The contribution of Menno Simons to the development of Dutch Anabaptism
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.
|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?
|Date||Dutch Anabaptism||Menno Simons|
|1530||Started at Emden, Obbe Philips baptised||Catholic
priest at Witmarsum. Known for
evangelical views. Stirred by the execution of an anabaptist martyr.
at Münster, violence in other areas.
Hoffman jailed in Strasbourg.
|Menno condemns van Leiden and Münsterites14. Menno's Münsterite brother killed at Olde Klooster15|
|1536||Munster falls. David Joris tries to unite Melchiorite groups at Bockholt16||Menno baptised by Obbe Philips. Menno becomes and elder|
|1537||Jorists the main Dutch anabaptist group||Obbe leaves the group, Menno starts to become dominant|
|1543||Hoffman dies in Strasbourg||Menno moves to Germany|
|1544||David Joris flees to Basel and becomes incognito. Decline of his group.||Mennonites
become main anabaptist group
Menno's leadership recognised as his group are called Mennites
|Late 1540s onwards||Batenburg executed (1548). Last vestige of violent anabaptism.||Menno finds sanctuary in Holstein - and stays until 1561.|
Table 2 Menno Simons and Dutch Anabaptism to 155017
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?
development of the Mennonite group was a plural effort in
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 Netherlands28. 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.
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 157031. 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.
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 http://bibleviews.com/menno-heritage.html
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 www.warwick.ac.uk/facts/arts/History
Canadian Mennonite Encyclopedia, Confessions, Doctrinal, online at http://www.mhsc.ca/encyclopedia/contents/C6656ME.html
Canadian Mennonite Encylcopedia, The Olive Branch Confession, online at http://www.mhsc.ca/encyclopedia/contents/O553ME.html#Commentary
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 www.goshen.net/mcarchives
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 http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/journals/EH/EH35/howard1.html
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 www.mhsc.ca/encyclopedia/A533ME.htm
Krahn, C, Dutch Anabaptism, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1994
Roth, J D, The Mennonites' Dirty Little Secret, Christianity Today, online at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/6tb/6tb044.html , 1996
Schroeder, W, Menno Simons 500: a birthday Anniversary, Mennonite Historian, XII, 3, 1996 online at http://www.mbnet.mb.ca/~mhc/mhsep96.htm
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 http://www.mb-soft.com/believe/txc/melchior.htm , 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.
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).
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)