Winter, on the west coast of Friesland, was a happy time. Whether gulls swooped in from the sea on balmy days when the snow went down, or the shouts and clatter of skaters sounded on its frozen canals on bright frosty mornings, the people of Witmarsum liked it. They lived comfortably under thick roofs of straw. But their village priest, in the winter of 1536, did not feel happy.
A battle raged in his soul.
Menno Simons, the priest, was not young anymore. Sluffing along in his cassock he had gained weight. Innumerable hours of card playing—and innumerable drinks—lay behind him. He had wasted his time and he knew it. Worse yet, he knew what God wanted of him, but he did not feel for sure like doing it now. It cost so much.
Already while going to school—Menno grew up on a farm, but attended Latin classes in a monastery—he had wondered about God and life after death. At fifteen he had become a novice among the Premonstratensians, a contemplative order that dressed only in white, who did mission work and ran schools. In his twentieth year he became a deacon and eight years later, after more studies, a Roman Catholic priest. But serious doubts continued to plague him. “Will the eucharist save me from hell?” he asked himself. “Are the masses I give, and the baptisms I perform of any value?”
Not only Menno asked these questions in the Netherlands during the 1530s. Great numbers of people, disgusted with corruption in the Catholic church, had begun to doubt its sacraments. “How can priests who live like swine lift holy offerings to God?” they wondered. “And why should we give money to begging friars so they can drink and go to bed while we work?”
All over the Netherlands confused and anxious seekers for truth whispered, shook their heads, and scurried from house to house after dark. Some broke bread and drank wine in secret, like the early Christians. Some read the Bible and a few, claiming revelations from heaven, began to make strange and exciting plans.
The more he heard, the more Menno Simons wondered who or what was true. Then he began to read the Scriptures for himself.
The simple words of Christ and his disciples shocked him. At the Premonstratensian school, where he had read the deep works of the church fathers, he had presumed the New Testament itself would be far too difficult a work for him to understand. But he could understand it all! It was easy! And it supported very little of what went on in the Christianity Menno Simons knew.
Reading the Scriptures for the first time, and with an open mind, Menno found himself transported into the spiritual presence of Christ. The heavens opened above him. For the first time he understood the cross, the blood, the light within, and praying for Christ’s mercy he discovered what it means to be “born again.” Only his discovery brought him little peace.
Who should he follow now? The voice of Christ through his conscience and Scripture or the voice of the church in whose service he stood?
The death of Sicke Freeriks Snijder in the Frisian town of Leeuwarden did not lessen Menno’s confusion. He knew that Sicke was a “godfearing and pious man.” But the church condemned him. Civil authorities, co-operating with the church, burned him at the stake for having committed his life to Christ in baptism.
Could this be the church of Christ? Menno did not think so. Yet the issue was far from clear. A great number who left the Catholic church lived in ways no more Christ-like than those who stayed.
In Germany, Martin Luther had begun a new Protestant church. But his followers coveted, fought, killed, swore oaths, and lived in greater wickedness than before. In the Netherlands and up the Rhein valley Anabaptist groups had formed. But they preached false prophecies and rebellion. In the city of Münster in Westfalen, they set up a terrible kingdom where men took all the wives they liked and crowned a tailor “King of Zion.” When this tailor “king,” Jan van Leyden, succeeded in calling thousands of true-hearted seekers to “Zion” to take up arms and “fight for the glory of the Lord,” and Münster fell, Menno Simons knew he had to make a clear decision at once.
He decided for Christ.
Late in January, 1536, Menno Simons announced to the villagers of Witmarsum that he could be their priest no longer. Neither could he belong to the Roman Catholic church, or any other group that used violence to exert its power.
During the previous year Menno had already written a paper that expressed what he believed. Neither Jan van Leyden, nor Martin Luther, nor the pope, nor anyone else, could set himself up as “leader of the church” for:
Christ is the true Melchisedec, the king of Salem who makes peace between God the Father and the human race. He is the Isaac who by his sacrifice reconciles us with God, and his sacrifice stands good forever. Christ is the true David, who has slain the great Goliath, and has taken away the blasphemer of Israel. . . . Christ is become the joy of the disconsolate who say, “We will rejoice in the Lord for he has clothed us with garments of righteousness.”
Christ is the good shepherd who gives his life for the sheep. He leads them out to green pastures. He is the door to the fold, and all who enter through him will be saved.
Christ is King David, the prince of the Church and Ruler of Israel whose going forth has been of old, even from everlasting. . . . All believers are the sheep of Christ and there is but one fold, of which Christ is the Shepherd.
Christ is the strong Samson who broke the jaws of the lion. He is the chosen one of God whom the Father has exalted among the people. . . . Let the contentious rave. Let them put forth another king. Yet Christ will reign over the church that believes in him, forever. He is Lord. He will not give his glory to any other.
Once he surrendered completely to Christ, Menno’s life changed. He packed his bags and left Witmarsum. Walking straight into danger but profoundly happy inside for the first time, he found Obbe Philips, a seeker for the truth in Leeuwarden. Obbe baptised him. Then, while hiding from the authorities the following winter, near Groningen, Menno had visitors.
Anabaptist brothers disenchanted with what had taken place at Münster came to Menno Simons and asked him to be their teacher. Menno wrote:
This call, when it came, deeply troubled me. Fears of the unknown surrounded me on every side. On one hand, all I could see was my limited ability, my great lack of knowledge, the weakness of my nature, and the timidity of my flesh. This along with the very great wickedness, the immorality, perversity and cruelty of the world, the power of the great sects, the subtlety of men, and the indescribably heavy cross I would need to bear if I would begin to teach others. On the other hand I saw the hunger and pathetic condition of those who wanted to know God. I saw them going astray, but as innocent sheep without a shepherd. So, when the brothers persisted and I sensed an inner compulsion to do so, I consecrated myself, soul and body, to the Lord, and committed myself to his gracious leading. Soon afterward I began to teach and baptise according to his holy word, to labour with my limited ability in the harvest field of the Lord, to help in the reconstruction of his holy city and temple, and to fix up its broken down walls.
With Gertrud, his new wife, Menno Simons set out in holy determination to bring seekers throughout the Netherlands and Germany to Christ. They could never stay long in one place. First local authorities, then the Dutch government at Amsterdam, and finally the Habsburg emperor Charles V, set a price on his head. Some who gave Menno a room for the night suffered torture and execution for it. But he made his way up the Rhein to Köln, back through Brabant, Zeeland, Noord-Holland, and Groningen to East Friesland.
After almost twenty years of flight and hardship, Gertrude died. A son and a daughter also died. But Menno, even after he had a stroke and needed a crutch to walk, kept on teaching and writing. He wrote about the new birth, the cross of the saints, the training of children, order in the Lord’s congregation, simplicity in worship, and why Christians do not fight nor swear.
His work, in the Lord, was not in vain. Out of the spiritual devastation of the fall of Münster, from scattered remnants of faith, a beautiful fellowship of believers took shape again. Menno wrote:
All truly believing Christians are members of one body, baptised into it by one Spirit. All eat of the same bread and one Lord directs them all. Because this is so, they love one another and watch out for one another’s good. The Lord said: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Intelligent people do not clothe and care for one part of their body while leaving the rest of it naked and in need. Oh, no. Intelligent people care for all their members. That is also how the Lord’s body, his church, works. All who are born of God and in whom the Spirit of Christ dwells, love to serve their neighbours. They serve one another not only with money and things, but after the example of Christ, with their life and blood as well. They show mercy and love without limit. They let no one among them beg. They take the needs of the saints to heart and care for those in distress. They take strangers into their homes. They comfort the afflicted, help the needy, clothe the naked, and feed the hungry. They do not turn their faces from the poor, nor despise any of their human comrades. . . .
For seventeen years we have taught this way of mercy, love, and community. Through it all, even though our things have been taken from us and our enemies plunder us daily—even though many a godly father and mother has died by sword or fire and we are driven from our homes in hard times—none of us nor our orphaned children have been forced to beg. If this were not our practise as Christians, we might as well abandon the Gospel, the holy sacraments, and the Christian name. We might as well say the precious, merciful, life of the saints is nothing but fantasy and a dream.
In the midst of one of Europe’s most violent and godless centuries, Menno Simons found the Lord’s congregation an oasis of refuge. Yet he strove continually to perfect it further. In his Foundation of Christian Teaching published in 1539,he wrote:
Elect, faithful children, called by grace to an inheritance in the kingdom, hear the voice of Christ! Bride of God and friend of the Lord, hear the voice of the groom! Arise, adorn yourself to honour him! Even though you are pure, make yourself purer still. Even though you are holy, make yourself holier. Even though you are righteous, make yourself more righteous. Put on the white robe of godliness. Hang the golden chain of piety around your neck. Tie the sash of brotherly love about your waist. Put on the ring of faith. Cover yourself with the fair gold of the Word. Wear the pearls of many virtues. Wash yourself with the clear water of grace and anoint yourself with the oil of the Holy Ghost. Wash your feet in the sparkling flood of the Almighty. Let your body be immaculate and pure, for your lover will countenance neither wrinkle nor spot. Then he will praise your beauty and say, “How fair is your love, my sister, my spouse! How much better is your love to me than wine!
Brothers and sisters, think like Christ! Be zealous to hold the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace, for you are all one temple, one house, one city, one mountain, one body and church of Jesus Christ.
Set your light on a candlestick and build your city on a high mountain. Live without reproach. Behave as Christians in all things. Fear God in all your ways. Praise him with your works. Great is the grace that has appeared!
Prove yourselves faithful in all things, as those who are born of God. Shun false doctrine. Do not pay back evil for evil, but return the evil with good. Pray without ceasing. Be patient. Pattern your thoughts, your words, and your life after Christ. They you will never be deceived.
Strive and struggle valiantly so the crown will not be taken from you. Fly to the mountain of refuge, Christ Jesus. Arm yourself with the weapons of righteousness. Confess God’s Word confidently, and do not falter or fail. God is your leader. Be faithful unto death and you will inherit the crown of life.
Menno Simons loved the Lord and his congregation. He had great hopes for it. But toward the end of his life struggles within as well as without it brought him much grief.
After he died at Wüstenfelde in Holstein along the Baltic Sea, on January 31, 1561, other men carried on what he had begun in the body of Christ.
Main source: The Complete Writings of Menno Simons c.1496-1561, Herald Press, Scottdale PA, 1956