The story reads a lot like Waco
and the Branch Davidians in 1993, only it was the spring of 1534
in the city of Munster (located in what is today the west-central
region of modern Germany). Hundreds of Dutch-speaking Anabaptists-mainly
artisans, peasants, and shopkeepers-converged on the city. They
were united by their common opposition to infant baptism and
the sacraments. But they were also driven by a primal fear forged
on the anvil of torture and by an eschatological conviction that
Münster was to become the New Jerusalem, the site chosen
by God for the re-establishment of his kingdom on earth.
In the months that followed, the so-called Anabaptist Kingdom
of Münster quickly degenerated into a morass of religious
fanaticism and excess. Jan
van Leyden -- the David Koresh of the sixteenth century -- appointed
himself the king. He instituted a reign of terror that included
polygamy (he took for himself no fewer than 12 wives), the elimination
of private property, forced baptisms of the citys non-Anabaptist
inhabitants, and armed preparations for a glorious final battle
in which the elect gathered in Munster would vanquish the godless.
But in the summer of 1535, the New Jerusalem of Munster met with
a violent demise. Armies of the Catholic Bishop von Waldeck first
besieged, then stormed the city, and the sordid affair came to
a bloody and violent conclusion.
For most North Americans, Waco-type
images are not their first impression of todays Mennonites,
the spiritual heirs to the early Anabaptists. Instead, when most
of us think of Mennonites, images of their Amish cousins come
to mind: a hardworking, honest, and rural people, committed to
a quiet sober life of humility, simplicity, service and, above
all, to Christian pacifism; they shun politics -and sometimes
each other as a matter of church discipline- and emerge in the
public eye only for massive quilt auctions to support overseas
relief work or to clean up after natural disasters.
The contrast between this idealized
image of contemporary Mennonites and the Munsterites of the sixteenth
century could hardly be more striking. Who intervened to accomplish
this amazing turnaround?
The answer is Menno Simons. Out
of the ashes of Munster, a new Anabaptist group emerged, led
by Menno Simons (1496-1561), a Catholic priest turned radical
reformer. Menno restored stability to a group in which some had
broken loose from their theological moorings. His leadership
sought to balance the eschatological impulses of a persecuted
sect with the model of a disciplined, visible church ruled by
the authority of Scripture. To a movement of uneducated artisans,
deeply suspicious of trained "school theologians" (Schriftgelehrten),
Menno brought a measure of theological sophistication that blended
central themes of orthodox Christianity with the distinctive
nuances of the radical reformation. Later known as the Mennonites,
the group that gathered around his leadership espoused a biblicism
shorn of private visions and advocated a sober discipline of
its members, which eventually earned them the sobriquet of "the
quiet in the land." They explicitly renounced violence and
political power. To be sure,
well before Menno emerged as a leader, there were other Anabaptist
groups who were committed to biblical pacifism.
On the occasion of his five-hundredth birthday, the career and
thought of Menno Simons merits renewed consideration. Deeply
biblical, thoroughly Christocentric, steeped in the evangelical
language of the New Birth and the Great Commission, Menno offers
modern evangelicals an inspiring example of leadership that balances
zeal and discipline, piety and theological depth, courage and
Reformer on the Run
Menno was born sometime
in 1496 in the small Friesen town of Witmarsum in the north of
the Netherlands. The son of a farmer, he attended grammar school
at a monastery, where he likely learned Latin and gained some
acquaintance with the church fathers. At the age of 15, Menno
entered a novitiate and five years later became a deacon in the
Catholic church. At the time of his ordination to the priesthood,
the Reformation in the Netherlands had found expression primarily
in the form of local resistance to the sacraments.
Indeed, soon after he began his
first assignment as a vicar in his fathers native village
of Pingjum, Menno himself experienced doubts and, by his own
account, gave himself over to "playing cards, drinking,
and frivolities of all sorts." But in 1531, the martyrdom
of Sicke Freeriks Snijder -"a godfearing, pious hero"
in nearby Leeuwarden, beheaded by state authorities for the crime
of rebaptism- prompted Menno to embark on a fresh and systematic
reading of the Bible "I examined the scriptures diligently,"
he wrote in his autobiographical Departure from the Papacy,
"and pondered them earnestly, but could find no report of
infant baptism." Still, he vacillated. Though intrigued
by the staunch biblicism of the Anabaptist movement, he nonetheless
accepted a promotion as a priest in his home church at Witmarsum
in 1531 and continued to carry out the duties of his office for
the next three years, all the while struggling with the tension
between his understanding of Scripture and received Catholic
In the end, it was not a new
intellectual insight that led Menno to break with the old church,
but rather the fanatical excesses of the Anabaptist movement
itself. In the spring of 1535, as the horrors of the Münsterite
kingdom unfolded, Menno penned his first surviving tract, a polemic
against Jan of Leyden, in which he denounced the private visions
and impatient violence of the Münsterites and laid the groundwork
for a biblical hermeneutic based firmly on the teachings of Christ.
For the next nine months, Menno attempted to preach his new message
of evangelical reform from the pulpit of his parish church in
Witmarsum. But finally, on
January 20, 1536 -- precisely when public sentiment against the
Anabaptists had reached a crescendo -- Menno resigned his priestly
office, gave up the salary, status, and security of his former
identity, and publicly aligned himself with the Anabaptist cause.
"Without constraint," he wrote, "I renounced all
my worldly reputation, name and fame, my unchristian abominations,
my masses, my infant baptism, and my easy life, and I willingly
submitted to distress and poverty under the heavy cross of Christ."
Shortly thereafter Obbe Philips, leader of the beleaguered pacifist
remnant of Dutch Anabaptism, ordained Menno as an Anabaptist
pastor. Immediately Menno
set about to rebuild the scattered and dispirited brotherhood.
For the next three years, he traveled almost constantly -- preaching,
baptizing, instructing new believers in the faith, denouncing
the apocalyptic remnants of the Munsterite kingdom -- while simultaneously
writing a flurry of apologetic treatises, including The Spiritual
Resurrection (1536), Meditation on the Twenty-Fifth Psalm
(1537), The New Birth (1537), Christian Baptism
(1539), and his most influential work, Foundation of the Christian
Doctrine (1539-40). By 1542, Dutch authorities in Leeuwarden
publicized a reward of 500 guilders for Mennos capture.
Remarkably, he eluded arrest for the next two decades. Traveling
with his wife, Gertrude, and their three children, Menno lamented
in 1544 that he "could not fine in all the countries a cabin
or hut in which [we] could be put up in safety for a year or
even half a year." Although
he successfully eluded arrest, numerous tales circulated of his
narrow escapes from the authorities.
One oft-repeated, though likely apocryphal, story recounts how
Menno was once traveling by stagecoach when a group of armed
horsemen, carrying a warrant for Mennos arrest, overtook
the carriage. As it happened, Menno was seated outside next to
the driver. When the soldiers asked him whether Menno Simons
was in the carriage, Menno leaned into the coach and said, "They
want to know if a Menno Simons is in there." When the occupants
said no, Menno answered his pursuers: "They say he is not
in there." The horsemen continued on their way.
Menno preached a gospel of the
New Birth, giving prominent attention to distinctive Anabaptist
convictions regarding adult baptism, the priesthood of all believers,
pacifism, and a rejection of the oath and magisterial offices.
During the last period of his life, Mennos writings took
on an increasingly polemical character as he defended the Anabaptists
from attacks from without (against Reformed theologians such
as John a Lasco, Martin Micron, and Adam Pastor) and heresy from
within (against fellow Anabaptist David Joris, for example, on
the question of prophetic visions). Menno
died on January 31, 1561, at the age of 65 in Fresenberg, a haven
of refuge in north Germany and site of the press that printed
many of his later works.
The followers he left behind -- known as Mennists or Mennonites
as early as 1542 -- were not altogether unified. But his legacy
as a prolific writer, a theologian, and a polemicist lived on
in the broader Anabaptist tradition. A recent bibliography of
his published writings runs to 200 entries in Dutch, German,
English, and Spanish. On the occasion of his five-hundredth birthday,
nearly a million Mennonites, scattered in six continents and
over 60 countries around the world, are paying him special honor.
No Other Foundation
It would be presumptuous
to suggest that Menno was a reformer on a par with Luther or
Zwingli, or that his Foundation of Christian Doctrine
could be read as a parallel to Melancthons Loci Communes
or Calvins Institutes of the Christian Religion.
Menno never enjoyed the leisure to reflect systematically on
his theology, and his emphasis on practical holiness did not
harmonize well with abstract theological argumentation. Written
in the white heat of debate, Mennos writings today sound
somewhat defensive in tone. He can be repetitious, even bombastic,
overwhelming opponents as much with a flurry of scriptural references
as with carefully nuanced argument.
That said, however, Menno deserves
a fresh reading today by those in the broader evangelical tradition
who will find in his writings some surprisingly familiar themes.
Modern evangelicals will be impressed with Mennos command
of Scripture and the way in which all of his though is suffused
in biblical language and imagery. Wary of his contemporaries
who had allowed personal revelations and visions to transcend
the authority of the written Word, Menno continuously defended
Scripture as the foundation of the Christian life.
Contemporary readers will undoubtedly appreciate Mennos
high view of Christ and his repeated insistence that the inner
transformation of the Christian into a "new creature"
is made possible only by the blood of Christs atoning sacrifice.
So central was the saving work of Christ to Mennos thought
that he included on the title page of every book he published
the Pauline text: "For no one can lay any foundation other
than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ" (1 Cor.
3:11, NIV). Menno also emphasized
the active and empowering presence of the Holy Spirit in the
life of the believer and the centrality of missions.
But Mennos writings also deserve a fresh reading because
they offer a challenge -- and even a helpful corrective -- to
contemporary evangelical theology. Consider, first, Mennos
understanding of salvation. Few reformers emphasized the centrality
of the new birth more than Menno; indeed, he devoted a lengthy
treatise to the theme in 1537 in which the themes of grace, repentance,
and faith so central to the Protestant Reformation find eloquent
But Menno stubbornly insisted that the new birth was more than
simply the inner experience of forgiveness of sins. He emphasized
the link between the New Birth and the life of the "new
creature," a life of Christian discipleship that gave tangible
evidence of the gift of grace. It will not "help a fig,"
Menno insisted, "to boast of the Lords blood, death,
merits, grace or gospel if the believer is not truly converted
from his sinful life."
To be sure, the believer never is fully freed from the taint
of original sin -- Menno did not preach perfectionism -- but
he had no patience for the popular appropriation of Luthers
doctrine of justification that seemed to promote a casual approach
to Christian ethics. The regenerate "live no longer after
the old corrupted nature of the earthly Adam, but after the new
upright nature of the new and heavenly Adam, Christ Jesus."
Becoming "like minded with Jesus" meant actually to
live like Jesus. "True evangelical faith," Menno wrote,
"cannot lie dormant. It clothes the naked, it feeds the
hungry, it comforts the sorrowful, it shelters the destitute,
it serves those that harm it, it binds up that which is wounded,
it has become all things to all people." Menno
challenges our temptation to preach a gospel of saving grace
shorn of a gospel of empowering grace.
Mennos emphasis on a life of practical holiness was closely
tied to his understanding of the church. "They verily are
not the true congregation of Christ who are truly converted,
who are born from above of God, who are of a regenerate mind
by the operation of the Holy Spirit through the hearing of the
Divine Word, and have become children of God, have entered into
obedience to him, and live unblamably in his holy commandments."
Many of his writings sought to define the character of the true
church in contrast to the state-dominated official churches of
his day. According to Menno, the true church was found in the
local body of adult believers who voluntarily gathered to study
the Word and pledged themselves to lives of discipleship and
mutual aid one for the other. This community was an alternative
society where violence and coercive force had no place, a setting
where nurture in the faith and mutual discipline according to
the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 18 could happen in Christian
Mennos emphasis on the
church as a deeply committed fellowship challenged the Protestant
temptation to regard the church as an institution closely allied
with the state, charged with the task of maintaining the status
quo, with an identity virtually independent of the lives of individual
believers. Mennos view of the church necessarily implies
an ongoing corporate discernment of the meaning of the gospel
in a changing culture. Mennos understanding of the church
as a voluntary gathering has become the Protestant norm in America.
But Mennos understanding of the church is also in tension
with the modern impulse to view the church primarily in individualistic
terms, as a setting in which to discover ones private understanding
of faith. Baptism, in Mennos view, symbolized a new life
in Christ as lived in the nurturing fellowship of other believers.
Baptism marked a public statement of incorporation into a new
body, the church. Called to present itself as the bride of the
risen Christ -- "without spot or wrinkle" -- the church
offers a collective and visible witness to the world as a redeemed
But the church can only maintain this character if its members
actively discern the will of God in their lives and willingly
exercise church discipline as an act of Christian charity and
love to the struggling or fallen believer. This
view of the church assumes that a commitment to the larger body
of believers will necessarily qualify individual freedoms to
live faith strictly in accordance with personal inclination.
In light of the ongoing highly publicized moral failures of prominent
church leaders, modern evangelicals will find in Menno fresh
insights on the questions of accountability and discipline.
Called to Peace
Perhaps most radical of all,
Mennos writings challenge contemporary evangelicals to
rethink the question of Jesus teachings on peace, and particularly
the easy alliance modern Christians have made with the political
order. In our own time, the graphic accounts of bloody massacres
and human atrocities committed against each other by the Hutus
and Tutsis in Rwanda have all but disappeared from the headlines
these days. Yet, for evangelical Christians, there is an element
to the Rwanda story that should haunt our conscience for a long
time: 90 percent of Rwandas people are professed Christians.
To the African church, Rwanda had been a success story. Yet,
according to an InterVarsity leader in the region, missionaries
preached a gospel about having a right relationship with God
but not necessarily right relationships with one another. "This
is why we can be 90 percent Christian yet kill in the name of
ethnicity," he says.
Preaching a gospel that separates
relationship with God from human relations was anathema to Menno
Simons. Worse, the haunting specter of Christians killing Christians
was completely unthinkable. In his refutation of the violence
at Münster, Menno recognized the profound danger of mixing
zealous Christian convictions with the coercive power of the
At the heart of the new birth, he insisted, was a recognition
that God granted us his gift of forgiveness and love while we
were still sinners alienated from him -- indeed, while we were
yet enemies of God. Gods gift of salvation through Christ
has world-transforming power precisely because it offers followers
of Jesus a concrete model for love expressed in daily life. Because
we have been saved and transformed by grace, we too will embody
that same grace-filled love with all relationships, including
-- indeed, especially -- those who might be considered our enemies.
"The Prince of Peace," wrote Menno, "is Jesus
Christ. We who were formerly no people at all, and who knew of
no peace, are now called to be...a church...of peace. True Christians
do not know vengeance. They are the children of peace. Their
hearts overflow with peace. Their mouths speak peace, and they
walk in the way of peace" (Reply to False Accusations).
Living in accordance with this
forgiving, gracious peace of God may well entail suffering. In
the 16th century the cost was social and economic marginalization,
torture, and sometimes even death. But such suffering also offers
a profound opportunity for witness to the love of God in the
midst of a violent, hate-filled culture. The prospect of suffering
rather than retaliating with violence is certainly alien to modern
notions of self-esteem; it is also alien to contemporary expressions
of North American Christianity, whether on the Right or the Left,
that seek to impose their visions of a godly society upon others.
In a roundabout way, that brings
us back to the story of the ill-fated Anabaptist kingdom of Münster.
Christians have always been tempted to take control of history;
to seize the levers of temporal power and make history come out
"right," to try to align the kingdoms of this world
with the kingdom of God. To be sure, the temptations of violence
today are rarely as blatant or extreme as that of Jan van Leyden
-- or even that of Rwanda. But a Christianity that aligns itself
with a culture of violence -- from the Left or the Right -- seems
to make a mockery of the grace it proclaims as its gift to the
Menno would argue that violence of any sort in the name of Christ
is blasphemy, which calls for repentance. His writings call upon
Christians to resist the seduction of a violent culture (even
when that violence is sanctioned by the state). As a whole, evangelicals
will probably not be convinced of Mennos arguments for
Christian pacifism; but at the very least we should have an uneasy
conscience about our too-easy rationalizations.
Regardless of ones understanding
of Christian pacifism, in a profound way we are all heirs of
Menno. The principles of religious voluntarism and a disestablished
church -- principles for which the sixteenth-century Anabaptists
paid with their lives -- are now assumed. Even though not a systematic
theologian, Menno Simons vision of reborn Christians living
in a disciplined and visible church, and embodying in their daily
lives the loving peace of Gods grace, still has the power
to inspire Christians today. On the five-hundredth anniversary
of his birth, evangelicals of all stripes -- including Mennonites
-- would do well to blow the dust off Mennos writings and
read them afresh.
D. Roth is a member of the Historical Committee of the Mennonite
Church, and teaches History at Goshen College. This article was
reprinted with permission from Christianity
Today. It appeared in the October 7, 1996 issue of CT,
titled "The Mennonites Dirty Little Secret."