism was the symbol of declaring this separation from the world into a choice of the lordship of Christ. This provides another distinctive from the other Protestant movements: the saved were not predestined but chose to accept God’s grace. This made it clear that it was not only illogical to baptize infants but that the practice actually “did violence to the blood of Christ.”[25]

On two other points even many Christians today would consider Simons heretical. He avoided use of the language of Trinity, although not because he didn’t believe in the Trinity but because he wanted to use only Scriptural language. It is still clear that he accepts the doctrine of the Trinity, including a text called Confession of the Triune God. More controversially, Simons’ doctrine of the incarnation was one in which the body of Christ simply descended from Heaven and was nourished by Mary but nothing more. This view was not in line with the traditional orthodox view, and it was even rejected by the Swiss Brethren after lengthy debate. [26]

Simons’ Place in the Reformation

The Radical Reformation stands out against the other Reformation movements in a major way that adds an interesting challenge to the assessment of the importance of Menno Simons. While for the most part the other movements had an obvious leadership person or group, the Anabaptists were largely scattered at first. There was not one coherent theology or institution. Simons can be given a lot of credit for solidifying the Anabaptist movement, which makes sense of why the largest remaining Anabaptist group to this day are those named after him. He was not an early innovator and most of his theology was nothing distinct from what already existed. However there is no doubt that his role in stabilizing helped the Anabaptist movement remain as more than just a passing movement. This influence and stabilizing force can largely be traced to four factors: his humble attitude which led by example, his writings at a much higher level than other Anabaptists, his down-to-earth and practical message, and simply good luck or God’s providence which seemed to always keep him in the right place at the same time.[27] Simons’ legacy, therefore, was primarily as both organizer of a disorganized movement of separate congregations and as somebody who stood his ground against those movements he disagreed with – both uniting and dividing until there was a clearly defined group.[28]

It is easy for the Anabaptists to be forgotten within the scheme of Reformation history. The movement, while significant particularly in some regions like the Netherlands, was never nearly the sheer force of numbers of the Lutheran, Reformed, English, or Catholic Reformations. They were also often cast off and generally ignored throughout history until fairly recently because the history books were primarily written by those opponents in the other movements. Only recently has this begun to change and resulted in more attention paid to the impact of the Anabaptists.[29] The Radical Reformation, particularly in its more spiritualist and eschatological components, had the potential to simply be lost within a generation as so many other radical revival attempts throughout history. Simons’ work as a stabilizer and organizer of a scattered radical movement would allow for a survival of this branch of the Reformation.

Bibliography

Estep, W. R. (1996). The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism (Third Edition, Revised and Enlarged ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Compnay.

George, T. (1998). Theology of the Reformers. Nashville, TN: Broadman Press.

Gonzalez, J. L. (1987). Anabaptism and the Radical Reformation. In A History of Christian Thought: Volume 3: From the Protestant Reformation to the Twentieth Century (pp. 86-102). Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Keeney, W. E. (1968). The Development of Dutch Anabaptist Thought and Practice from 1539-1564. Nieuwkoop, Netherlands: B. de Graaf.

Krahn, C. (1968). Dutch Anabaptism: Origin, Spread, Life and Thought. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Liechty, D. (1994). Early Anabaptist Spirituality: Selected Writings. New York, NY: Paulist Press.

Simons, M. (1984). The Complete Writings of Menno Simons. (J. C. Wenger, Ed., & L. Verduin, Trans.) Kitchener, ON: Mennonite Publishing House.

Snyder, C. A. (1995). Anabaptist History and Theology: An Introduction. Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press.


[1] Daniel Liechty, Early Anabaptist Spirituality: Selected Writings, (New York: Paulist Press, 1994), pg. 247

[2] William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), pp. 170-171

[3] Ibid., 160

[4] Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought Volume III: From the Protestant Reformation to the Twentieth Century, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987), pg. 96

[5] C. Arnold Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology: An Introduction, (Kitchener: Pandora Press, 1995), pg. 143

[6] Estep, 152

[7] Snyder, 143

[8] Estep, 152-154

[9] Cornelius Krahn, Dutch Anabaptism: Origin, Spread, Life and Thought, (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1968), pp. 145-150

[10] Snyder, 150

[11] Estep, 156-160

[12] Snyder, 151

[13] Estep, 160-161

[14] Menno Simons, Reply to Gellius Faber in The Complete Writings of Menno Simons c.1496-1561, (Kitchener: Herald Press, 1984), pg. 668

[15] Estep, 162

[16] Simons, 668

[17] Estep, 162-164

[18] Estep, 164

[19] Snyder, 152

[20] Gonzalez, 96

[21] Simons, 674

[22] Estep, 170

[23] See the discussion on the incarnation of Christ in the section on Simons’ theology

[24] Gonzalez, 97

[25] Estep, 163

[26] Gonzalez, 97

[27] Estep, 174

[28] Leichty, 247-248

[29] Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1988), pg. 252

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.