Menno Simons was heartsick. His ageing legs throbbed as he hauled himself to his feet, the bulky wooden crutches slipping as he crossed the polished stone floor. The news from Geneva was depressing: John Calvin's magistrates had sentenced the heretic Servetus to death. He had been burned alive in front of a cheering crowd, as if this was something to be celebrated. How could they carelessly ignore the words of Jesus? Calvin knew his Bible well enough: "They that take the sword shall perish with the sword."1 The Dominican order had defamed the cause of Christ with their vile Inquisition. Perhaps Calvin's Reformed Church wasn't all that different.
Pouring himself a tankard of cool water, Menno reflected on how the spectre of violence had stalked his every step. He had been ordained into the Catholic priesthood in Friesland some seven years after Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, a seemingly minor act that had gone on to set the whole world ablaze. As with Luther, Menno's reading of the New Testament had provoked him to question the doctrines of Rome. But it was the bloody beheading of Sicke Snijder that set Menno's feet on an entirely different course.
Before Snijder's death he hadn't even heard of the Anabaptists, nor of their radical ideas for re-baptising adults. Menno had turned to the Scriptures and reluctantly conceded that it was incorrect to baptise infants. Yet he had kept his thoughts to himself, remaining a priest and watching in growing incredulity as the Anabaptist movement imploded. Jan Bockelson led a revolt in the city of Münster, imposing Anabaptist practices and declaring his intent to conquer the rest of the world by force. His chiliast aspirations failed abruptly when his lifeless body was thrown into a metal cage that hung suspended from the steeple of St Lambert's. Before long the Anabaptist movement was universally loathed by Catholics and Protestants alike.
Menno could hardly have chosen a more inopportune moment to renounce his Catholic upbringing. Yet he had observed that most Anabaptists were simple, sincere people who took the Sermon on the Mount literally and who believed in being disciples and not just converts. In the year of our Lord, 1536, he threw in his lot with his persecuted brethren and underwent baptism by immersion. It wasn't long before he was active as an evangelist, travelling extensively and teaching the Scriptures from house to house.
As his influence had grown, so had the danger. The authorities of Leeuwarden offered a reward of one hundred guilders for his capture. Tjaard Renicx was put to death for providing him with a night's shelter. Jan Claesz was beheaded for having 600 copies of Menno's books printed in Antwerp. Yet through all the turmoil, Menno and his followers refused to retaliate. Theirs was a faith that stood apart from the world.
"True evangelical faith", he had written, "cannot lay dormant; but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love; it clothes the naked; feeds the hungry; consoles the afflicted; shelters the miserable; aids and consoles all the oppressed; returns good for evil; serves those that injure it; prays for those that persecute it."2
His thirst quenched, Menno shuffled back to his writing desk. The move to Germany had brought a degree of stability, allowing him to draw up standards of discipline and doctrine for the Anabaptist congregations. Already some were referring to his followers as Mennonites but Menno took no pleasure in such ascriptions. Christ was the master, not man.
Privately he feared for the future of the Protestant church. Luther's reforms had not gone far enough. And his diatribes against the Jews had stirred up hostility that only dishonoured the name of Jesus. Over in the England the half-hearted reforms of the Anglican church looked set to be undone by blistering hatred of Mary Tudor. But at least it seemed that the Anabaptists were doing well. They had repudiated violence and recovered their original vision. For as long as the Good Lord gave him breath, Menno would continue to guide them. Dipping his quill in the well-used ink pot, he continued where he had left off:
"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."3
1 Mt 26:52 KJV
2 Menno Simons. "Why I Do Not Cease Teaching and Writing", 1539
3 Menno Simons, "Reply to Gellius Faber", 1552
Historical note: Menno Simons is credited with reinvigorating the Dutch and German branches of the Anabaptist movement and with contributing to the development of the English Baptist church. Today the Mennonite church has a worldwide membership of 1.5 million.
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