The name of one of the notable Anabaptist leaders in the Low Countries spawned a denomination known as the Mennonites, a small but hardy group persecuted fiercely by both Catholic and Protestant authorities for insistence on disengaging from the world and particularly from war. Mennonites have spread out to communities in at least 87 countries worldwide.
Their story begins in 1496, when a Dutch couple in Witmarsum, Friesland, named their infant son Menno. Since the child’s father was Simon, by custom in Holland his name was Menno Simonszoon, or Simons for short.
Simons trained for the Catholic priesthood, among other things learning to read and write Latin and studying the Church Fathers. He was ordained in 1524 and assigned for seven years to a parish in the town of Pinjum, near his birthplace, where he was transferred in 1531 for five years. Some Anabaptist accounts assert that “Menno had feared to read the Bible,” but such a claim stems from ignorance of the fact that one of the duties of the priest is homilectics, to preach on the day’s biblical readings.
Simons’ theological change of heart is believed to have started in 1525, during his first year as a priest. He is said to have been celebrating Mass “when a doubt crept into his mind as to whether the bread and wine actually became divine.” He apparently originally thought this was a suggestion from the Devil and tried to get it out of his mind.
The Anabaptist account wrongly describes it as doubting “the truth of transubstantiation,” which is not the teaching that, in the Eucharist, bread and wine acquire the “Real Presence” of Christ and become his Body and Blood, but rather the theory adopted by Lateran IV to explain how the change occurs. Doubt concerning the Real Presence prompted deeper study of the New Testament, which led him toward a humanist evangelical view common in his day. Two events intervened to push Simons beyond what was, for a country priest, at most an eccentric Erasmian stance.
First, in 1531, he heard that a tailor named Sicke Freerks Snijder had been beheaded for being “rebaptized,” which was how Simons first heard of the rite. He said that it “sounded very strange to me.” Transferred to his hometown, he came into direct contact with Anabaptists, who preached and practiced “believer’s baptism,” just as Simons was coming to the conclusion that infant baptism had no biblical writ.
Next, in the nearby German city of Münster, radical Anabaptists led by John of Leiden seized power and set up a communal sectarian government in February 1534. The uprising at first denounced Catholicism from a radical Lutheran perspective, but soon proclaimed the absolute equality of all people in all matters, including wealth, and called on the poor of the region to join him in to share the wealth of the town and enjoy the spiritual benefits of being Heaven’s elect.
Meanwhile, some 300 Friesland Anabaptists, men and women, led by an emissary of their congregation in Münster, violently seized a Catholic monastery on March 30, 1535. On April 7 the monastery was stormed by troops led by the imperial stadtholder. Several hundred Anabaptists died, among them Simons’ brother, Pieter. Not long after, Münster’s expelled bishop came back with an army and did the same in his city.
Simons later recounted the crisis, saying he “prayed to God with sighs and tears that He would give to me, a sorrowing sinner, the gift of His grace, create within me a clean heart, and graciously through the merits of the crimson blood of Christ, He would graciously forgive my unclean walk and unprofitable life.”
Ultimately, Simons rejected Catholicism and the priesthood on January 12, 1536, was rebaptized and joined the Anabaptists. He was ordained around 1537 by Obbe Philips, a barber and a surgeon who was leading an Anabaptist community in Groningen. The association ended badly. The community felt that Simons, who devoted himself to quiet meditation and study, would be a better leader. Members pressed him twice before Simons agreed to become an elder, roughly equivalent to a bishop.
As an elder, Simons rejected the violence of the Münster movement, arguing that it was not scriptural, and offered a theology focused on separation from the world and baptism by repentance. In his 1539 work Why I Do Not Cease Teaching and Writing, he states:
True evangelical faith is of such a nature that it cannot lie dormant; but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love; it dies unto flesh and blood; destroys all forbidden lusts and desires; cordially seeks, serves and fears God; clothes the naked; feeds the hungry; consoles the afflicted; shelters the miserable; aids and consoles all the oppressed; returns good for evil; serves those that injure it; prays for those that persecute it; teaches, admonishes and reproves with the Word of the Lord; seeks that which is lost; binds up that which is wounded; heals that which is diseased and saves that which is sound.
The term “Mennonite” or “Mennist” was first used in 1544 letter to refer to Dutch Anabaptists. Simons died January 31, 1561, at Wüstenfelde, Holstein, and was buried in his garden. He was married to a woman named Gertrude, and they had at least three children, two daughters and a son.
The Mennonite faith forbids swearing of an oath or serving as a soldier. It calls for a New Testament style assembly of voluntary converts baptized after confession of faith in Christ and bound to the group’s discipline. Mennonite mutual-aid organizations carry out the group’s spirit of carrying one another’s burdens. The faith sees the community of believers as a “suffering church, not a ruling political body which punished heresy with the power of the state.” As such, it must expect persecution. Simons wrote: “The persecution, suffering and anxiety which befalls it for the sake of the truth of the Lord, is to it a glorious joy and consolation.”
Simons spoke of guarding what we learn “in the little chest of the conscience” (Gewissen) as an inborn divine voice. “We have but one Lord and master of our conscience, Jesus Christ, whose word, will, commandment and ordinance we obey, as willing disciples, even as the bride is ready to obey her bridegroom's voice,” he wrote.
There were about 2.1 million Anabaptists worldwide as of 2015 (including Mennonites, Amish and Mennonite Brethren, formally part of the Mennonite World Conference). The largest groups are in Canada, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, India and the United States. There are German colonies in Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Mexico, Paraguay and Uruguay. There remains only a relatively small Mennonite presence in the Netherlands, where Simons was born.