Present at the Inception: Menno Simons
Beginnings of Dutch Anabaptism
by Abraham Friesen
Dutch Anabaptism, like that in Zurich, Switzerland, was born
at a revolutionary point in time: the first believers baptism
took place in Zurich on January 21, 1525, at the very height
of the great Peasant War; Menno's conversion took place on the
eve of the collapse of the revolutionary Muenster movement in
the spring of 1535. These "coincidences" led to repeated
charges of sedition and outright revolution against the Anabaptists.
Menno Simons especially had to defend himself against the charge
of being a Muensterite at nearly every turn. He repeatedly denied
the charge, at times with some vehemence. But not everyone believed
him at the time or since; even some Mennonites have had their
doubts and wondered if they could really trust Menno's word.
Scholars were, for many years, even more skeptical, with Christoph
Bornhaeuser, a German Reformed scholar arguing, not that many
years ago, that Menno had been a Muensterite before the collapse
of the movement in the summer of 1535. And Christian Sepp, a
Dutch Mennonite historian, informed his readers in 1872 that
he could recall that his father's generation had still been fearful
that someone, somewhere would discover the "smoking gun"
that would link Menno to the Muensterites. The answer we give
this issue matters, therefore, for if Menno lied in this instance,
can he be trusted in any other?
Anabaptism was first brought to northern Germany and the Netherlands
by Melchior Hoffmann (1495-1543) in 1529. Earlier a lay Lutheran
missionary, he had gotten into trouble with the governing authorities
in the Hansa cities of northern Germany because of certain radical
tendencies and chiliastic speculations. Recalled to Wittenberg
to be counseled by Luther in 1525, he eventually broke with him
over the interpretation of the Eucharist. As a consequence, he
decided -- in 1529 -- to travel south to Strasbourg where some
of Luther's eucharistic opponents lived. But even these -- Martin
Bucer and Wolfgang Capito, the Reformers of the city -- soon
As a consequence, Hoffmann joined himself to the city's mystical
Anabaptists, was rebaptized by them, came to see himself as a
second Elijah. He had already written a commentary on the book
of Daniel in 1526, and adopted Casper von Schwenckfeld's doctrine
of the incarnation which held that Christ had not taken on sinful,
human flesh when he became man. Schwenkfeld therefore spoke of
the "heavenly flesh of Christ."
In May of 1530 Hoffmann returned to the north where, in Emden,
he baptized some three hundred persons and established the first
continuous Anabaptist churches in the region. Nowhere did the
movement spread more rapidly than here. Hoffmann, however, soon
went back to Strasbourg because of his belief that Christ would
return there in 1533. In between, he made one more trip to the
north; he may have baptized Dirk and Obbe Philips at this time.
Though Hoffman and his followers were not initially revolutionaries,
Hoffmann did predict that the return of Christ had to be preceded
by a great cleansing of the godless. This argument certainly
sounded revolutionary to the governing authorities, and it got
him imprisoned in Strasbourg in 1533 where he languished until
his death in 1543.
In the meantime, 1533 came and went without Christ's return.
This caused two of Hoffmann's Dutch followers, Jan Mattthys and
Jan Leiden, to declare that Hoffmann had erred both as to the
time and place of Christ's return. In their turn they proclaimed
Muenster to be the "New Jerusalem" where the reign
of Christ would begin. Bernard Rothmann, a former Lutheran who
had also been influenced by people he had met in Strasbourg during
the year of 1531, as well as by the so-called "Wassenburg
Predicanten" later on in Muenster, began to reform the city
By 1533 Rothmann was defending believers baptism and the symbolic
interpretation of the Eucharist against both Lutheran and Catholic
opponents at the Muenster Colloquy. He was later to assert that
he and his followers had, at the time, been fully prepared to
suffer for Christ like the early church, but the arrival of Jan
of Leiden in Muenster in January 1534, and Jan Matthys in February
1534, changed everything. Introducing adult baptism into the
city, they also argued that since they were living in the last
days, in which the tares would be removed from the wheat, it
was right and proper to defend the gospel with the sword. But
that gospel was increasingly based on the Old Testament, with
the millennial kingdom of God on earth gradually replacing the
renewal of the apostolic church. And so they took over the city.
No sooner had they done so, than the bishop of Muenster laid
siege to the city. A little later he was assisted by the troops
of Duke Philip of Hesse, a Protestant. In order to dispel the
gloom that settled over the city as a consequence of the siege,
Jan Matthys predicted that God would judge the wicked on Easter
1534 and free the city. When Easter -- 5 April 1534 -- arrived
all the inhabitants stood on the city walls expecting their salvation
and the destruction of the godless.
Once again, however, nothing happened. To rehabilitate his
tarnished prophetic honor, Matthys decided, with a number of
followers, to emulate Gideon of old and sally forth from the
city to slay the enemy. Instead, he and his followers were mercilessly
slaughtered by the Landsknechte, his head was severed from his
body, stuck on a pike and paraded around the city walls for all
within to see. In the wake of these events, Jan of Leiden, a
former actor and drifter, staged his own election as king of
the New Jerusalem. From Muenster their revolutionary movement
spread to Amsterdam and Bolsward. It was in the latter place
that Menno's younger brother, Pieter, became involved and was
Not all the Melchiorites were involved in this revolutionary
activity. Dirk and Obbe Philips could never quite accept these
tendencies and eventually rejected them. But Obbe, in 1540, felt
so compromised by the origins of the movement that he renounced
it, explaining his reasons in a Confession written in
1560. Nevertheless, it is important to establish that, at its
inception, the movement was peaceful. This fact is confirmed
by a number of contemporaries as well as by modern scholarship.
What was Menno's relationship to these movements? To answer
the question properly, we must begin with an important observation:
Menno's conversion is not to be confused with his theological
development -- believing a creed or a set of theological propositions
does not a Christian make! Because scholars have not distinguished
between the two, there has been a great deal of confusion in
regard to the question of Menno's relationship to the Muensterite
Menno's theological transformation began in 1525, at least
six years before he ever heard about "rebaptism," and
nearly nine years before he came into contact with the Muensterites.
In 1524 he was ordained and appointed priest in Pingjum, the
village next to his father's farm. Only one year later, he began
to have doubts about the Catholic teaching of the mass known
as transubstantiation. Somewhere he had read, perhaps in a Lutheran
tract, perhaps in one of Erasmus' writings, about the preeminent
importance of the Bible in matters Christian. He began to read
it, looking for passages dealing with the Lord's Supper. Not
long into his quest he concluded that the church had deceived
him in the matter. For further clarification he turned to the
writings of the emerging Reformers, but found only disagreement.
This forced him back to the Bible. Once begun, he did not stop
studying the book of books.
In 1531 he heard of the execution of Sicke Freerks in Leeuwarden
for rebaptism. Had Menno been educated in a monastery or a monastic
school, the term would not have been so unfamiliar to him, for
monks referred to the initiation into a monastic order as a "second
baptism." But Freerks had been baptized upon his confession
of faith as an adult, and that was unheard of. Again Menno consulted
the Reformers, but again they differed in their justification
for infant baptism. So Menno, once again, turned to the Bible,
but could find none of the Reformers' views substantiated there.
Again he felt betrayed by his church.
In 1532 Menno was transferred to the parish church in Witmarsum.
He informs us that by this time he had "acquired considerable
knowledge of the Scriptures" and was considered an "evangelical
preacher." One year later, believers baptism was introduced
in his region; and in 1534 he encountered the first emissaries
By this time Menno had studied the Bible and the writings
of Erasmus and the Reformers for nine years. He had been forced
to find his own theological way through the confusing maze of
Catholic, Reformation, Muensterite, and biblical teachings, a
path he had embarked upon long before he encountered the Muensterites.
If he had not fallen prey to any of the much more theologically
sophisticated arguments of the Reformers, why should he now have
fallen prey to the much cruder arguments of the Muensterites?
To assume that he did so without any proof at all is absurd,
yet many have done so.
Menno now began to encounter the Muensterite emissaries in
Witmarsum. He opposed them, debated them privately and publicly,
and easily refuted their views. Though they erred in doctrine,
he recognized their zeal. In January 1535 the disciples of Jan
Matthys and Jan of Leiden sought to capture Amsterdam as well;
in March they took over the monastery in nearby Bolsward. in
the latter place the authorities captured and massacred the rebels,
Menno's brother Pieter among them.
Probably immediately after his brother's execution, Menno took
up his pen for the first time and attacked Jan of Leiden in a
tract entitled Against the Blasphemy of Jan of Leiden. Written
in anger, it was a frontal attack on the king of the New Jerusalem.
Menno never wrote another piece like it, not did he ever publish
it. It was later discovered among his daughter's papers after
her death and first published in 1627. Since it speaks of Jan
of Leiden as still alive, it must have been written between Easter
of 1535 and the collapse of Muenster in June of the same year.
In the tract, Menno attacks Leiden as a "false prophet"
who had subverted the movement from within; he addressed it to
all "true brethren of the covenant scattered abroad."
It was the nature of such false prophets, Menno asserted, to
"desert the pure doctrine of Christ and begin to traffic
in strange doctrine." His purpose, apparently, was to call
the movement back to its more orthodox beginnings.
Before Menno could publish the tract, Muenster must have fallen.
Should he still publish it and appear to be celebrating on the
graves of his enemies? Perhaps there was another reason for not
publishing the tract. In his brief autobiography, Menno describes
himself during this period in which he debated the Muensterites
-- as a hypocrite. The reason for this, he informs us, was that
he knew what was right -- he had his biblical theology in order
-- and he knew how the "erring sheep" could be helped;
but for his ease and convenience he chose to remain in the Catholic
Church and let the "misguided sheep" go to their doom.
When his poor brother was killed, he picked up his pen and-both
out of guilt and anger -- attacked Jan of Leiden who was responsible
for the disaster. But as he did so -- or shortly after he had
done so -- the words of Christ as recorded in Matthew 7 about
the splinter in the "brother's" eye and "mote"
or beam in his eye came back to haunt him. Here he was, Menno
Simons, denouncing his "brother" who certainly had
a splinter in his eye, while his own conscience was punishing
him for his own hypocrisy. Was he not, therefore, at least as
damned in the eyes of God as any Jan of Leiden, who may have
acted in ignorance?
Confronted by the realization of who he really was, Menno
broke down before God, repented his sins, and received a new
heart from God through the power of the Holy Spirit. Now he knew
that theological knowledge of itself provided no power; it led
only to arrogance and strife with those who disagree with you.
It had not made him a Christian, for he had continued his old
lifestyle unabated. Will as well as mind had to be transformed
and brought into subjection to God; conversion had to be added
to correct theological knowledge; life had to be brought into
conformity with faith. And so Menno placed his Blasphemy
in a "drawer," even though the tract could have exonerated
him forever had he published it at the time. Rather than do so,
however, a reformed Menno chose to divest himself on his honorable
position in society and associate himself with the most despised
of all 16th-century persons -- the hated Muensterites. If Menno
was never a Muensterite, could he have belonged to the peaceful
Melchiorites? Most recent scholars, both Mennonite and non-Mennonite,
have answered in the affirmative, primarily because of Menno's
doctrine of the incarnation. Now it is interesting that virtually
every time Menno seeks to refute the charge of being a Muensterite
he mentions very specific aspects of their teachings that the
had opposed from the time he first encountered them. Never once,
however, does he mention their views on the incarnation. Was
this because he agreed with them on the issue, or because he
had not heard of them before the collapse of the movement? Most
historians, myself included, assumed the former. But I no longer
believe this to be the case. For there exists, in Menno's A
True Confession and Scriptural Demonstration of the Most Holy
Incarnation, the following passage:
...when the matter of the incarnation of our beloved Lord
Jesus Christ was first mentioned by the brethren, on hearing
it I was terrified at heart, lest I should err in the matter
and be found, before God, in pernicious unbelief. On account
of this article I was often so troubled at heart, after receiving
baptism, that for many days I abstained from food and drink,
by the overanxiety of my soul, beseeching and praying God in
extreme necessity that the kind Father by his mercy and grace
would disclose unto me, poor sinner, who, although in extreme
weakness, desired to do his blessed will and pleasure, the mystery
of the incarnation of his blessed Son, to the extent necessary
to the glorification of his holy name to be consolation of my
This passage makes clear that Menno first heard of the doctrine
directly from "the brethren" -- the reference must
be to Dirk and Obbe Philips and their followers. Such a first
meeting took place only well after the collapse of Muenster.
More importantly, however, Menno speaks of hearing of the doctrine
in connection with his baptism -- probably in January 1536. Perhaps,
it was only after his baptism! For, would he have allowed himself
to be baptized by them had they informed him about these views
beforehand? Hardly. But if he only heard of it afterwards Menno
would have placed into a nearly impossible position. Once performed,
he could not go back on his baptism; and yet he could not accept
the doctrine of the "heavenly flesh" of Christ either.
If the above is correct, it says something extremely important
about Menno's relationship to the peaceful Melchiorites -- and
that is: had he been theologically influenced by them prior to
his baptism he must surely have heard about this doctrine, for
it was widely known, even that the Muensterites shared it. I
therefore believe it safe to concluded that both in his theological
development as well as in his conversion, Menno owed essentially
nothing to the Muensterites or the Melchiorites save the occasion
or reason for his theological inquiries.
If this is so, however, it poses a problem of character for
Menno. Should Menno have allowed himself to be persuaded in the
matter of the incarnation by his new brethren, apparently against
his better judgment? Should he have allowed the "brotherhood"
-- to put it into a contemporary context -- to have determined
his interpretation? Or should he not rather have played the prophet
and "corrected" his brothers, in the process vindicating
Menno did the same thing later with respect to the implementation
of the ban, succumbing to the "harsh banners" against
his better judgment. No wonder that every time he addresses the
topic of the incarnation in his writings one gets the distinct
impression that Menno is defensive. This was noted already by
the great church historian, Johann Lorenz Mosheim, in the first
half of the eighteenth-century. He argued further that Menno,
on occasion, even described the incarnation in orthodox terms!
And Mosheim was no friend of the Anabaptists.
Within a few years of the collapse of the revolutionary movement
in 1535, a powerful transformation began to manifest itself in
Dutch Anabaptism. Mosheim may have been the first "outsider"
to acknowledge it. He credited it primarily to Menno's eloquence
and moral integrity. But would that have been enough to account
for a transformation that even Johan Huizinga, the great twentieth-century
Dutch cultural historian and descendant of Anabaptist forebears,
pointed to in the following question:
"How is it that a religion whose zealots were responsible
for fanatical excesses in Amsterdam and Muenster should have
subsided so gently into decorous piety, and that the many disciples
of Menno in the northern provinces, in Haarlem and in Amsterdam,
become the most peaceful citizens of all?
How indeed! The question has never been satisfactorily answered.
Certainly, the discredited Muensterite movement could not have
provided the power for it. Could Melchioritism? Or had it, too,
been compromised by its association with the revolutionary forces?
We have observed that Obbe and Dirk Philips, who formed the
center of the peaceful Melchiorite movement, sought out Menno
after his conversion and both baptized and ordained him after
January 1536. But within a few short years -- in 1540 -- Obbe
had left the movement because, as he wrote in his Confession
of 1560, he felt compromised by the revolutionary involvement
of the Muensterite leaders from whom he had received baptism
and ordination. How could such a movement -- filled with inner
doubt and external turmoil -- have provided both the theology
and inner strength to transform a movement which had been derailed
by its own internal problems? Was the failure of the revolutionary
wing enough to bring about such a change? The answer would appear
to be negative. It was Menno who provided both the requisite
theology and the source of strength; and neither the one nor
the other derived from Melchioritism.
The power came from Menno's own conversion and his theology
of conversion that resulted from it. His conversion has been
described above; as early as 1536 he wrote his "The Spiritual
Resurrection." There, in the opening lines, he wrote:
The Scriptures teach two resurrections, namely a bodily
resurrection from the dead at the last day, and a spiritual resurrection
from sin and death to a new life and a change of heart. That
a man should mortify and bury the body of sin and rise again
to a new life of righteousness in God is plainly taught in all
In 1537 Menno revisited the topic in his The New Birth.
From the very outset of the piece it was clear that Menno
was talking not only of a moral reformation, but of a moral revolution,
for he wrote:
Tell me, dearly beloved, where and when did you read in
the Scriptures, the true witness of the Holy Ghost and criterion
of your consciences, that the unbelieving, disobedient, carnal
man, the adulterous, immoral, drunken, avaricious, idolatrous,
and pompous man has one single promise of the kingdom of Christ
and His church, yes, part or communion in His merits, death and
blood? I tell you the truth, nowhere and never do we read it
in the Scriptures.
From the start, Menno's message was; you must be born again.
Neither Hoffmann's teachings nor the "revolution of the
saints" had changed the essential nature of man. Instead,
their teachings had brought only disaster. But this doctrine
of the new birth, of regeneration through the power of the Holy
Spirit, had a larger theological context. And that theological
context came to Menno from the same source the Swiss and South
German Anabaptists had received it -- from Erasmus' interpretation
of Matthew 28:18-20 -- Christ's great commission. This becomes
apparent in Menno's writings as early as 1539 in his immensely
influential "Fundamentboek." There Menno wrote:
Christ commanded his disciples after his resurrection,
saying: "Therefore go and teach all nations, and baptize
them in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the Holy
Ghost; and teach them to observe everything that I have commanded
you. For, behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the
Here we have the Lord's command regarding baptism, who
shall receive God's ordinance, and when and what it is to serve;
that is that the Gospel must be preached and then baptize those
who [accept and] believe it, as he [Christ] says: "Go into
all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever
believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not
believe will be condemned."
Somewhat later Menno continued:
Christ's holy apostles taught and practiced [baptism] in
accordance with Christ's commandments, as one can readily understand
and note from many passages of the New Testament. Thus Peter
says: Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of
Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive
the gift of the Holy Spirit." and Phillip said to the eunuch;
"If you believe with all your heart, you may be [baptized]."
Acts chapter 8. For faith does not follow upon baptism, but baptism
follows from faith (Matt. 28, Mark 16).
What is striking about the passage is that Menno interprets
the great commission through the baptismal passages in the Acts
the Apostles, in particular through Peter's Pentecost sermon.
In and earlier essay, we pointed out that such an interpretation,
to be found throughout Swiss, South German, and Hutterite Anabaptism,
could only have come from Erasmus' Paraphrases of the Gospel
of Matthew and the Acts of the Apostles. It was this Erasmian
context that gave theological meaning to Menno's own conversion.
Thus, as we have seen, Peter's Pentecost sermon became the
grid through which the great commission was interpreted by the
Anabaptists. In that sermon Peter began by proclaiming Jesus
as the risen Christ and confronting the Jews -- and others --
with the Son of God whom they had crucified. He went on to demonstrate
that his coming had been foretold in the Old Testament, and that
he was now seated at the right hand of God the Father and would
come again to judge the quick and the dead.
With the Holy Spirit visibly present -- without his presence
there can be neither true repentance nor conversion -- the listeners
were stricken in their consciences; they recognized whom they
had crucified and that, at their death, he would sit in judgement
of them. Seeing no escape from sure condemnation by the living
God, they cried out to Peter and the other apostles: "Brothers,
what shall we do?" And Peter told them "Repent and
be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for
the forgiveness of sins. And you will receive the gift of the
Holy Spirit." Those who accepted Peter's message, we are
informed, "were baptized, and about 3,000 were added to
their number that day."
After the first "teaching," repentance, and baptism,
the Matthean account of the great commission had then added:
"teach them [who have been baptized] to obey everything
I have commanded you." And in Acts 2 we read that those
who had been baptized and added to the church "devoted themselves
to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking
of bread and to prayer." Only two weeks ago I heard an Evangelical
preacher proclaim that these apostolic teachings must have dealt
with Christ. Anabaptists -- and Menno -- would have rejected
The "apostolic teachings" the newly baptized converts
devoted themselves to were all those things Christ had commanded
his disciples to obey! This was the place where discipleship
was taught. And the context makes it clear that such discipleship
was possible only if persons involved had heard and accepted
the crucified and risen Christ as Savior, had repented their
sins, and had had their heart changed -- that is, had been raised
to newness of life -- and had taken an oath of obedience to Christ
in baptism. For that baptism symbolized the fact that they had
already died to self, sin, and the world, and had been raised
to newness of life. Only then could Christ's second command to
"teach" be meaningful.
Now, if with the above firmly in one's mind one begins to
read the Martyrs Mirror, one cannot help but be struck
by how widespread -- from ministers to the commonest brother
and sister -- this interpretation had penetrated to the very
core of Dutch Anabaptism. And what transformed this theological
interpretation into vibrant life was Menno's all-pervasive emphasis
on conversion. It was this message, so graphically portrayed
in Menno's earliest writings, and the conversions that followed
from it, that transformed the revolutionary Muensterites, as
well as the more peaceful Melchiorites, into peaceful Mennonites,
just as his own conversion transformed Menno's life. And the
Martyrs Mirror is filled with the evidence.
Both Menno, therefore, as well as Dutch Anabaptism after Muenster,
were neither Muensterite nor Melchiorite. The theological core
came from the outside -- from Erasmus' interpretation of Christ's
great commission -- but it was given life by Menno's own conversion
experience. To be sure, the Melchiorite doctrine of the incarnation
hung around for some time to come, but the framework of Dutch
Anabaptist theology came from Erasmus, as it had for Swiss and
South German Anabaptism. Hence the overwhelming similarities
between the two movements despite the fact that there were virtually
no initial contacts between the two, and Menno never once mentioned,
in his writings, the names of any of the early Swiss Brethren.
--Abraham Friesen is professor of history at the University
of California, Santa Barbara, and chair of the Mennonite Brethren
Bulletin, April, 1996