MENNO SIMONS AND HIS FOLLOWERS
If the disappearance of the Anabaptists from Germany I had been as complete in reality as it was in appearance, it would furnish a curious historical problem to explain so sudden a cessation of evangelical teaching and practice. But the student of history is not long in discovering that the Anabaptists did not disappear; they only took a different name. They had never chosen the name Anabaptist, and had always maintained that it was not properly applied to them. Now that the name had come to be a synonym for all that was fanatical in creed and immoral in conduct, they were only too glad to be rid of the hateful title—as hateful to them as to their oppressors. As before, so now and after, these people called themselves simply “the brethren,” but in common speech a new name came to be applied to them about the middle of the sixteenth century; they were known as Mennonites.
Of Menno, surnamed Simons, we know little, save what he himself has told us. He was born in Witmarson, Friesland, in 1496 or 1497. He was educated for the priesthood, and in 1524 he undertook the duties of a priest in his father’s village, called Pingjum. A year thereafter, while officiating at the altar, the thought occurred to him that the bread and wine in the mass were not the body and blood of Christ, but he put the idea from him as a temptation of the devil. He feared to study the Scriptures lest they mislead him. His life was godless and dissipated. After a time he began to study the Scriptures, and received some light from them, though
his heart was still unchanged.
While in this state of mind Menno heard of the martyrdom of one Sicke Freerks or Frierichs, more commonly known by his surname of Snyder, which designated him as a tailor. On the 30th of March, i~i, this faithful believer was condemned, as the court record reads, “to be executed by the sword; his body shall be laid on the wheel, and his head set on a stake, because he has been rebaptized and perseveres in that baptism”; all of which was duly done at Leeuwarden. The blood of that poor tailor produced a host of followers to the Lord, for whom he joyfully gave all that he had, even his life; for it led Menno Simons, after a long and hard struggle, to
At first he was merely surprised to hear that this man suffered on account of what was called a second baptism. He studied the Scriptures, but could find in them nothing about infant baptism. He consulted in turn Luther, Bucer, and Bullinger, but they gave him no help, for he saw that the arguments by which they supported the practice had no foundation in the Scriptures. Though he now came gradually to a fuller knowledge of God’s truth, and to some outward amendment of his life, he still held back from what he knew to be his duty. He was ambitious, and hesitated to break with the church, in which he hoped for a career and fame. For a time he attempted to compromise with his conscience, and preached the truth publicly from the pulpit. Finally, he says, after about nine months of such preaching, the Lord granted him his Spirit and power, and he then renounced all his worldly honor and reputation, separated himself from the church and its errors, and willingly submitted to distress and poverty.
This was about the year 1536, and it seems to have been Menno’s intention to lead the quiet life of a student and writer. But about a year later, a small group of believers came to him and urged him to remember the needs of the poor, hungry souls, and make better use of the talents he had from the Lord. Accordingly, he began to preach the gospel, and continued to make known the truth with voice and pen to the end of his life. Though not without frequent interruptions, his labors were practically continuous and very fruitful. At the beginning, the Anabaptists were greatly divided, as well as discouraged. One party still held to the views that had been practically embodied at Munster; they defended polygamy, believed in the speedy second coming of Christ, a second time incarnated to set up an earthly kingdom, which his followers were to defend and extend by the sword. The other party condemned polygamy and the sword. The strife was keen, but the weight of Menno’s influence turned the scale in favor of purity and peace. From the first he repudiated the ideas of Munster. In his “Exit from Papacy” he wrote as follows: “Beloved reader, we have been falsely accused by our opponents of defending the doctrine of Munsterites, with respect to king, sword, revolution, self-defense, polygamy, and many similar abominations; but know, my good reader, that never in my life have I assented to those articles of the Munster Confession; but for more than seventeen years, according to my small gift, I have warned and opposed them in their abominable errors. I have, by the word of the Lord, brought some of them to the right way. Munster I have never seen in all my life. I have never been in their communion. I hope, by God’s grace, with such never to eat or drink (as the Scriptures teach), except they confess from the heart their abominations and bring forth fruits meet for repentance and truly follow the gospel.”
Menno was an apostle of the truth, preaching and founding churches across the whole of Northern Europe, from France to Russia. In spite of the severest edicts and the bloodiest persecutions, he continued faithful to his calling, and found willing hearers of the gospel wherever he went. He enforced a strict standard of morals, repressed all tendencies toward fanaticism, and gradually molded his followers into the mild, peaceful, and moral people that the Mennonites have ever since been. His last years were spent in Holstein, where he died January 13, 1561, in his sixty-sixth year. He was a voluminous writer, and during his last decade he established a printing-press and secured the wide circulation of his writings. These are mostly in the Dutch language, though some were originally written in “Oostersch” and very badly translated into Dutch. The issue of his “Fundamental Book of the True Christian Faith,” in 1539, established his doctrinal teaching on solid grounds. It differed from the Reformed theology only in maintaining the spiritual idea of the church, as a communion of true saints, and the necessary consequence of this idea, the rejection of infant baptism. Menno owed his prolonged life and labors in part to the fact that he was content to work very quietly and obscurely, in part to the protection that he received at various times from several princes and noblemen, who were favorable to evangelical teachings. He had many narrow escapes, some of which seem like special interpositions of Providence on his behalf. His daughter relates that a traitor who had agreed without fail, for a certain sum of money, to deliver him into the hands of his enemies, after several failures one day met Menno, being then in the company of an officer in search of the heretic preacher. Menno was going along the canal in a small boat. The traitor kept silence until Menno had passed them some distance, and had leaped ashore in order to escape with less peril. Then the traitor cried out, “ Behold, the bird has escaped!” The officer chastised him, called him a villain, and demanded why he did not speak in time, to which the traitor replied, “I could not speak, for my tongue was bound.” It is said the authorities were so displeased with the man that, according to his pledge, he had to forfeit his own head.
Certainly this servant of God was pursued with great bitterness. The governor of Friesland issued a proclamation, under date of December 7, 1542, in which it was declared that any one who gave food or lodging, or any assistance to Menno Simons, or should have any of his books, should be liable to the penalties of heresy. This was no empty threat; before this, in 1539, one Tjaert Reyndertz or Reynderson, was arraigned for the offense of lodging Menno in his house, was stretched on the wheel and finally beheaded. These local persecutions and edicts were doubtless inspired by the general edict of Charles V., executed at Brussels, June 10, 1535, which commanded that all Anabaptists or re-baptizers and their abettors should be put to death by fire; those who sincerely repented and renounced their errors should be beheaded, and the women should be buried alive. Buckle, in his “ History of Civilization,” estimates that by 1546, thirty thousand persons had been put to death for Anabaptism in Holland and Friesland alone. And yet it is held by many historians that this decree was never generally enforced. Had it been, one must think the country would have been nearly depopulated.
In spite of such measures, the churches established by Menno and his fellow-laborers increased in numbers rapidly. Their growth may be explained by two causes, of which one has already been mentioned. The change of name was greatly in their favor. To say “Anabaptist” produced much the same effect in those days that the cry of “mad dog” does in ours. To say “Mennonite,” at most provoked a feeling of mild curiosity as to what this new sect might be—so much is there in a name, Shakespeare to the contrary notwithstanding. A second thing greatly in favor of this new development of the Anabaptists, was the fact that the Netherlands soon came to favor a much greater measure of religious liberty than was found anywhere else in Europe. In 1572 the Netherlands revolted from the authority of the Spanish crown, and in 1579 formed a federal union, with the Prince of Orange at its head. He was the most liberal-minded prince in Europe, and was strongly opposed to all persecution on religious grounds. To his influence chiefly the Mennonites owed their long immunity from active persecution, for the clergy of the Reformed Church (which became the established religion of the Netherlands) were generally opposed to toleration, and many times attempted to stir up the government against the Mennonites. After i58i the mild, peaceable, and law-abiding character of this people gained for them a measure of toleration that other Anabaptist bodies failed to enjoy; and with the independence of the Netherlands came religious freedom, the Mennonites being formally recognized in 1672. This is probably the reason why they alone, of the Anabaptist parties of the Reformation, have survived to the present day.
One branch of Menno’s followers, those especially in Lithuania, at the invitation of Empress Catherine II., emigrated to Russia, and there founded flourishing agricultural communities, especially in the Crimea. They were for a long time treated with exceptional favor, their faith not only being tolerated, but the male members being exempted from military service on account of their religious scruples against bearing arms. Their descendants abode there until, in 1871, an imperial decree deprived them of this exemption, since ~vhen many of them have emigrated to America, forming strong colonies in several of our Western States. Many others have come from Holland and elsewhere, and the majority of Mennonites are now found on American soil. In the census of 1890 twelve branches are reported, with slight differences in polity and doctrine, aggregating a membership of forty-one thousand five hundred and forty-one.
There is good reason to believe that from the first, affusion was generally practised for baptism by the Mennonites. Menno himself at times uses language that would seem to imply immersion, as when he says, “We find but one baptism in the water, pleasing to God, which is expressed and contained in his word, namely, baptism on the confession of faith. . . But of this other baptism, that is, infant baptism, we find nothing.” Yet that he could have had an immersion in mind as the act of baptism is irreconcilable with his speaking of it elsewhere as ‘‘ to have a handful of water applied.’’ While he was perfectly clear about the scriptural teaching regarding the subject of baptism, he appears to have considered the act as a relatively unimportant matter. He was content to follow the prevailing practice of his time, and so were his followers.
But while the Mennonites as a whole have doubtless from the first practised affusion, there have been and are some exceptions. The congregation at Rynsburg, known as Collegiants, adopted immersion in 1619, a fact that had important relations to the Baptists of England, as we shall see. One branch in the United States, that coming from Russia, practises immersion exclusively, and another branch immerses by preference, but affuses those who prefer that form.
Neither their love of Christ nor their fear of persecution was able to keep the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century from internal dissensions; and this was especially true of the followers of Menno. Since they had no formal creeds and professed the Scriptures alone as their standard of faith and practice, it was natural that considerable differences should arise among them. They became divided into High and Low (Obere and Untere). The former held to vigorous discipline, or the “ban.” The Low party would reserve the “ban” for cases of flagrant immorality. This division dates from the time of Menno himself, who was inclined towards a more strict use of the ban than many of his followers approved. A synod or assembly of the brethren held at Strassburg in 1555, felt constrained to protest against what they believed to be Menno’s excessive strictness, especially in requiring a husband or wife to refuse cohabitation with an excluded partner.
Some of the disputes that arose among the brethren deserve a place in the curiosities of literature. Such is the button controversy, which arose in this wise: The traditional method of fastening the gowns of women and the coats of men had been hooks and eyes. The Mennonites held views about soberness of dress and shunning conformity to the fashions of the world similar to those afterward associated with the Friends or Quakers. Accordingly, when buttons were invented and introduced, the use of them on a garment was held to be the badge of a carnal mind, it was a conformity to the spirit of this world unworthy of a true Christian. This was the ground on which this apparently trivial controversy was fiercely fought for generations; and to this day some of the descendants of the High party, even in this country, fasten their coats with the old-fashioned hooks and eyes and are popularly known as “Hook-and-eye Dutch.” In general, it may be said that the High party demanded a discipline extending far beyond Scripture precedent, and concerning itself with the minutest details of daily living. The Low party was in favor of a more rational measure of Christian liberty. In some cases the High party also insisted as an article of faith on letting the beard grow, while the Low party denied that the use of the razor was contrary to the word of God.
The Mennonite churches were not content, however, with establishing general rules; they undertook to regulate the daily lives of their members, and to interfere with all manner of private concerns. The results produced by this policy are well illustrated by the Bintgens case. Bintgens was an elder in the Franecker church, and having occasion to purchase a house for seven hundred forms, permitted the seller to insert in the deed a valuation of eight hundred forms. It was not charged that Bintgens profited by the transaction or that anybody lost; but he had been a party to a deception, and that was enough. When the matter was brought before the church, Bintgens professed sorrow for his error, and his statement was accepted. Later a party in the church demanded his deposition from the eldership. Three successive councils failed to effect a settlement, and neighboring churches became involved in the matter. For years the contest raged, some churches becoming hopelessly divided, others withdrawing fellowship from sister churches whose attitude they did not approve, and great scandal being brought upon the name of the brethren by this bitter contentiousness over so slight a matter. “ Behold how great a forest is kindled by how small a fire.” Followers of Menno appeared in England in the sixteenth century, as we learn from many historical documents. They fled thither to escape the persecutions that then raged in Holland, but in this they were doomed to disappointment, for England harried the Anabaptists no less than Holland, casting them into prison and burning them at the stake. Our information regarding these people is mainly confined to royal proclamations against them, and to the records of their arrest, trial, and punishment.
In 1534, after the Act of Supremacy made Henry VIII. the supreme head of the Church of England, be issued two proclamations against heretics, in which the Anabaptists were especially named. They were first warned to leave the kingdom within ten days, and then severer measures were taken against them. In the ten articles published by royal authority in 1536, the error of the Anabaptists regarding the baptism of children is singled out for special reprobation. It is a matter of record that in this same year nineteen Dutch Anabaptists were arrested, and fourteen were burned. Ten are said to have likewise perished in the preceding year. Bishop Latimer, who was himself to suffer in like manner for the truth a few years later, says of these executions: “The Anabaptists that were burnt here in divers towns in England, as I heard of credible men, I saw them not myself, went to their death even intrepide, as ye will say, without any fear in the world, cheerfully; well, let them go.”
In 1538 another proclamation was issued against heretics, who had in the meantime increased rapidly, and a commission of Cranmer and eight bishops was appointed to proceed against such by way of inquisition. Any who remained obdurate were to be committed, with their heretical books and manuscripts, to the flames. Four Dutch Anabaptists were burned in consequence at Paul’s Cross and two at Smithfield.
That these Anabaptists were really an inoffensive folk, who were punished solely for religious offenses, is proved by still another proclamation of Henry VIII., issued in 1540, in which their alleged heresies were thus enumerated: “Infants ought not to be baptized; it is not lawful for a Christian man to bear office or rule in the commonwealth; every manner of death, with the time and hour thereof, is so certainly prescribed, appointed, and determined to every man by God, that neither any prince by his word can alter it, nor any man by his wilfulness prevent or change it.” In the sermons of Roger Hutchinson, published by the Parker Society, is a discourse preached prior to 1560, the following from which describes one tenet on which the Anabaptists of that day laid special stress:
Whether may a man sue forfeits against regrators, forestallers, and other oppressors? Or ought patience to restrain us from all suit and contention? “Aye,” saith master Anabaptist; “for Christ our Master, whose example we must follow, he would not condemn an advoutress woman to be stoned to death, according to the law, but shewed pity to her, and said, ‘Go and sin no more’ (John 8); neither would he, being desired to be an arbiter, judge between two brethren and determine their suit (Luke 12). When the people would have made him their king he conveyed himself out of sight, and would not take on himself such office. Christ the Son of God would not have refused these functions and offices if with the profession of a Christian man it were agreeable with the temporal sword to punish offenders, to sustain any public room, and to determine controversies and suits; if it were lawful for private men to persecute such suits, and to sue just and rightful titles. He non est dorninatu sed passus; would be no magistrate, no judge, no governor, but suffered and sustained trouble, injury, wrong, and oppression patiently. And so must we; for Paul saith, ‘That those which he foreknew he also ordained before—ut essent con formes imagini Filii sui—that they should be alike fashioned into the shape of his Son.’”
By 1550 the growth of the Anabaptists, especially in Kent and Essex, so disquieted those in power that a new commission was issued in the name of the young king, Edward VI., with special powers to discover and punish all Anabaptists. Cranmer, Latimer, and other notable reformers were members of this body. It was by their agency that Joan Boucher, of Kent, was burned for heresy. Her error was that she held a doctrine common among the German Anabaptists, from the time of Melchior Hofmann, and given further currency by the adhesion of Menno Simons, that though Jesus was born of Mary he did not inherit her flesh; the idea being that if he had, he must have shared her sinful human nature. It was crude theology, but the harmless error of untrained minds. A wise church and one really moved by the spirit of Christ would have winked at a matter that so slightly concerned a godly life; but for this offense, and the kindred crime of being an Anabaptist, Joan of Kent suffered death at the stake.
Elizabeth was faithful to the traditions of her race, and in 1560 she warned all Anabaptists and other sectaries to depart from her realm within twenty-one days, on pain of imprisonment and forfeiture of goods. This was a peculiar hardship in the years immediately following, for persecution was raging in the Netherlands, and England was the natural refuge of the oppressed Anabaptists. Later in her reign, Elizabeth’s relations with the Protestant States on the Continent led her to relax the rigors of persecution, but in the meantime fleeing from Holland to England was a leap from fire to fire. The year 1575 is memorable for a special persecution. Thirty Dutch Anabaptists were arrested in London in the very act of holding a conventicle. Most of them were finally released, after a long detention in prison, but Jan Pieters and Hendrik Terwoort were burned for rejecting infant baptism and the bearing of arms. A Confession of Faith that Terwoort penned while in prison contains the first declaration in favor of complete religious liberty made on English soil:
Observe well the command of God: “Thou shalt love the stranger as thyself.” Should he then who is in misery, and dwelling in a strange land, be driven thence with his companions, to their great damage? Of this Christ speaks, “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” Oh, that they would deal with us according to natural reasonableness and evangelical truth, of which our persecutors so highly boast! For Christ and his disciples persecuted no one; on the contrary, Jesus hath thus taught, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you,” etc. This doctrine Christ left behind with his apostles, as they testify. Thus Paul, “Unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling place; and labor, working with our own hands; being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we suffer it.” From all this it is clear, that those who have the one true gospel doctrine and faith will persecute no one, but will themselves be persecuted.
The writings of this period and the published sermons of English divines (such as Latimer, Cranmer, Hutchinson, Whitgift, and Coverdale) are full of references to the Anabaptists and their heresies. Occasionally some light is thrown upon the question of their teachings. Thus, in 1589, Doctor Some wrote “A Godly Treatise,” in which he charged the Anabaptists with holding the following deadly errors:
That the ministers of the gospel ought to be maintained by the voluntary contributions of the people;
That the civil power has no right to make and impose ecclesiastical laws;
That people ought to have the right of choosing their own ministers;
That the high commission court was an anti-Christian usurpation;
That those who are qualified to preach ought not to be hindered by the civil power, etc.
Traces of the presence in England of Anabaptists of foreign origin continue during the reign of Elizabeth, but with the decline of persecution on the Continent their numbers dwindled, and they at length disappeared. They may have converted to their views a few Englishmen here and there, but they do not seem to have made any permanent impression on the English people, nor is the historical connection clear between them and the later bodies of Englishmen bearing the same name.
The last person burned at the stake in England, during the reign of James I., Edward Wightman, was an Anabaptist. Almost nothing is known of him previous to his arrest, except that he was a resident and probably a native of Leicestershire. Whether he was a member of an Anabaptist church, and if so, where the church met, is not known. He was arrested in March, 1611, and the proceedings against him occupied a whole year. In his examination fourteen specific questions were propounded, with the object of making clear his heresies. In reply to these questions he declared that he did not believe in the Trinity, that Christ is not of the same substance as the Father, but only a man; he denied that Christ took human flesh of the substance of the Virgin Mary;1 he affirmed that the soul sleeps in the sleep of the first death as well as the body; he declared the baptism of infants to be an abominable custom; he affirmed that there ought not to be in the church the use of the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper to be celebrated in the elements of bread and wine, and of baptism to be celebrated in the element of water, as they are now practised in the Church of England; but only the sacrament of baptism, to be administered in water to converts of sufficient age of understanding, converted from infidelity to the faith.
From this it is evident that Wightman’s views were derived from the Continental Anabaptists, and apparently from those who had come from Poland, or in some way imbibed the teachings of Socinus. He may also have derived from that source his idea about immersion, if his language implies that, which is not quite certain. For “baptism to be celebrated in tile element of water” must be read in connection with “Lord’s Supper to be celebrated in the elements of bread and wine.” And it seems entirely probable that in the one case “in” has the force of “with” as in the other, and has no reference to the act—a conclusion made still more probable by the added phrase “as they are now practised in the Church of England.” The practice of the Church of England then was to celebrate baptism in the element of water by pouring it upon the head of a babe. Wightman objected to the babe; he does not make it clear that he objected to the pouring. His death occurred April 11, 1612, and so profound was the sensation caused that no further executions for heresy occurred.
1 The Hofmann heresy. for which Joan Boucher also suffered. This clearly marks the connection of Wightman with the Continental Anabaptists.
Title Page - Index
Chapter 14 - Baptist Churches - The Early Days