1492 - 1559
Menno Simons was the outstanding
Anabaptist leader of the Low Countries during
the 16th century. His followers became known
as Mennonites (Mennisten). He was not, however,
as is popularly assumed, the founder of the
movement in the Netherlands. He became its
leader after it had been in existence in that
area for a number of years. His significance
lies in the fact that he assumed the responsibilities
of leadership at the crucial moment of the
movement when it was in danger of losing its
original identity under the influence of chiliastic
and revolutionary leaders who succeeded in
winning large followings. He maintained original
peaceful Biblical Anabaptist concepts and
won many who had been in danger of being swallowed
up by the Münsterites.
Menno was born in 1496 (exact date unknown)
in the little village of Witmarsum, Dutch
province of Friesland. Little is known about
his youth and parental home. His parents,
who lived in Witmarsum, were very probably
dairy farmers. His father's first name was
Simon, hence the son's name Menno Simons(zoon).
Since Menno did not enter the priesthood until
the age of 28, it can be assumed that he made
the decision for this career not so early
in life. He may have received his training
in a monastery of Friesland or in a neighboring
province. Menno knew Latin, and Greek was
not entirely foreign to him. During his study
he acquainted himself with some of the Latin
Church Fathers. He did not read the Bible
as such before his second year as a priest.
Naturally he knew large sections of it, e.g.,
through the Roman missal.
Hardenberg used Menno Simons
as an example of men who had "stupid
teachers" and who without "learning
and sound judgment ran away from monasteries."
He also states that he met Menno as a rural
priest. Hardenberg received his training at
the Aduard Monastery near Groningen (1527-30)
at the time when Menno was serving as a priest
in Friesland. What occasion brought the two
together? Was Menno also a graduate of Aduard?
In that case Hardenberg did not speak very
respectfully of his alma mater. In any event
not too much significance can be attached
to his statement regarding Menno's training
since he was jealous of Menno's success and
not inclined to give an objective evaluation.
He says of Menno that he "took the Bible
into his hands without formal training causing
such great damage among Frisians, Belgians,
the Dutch. . . . Saxons, . . . all of Germany,
France, Britain, and all surrounding countries
that posterity will not be able to shed sufficient
tears because of it" (Spiegel, 117).
In 1524 at the age of 28,
Menno was ordained priest at Utrecht. His
first parish was Pingjum near Witmarsum, where
he served as a vicar, with two colleagues.
Judged by his reminiscences he was not deeply
convinced of the sacredness of his duties,
for he states that he joined his fellow priests
in "playing cards, drinking. . . ."
But during the first year he was suddenly
frightened. While he was administering the
Mass he began to doubt whether the bread and
the wine were actually being changed into
the flesh and blood of Christ. First he considered
these thoughts the whisperings of Satan; but
he was unable to free himself through sighings,
prayers, and confessings." We conclude,
therefore, that Menno Simons was not entirely
free of influences from a movement which had
become quite strong at that time in the Netherlands
and whose adherents were known as Sacramentists.
The Sacramentists denied
the actual presence of Christ in the Lord's
Supper, i.e., Transubstantiation. This thought
was first advocated publicly by Cornelis Hoen.
The Sacramentists were promoters of a reform
movement in the Low Countries advocating the
removal of abuses in the Catholic Church and
a return to a Biblical Christianity, although
they were not specifically "Lutheran"
or "Reformed." This Sacramentist
movement became the seedbed for the message
proclaimed by Melchior Hoffman and his evangelists
when they penetrated the Low Countries from
Emden in 1530. Hoen's views regarding the
Lord's Supper were published in Switzerland
by Zwingli at the very time that Menno was
After Menno had been tormented
for about two years by his doubts he finally
turned to the Bible and searched it for help
on his particular problem. "I did not
get very far in it before I saw that we had
been deceived," is Menno's summary of
the result of his search. In the Scriptures
he found certainty regarding the Lord's Supper.
He found that the Sacramentist view, which
interprets the meaning of the Lord's Supper
as being symbolic, was the Biblical one. Now
he was torn between two authorities: the Bible
and the church. Thus far he had avoided the
use of the Bible, for he saw that the Bible
had taken Luther, Zwingli, and others out
of the Catholic Church; now he was on the
same path. Which of the two authorities would
win? He wanted to be loyal to both. In the
meantime Menno found help by reading certain
writings of Luther, who taught him that the
Scriptures should have the first place. Luther
also taught him that if violations of the
tradition of the Catholic Church have a Biblical
basis they can not lead to eternal death.
He may have read Luther's Von der Menschenlehre
zu meiden . . . (Krahn, 43). Gradually the
Scriptures became the authority for Menno,
and the source of his sermons. Soon Menno
became known as an "evangelical preacher,"
yet he complains that in those days "the
world loved him and he the world." Thus
Menno, influenced by the Sacramentists and
Luther, began to place the Scriptures above
the authority of the church.
Melchior Hoffman, a lay preacher
and follower of Luther, had traveled on long
journeys as far as Baltic regions. In Strasbourg
he came into contact with the Anabaptists
and was baptized there in 1530, apparently
not by the Swiss Brethren nor by the group
represented by Pilgram Marpeck. During the
same year he introduced believers' baptism
in Emden, East Friesland, where he found the
soil well prepared by the Sacramentist movement.
As the symbolic meaning of the Lord's Supper
had become the center around which its followers
gathered, so now believers' or adult baptism
became the point around which many Sacramentists
and sympathizers of the Reformation gathered.
Jan Volkerts Trypmaker, a follower of Hoffman,
who had been baptized by him, baptized Sicke
Freerks Snijder in Emden. The latter then
went to Leeuwarden, the capital of the Dutch
province of Friesland, where he soon died
a martyr's death, being executed because of
his "re-baptism." Menno, who lived
near Leeuwarden, heard about this event. "It
sounded strange to me," says he, "to
hear of a second baptism." This made
a deep impression on him, although the idea
as such was probably not entirely new to him
(Krahn, 24). The thought of believers' baptism
was now constantly in his mind. He "searched
the Scriptures diligently and considered the
question seriously but could find nothing
about infant baptism." He also consulted
his colleague, the Church Fathers, Luther,
Bucer, and Bullinger. In their writings he
found various reasons given for infant baptism,
in which "each one followed only his
own mind." He saw himself deceived by
all on the question of baptism. The Scriptures,
in which he found no definite reference to
infant baptism, convinced him that believers'
baptism was the true Christian practice. By
1531 he was thoroughly convinced that believers'
baptism was Scriptural.
This, however, did not yet
cause Menno's withdrawal from the Catholic
Church. Instead he accepted a call to become
the pastor of his home church at Witmarsum,
where he remained until he joined the Anabaptists
in 1536. This step may in part be explained
by the course which the Anabaptist movement
was taking at this time. Hoffman had placed
great emphasis on prophetic visions and the
Second Coming of the Lord, but under the pressure
of persecution he ordered a cessation of baptism
for two years (1531-33). After he had been
imprisoned in Strasbourg in May 1533 the Anabaptist
movement of the Low Countries came under the
influence of persons who exploited the chiliastic
aspect of the Hoffmanite teaching, and threw
off Hoffman's restriction on baptizing. Jan
Matthijs, Jan van Leyden, and others like
them became prominent leaders. Aided by the
results of the severe persecution they transformed
a part of the peaceful Biblical Anabaptist
movement into a militant Old Testament "Israel,"
each citizen of which was expected to help
Christ usher in the millennium, which Hoffman
had prophesied would start in Strasbourg,
and which they variously prophesied to come
at Münster, Amsterdam, and other places.
Particularly the attempt to establish a "New
Jerusalem" at Münster in 1534-35
affected the course and future of Anabaptism.
Menno Simons, although convinced that the
Catholic Church was in need of a reformation,
also realized that the Melchiorite movement,
which had started well with a reformation
program, had now accepted some very unchristian
principles and practices. Publicly from the
pulpit, and privately, he denounced its evils.
As early as 1532 some people in the vicinity
of Witmarsum had been baptized. Menno even
had some discussions with leaders of the Münsterite
movement early in 1534. It is possible that
among the men with whom he debated was Jan
van Geelen, who organized an armed defense
at the Olde-Klooster near Bolsward. On 7 April
1535, this group was defeated; among those
who lost their lives were Peter Simons, who
may have been Menno's brother, as well as
some members of his congregation. This was
a turning point in Menno's life. On 25 July
1535, the "New Jerusalem" at Münster
came to a tragic end. Few escaped and the
leaders were tortured to death.
All this made a great impression
on Menno and brought his inner life to a crisis
and final decision. Had he not received some
valuable insight through the Anabaptist movement
in its earlier and peaceful days? Did he not
know that among the Anabaptists were many
with a sincere desire to live a consecrated
Christian life? What had he done to prevent
this tragic development through which so many
were misled, although it was said that he
"could silence these persons beautifully"?
He now states, "The blood of these people,
although misled, fell so hot upon my heart
that I could not stand it, nor find rest in
my soul.... I saw that these zealous children,
although in error, willingly gave their lives
... for their doctrine and their faith. And
I was one of those who had disclosed to some
of them the abominations of the papal system.
But I continued in my comfortable life and
acknowledged abominations simply in order
that I might enjoy physical comfort and escape
the Cross of Christ.
"Pondering these things
my conscience tormented me so that I could
no longer endure it.... If I continue this
way and do not live agreeably to the Word
of the Lord..., if I through bodily fear do
not lay bare the foundations of truth, nor
use all my powers to direct the wandering
flock who would gladly do their duty if they
knew it, to the true pastures of Christ --
Oh, how shall their shed blood, shed in the
midst of transgression, rise against me at
the judgment of the Almighty and pronounce
sentence against my poor, miserable soul!"
Menno continues his account
by stating that his "heart trembled within"
him and that he "prayed to God with sighs
and tears that He would give" him, "a
sorrowing sinner, the gift of His grace"
and create within him "a clean heart
and graciously through the merits of the crimson
blood of Christ forgive" his "unclean
walk..." and bestow upon him "wisdom,
Spirit, courage ... so that" he might
"preach His exalted adorable name and
holy Word in purity, and make known His truth
to His glory."
Thus the gradual acceptance
of the evangelical truth and the willingness
to take upon him the "cross of Christ"
came to Menno in the crucial days of the disastrous
end and defeat of the radical Melchiorites
at Bolsward and Münster. He was challenged
and found the courage to become the shepherd
of the flock without a leader. For some nine
months after the defeat at Bolsward in April
1535, he preached "the word of true repentance"
more openly from his pulpit, "pointing
the people to the narrow path, reproving all
sin and wickedness, adultery, and false worship,"
but he also presented "the true worship,...
baptism and the Lord's Supper, according to
the doctrine of Christ," to the extent
that he had at that time received from God
insight and grace (Writings, 670f.).
This Menno did, not only
in preaching from his pulpit and in personal
contact with the people, but also through
a writing which was to be the first of many.
Jan van Leyden, who had assumed the blasphemous
role of a "Second David" of the
"New Jerusalem" at Münster,
was the reason for this writing entitled The
Blasphemy of Jan van Leyden. The pamphlet,
which was not printed until 1627, was written
after the defeat at Bolsward but before the
defeat of Münster, with the intention
of publication. But Münster collapsed,
and Menno left the Roman church; hence the
urgency and possibility of having it published
diminished (Writings, 33).
After nine months of the
more dedicated and open presentation of his
views, Menno's position must have become known.
This endangered his life, and so he quietly
renounced all "worldly reputation, name
and fame," infant baptism, easy life,
and "willingly submitted to stress and
poverty under the heavy cross of Christ."
He left his home community and parish, likely
by night, to start an "underground"
life. According to available information this
was most likely in January 1536 (Krahn, 35).
For a year he probably found shelter in the
province of Groningen, at times crossing the
border into East Friesland. He "sought
out the pious" and found "some who
were zealous and maintained the truth."
He dealt with the erring and "reclaimed
them from the snares of damnation and gained
them to Christ." Thus we find Menno continuing
his labors as a voluntary underground evangelist.
In addition to this work he was also studying
the Word of God and writing pamphlets to strengthen
and guide those in need of spiritual help
and to win those in danger of losing their
evangelical faith. Some of his writings he
probably had started in Witmarsum, such as
"The Spiritual Resurrection" (Van
de Geestlijke Verrijsenisse, published ca.
1536) which was soon followed by "The
New Birth" (De nieuwe Creatuere, ca.
1537) and "The Meditations on the Twenty-Fifth
Psalm" (Christelycke leringhen op den
25. Psalm, ca. 1538). One of the most important
writings was the Foundation-Book (Dat Fundament
des Christelycken leers, published 1539-40).
The contents of these writings reveal that
Menno had found the foundation and salvation
in Jesus Christ and that he was challenging
his readers to accept Christ and become His
While Menno was seeking out
the pious and studying and writing in seclusion,
he soon became known among the Anabaptists
as a capable and devoted leader. One day "some
six, seven, or eight persons" came to
him who were of "one heart and one soul"
with him, "beyond reproach as far as
man can judge in doctrine and life, separated
from the world after the witness of Scriptures
and under the cross, men who sincerely abhorred
not only the sect of Münster but the
cursed abomination of all other worldly sects."
They prayerfully requested Menno in the name
of "those pious souls who were of the
same mind and spirit" that he should
make "the great sufferings and need of
the poor oppressed souls" his concern,
since their hunger was so very great and the
faithful stewards so few. They urged him to
use the talents which he had received from
God in His vineyard (Writings, 671).
When this request to become
an elder or bishop of the scattered Anabaptists
came to Menno he was again greatly troubled.
He realized that his talents were limited,
that on one hand he was weak by nature and
timid by spirit, and that on the other hand
the wickedness and tyranny of the world was
great; yet he saw a great hunger and need
among the God-fearing, pious souls who "erred
as do harmless sheep which have no shepherd."
The delegation and Menno agreed to pray about
this matter for a season. When they came again
Menno surrendered his "soul and body
to the Lord ... and commenced in due time
... to teach and to baptize, to till the vineyard
of the Lord,... to build up His holy city
and temple and to repair the turnble-down
walls" (Writings, 672).
This marks the call and the
assuming of the office of an elder by Menno
Simons. When his baptism took place is not
known. It is possible that this occurred while
he was still at Witmarsum during the time
that he was publicly preaching "the true
baptism and the Lord's Supper." But it
is more likely that he was not baptized upon
confession of his faith until he left Witmarsum.
A Catholic priest preaching believers' baptism
publicly and also receiving a second baptism
could not remain unnoticed by the authorities
even in a little village like Witmarsum. This
consideration makes us inclined to believe
that he was baptized soon after his withdrawal
from the Catholic Church in January 1536.
Much effort has been made
to determine where Menno Simons lived after
he left the Catholic Church early in 1536
(see Frerichs, 1 ff.; Vos, 64 ff.; Krahn,
32 ff.). Menno himself wrote in 1544 that
he "could not find in all the countries
a cabin or hut in which my poor wife and our
little children could be put up in safety
for a year or even half a year" (Writings,
424). This was his fate from 1536 until 1554.
During the first years Menno probably spent
most of his time in the Dutch province of
Groningen. However, he could hardly stay anywhere
for any length of time. Tjaard Renicx of Kimswerd
in the province of Friesland was executed
-at Leeuwarden in January 1539 because he
had sheltered Menno. Syouck Haeyes confessed
in 1542 that he had heard a sermon by Menno
outside Leeuwarden. An official document of
Leeuwarden of 19 May 1541, states that Menno,
one of the principal leaders, made it a practice
to come to the province of Friesland once
or twice a year, winning many followers.
On 7 December 1542, one hundred
guilders were offered by the authorities of
Leeuwarden for the apprehension of Menno,
who appeared by night at different places
to preach and baptize. This indicates that
Menno returned to his native province of Friesland
at times in all secrecy but only for a short
time. Menno found no permanent home during
this time in any of the Dutch provinces.
Soon after his renunciation
of Catholicism in 1536 Menno was also in the
German province of East Friesland, where Ulrich
von Dornum of Oldersum sheltered religious
refugees, and according to tradition he found
shelter here under Dornum's protection. However,
Menno's statement must not be forgotten, that
he and his family never found a place where
they could live unmolested "for a year
or even half a year." When and where
Menno married his wife Geertruydt is not definitely
known. In 1544 he spoke of their "little
children." Peter Jansz confessed on 14
June 1540 that Menno had baptized him at Oldersum
"about four years ago" (Vos, 243).
This shows that Menno traveled early and extensively
after his withdrawal. It will be shown later
that he soon became well known in East Friesland.
However, it is doubtful that he ever met Ulrich
von Dornum or was a guest in his home during
Dornum's lifetime, since the latter died early
in the spring of 1536 (Ohling, 49). If this
did occur, Menno had to proceed directly from
Witmarsum to Oldersum. Ulrich was a staunch
promoter of the Reformation, a friend of Carlstadt
and Sebastian Franck, an admirer of Hans Denck,
and a sympathizer with the Anabaptists. Two
of his daughters married Anabaptists; one
of them in 1551 married Christopher van Ewsum,
who sheltered Menno in Groningen and whom
Alba called a "principal Mennist"
East Friesland, where Melchior
Hoffman had baptized some 300 persons in the
city of Emden, became a refuge for the Sacramentists
of the Low Countries and other persecuted
minorities. Even Carlstadt found shelter on
the estate of Ulrich von Dornum. Menno, as
has been said, also found his way to East
Friesland soon after his withdrawal from Witmarsum.
At this time John a Lasco was the superintendent
of the East Friesland churches under the ruler,
Countess Anna of Oldenburg.
In January 1544 Menno had
a theological discussion with a Lasco. The
objective of this discussion was to win Menno
and his followers to the Reformed Church.
That Menno was called upon to represent the
Mennonites makes it clear that he was known
in East Friesland as their spokesman. Anna,
personally a tolerant ruler, was compelled
by the emperor to do something about the numerous
religious groups found in her domain. She
consented to expel those which a Lasco would
designate as "heretical." The latter's
first objective was to win those who were
spiritually closest to his own views. The
discussion was held on 28-31 January 1544
when the articles pertaining to the Incarnation,
baptism, original sin, justification, and
the call of ministers were discussed. Although
the two men did not agree concerning all articles,
Menno and his followers were dismissed by
a Lasco in a friendly manner. Menno had promised
to present a written confession regarding
the Incarnation, and he now wrote "in
a secluded place" under the title, A
brief and clear confession and scriptural
declaration concerning the Incarnation....
A Lasco had it printed in 1544 without Menno's
knowledge or consent and used it against him.
The following decree of Countess Anna in 1545
announces that the followers of David Joris
and Batenburg should be "corrected on
their neck" (executed) if they would
not leave the country. The "Mennisten,"
however, were to be examined by the superintendent,
and if they did not surrender were to leave
the country. The term "Mennisten"
designating followers of Menno appeared for
the first time in any official document in
the 1545 decree. This again, as well as the
fact that Menno left East Friesland before
this announcement was published, indicates
that he was well known in this area as an
Anabaptist leader (Krahn, 59 ff.).
In May 1544 Menno went to
the Lower Rhine region, to the area of Cologne
and Bonn. A Lasco wrote to Hardenberg on 26
July 1544 that Menno was in the bishopric
of Cologne, where he was "misleading"
many. This area had long been a fertile ground
for the evangelical and Sacramentist movement.
Menno was also successful there, and associated
with the Anabaptist leaders Zyllis and Lemke.
Matthias Servaes, who died a martyr's death
here, refused at any cost to "renounce"
the principles for which Menno Simons stood.
This indicates the degree of success of Menno's
work in this area.
Menno's activities here coincide
with the last years of the bishopric of Archbishop
Hermann von Wied of Cologne, who had to give
up his position in 1546 because he was promoting
an evangelical reformation in the Catholic
Church. Hardenberg, an active reformer of
this area, influenced by a Lasco, interfered
with Menno's activities. Menno was also in
all probability active at the following places
in the Maas River region: Vischersweert, Illekhoven,
and Roermond. Several martyrs of this area
testified that they had heard sermons by Menno
in 1545. Under the rigid Catholic rule of
the successor of Hermann von Wied in 1546,
Menno had to leave this district. He now proceeded
to the province of Schleswig-Holstein.
In the fall of 1546 Menno
attended a discussion at a country place near
Lübeck with the followers of David Joris,
led by the latter's son-in-law Nicolaas Meyndertsz
van Blesdijk. Joris himself had left Emden
for Basel early in 1544. David Joris, an extreme
left-wing Anabaptist of the Law Countries,
who had been ordained elder by Obbe Philips
in 1535, before Menno, had never been in full
harmony with the peaceful Anabaptist representatives
such as Dirk and Obbe Philips or Menno Simons.
He placed too much emphasis on personal visions
and "revelations" without checking
them against the Scriptures. Menno and his
followers opposed all revolutionary and mystical
fanaticism. In addition to their spiritualistic
conception of the Scriptures, Menno opposed
the Jorists for considering it unnecessary
to baptize or to organize churches during
the time of persecution. Menno was supported
in this discussion by the elders Dirk Philips,
Leenaert Bouwens, Gillis van Aken, and Adam
Pastor, and the group excommunicated Joris.
Another question arose when
it became apparent that Adam Pastor, a former
priest, who had been ordained ca. 1542 as
an Anabaptist elder by Menno and Dirk, turned
heretical in his Christological views. At
a conference at Emden in 1547 no agreement
could be reached. Meetings at Goch (1547),
the Lower Rhine, and Lübeck (1552) followed.
Since no agreement could be reached, Pastor
was excommunicated at once. Pastor apparently
deviated from the others on a number of other
questions also, such as church discipline
and relationship to government. He was more
liberal than the group. His views regarding
Christ differ considerably from those of Menno.
Whereas Menno emphasized the deity of Christ,
Pastor emphasized His humanity. Pastor believed
that Jesus became the Saviour because God
endowed Him and ordained Him for this task;
but in essence He was not divine or equal
with God. Menno on the other hand also deviated
somewhat from the accepted orthodox creed,
which sets forth the divine and the human
nature as equally present in Christ, in stressing
His divinity above His humanity. His peculiar
conception of the Incarnation of Christ he
had adopted from Melchior Hoffman. It became
for him an essential part of his concept of
the church. Christ in the Incarnation passed
through Mary's womb like a ray of sunshine
through a glass of water without taking on
any of her "sinful flesh." Only
thus, he claimed, could the Saviour be perfect,
and only because of this can the work of His
salvation, the church of Jesus Christ, be
Menno's traveling schedule
indicates that he spent some time during the
years after 1546 at Lübeck, Emden, the
Lower Rhine, Leeuwarden, Danzig, etc. He still
had no permanent home, although it is likely
that his family did not accompany him on these
trips of a shorter duration. In April 1549
Menno stayed overnight at the home of Klaas
Jans, who was executed on this account at
Leeuwarden on June 1. During the same summer
he spent some weeks with the "Elected
and Children of God in the Country of Prussia,"
as becomes apparent from a letter which he
addressed to these believers on 7 October
1549. This indicates not only that the Anabaptists
of the Low Countries had spread as far as
Danzig, but also that Menno's guidance, counsel,
and authority were needed to iron out some
difficulties which had risen. His co-worker
Dirk Philips became the first elder of the
Danzig Mennonite Church. It is possible that
Menno's visit to the Anabaptists in Danzig
and Prussia was not limited to this one occasion,
although definite information lacking.
In search of a field of labor
and a refuge Menno had moved from the Low
Countries to the province of East Friesland
and was now on his way to Mecklenburg. He
no doubt resided for some time in the Hanseatic
city of Wismar. He was here during the winter
of 1553-54 when a group from a Lasco's church
arrived by boat from London as a refugee congregation.
Since the Lutheran city of Wismar did not
welcome this Reformed group, the Mennonites
went out over the frozen ice of the harbor
to the boat to meet them and to provide them
with help and aid. This led to a religious
discussion. On 6 February 1554, the a Lasco
group met with Menno and his followers, having
invited Martin Micron of Emden to serve as
their man. The Incarnation was again among
the topics discussed. The discussion ended
in hostility, with the Mennonites accusing
the Reformed of publishing a list of the Mennonites
located in Wismar which had speeded up their
expulsion from the city. An exchange of writings
between Menno and Martin Micron resulted from
Before this occurred Menno
and certain other elders met in Wismar for
a conference, at which they agreed on certain
rules of church practice and discipline known
as the Wismar Articles (1554). These articles
deal primarily with the relationship between
partners in a mixed marriage, i.e., believer
and unbeliever, the matter of appealing to
a court, and nonresistance. During this time
Menno also wrote and published his book against
the accusations of Gellius Faber, entitled
Een Klare beantwoordinge ... (Reply to Gellius
Faber) which was published in the Anabaptist
print shop at Lübeck in 1554. In this,
the longest book that Menno produced, can
be found the account of his "Conversion"
or the "Renunciation of the Church of
Rome," which he presented in order to
defend the calling of the Anabaptist ministers.
On 11 November 1554 the city
council of Wismar decreed that all Anabaptists
were to leave the city. Menno had already
left during the summer and gone to Lübeck.
He and his followers proceeded together to
the town of Oldesloe in the province of Holstein.
In the vicinity of this town Bartholomeus
von Ahlefeldt had since 1543 been gathering
oppressed Anabaptists on one of his large
estates, called Wüstenfelde (desert field).
Here at last Menno found shelter and protection.
His printer began to print his books, and
Menno took the opportunity to revise his early
editions and write several new books. Although
von Ahlefeldt was often challenged to expel
the Mennonites he remained their protector,
having learned to appreciate them when he
was in Holland.
The Mennonites aimed at nothing
less than the establishment of a true Christian
and apostolic church. With Paul they were
determined to present to Christ His bride
without spot and wrinkle and to keep themselves
pure and clean as far as the world around
them was concerned and also to keep the world
out of the church. They were doing this through
church discipline, using the ban and avoidance.
Questions regarding the application of church
discipline led to controversies. Menno had
meetings with his fellow workers in Emden,
Francker, and Harlingen. Dirk Philips and
Leenaert Botswana favored a rigid application
of church discipline. Others were lenient.
Menno mediated between the two extremes. Menno
made his last trip to his home province, Friesland,
in 1557 to settle a dispute over this question.
But in vain. This matter was to occupy the
minds and hearts of the Dutch Mennonites for
at least another century. After his return
he wrote to a friend, "If the omnipotent
God had not preserved me last year as well
as now, I would already have gone mad. For
there is nothing upon earth which my heart
loves more than it does the church, and yet
I must live to see this sad affliction upon
her" (Writings, 1055). Certain reports
indicate that Menno was won over by the more
rigid church disciplinarians toward the end
of his life.
Through Zyllis and Lemke,
Menno's friends and co-workers of the Lower
Rhine area, the question of church discipline
was presented at a large conference of South
German Anabaptists which met at Strasbourg
in 1557. Some 50 representatives of congregations
in various South German countries, such as
Moravia, Switzerland, and Alsace, were present.
The assembled elders sent an appeal to Menno
and his co-workers not to go to extremes in
the matter of ban and avoidance, through which
even family life was disrupted. Menno and
Dirk Philips responded in writing, defending
the more rigid position. Menno now emphasized
that the heavenly marriage between Christ
and the soul is more important than the relationship
of man and wife in the earthly marriage. This
controversy saddened the last days of his
During his last years Menno
was crippled. The earliest portraits show
him with crutches. His wife preceded him in
death, although it is not known when she died.
The children included at least two daughters
and a son Jan. The son probably also preceded
the father in death. One of the daughters
gave some information about Menno to the historian
Pieter Jans Twisck. According to all available
information Menno died at Wüstenfelde
on 31 January 1561, 25 years after his withdrawal
from the Catholic Church. He was buried in
his own garden. The Thirty Years' War destroyed
the estate on which the Anabaptists had settled,
so that the exact location of the grave is
no longer known. In 1906 a simple stone was
erected at the approximate place, which was
popularly known as the "Menno field."
Not far from it the Menno Linden, supposedly
planted by Menno himself, and the Menno House,
in which his books were supposedly printed,
Menno Simons was a Biblicist
in the truest and best meaning of the word.
He turned away from tradition and became Bible-centered
in all his beliefs and practices. Once he
had turned to the Bible, he took it for the
Word of God and made it the cornerstone of
all his work. His writings are filled with
Bible quotations. His approach to the Bible
differs from that of the other reformers.
It is above all Christ-centered. Every book
and every little pamphlet he wrote have on
the front page the motto, "For other
foundation can no man lay than that is laid,
which is Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians
3:11). Christ-centeredness marks his theology
and the practices he derived from the Bible.
Discipleship (Nachfolge) or a fruitful Christian
life were very strongly emphasized. But this
emphasis on true Christian living does not
take. place in a vacuum or as a matter merely
between the individual and his God, but rather
within the congregation, the church of Christ.
Menno's faith is therefore not only Christ-centered
but also church-centered: his chief concern
was the achievement of the true church of
Jesus Christ or the body of Christ. Again
and again he refers to 1 Corinthians 12:13,
25-27, and Colossians 1:18-24. The prerequisites
for church membership according to Menno are
regeneration and willingness to bear the cross
of Christ. These two are inseparable. Discipline
was as natural in the church of Menno Simons
as any normal function of the healthy body.
Behind these views lie first
of all Menno's personal experience in the
Catholic Church, and the experience which
he had with the Reformers and Münsterites.
With Luther he rejected the Catholic Church,
which did not preach justification by faith,
but he also had to reject the Lutheran Church
because of its one-sided emphasis on "faith
alone." On the other hand he could not
accept the radical movement which attempted
to usher in the kingdom of God by force. Instead
he developed a theology of martyrdom, of suffering
Menno's significance lies
in the fact that he prevented the collapse
of the northern wing of the Anabaptist movement
in the days of its greatest trial and built
it up on the right Biblical foundation. He
did this as its leader, speaker, and defender,
through his preaching as he journeyed from
place to place, and through his simple and
searching writings. Particularly the Foundation-Book
did much to restore the original Anabaptist
concepts and principles, which were in grave
danger of being lost. His writings were effective
not so much because of their superior and
logical qualities as a theological system,
but because behind them stood a man formed
according to the Scriptures who sincerely
and honestly wanted to give all for the Christian
church and the glory of God. Through Menno's
courageous and devoted life a distinctive
witness in the Reformation movement, representing
a Christian brotherhood and a Christian way
of life, was preserved, which have meanwhile
become quite generally recognized as an integral
part of Protestantism and include such basic
principles as separation of church and state,
freedom of conscience, voluntary church membership,
democratic church government, holy living,
and the Christian peace witness in a world
The questions pertaining
to the linguistic peculiarities, the editions
and printers of Menno's writings have found
some interest among scholars; and a considerable
amount of investigation has been made. G.
E. Frerichs wrote a detailed article on "Menno's
taal" (Menno's Language) (DB 1905). He
concluded that Menno's first writings were
linguistically colored by the language of
the place in which he was living, and which
he (Frerichs) thought to find in the province
of Groningen, called "Ommelanden."
Karel Vos calls the writings and the linguistic
coloring of this period (1537-41) an Oosters
gekleurd dialect, meaning with "an eastern
coloring." The term Oosters (eastern)
is, however, relative. "Eastern"
is viewed from the standpoint of the province
of Holland, which was the leading one in the
economy and the culture of the Netherlands
for a long time, and whose language became
the standard. A slight deviation from its
language under the influence of linguistic
pecularities; of the regions east and northeast
of the province of Holland is designated as
an Oosters gekleurd dialect. Such peculiarities
in the writings of Menno Simons, which are
characteristic of the province of Groningen,
are designated by Vos as Oosters gekleurd.
Later, when Menno Simons
was living in East Friesland and Holstein,
his language was necessarily adapted to the
language of this country since he was printing
primarily for the people of that territory.
Vos refers to the language in which Menno
wrote and printed his books in East Friesland
and the Hanseatic cities as the Oosters language
(not only an Oosters gekleurd dialect). Menno
even revised his earlier Dutch writings and
had them reprinted at Lubeck, Oldesloe, and
Wüstenfelde in the Oosters language.
The later writings printed first in Oosters
were translated into the Dutch for use in
the Netherlands proper. The question of the
linguistic peculiarities in the various editions
and writings of Menno Simons deserves a more
thorough investigation and would be one of
the most significant tasks in preparing a
scholarly edition of Menno's writings. The
following is merely a brief outline of Menno's
printers and printing facilities as far as
they can be determined at this time.
It is very difficult to determine
where and when Menno's early writings were
printed and who the printers were. Jan Claesz
was beheaded 19 January 1544, because he had
600 copies of Menno Simons' books printed
at Antwerp. He sold 200 of them in the province
of Holland and sent the rest to Friesland.
These books must have been some of Menno's
earliest writings. A little information is,
found in the copy of the Foundation-Book (1539-40)
in the British Museum, which has an entry
by Johan Enschede of Haarlem pertaining to
the type used in the book. Nijhoff-Kronenberg
(Ned. Bibliographie I, p. 540) states that
this book and Menno's Voele goede leringhen
op den 25. Psalm (ca. 1537) and Een corte
vermaninghe . . . van de wedergeboorte (ca.
1537) were both printed in the same print
shop. It should be possible to discover more
details about the print shop by the type that
was used (see also Vos, 296). It is likely
that others of Menno's books were published
in East Friesland during the time he was living
there. To what an extent, if at all, Nicolaes
Biestkens of Emden, who printed for the Mennonites,
printed Menno's writings, should be investigated.
Probably no writings of Menno appeared between
1542 and 1551. After 1551 Menno and the Anabaptists
had a printer at Lübeck. When the underground
print shop here was discovered, the authorities
found ten tons of books. The printer then
moved from Lubeck to Oldesloe, and in 1554
to Wüstenfelde, where he continued to
function as Menno's printer. At this time
an Oosters edition of the Foundation-Book
appeared with a certain "B. L."
as printer. All of Menno's writings, both
new and revised editions, appeared now in
Wüstenfelde in rapid succession. Von
Ahlefeldt protected Menno and his printer,
B. L., whose full name is not yet known, against
all attacks. In 1558 a Dutch edition of the
Foundation-Book appeared, probably in Wüstenfelde
(BRN VII, 253). The printer must have continued
his work even after Menno's death in 1561.
In 1562 another Dutch edition of the Foundation-Book
appeared. In 1616 an unchanged Dutch reprint
of the 1539-40 edition was published.
The writings of Menno Simons
have been published more often than the writings
of any other Anabaptist leaders. The Foundation-Book
was translated into German in 1575. The first
large collection appeared in Dutch as Sommarie
(1600-1) which was followed by the Opera ofte
Groot Sommarie (1646) and the Opera Omnia
Theologica (1681). In America the first complete
edition of Menno Simons appeared in 1871 in
English and in 1876 in German. In 1956 a new
enlarged English edition, the first practically
complete edition in any language, was published.
An urgent task in Mennonite research would
be to prepare a scholarly edition of Menno's
writings, in which the various early and later
editions and translations would be fully taken
into consideration, similar to the edition
of Dirk Philips' writings published in Volume
X of the BRN.
Turning to the research pertaining
to the life, work, and beliefs of Menno it
must be said that no other Anabaptist leader
has been the subject of as many biographies
as Menno. All major aspects of his life, times,
and activities, have been investigated, primarily
by Dutch, but also by some German scholars.
Much of the biographical information was published
in the Doopsgezinde Bijdragen (1861-1919).
A. M. Cramer wrote the first significant biography
(1837). J. G. de Hoop Scheffer, Christiaan
Sepp, and G. E. Frerichs published much biographical
information in Doopsgezinde Bijdragen. The
first most complete scholarly biography of
Menno was produced by Karel Vos (1914) based
on extensive archival research. W. J. Kühler
published his findings along these lines in
his history of the Dutch Mennonites during
the 16th century (1932). In the German language
early biographies appeared, written by C.
Harder (1846) and B. C. Roosen (1848). A recent
German biography, with a theological interpretation
of the views of Menno and his followers, was
written by Cornelius Krahn (1936). In America
John Horsch presented the only full-length
English biography (1916).
The Amsterdam Mennonite Library
has an authentic letter written by Menno Simons
himself; it is undated and is addressed (after
1554) to a widow. This letter is the only
extant manuscript in Menno's handwriting.
It was printed, with somewhat modified spelling,
in Opera Omnia, page 336.
None of the portraits of
Menno, circulating since the early 17th century,
can be considered historically true. The most
acceptable one is the engraving made about
1608 by Christoffel van Sichem. Recently the
Dutch artist Arend Hendriks made a beautiful
etching of Menno.
Current Research: Research
in the 20th century on Menno Simons is summarized
in three basic articles: the article by Cornelius
Krahn (above), the 1962 article "Menno
Simons Research (1910-1960)," also by
Krahn, in No other foundation (North Newton,
1962), 65-76, and in an article by Walter
Klaassen, "Menno Simons research, 1937-1986,"
Mennonite quarterly review 60 (1986), 483-96.
To these should be added the papers read in
Amsterdam at the Menno Simons Colloquium in
1986, published in Dutch in Doopsgezinde Bijdragen,
nor. 12-13 (1986-1987), and in English in
Mennonite quarterly review 62 (July 1988).
Scholars have long agreed
that Menno was not the founder but the organizer
of Dutch Mennonitism; beyond that almost every
question about him has been a matter of debate
from his own time to the late 20th century.
His contemporaries, both supporters and opponents,
debated vigorously with him. Only a small
group, which soon died out, used his name,
though it came into broader, and eventually
global use. In the 1980s his writings are
being studied with new respect, also by non-Mennonites,
perhaps because the real Menno is emerging
in place of the hero Mennonites wanted and
It is now generally agreed
that Menno initially was a Melchiorite, that
is, a follower of Melchior Hoffman, and that
he called the Münster Anabaptists "brothers"
but broke decisively with them over the use
of force to bring in the kingdom of God. Studies
continue on his educational background and
intellectual ability. On the former G. K.
Epp reports Praemonstratensian roots in Mennonite
images (1980), ed. Harry Loewen. Cornelis
Augustijn is convinced that Menno had a "fair"
education influenced by the spirit and thought
of Erasmus, that be was a very formidable
debater and that "the essential features
of his theology may be traced to Erasmus"
(MQR 60 [19861, 497-508). Irvin B. Horst had
traced this influence earlier and came to
a similar conclusion, but stated it less emphatically
in Erasmus, the Anabaptists and the problem
of religious unity (Haarlem, 1967). S. Voolstra
and W. Bergsma, eds., and trans., Huyt Babel
ghevloden, in Jeruzalem ghetogen: Menno Simons'
verlichting, beveling en beroeping, Doperse
Stemmen, 6 (Amsterdam: Doopsgezinde Historische
Kring, 1986), and Voolstra in MQR 62 (July
1988) offer additional interpretation of Menno's
biographical background and motivation. Older
images of the simple Menno who was "slow
moving... not easily stirred and changed...
even his small corpus of writings is often
boringly repetitious" are reaffirmed
by John R. Loeschen in The divine community
(1981), 67, even though the volume is a comparison
of Luther, Menno, and Calvin on the doctrine
of the Trinity and Menno received fair treatment.
No single organizing center
of Menno's thought has been identified but
there is general agreement that he moved from
a stress upon conversion early in his career
to a gradually increasing emphasis on the
church which, in turn, led to greater emphasis
on discipline. The vision of a pure church
also led Menno to stress the heavenly origin
of the human Christ, a doctrine which caused
much controversy already in his time, but
has more recently been affirmed as a vital
part of Menno's understanding of salvation
and the possibility of believers becoming
Christ-like (S. Voolstra, Het Woord Is Vlees
Geworden (19821). Menno may, at times, sound
like a docetist, but he was not one. So also
Menno's stress upon a return to the spirit
and norm of the church in the Bible (restitutionism)
as a way to achieve a pure church has often
been identified (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian
tradition, 4 [1984), 313-22). In an earlier
attempt to refute works-righteousness J. A.
Oosterbaan identified Menno's understanding
of grace with the doctrine of creation itself
("Grace in Dutch Mennonite theology,"
A legacy of faith, ed. C. J. Dyck ,
69-85). Work continues on Menno's political
theory. As Menno grew older he came to reject
capital punishment, but continued to defend
the possibility of a Christian magistrate.
Some scholars find a strong anticlericalism
in his writings (e.g., H.-J. Goertz, "Der
Fremde Menno Simons: Antiklerikale Argumentation
im Werk eines melchioritischen Täufers,"
Menn. Geschbl., 42 [19851, 24-42).
Menno's original works are
now available on microfiche. In 1988 work
had begun in Amsterdam on a text-critical
edition of all of Menno's writings.