The contribution of Menno Simons to the development of Dutch Anabaptism

Dr Mark Reid

Dutch anabaptism commenced through the efforts of Melchior Hoffman1, a Lutheran turned anabaptist who started preaching and baptising in the Emden area in 15302. Hoffman may have been influenced by anabaptists such as Denck and possibly Hübmaier during a stay in Strasbourg, but also followed the South German trend towards apocalypticism with his home-grown brand.

Hoffman was an effective preacher, presenting the expectation of a coming "new Jerusalem" which would be based at Strasbourg to which he returned and was ultimately imprisoned in 1533 until his death in 15433. A number of anabaptist groups developed in Holland and neighbouring Westphalia4 which followed Hoffman's teaching and became known as Melchiorites. These groups are listed in Table 15,. Some were strongly apocalyptic in their teachings, such as the Münsterites, who believed in establishing the new Jerusalem with force at Münster in Westphalia in 1533-366. They used their mystical approach to justify atrocities and polygamy at Münster. Their rebellion was crushed with equal ire by the Catholic Bishop in 1536.

Group Leader(s) Characteristics
Münsterites Jan Matthijs, Jan van Leiden Committed to violent establishment of rule at Münster.
Batenburgers Jan van Batenburg Violent, apocalyptic, anti-Catholic
Jorists7 David Joris Apocalyptic but peaceful. Joris originally with Obbenites8.
Obbenites Obbe Philips Peaceful. non-apocalyptic

Table 1 Melchiorite groupings in the mid-1530s (derived from R Louwen, 1999)

At the other end of the spectrum, the Obbenites were committed to a more biblical approach to doctrine and church organisation and advocated peaceful existence. It was into the Obbenites that Menno Simons (1496-1561) entered in 1536, became an elder in 1537 and remained with it until his death due to natural causes - an unusual end for anabaptist leaders in the sixteenth century. His name is synonymous with the largest extant branch of anabaptism, the Mennonites. Remarkably, up until the end of the nineteenth century, most Mennonites knew little about this enigmatic figure9.

Anabaptists were viewed as the enfants terrible of the Reformation, with a reputation for unorthodox doctrine the violent Münster uprising. In the early twentieth century, Mennonite historian Harold Bender did much to stress the development of peaceful anabaptism after Münster and the role of Menno:

"Menno Simons is undoubtedly the greatest figure in the history of the Mennonite Church. He had a sane and balanced program emphasizing both a sound faith and a sound life. He was a fearless leader and a capable organizer. In thorough loyalty to the Word of God, he laboured unceasingly for the establishment of true Christianity among men." (Bender, 1942)10

Bender's almost hagiographical biographies of Menno have been supported by other Mennonite historians such as John D Roth11 and Cornelius Dyck12. In recent years both Mennonite and other historians have cast doubt on the significance of Menno's role in the development of Dutch anabaptism, and that other factors may well have played a significant role in shaping it. Snyder considers Menno so insignificant that he devotes only a page to him in his large tome on anabaptist history13.

What is generally agreed about Menno?

The notion that Menno played a role in the shaping of Mennonism at a critical time is not in doubt: but was he truly influential as Bender or Roth26 would urge, or was he a cog in a larger wheel as Snyder suggests. There is evidence to suggest that the rise of Mennonite anabaptism by mid-century was not altogether due to either Menno's leadership or doctrinal position.

Menno: the opportunist?

  1. "Last man standing"

    The Mennonites' dominance of Dutch anabaptism was greatly helped by the extinction of other anabaptist groups through persecution. Waite's research has indicated that the Jorists were the largest group of anabaptists in the early 1540s but as Table 2 indicates, both his group and the Batenburgers were in steep decline by the end of the decade
    27 as persecution eliminated their leadership and depleted their numbers. The senior Mennonite leaders evaded capture and were able to travel around and occasionally find sanctuary to consolidate their group.
  2. The development of the Mennonite group was a plural effort in Menno's lifetime

    Although Menno's name became spokesman the group, its growth in the 16th century was due to evangelistic efforts of individuals in the group itself and particularly Menno's co-leaders, Dirk Philips and Leeaert Bouwens who were well-travelled. Bouwens recorded over 10,000 baptisms his preaching career. By contrast Menno's range was more limited, perhaps because he was the most hunted, but possibly because his strong eastern Holland dialect (similar to the low German of the Saxon territories) and was not easily understood in most of the Netherlands
    28. What they did achieve was to gather the disparate anabaptist groups into a loosely constituted church, which probably helped preserve Mennonism under the heavy persecutions29. However, this was often an uneasy peace and Mennonism by the 1550s was displaying the same kind of factionalism as in the late 1530s.

  3. The spread of Mennonism in the sixteenth century was driven by the political situation.

    By 1561 Mennonism had spread over the Netherlands and Belgium, to Danzig and into northern Germany, particularly around Lubeck . Whereas historians like Bender and Roth attribute much of this to the tireless efforts of Menno, Dirk and Bouwens, politics proved a pivotal factor.

    Emperor Charles V ruled his empire through satellites who were often corrupt and exploitative. Krahn views the growth of religious groups in the Netherlands in this period as a product of incipient Dutch nationalism30. This included violent groups like the Münsterites and Batenburgers, the peaceful anabaptists like the Jorists and Obbenites/Mennonites, and the mainline magisterial protestants, particularly the Dutch Reformed Church. As a group committed to the separation of church and state, a commitment to peaceful toleration and personal piety and a close-knit brotherhood, Mennonite anabaptism had its attractions and was clearly seen as a prize worth suffering for.

    Persecution was severe in places: it is estimated that some 2500 Dutch anabaptists were executed between 1530 and 1570
    31. Krahn comments that despite this, the anabaptists grew in number and spread widely32: not surprising as exile rather than genocide was the fate of most anabaptist "undesirables". The Dutch settled in territories associated with the Hanseatic League such as Antwerp, Lübeck33 and Danzig. Lutheran dominated areas were usually more tolerant than Catholic. Krahn sees the growth in Mennonism an urban phenomenon being a popular movement amongst artisans and engineers. Velvet makers, drainage engineers, glass makers and distillers were much sought after in Hanseatic cities and rulers often tolerated Mennonites because of the value their skills brought to the economy34. Mennonites were effective evangelists and spread the word wherever they were displaced to35. In Menno's day, they remained numerically small and only started to grow significantly later.

  4. Menno's theology was not particularly radical, orthodox, or unifying

    Although Menno wrote a number of books his writings are considered to be neither radical or original. He held the teachings of Melchior Hoffman with the exception of his apocalyptic views and shared much with Münsterite theologian Bernhard Rothmann who was influenced indirectly by Erasmus
    36. Like Hoffman, Menno rejected some aspects of Luther's justification by faith and this was reflected in his strong advocation the ban. He had a working knowledge of Latin, some Greek and no Hebrew: quite different from the major shapers of the Reformation. Although Bender has attempted to portray Menno as a picture of orthodoxy, by rejecting some of the more medieval apocalyptic aspects of Melchiorism, it is quite clear that Menno held on to Hoffman's docetic view of Christ, which later brought him into serious debate with non-anabaptists like Martin Micron. Ironically, by the end of the seventeenth century Menno's writings were barely read by Mennonites, and were not even translated into English, the language of North American Mennonites (and the vast majority) until the nineteenth century. In his own lifetime, Menno did not wield sufficient authority to avoid the rise of factionalism. Apart from issues surrounding his docetism, the main source of division was over practice, particularly over the level of separation with the world, to the excommunication of errant members (the ban) and the shunning of errant members within families. The Church began to factionalise; a major one being in 1557 when the group split into the more liberal Waterlanders, led by Menno, opposed by the more conservative High Ground group.

  5. Menno was not responsible for the ultimate growth and doctrinal development of the Mennonite Church

    Whatever authority Menno did yield dissolved after his death in 1561 and many further splits emerged particularly amongst Dirk and Louwens about the ban and shunning. By the 1570s, the anabaptists were still small in number and factional. Their rejection of involvement with government
    37 meant that they had little influence, even when their former fellows in persecution, the Dutch Reformed Church became the official religion after the uprisings of 1565-66 and the establishment of religious freedom by William of Orange in 1677. What ultimately seems to have saved the Mennonite factions and led to more orthodox doctrines was the leadership of Hans de Ries (1553-1638) who was leader of the Waterland faction attempted to unite many of the Mennonite factions in the early seventeenth century38. Mennonism has thrived most in North America, where they sought refuge from the early seventeenth century onwards.

    Menno's Contribution to the Development of Dutch Anabaptism: conclusions

Rev Dr Mark Reid is currently Minister of Swaffham Baptist Church.  This paper was written in 2001 as part of his training at Spurgeon's College.  

Some of the links given below may no longer be valid


Bender, H S, Mennonite History and the Origins of Mennonites in Europe, from H S Bender & C H Smith, Mennonites and Their Heritage, Herald Press, Scottdale 1942, online at

Bender, H S, Introduction (1956) in Wenger, J C (ed), The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, 1984 ed, Herald, Scottdale, 1984, pp 4-29.

Cohn, H J, Reformation and People, Univ of Warwick online at

Canadian Mennonite Encyclopedia, Confessions, Doctrinal, online at

Canadian Mennonite Encylcopedia, The Olive Branch Confession, online at

Dyck, C J, Menno Simons, in Macmillan Encyclopedia of Religion, N Y , Macmillan, 1987, pp 324-5

Dyck, C J, Mennonite History, Herald, Scottdale, 1993

Estep, W R, The Anabaptist Story, 1975 ed, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1975

Friesen, A, Menno and Münster: the man and the movement, in Brunt, G R, Menno Simons: a reappraisal, E Mennonite Centre, Harrisburg, 1992, pp 131-162

Friesen, A, Present at the Inception: Menno Simons and the Beginnings of Dutch Anabaptism, Mennonite Historical Bulletin, 1996, online at

Friesen, A, Erasmus, the Anabaptists and the Great Commission, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1998

Howard, T, Charisma and History: the case of Münster Westphalia 1534-5, from Essays in History, Volume 35, University of Virginia, 1993, online at

Loewen, R, Making Menno: the historical images of a religious leader, Conrad Grebel Review, 17, 3, 1999

Klaassen, W, Anabaptism, in Canadian Mennonite Encyclopedia, online at

Krahn, C, Dutch Anabaptism, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1994

Roth, J D, The Mennonites' Dirty Little Secret, Christianity Today, online at , 1996

Schroeder, W, Menno Simons 500: a birthday Anniversary, Mennonite Historian, XII, 3, 1996 online at

Snyder, C A, Anabaptist History & Theology, Pandora, Kitchener ON, 1995

Waite, G, The Anabaptist Writings of David Joris, Herald, Scottdale, 1994

Wenger, J C (ed), The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, 1984 ed, Herald, Scottdale, 1984

Wenger, J C, Melchiorites, from the Mennonite Encyclopedia, online at , n.d



1. Spellings of the names of the various characters in this essay vary between reference texts used. For the sake of uniformity the same spelling of the name of each person has been used throughout. Dates can vary between histories too, so as far as possible, dates have been associated with their sources.

2. He was already well known as a preacher in the Netherlands prior to his conversion to anabaptism, Snyder, p143-144

3. A map showing his movements and those of his followers is shown at Fig 1.

4.Westphalia is in neighbouring Germany

5.These are the groupings used by R Louwen (1999) but it is accepted that the anabaptists may have also been fragmented into smaller groups.

6.Matthijs gained power at Munster in 1533 but it was the arrival of van Leiden in 1534 and his mystical visions that created an environment in which atrocities were to occur - see Howard, 1993

7.Also called Davidites or Davidians Waite p 17 Louwen, R p25

8.There seems to be a convention of referring to Menno Simons as "Menno", Dirk Philips as "Dirk" and Obbe Philips as "Obbe" in historical lierature. These have been retained in this essay. Others are referred to conventionally by surname

9.See Loewen, 1999.

10. Bender (1942)

11.See Roth, 1996.

12.Dyck, 1993.

13.Snyder , p150

14.See The Blasphemy of John of Leiden (1535) in Wenger, 1984, pp31-50

15.It is not known for certain that Peter Simons was Menno's brother. Some of Menno's congregation were also killed at Olde Klooster (Old Cloister), (Dyck, 1987).

16.Waite, p18

17.Dates from Krahn, p 169. Information about Joris and Batenburg from Waite, 1994

18.Date from Krahn, p 169.

19.For example, to Mary, Regentof the Netherlands in 1541, and Anna Countess of Oldenburg in 1544 (Bender, 1956, p17)

20. Dates from Dyck, p105

21. In Wenger, 1984, pp87-102

22. Wenger, 1984, pp 321-406

23. Interestingly, although Menno was critical of the connection between Church and state that the Magisterial Reformers had, he mellowed in his later years and permitted Mennonites to serve in positions of authority under provisos.

24. Menno was much more liberal on this question than his fellow leaders and this was later a source of division.

25. See Bender's Introduction in Wenger, 1984.

26. E.g. Roth, 1996

27. Joris lived incognito in Basel until his death. His role was taken by his associate Blesdijk who renounced Jorism after his death. Jorism existed in pockets until 1648. Batenburg was captured and executed in 1548. Waite, p19

28. Waite, p19.

29. It also was an advantage of Joris over Menno.

30. Rexroth, 1974

31. Krahn, p210

32. Krahn, p 205

33. Krahn, p 209 Menno himself found sanctuary near Lübeck

34. Krahn, p 217

35. They were so effective that the Mennonite leadership tried to limit their activities after 1577 to maintain doctrinal purity.

36. This is the thesis of Abraham Friesen (1996) who sees many similarities with Erasmian thought in both Menno and Rothmann. Interestingly, Menno began to approve of Mennonites taking office later in life but under strict provisos about nonviolence.

37. E.g Hans de Ries was influential in uniting groups from 1577 onwards and promoted the Olive Branch Confession (1627) and later the Dordrecht Confession (1632)