I Wish I'd Been There: Menno's Moment of Decision,
January 30, 1536
by Gerlof D. Homan
How fascinating it would be to be able to observe all of human
history from the very beginning to the present. But I would be
satisfied if I could observe just a small sliver of it, such
as one aspect of the life of Menno Simons. Much has been written
about Menno Simons' life and work, but we really do not know
that much about him. We find only a few brief autobiographical
details in his writings.
I can think of many episodes or phases of Menno's life I would
have liked to observe very closely. His parents and siblings,
his education for the ministry, his early priesthood and religious
growth come to mind. I would be most interested in the religious
and intellectual environment of that time, to determine its impact
on Menno. This, for instance: I would like to know if Menno was
influenced by the great humanist Erasmus and the so-called sacramentarians,
those who rejected the traditional Catholic sacraments. I wish
I could have taken a stroll in the 1530s through the small Frisian
village of Witmarsum, Menno's birthplace (where he later became
a priest), to meet many of its inhabitants and visit his congregation.
It would have been interesting to determine how much of the Protestant
Reformation had influenced the Witmarsum natives. Later I would
have liked to meet his spouse Geertruydt Hoyer and children,
and to accompany Menno on his long and often dangerous ministry.
But one important episode in his life I especially wish I could
have witnessed: his conversion to the Anabaptist faith. This
took place between 1535 and his final exit from the Catholic
Church on January 30, 1536.
In 1531 Menno became a priest in Witmarsum, after serving
as vicar in neighboring Pingjum beginning in 1528. As we know,
Menno had been struggling and doubting for years about infant
baptism, the sacraments, his lack of biblical knowledge, etc.
For many years he sympathized with (but did not support) religious
dissidents. However, he was greatly disturbed over the events
at the monastery, the Olde Klooster. In 1535 a number of Münsterites,
or radical "anabaptists," seized this monastery located
near the Frisian city of Bolsward. They were the followers of
Jan van Leyden and other radicals who had seized control of the
city of Münster, Germany, in 1534-35 to usher in a "New
Jerusalem." The authorities moved against them and killed
many of the Münsterites.
Similar events occurred in Amsterdam. Here also the authorities
crushed the rebels, killing and executing many, including a Peter
Simons, who might have been Menno's brother. It would take many
years for the young Anabaptist movement to recover from this
terrible episode. It was Menno who did much to restore the Anabaptists'
reputation as a peaceful movement.
Menno was seriously shaken by the Olde Klooster episode and
began to reflect upon his own "unclean, carnal life"
and the "hypocritical doctrine and idolatry" which
he practiced daily in "appearance of godliness, but without
relish." He decried the violence of the Münsterites
at Olde Klooster but also noticed their willingness to give their
lives. To some extent Menno felt partially responsible for their
misguided conduct by having disclosed to some of them earlier
the "abominations of the papal system." But Menno
continued in his "comfortable life and acknowledged abominations"
simply in order that he might enjoy "physical comfort and
escape the cross of Christ." However, in the course of time
he did begin to preach publicly from the pulpit "the true
word of repentance, to point the people to the narrow path, and
in the power of the scripture openly to reprove all sin and wickedness,
all idolatry and false worship, and to present the true worship.
. . [and] true baptism and the Lord's supper, according to the
doctrine of Christ." It would have been interesting to
listen to him preach and to observe his religious growth which
finally, after some nine months, led to his renunciation of all
"worldly reputation, name and fame," his "unchristian
abominations. . . masses, infant baptism and... easy life"
and "willingly submitted to distress and poverty under the
heavy cross of Christ . . . ." This official exit from
the Catholic church occurred on January 30,1536. He was now forty
years old. It had taken him many years to make the decision to
leave Babel and to enter Jerusalem, as he phrased it. We do
not know why it took him so long to break with Rome.
Subsequently, Menno left Witmarsum, married, and in 1537 was
asked to lead the scattered and demoralized Anabaptist flock
which lasted many years. He and his family embarked upon a long
and often dangerous evangelical ministry. (Often they traveled
one step ahead of the authorities.) He wrote much and debated
with various critics, until he finally settled in Oldesloe near
Hamburg in 1554. Here he died in 1561.
Gerlof D. Homan, Normal, Illinois, is author of American
Mennonites and the Great War, 1914-1918, (Herald Press, 1994).