Born: 1496 ~ Witmarsum in Friesland, The Netherlands
Note: Catholic priest, reformer, founder of Mennonites
He was trained for the priesthood as a youth and consecrated for service in 1524, and began serving in Pinjum parish. After seven years, he returned to live and minister in his home town of Witmarsum. Priestly duties consisted of serving mass, hearing of confessions, baptizing newborns, and offering prayers. Tragically, it did not include reading the Bible, for although Simons was instructed in how to read and write Latin in the monastery, he systematically avoided the Bible out of fear, because he had been educated that only the Pope can interpret scripture without error.
Menno Simon’s first doubts of papal infallibility came during his first year of priesthood when he was celebrating mass. The Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation states that when the bread and cup are consecrated, they actually become Jesus’ flesh and blood. He became one of many to question this doctrine. Agreeably, the elements are symbols that “represent” the flesh and blood of Christ, but it was difficult for Simons, and many other Reformers, to logically accept that the elements substantively “become” the actual body of Jesus. Their experience was not unlike any casual observer looking at the bread following consecration and realizing that it’s molecular form is still the product of flour and yeast, likewise, the cup remains the fruit of the grape.
The First Struggle
Tradition holds that Simons first considered this inner thought to be the work of the devil, and he properly gave himself to confession in hope that God and time would remove the burden. Not only did his burden continue, but it developed into a soul-struggle which he resolved to conclude by actually reading the New Testament. As he read and studied the Bible, he became convinced that this doctrine was entirely groundless. This was a pivotal moment for Simons, because he would not only be forced to decide between the Bible and the Catholic Church as final authority, but also to direct his life based on faith instead of tradition.
It was the writings of Martin Luther that influenced him to finally accept the Word of God over the commandments and practices of men. Luther clearly taught that human laws and ordinances cannot subject us to eternal damnation, for it was not man that gave us Grace and it is not man who can remove it. Simons gradually rejected the doctrine of Transubstantiation, yet he continued to administer the sacraments during mass. This incident alone did not persuade him to leave the Catholic Church, but it served to create suspicions about the reliability of ecclesiastical authority. The next incident not only propelled Simons into another soul-struggle, but would further urge him to break with the Roman Catholic Church.
The Second Struggle
Sicke Freerks was executed at Leeuwarden on March 20, 1531 for being rebaptized the previous year. Simons was horrified and burdened with many new questions, for the idea of a second baptism was entirely new to him. Why perform such a deed? What does it signify? Are the teachings of the Catholic Church regarding baptism also fallacious? Once again Simons turned to Luther’s writings, but only to find that Luther upheld infant baptism, teaching that babies have “hidden faith” even as believing adults remain saved while they are sleeping. Other Reformers, likewise, supported the baptism of infants even though the practice is not clearly identified in scripture. For example, Martin Butzer said that it was a pledge for the parents to raise the child in a godly home. Henry Bullinger compared it to the Old Testament rite of infant circumcision. Although these many statements were admirable and well reasoned, Simons was more concerned with the reality of the New Testament. What did Christ actually teach? He found no scriptural reference even alluding to infant baptism. During this period of spiritual anguish, he continued to minister and function as a priest, giving communion and baptizing infants, but he was clearly leading a double life, and he knew it.
Anabaptists, led by Dutch tailor John of Leyden seized control of the German town of Muenster, and proceeded to govern the city along spiritual principles. Unfortunately, these laws were more the result of human engineering than divine intervention, and the anarchy that ensued has been properly titled the “Mayhem in Muenster.” Some of these Muensterites returned to Holland and predictably imported the excesses of the mayhem along with them. Exhibiting the qualities of a proper Catholic, Simons fought against these Muensterites even though haunted by his own duplicity. It was evident to him that these men were dying for their convictions, but he was fighting for teachings that he did not believe with full certainty. To further mire the already troubled waters of his soul, Simon’s own brother joined the Muensterites and was later killed in battle, a tragedy that affected Simons deeply. He continued to perform the functions of a priest knowing full well that he did not believe in many of the doctrines surrounding his various duties. The great majority of Anabaptists were peaceful, constructive, in some ways nearly ascetic, and clearly shocked by the excesses of the Muensterites. Obbe Philips, the founder of Dutch Anabaptism, opposed them vigorously, placing the ban on everyone who accepted their erroneous beliefs. This incident was the origin of “shunning” that was practiced by the Dutch Anabaptists.
Although his sermons became more evangelical in tone, Menno Simons found it very difficult to live a double life, yet the price for his conversion would be more costly than for other Reformers. His reluctance is understandable when we consider that from the time of Justinian in the Sixth century, the two principal heresies punishable by death was rebaptism and denying the Trinity. Most rebaptizers of Menno Simons lifetime did not like the term Anabaptist for just this reason, it implied criminal action. From it’s earliest use in the Fourth century, referring to those who had been baptized by heretics or wayward bishops, the decision of Rome prevailed that rebaptism for them should not be permitted. Luther, Zwingli, and later Calvin, altered their beliefs in such a way as to retain civil protection, but Simons as a priest renouncing Catholicism, especially for the “heresy” of Anabaptism, would be viewed as a criminal by both church and state. In January of 1536, Menno Simons renounced the Roman Catholic Church to become an Anabaptist. He finally crossed the line and became an enemy to the faith that he had so dutifully served from his youth. He also offered assistance to some Muensterites out of compassion, not because he affirmed their activities. For this reason, he was forced to hide from the authorities for a year. He took this occasion to devote himself to meditation and quiet reflection of his circumstances, and the doctrines which precipitated his action.
Bishop Simons And The Mennonites
Obbe Philips and his followers approached Simons on several occasions to take control of the Anabaptist movement in the Netherlands. In 1537, he was ordained as a bishop, and with Philips later withdrawing from active ministry, Menno Simons became the undisputed leader of Dutch Anabaptism. He quickly set about protecting his flock from radical influences and establishing them on solid theological ground. The providential grace of God most surely have rested on Simons because he did not experience the horrific penalties that consumed his fellow believers who had been forcibly drowned and burned at the stake. He pastored his first congregation at Groningen, where he married, and in later years, he traveled on missionary tours into surrounding countries. His final theology accepted orthodox doctrines, but rejected those practices that were not clearly mentioned in the New Testament. Menno Simons died on January 31, 1561.
His followers came to be known as Mennonites. They believe in the divine inspiration of all scripture, but they also believe that the New Testament has superseded the Old Testament because of Christ’s atoning death. Like the Brethren, they hold an especially high view of the Sermon on the Mount. This preference of Testaments led them to strive for higher ethical standards because of Christ’s sinless life. Mennonites regard the Old Testament as permissive since it allowed behavior such as divorce, polygamy, and war. These activities were termed “hardness of heart” exclusions which the New Testament writers specifically disallowed; thus, David had many wives and could be a king, whereas a Christian could have only one spouse if he wanted to be a deacon. Mennonites view the people of the Old Testament period as weak in faith, only because God needed to continually make allowances for their “hardness;” conversely, since the New Testament is a more complete revelation of God’s kingdom, they believe Christians will be held to a higher expectation because of their greater enlightenment.
Not all Anabaptists became Mennonites, however, many from both groups accepted William Penn’s offer of religious protection in America, and they heavily settled in Germantown (northwest Philadelphia) in the early 1680’s. The Brethren, also seeking freedom from persecution as late comers to Anabaptism, often settled in Mennonite safe havens such as Krefeld in Europe and Germantown in Pennsylvania.