Menno Simons | Life and Times | 3


3. The Anabaptists

In the period of the Reformation a few Christian denominations defended and practiced the baptism of believers on the confession of faith:

They were by their opponents called Anabaptists (re-baptizers) because they did not recognize infant baptism as valid and re-baptized those who had been "christened" in their infancy.

Other denominations maintained the practice of infant baptism and were sometimes called infant baptists. Neither those who were generally named Anabaptists, nor the infant baptists represented a distinct class or party.

All infant baptist denominations of the Reformation period, however, approved of or consented to state-churchism, the union of church and state,

while those who are generally classed as Anabaptists with the exception of the Münsterites, Batenburgers and Davidians were persistent opponents of state-churchism.

The prevailing differences among the various infant baptist denominations are clear:

Martin Luther held that the points on which the Zwinglian system differed from his own were of such fundamental importance that the Zwinglians must be considered to be without the fold of the general Christian church and could not be accorded the Christian name.

And again Luther denounced as Antichrist the one whom the most prominent infant baptist church acknowledged as its rightful head.

As for the various parties known as Anabaptists Menno Simons says correctly that the differences among them were even greater and more radical than those which separated the infant baptist parties from each other.

Menno Simons was more severe and outspoken in his opposition to certain parties known as Anabaptists than to the great state churches:

He held Martin Luther personally in high esteem, while the leaders of certain Anabaptist sects were denounced by him as seducers, false prophets, and blasphemers.

The enthusiastic and revolutionary Anabaptists who did not reject the principle of state-churchism have a short history:

The Münsterites and Batenburgers took the sword and perished with the sword. The former rose in 1533 and their cause failed utterly in 1535, when the city of Munster was conquered.

The Münsterite principles were for a time advocated by the Batenburgers, but their principal leader, Jan of Batenburg, was executed within a few years.

The Davidians, i. e. the followers of David Joris, adhered to Münsterite principles but eliminated the revolutionary tendencies of their predecessors. David Joris formally united with the Zwinglian state church at Basel. Only secretly he adhered to his enthusiastic notions.

The theory that these "corrupt sects," as Menno Simons designates them, advocated virtually the same doctrines as the great Anabaptist denominations (namely, the Swiss Brethren, Hutterites, and Mennonites) is quite unfounded:

The Münsterites in fact obviously compromised the question of baptism. They did not consider baptism of sufficient importance to be willing to suffer persecution on account of it.

And after the establishment of a state church in Munster people were driven to baptism at the point of the sword; it is therefore not correct to say that the Münsterites stood for believers' baptism in the true sense.

John of Leyden, their foremost leader, recanted at last his belief in the necessity of adult baptism. The Batenburgers and Davidians did not practice the baptism of adults although they have usually been considered Anabaptists.

Not a few historical works describe the history of the Anabaptists in a way giving most prominence to the tale of the Münsterites and leaving the reader under the impression that John of Leyden was the principal representative of Anabaptism.

Says Abraham Kuijper in his Lectures on Calvinism:

"The Anabaptist standpoint was that the circle of baptized believers was in duty bound to take all civil life under its guardianship and remodel it; and so John of Leyden violently established his shameless power as king of the new Zion."

Other writers have expressed themselves to the same effect.

It is quite true that this was the position of John of Leyden and the Münsterites, but that the Anabaptists in general shared in such views is an obvious error.

That the church should take all civil life under its guardianship and remodel it, or in other words, that the church and state should be united, was considered by the great Anabaptist denominations to be an unbearable mistake. On this point - the union of Church and State - John of Leyden differed radically from the Anabaptists.

The popular view that Menno Simons was the reformer of those of whom he speaks as the corrupt sects, and that the modern Anabaptists are the spiritual children of the remnants of the Münsterites who through Menno were led to discard their errors, will not bear investigation:

The Obbenites with whom Menno Simons identified himself existed contemporaneously with the Münsterites. And it must be remembered that the most distinguished period of Anabaptist history had already passed at the time of the rise of the Münsterites:

The first congregation of the Swiss Brethren was organized in 1525 at Zurich in Switzerland. From here the Anabaptist movement within a few years spread over a large territory.

Many churches were founded notwithstanding the bloodiest persecution. Thousands, including the most prominent leaders, were put to death in Catholic, Zwinglian and Lutheran countries.

The blood of the martyrs proved to be the seed of the church. In intensity and strength the Anabaptist movement in these earlier years exceeded by far the Lutheran and Zwinglian movements.

With fire and sword through an unprecedented persecution the movement was finally checked, but the great denominations of the Swiss Brethren and the Hutterites maintained themselves through all persecution.

They were not in the least influenced by the fanatics who were responsible for the developments at Munster. In the North the Obbenites staunchly opposed the Münsterites.

At an early date the Brethren of the Netherlands and North Germany were named after Menno Simons although it was well known that Menno was not their founder.

Later the Brethren of Switzerland and South Germany (the Swiss Brethren) were given the same name. Menno never came to the South. He wrote in a language which was hardly intelligible to the Swiss and South Germans. The Swiss Brethren held the same teachings prior to the conversion of Menno Simons as in later periods.

We are not left in the dark, but have reliable sources of information concerning their principles:

In 1532 - prior to the rise of the Münsterites and prior also to the conversion of Menno Simons - a great discussion lasting ten days was held at Zofingen in the canton of Berne, Switzerland, between the Swiss Brethren and the Zwinglians:

The protocol of these discussions was published in the same year, making a book of 308 pages which gives us thorough information concerning the doctrinal position of the early Swiss Brethren.

In 1538 another great debate was held in Berne. The details of this debate are preserved in the state archives at Berne. It is a comprehensive document and proves conclusively that the Swiss Brethren were free from Münsterite tenets.

Concerning Melchior Hofmann (who held various unsound opinions and is in a measure responsible for Münsterite enthusiasm although he was a far more respectable character than the Münsterite leaders) the Brethren said in the discussion at Berne:

"Hofmann is not named a brother by us, but we oppose him with all earnestness, and consider his opinion, as we have heard it from himself and others of his party, an error."

These facts show the fallacy of the view that the people who were later called after Menno represented a reformation of the Münsterite sect.

We have said above that the most radical differences prevailed between some of the various parties commonly known as Anabaptists.

But since only the great Anabaptist denominations survived the persecutions while, as already said, the various fanatical Anabaptist sects have a short history and represented a lost cause,

many historians, even outside of the ranks of the Mennonites and Baptists, when they speak of the Anabaptists in general, have in mind the great Anabaptist denominations and other evangelical Anabaptists.

The fact is recognized that these denominations, notwithstanding the prevailing differences, constituted virtually one party, which must not be confused with the Münsterites and their kin.

Many writers in various centuries speak of the Anabaptists in a way which obviously excludes the Münsterites.

Johannes Kessler, the contemporaneous Zwinglian chronicler of St. Gall, Switzerland, writes:

"Their walk and conversation shone; it was quite pious, holy and unblameable. - They die gladly and valiantly for the name of Christ, although they are tainted with some error,"

Heinrich Bullinger, the successor of Zwingli in Zurich says:

"They led their lives under a semblance of a very spiritual conduct; they reproved earnestly covetousness, pride, profanity, the lewd conversation and debauchery of the world, drinking and gluttony, and said much of mortifying the old man; in short," Bullinger adds, "their hypocrisy was great and manifold."

Berchthold Haller, the Zwinglian reformer of Berne, wrote on September 12, 1532, to Bullinger:

"They guard themselves of vices and take a strict attitude against them. They come often together and abide strictly by their rules, etc. And thus they make an impression upon the common people."

In other instances also Haller testifies that they avoid sin and vice, while the membership of the national church including even some of those in authority, is quite lukewarm in these matters:

"To the Council I have pointed out the cause of this evil," says Haller, "namely, that many a preacher is more intent on serving his own belly than on doing his duty."

To Martin Bucer, Haller wrote on August 24, 1534: “We realize that the best and most upright people are seduced by the Anabaptists."

"I confess openly," wrote Wolfgang Capito, "that in most Anabaptists piety and true zeal are in evidence. For what earthly advantage could they hope to win through banishment, torture, and terrible executions?

Before God I testify that I cannot say that they give their lives because of blindness, but rather from godly motives:

You cannot notice in them any passion or excitement. No; with calmness and astonishing patience they go to their death as confessors of the Christian name."

"Among the Anabaptists," he writes, September 13, 1528, to Ambrosius Blaurer, "I have found good and pious souls, who through mildness might be won back to the fold of Christ."

The Zwinglian preachers of the Canton of Berne, assembled in Zofingen in 1532, wrote to the Council in Berne:

Since the Anabaptists have a semblance of outward piety far more than we and all the churches which with us confess Jesus Christ, and since they avoid offensive vices which are common among us, therefore we ask," etc.

Joachim Vadian, the reformer of St. Gall, testifies:

"None were at that time more inclined toward Anabaptism, and entangled with it, than those who were of a pious and upright disposition."

In the discussion of Zofingen, 1532, the Zwinglian preachers asserted that the pious were in particular susceptible to Anabaptist influences.

Christoph Andreas Fischer, the priest of Feldsberg in Austria, wrote in 1603, in his book Of the Cursed Beginnings of the Anabaptists:

"Among all the heresies and sects .... which has ever had a more beautiful appearance and greater outward holiness than the Anabaptists?

Other sects, as for example the Calvinists, Lutherans and Zwinglians are for the most part seditious, cruel and given to carnal indulgences.

Not so the Anabaptists:

They call each other brethren and sisters, they use neither profanity nor harsh speech, they do not swear, they do not use weapons and in the beginning they did not even carry knives.

They are not intemperate in eating and drinking, they do not wear apparel which indicates worldly show. They do not go to law before the magistrates; they bear everything in patience, as they pretend, and in the Holy Ghost.

Who would believe that under this sheep clothing are hiding only ravenous wolves!"

Another Catholic theologian in 1582 wrote a book, Against the Terrible Errors of the Anabaptists. He says:

"Among the various existing sects there is none which in outward appearance leads a more modest, better, or more pious life than the Anabaptists:

- As concerns the outward and public life they are very honest; no lying, deception, swearing, strife, scolding, no intemperate eating and drinking, no ostentation is found and discernible among them;

but humility, patience, faithfulness, meekness, truth, temperance, and uprightness in such manner that one would suppose that they had the Holy Spirit of God."

Nevertheless this author is of the opinion that there was no more abominable sect than theirs."

Emil Egli, in his book on the Anabaptists of St. Gall, says: "That their success had its basis in a capable moral endeavour, could not be denied."

Paul Tschackert, in his work on the origin of the Lutheran and Zwinglian doctrine, speaks of the Anabaptists as "a voluntary union of Christians for the purpose of exercising the Christian spirit in the love of the brethren."

"In the instance of many of their opinions and principles, these people were in part wrong only in so far as they came three hundred years in advance of their age," says Johann Wilhelm Baum.

Alfred Hegler speaks of the high ideals of the Anabaptists:

"Their opposition to all Christianity which had been created by the earthly powers that be, their opposition to all persecution in the matter of faith, the demand for personal holiness, and the real adoption of religious thoughts."

K. W. H. Hochhuth points out that they insisted on the restoration of the primitive Christian life.

Gustav Bossert says: "In their religious life they laid weight, not on sublime mysteries, but on striving after holiness."

Johann Loserth testifies that they undertook "to restore the unadultered original Christianity."

C. A. Cornelius and others have expressed themselves to the same effect:

"They led for the most part a strict life," says Johann Conrad Fuessli, "and gave evidences of uncommon piety, as Bullinger himself testifies concerning them."

"They aimed to organize a Church of consecrated people," writes Abraham Hulshof, "an assembly of Christians who were in real earnest to carry out the requirements of the Gospel.

Of those who believed and who were truly converted they endeavoured to constitute a living Church of Christ in the midst of the world - a church which, separated from the world, would follow Christ in brotherly unison."