Lessons from reading Menno Simons
I had never read any of Menno Simons’ writings, though I grew up in a Mennonite home and have been an active member of a Mennonite church for 40 years. I even graduated from a Mennonite high school and a Mennonite college. And when I asked Mennonite friends and colleagues if they had ever read anything written by Menno Simons, few had.
Curiosity got the best of me. I decided to read everything written by Menno. I went to the Complete Works of Menno Simons (Herald Press, 1986), which contains everything Menno wrote in one volume of roughly 1,000 pages. As it turned out, I did not read the works of Menno just once but again and again. I found myself drawn into the world of the man who has influenced hundreds of thousands of followers who now call themselves Mennonites. I reread some of the writings because they were so inspirational, others because they were so confusing. Here is a bit of what I found.
Important facts and dates: Menno was born in 1496 in Holland and ordained to the Roman Catholic priesthood in 1524. Four years after the Anabaptist movement began, at the age of 32, Menno studied the Bible to see if the Anabaptists’ claims about errors in Catholic teachings were correct. He gradually conceded they were.
Menno did not give up his comfortable life as a priest until shortly after his brother, who had joined a militaristic group of Anabaptists, was killed either in fighting or by execution. In 1536, at the age of 40, Menno left the Catholic Church and joined the Obbenites, a group of Anabaptists under the leadership of Obbe Philips.
Soon Menno was pressed into a leadership role. He accepted the responsibility, albeit reluctantly, knowing he would have to live the stressful and dangerous life of an outcast Anabaptist. Menno gave himself to the work in spite of the dangers and the need to move from place to place to avoid arrest, torture and almost certain execution. Within eight years, public authorities referred to the Obbenite group as the “Menists” in recognition of Menno’s influence. He served as the principal leader and spokesperson of this Anabaptist group for 25 years until he died of natural causes in 1561.
What Menno wrote about: There are 42 known writings attributed to Menno. This is more than any other Anabaptist. Twenty-five of his writings are classified in the Complete Works as books and tracts. Seventeen are letters, meditations, prayers and other writings. Among them are two hymns, one that was to be sung to the tune “Where May She Be, This Darling Mine.”
Menno’s writings are varied, have a strongly practical purpose and always focus on the problems the young Anabaptist church faced. The Anabaptist movement was only 11 years old when Menno joined the Obbenite group. Menno’s early writings articulated theological beliefs for both church members and those who had questions about the group, for example, the short pamphlet “The New Birth” (my favorite) and “The Foundation of Christian Doctrine,” both published within several years after he joined the group.
But Menno’s world was turbulent. The Anabaptist movement had spawned heretics who led the state churches to denounce Anabaptists of all kinds. Some writings were direct challenges to these heretical Anabaptist movements. “The Blasphemy of John of Leiden,” for example, attempted to discredit the Münsterites, a revolutionary Anabaptist group that attracted hundreds of followers, including Menno’s brother. Several writings challenged another Anabaptist heretic named David Joris, who claimed to be a prophet in the lineage of David and espoused polygamy.
As spokesperson for the Obbenites, Menno also corresponded with government officials and the theological leaders of other groups. Four of Menno’s writings are efforts to get the government leaders to stop their persecution. One of the most moving pieces is “A Pathetic Supplication to All Magistrates,” in which Menno writes, “And so we beg your Noble Excellences again, for Jesus’ sake, to lay aside thoroughly all hostile thoughts against your poor orphans.” Four of his writings are debates with other theologians in which Menno clarifies what the Obbenite Anabaptists believe and challenges false accusations. They include a reply to Gellius Faber, a Lutheran minister who had written an attack on Anabaptists.
The largest group of Menno’s writings relate to his work as an elder in the young church. Some were words of concern about developments in the church; others were letters of encouragement to church members, including his “Pastoral Letter to the Amsterdam Church,” which was suffering from a plague, and a “Letter of Consolation to a Sick Saint” who was struggling with doubt. Eight of the writings deal with excommunication, an issue Menno and the church struggled with during almost all of Menno’s 24 years of leadership. The last thing he wrote, “Reply to Sylis and Lemke,” was a strongly worded response to an attack on the official church position supporting excommunication by two church leaders.
Four prominent themes became evident to me as I read the works of Menno.
Give heed to the Word of God: Scripture was foundational for Menno. The tone is set in his first book, “The Blasphemy of John of Leiden,” where he writes, “Let all give heed to the Word of God.” Menno was well read and a man of careful reason. But the Bible, especially the New Testament, is central to what he believed and was authoritative in what he did.
However, Menno’s passion for Scripture was a late development. He confesses that he did not read the Bible until two years after he became a priest. In part due to the execution of Sicke Snijder, a local Anabaptist who was beheaded for being rebaptized, Menno read the Bible. He devoured the Scriptures, and he peppers all his writings with Scriptural references.
Menno does not claim to be perfect in his understanding of the Scriptures. Repeatedly he invites readers to correct him if he is in error. The basis of the correction, however, must come from the Scriptures. In “Reply to Gellius Faber,” for example, Menno writes: “If I cannot maintain my doctrine and faith with Scriptures and if I cannot prove their doctrine and faith to be deceiving, that is, in those matters that keep us apart, then I will not refuse to acknowledge my fault before the whole world, to retract my doctrine and with my books to enter into the fire.”
Godly walk: Menno emphasized that Christian faith transforms behavior. The full text of the statement quoted earlier is, “Let all give heed to the Word of God and abide by it.” In “The Spiritual Resurrection,” Menno writes, “The Scriptures admonish the truly regenerated and resurrected ones that they should take heed to their calling and continue perfect in a new, godly walk.”
Throughout his writings, Menno encourages, challenges, scolds and pleads with all who read his writings to turn from their evil ways and walk in a godly manner. In “The New Birth,” Menno writes: “I tell you again, they want to be the Christian church, though it is evident that in all their actions they are not Christians but carnal, proud, avaricious, gluttonous, lewd, drunken, idolatrous, blind heathen. And what is worse, some of them are unmerciful, murderous, cruel and bloody devils, for many of their works are done according to the will of the devil.”
One aspect of Menno’s call for godly walk was his support for the ban and excommunication. Not only was this emphasis based on Scriptures but was consistent with Menno’s call to the Catholic, Lutheran and Zwinglian church leaders to have their members live lives that demonstrated Christ-like behavior. Furthermore, Menno and the church had to deal with Anabaptist heretics who were causing significant problems inside and outside the church. The practical problems associated with the ban and excommunication emerged almost immediately and caused Menno and the church considerable grief for the entire time he was a leader.
Menno wrote more frequently about this topic than any other, on eight occasions.
An Evangelical: Menno was evangelical. His call to faith was not the toned-down “friendship evangelism” I had become comfortable with. Menno called himself an evangelical preacher and presented himself as one for whom I had developed some theological resistance. He states, for example, in “The New Birth”: “My dearly beloved reader, take heed to the Word of the Lord and learn to know the true God. I warn you faithfully to take it, if you please. He will not save you nor forgive your sins nor show you his mercy and grace except according to his Word; namely, if you repent and if you believe, if you are born of him, if you do what he has commanded and walk as he walks.”
In one of Menno’s most popular writings, “The Foundation of Christian Doctrine,” even while pleading for mercy and an end to the persecution he calls government leaders to repentance using language that seems to have fallen in disfavor in recent years: “Dear sirs, wake up, it is yet today. Do not boast that you are of royal blood and are called gracious lords, for it is but smoke, dust and pride. But boast in this and rejoice if so be you are born of God or have become a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people: that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 1 Peter 1:9. Repent sincerely with a repentance acceptable to God, wail and weep.”
Christ-centered theology: Menno draws from both the Old and New Testaments in his writings. But the life and teachings of Christ was the lens through which the rest of Scripture must be viewed. All his writings were prefaced with his favorite verse, 1 Corinthians 3:11, “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
In “I Do Not Cease Teaching and Writing,” Menno offers this challenge: “Whosoever does not believe that our doctrine is the pure, undefiled and saving doctrine of Jesus Christ may piously examine the extant Scriptures of the New Testament and he will notice and acknowledge that our doctrine is the pure doctrine, testimony and Scripture of Christ Jesus, however much his reluctant, lazy, rebellious, refractory, selfish and disobedient flesh may oppose, become affrighted, tremble and be owed thereat.”
One of my big surprises was the lack of overt attention Menno gave to many of the attributes that have been associated with being Mennonite. I had to search to find statements about nonconformity, simple living and peace. I found support for these attributes, but they were embedded in writings about other topics.
It is Menno’s Christ-centered theology that is paramount. As Menno appeals to the New Testament and the life and teachings of Christ, he embraces a peace position and affirms simple living. But he also defends the role of the government to control evil using force and supports a much harsher form of the ban and excommunication than many are comfortable with. All these positions are susceptible to change if, based on Scriptural evidence, a better case can be made than what Menno believed was the case. The nonnegotiable was the authority of Scripture, especially the New Testament and the example of Christ.
So what: Reading everything Menno wrote is not for everyone. Much of what he wrote is not meaningful without becoming familiar with the characters involved and understanding the context in which he wrote.
But every Mennonite should read some of the writings of Menno. If I were to point to one reading, it would be the 14-page piece called “The New Birth,” which contains the essence of what being a Christian was for Menno. A second piece worth reading is his personal apology, “I Do Not Cease Teaching and Writing.” Here one sees the passion Menno had for following Christ at all cost, even to the point of death. A third piece worth reading is “The Cross of the Saints,” which consoles a church suffering from persecution. Menno writes: “O soldiers of God, prepare yourselves and fear not. This winepress you must tread. This narrow way you must walk, and through this narrow gate you must enter into life. The Lord is your strength, your comfort and refuge. He sits with you in prisons and dungeons; he flies with you to foreign lands; he accompanies you through fire and water; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”
Reading Menno’s writing has helped me understand what he believed and why he believed it. It has also increased my appreciation for his strength of character as he struggled to live out his faith under the most trying and dangerous circumstances. Most importantly, it inspired my faith.
Lawrence E. Ressler is provost at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kan., and a member of First Mennonite Church in Hillsboro. He will offer an online course on Menno Simons this summer. Anyone interested should contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.