Menno Simons | Life and Times | 7


7. Menno's Flight to Germany and Works in the Electorate of Cologne

In the year 1543 Menno Simons left his fatherland - the Netherlands - to go to Northwest Germany:

The empire of Germany was divided into many states, each of which had its own ruler whose relation to the emperor was somewhat similar to that of a governor of an American state to the President of the United States.

Besides there were many "free cities" whose magistrates were not responsible to the princes of the territories in which these cities lay, but to the emperor direct.

The reigning emperor, Charles V, was a strict Catholic and bent his energies toward the suppression of all other creeds,

but in spite of all efforts some of the German rulers and free cities favoured the Reformation movement and espoused the Lutheran or Zwinglian cause.

The emperor was the bitter foe of all Anabaptists:

In 1529 the representatives of the German states, at Speier, passed a decree that Anabaptists should be put to death without a formal hearing or trial.

But in consequence of the weakness of the federal government this decree was not carried out with equal severity in all the various states.

While none of the princes or free cities would have dared to openly tolerate the Anabaptists, there was a marked difference in the way the Anabaptists were dealt with in the various states.

In Germany there were districts in which the persecution was less severe than in the Netherlands states.

Menno informs us that the imperial placard against him, in which a price was set on his head, was published throughout West Friesland, but in other parts of the Netherlands also he was exposed to greater dangers than his brethren, since here his writings were principally read.

From 1543 to the end of his life Menno lived in Germany: East Friesland, the Electorate of Cologne, Holstein, etc., all in Northwest Germany were principally his fields of labour.

It was probably about the beginning of winter, 1543, when Menno Simons with his family reached East Friesland.

He had entered the state of matrimony in Groningen probably in 1539. His wife - her name was Gertrude - was of Witmarsum.

Her sister Margaret was married to Reyn Edes, a co-labourer with Menno, who also served the church in the capacity of an elder. One of the extant letters of Menno Simons, of which further mention will be made, is addressed to Margaret Edes.

In East Friesland the Roman Catholic faith was discredited but a new state church was not yet established. In this transitional period the Anabaptists for a short time enjoyed toleration.

In the same year when Menno came to East Friesland the ruler of the province, Countess Anna, called the mild Zwinglian reformer John a'Lasco, a native of Poland, to the office of Superintendent of the proposed new state church.

At Embden, the capital, a'Lasco encountered a number of Menno's brethren who referred him to Menno Simons. Consequently Menno was given an invitation by a'Lasco to come to the capital for an interview.

With the consent of the ruler of the province and in the presence of a number of ministers and others a three days discussion between Menno Simons and a'Lasco was held in the chapel of the Franciscan cloister at Embden, in January 1544.

A small measure of publicity was apparently given these conferences, but it is evident from Menno's writings that he did not consider them public discussions.

He says in 1556:

"Besides there are thousands, as I suppose, to whom it is well known through my printed writings that many a time I have asked for a public discussion, even at the risk of being burned at the stake if I could not maintain my faith and doctrine with the Scriptures; but such a discussion, alas, has never been granted me."

"For many years and with very much writing and petitioning I have many times asked for a public discussion, but could not obtain it."

His Grievous Supplication of the Poor, Despised Christians and his Short, Grievous Defence of the Despised Christians and Scattered Exiles are urging requests for

"a public discussion with our opponents and adversaries, in the presence of ten, twenty, or thirty pious, intelligent and reasonable men who love and fear the Lord and who can judge between good and evil, or a private discussion if it be not permissible in public;

and their untruths and accusations should not be believed until teacher is confronted with teacher and the accuser with the accused, with equal rights and liberty, as the Word of God, Christian love and natural honesty may require and imply".

At the conclusion of the first tract he says:

"Therefore we poor and afflicted Christians humbly pray you, our most respected rulers, for the third time that you may bring us and the preachers [of the state church] together,

that our defence may be rightly heard and the truth presented with the word of the Lord, that the innocent may no longer be condemned to death against God's word".

The subjects discussed between Menno Simons and John a'Lasco were: the incarnation of Christ, baptism, original sin, sanctification and the calling of the ministers.

On the questions of original sin and sanctification the two parties found themselves of one mind; on baptism, the Incarnation, and the manner of choosing ministers no agreement was reached.

After the close of the discussions the preachers permitted Menno, as he himself testifies, to depart in peace, desiring however that he should send them a written statement of his faith which they might present to the civil authorities to give them information concerning the principles held by Menno and his friends.

In consequence Menno Simons wrote his Brief and Clear Confession and Scriptural Instruction on the incarnation of Christ and the calling of the ministers. The book was later printed, but without Menno's knowledge, as he stated in his debate with Martin Micron.

From this book it appears that Menno entertained hopes that a'Lasco would recognize his teachings as orthodox.

From the fact that a'Lasco addressed the enthusiast David Joris: "To our most beloved brother David Joris, minister of the divine word," we may conclude that he approached Menno in a similar manner.

John a'Lasco published a Latin reply to the said book of Menno Simons. The latter's answer is his Clear, Incontrovertible Confession and Demonstration, of 1554.

In this book Menno complains that false accusations were preferred against him by a'Lasco and others and he was misrepresented in such a way "that those who hear and read it, shut their noses and mouths at our approach”.  

Later he was made to realize that a'Lasco approved of the bitter persecution of the Brethren:

"Your principal teachers and leaders," he writes to Martin Micron, "as e.g. John a'Lasco, Calvinus, and Theodor Beza, whom you recognize as your most worthy and beloved brethren, are men of blood:

This is clear from the testimony of their own writings, as well as from the fact that Servetus was burned at Geneva and George of Parris was burned with four others [in 1551, under the reign of Edward VI] in England".

It is interesting to notice that Martin Luther also refers to the Catholic persecutors as "men of blood."

In the preface to his first book to John a'Lasco Menno expresses the hope that this statement of his faith (to be presented within three months) was not asked of him from evil motives.

However, without doubt, a'Lasco advised the government to which Menno's confession was delivered against tolerating the heads of the dissenters. A'Lasco was a representative of state-churchism.

Menno was banished within a few months. Menno Simons fled from East Friesland to the province known as the Electorate of Cologne:

"I know," writes a'Lasco on July 26, 1544, to his friend Hardenberg, "that Menno just now is sojourning mostly in the bishopric of Cologne and seduces many in those parts."

In this province Menno found a great field of labour:

The ruler and archbishop, Elector Herman von Wied, "of praiseworthy memory," as Menno speaks of him, realized the need of a reformation of the church. He decided upon the renunciation of Roman popery, but was slow to organize a new church.

Meanwhile there were tolerated not only Lutherans and Zwinglians in the electorate, but even Anabaptists were nearly exempt from persecution:

Menno lived in this province in comparative freedom about two years. Traces of his labours in this period are found in the confessions of martyrs:

Metken Vrancken, a martyr, said in her examination by the inquisitors that Menno Simons was at Fischerswert in 1545 and she with others was taught by him.

Teunis van Hastenrath who was burned at the stake on July 30, 1551, in Linnich stated that "Menno Simons was at Fischerswert five years ago" and he had read his books.

The martyr Lyske Snyer had heard Menno preach in a meadow near Illekhoven, about 1545, where Menno lodged in the house of Lemke, a deacon.

Jater Raymakers who was burned at the stake in Arnhelm, August 9, 1550, had a book of Menno.

Jan Neulen confessed in 1550 that Menno Simons, five or six years ago preached at Fischerswert in a field:

He had not heard the sermon, but in the morning early Menno with two men came into his house and asked him to take him in a boat down the Meuse river to Roermond. This he did and received his hire:

His house was confiscated by the authorities for the reason that Menno Simons had entered it without his protest.

Menno writes of his experiences at the time of his sojourn in the electorate of Cologne:

"In the days of the bishop Hermann, Elector of Cologne, of praiseworthy memory, I have asked of the theologians of Bonn upon their own suggestion

that an open discussion be held before twenty or thirty witnesses or before a public meeting under safe conduct,

but my desire was not granted for they were advised by John a'Lasco and A. H. [A. Hardenberg] to refuse a discussion advancing three insinuations against me:

They accused me of opinions which I have never entertained, much less expressed or advised, and which I shall not here mention. Concerning this I have the testimony of a minister named Henricus in his own hand writing:

"Also the preachers of Wesel in the land of Cleve have told our friends they would obtain a safe conduct for me and have a discussion with me:

But when in writing I declared myself willing for a discussion, I received an answer that the executioner should have a discussion with me and other tyrannical expressions".

The mild reign of Elector Herman of Cologne came to a sudden end in 1546 when in the Smalcaldian war the Emperor utterly defeated the Lutheran princes:

The elector was deposed and Romanism restored throughout the province.

Menno again saw himself compelled to flee:

With his sick wife and small children he went, under great dangers, northward. Toward the end of the year we find him in the city of Lübeck.