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The Anabaptist Story

by William R. Estep
1975 William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

 

Before telling the story of how the Mennonite Church began, it is necessary to enumerate a number of false theories of its origin. Some historians have imagined a connection between the radical Zwickau Prophets or the fanatical Thomas Muenzer and the founders of the Mennonite Church. But for this supposed connection there is not historical foundation. Other historians have gone astray in seeking to account for the rise of the Mennonite Church by interpreting the movement as a revolt of the lower classes. This social-economic theory is also unsupported by the facts. Indeed the chief founder of the Mennonite Church was the university-trained son of a rich family. The early leaders of the church did not preach social revolt; they proclaimed repentance and baptism. Another unsound theory is that the movement arose under the influence of Catholic monastic orders. A much less harmless theory but one that is also without historical support is that of Apostolic succession. According the this theory there has been a continuity of organization in small groups outside the Catholic church from A.D. 30 to 1525. Actually these non-Catholic groups differed widely from each other; all held some heretical views and in many cases had no connection with each other. Finally, there have been those who thought that the Mennonite Church was of Waldensian origin. Actually the Waldenses disappeared in Switzerland a century before the rise of the Anabaptist movement.

The reformer of German-speaking Switzerland was Ulrich Zwingli, 1484-1531. A priest already in 1506, Zwingli read the writings of Erasmus and Luther and was deeply influenced, especially by Luther, At the close of 1518 Zwingli became a priest in the Great Minster Church of Zurich, Switzerland. Gradually Zwingli became somewhat of a Protestant in his thinking, and on January 23, 1523, he met a Catholic named Faber in a disputation. A second disputation was held October 23-28, 1523, before the city council of Zurich. Zwingli then succeeded in convincing the council that the images should be removed from the churches. In the zeal for the new reform movement, the populace also whitewashed the works of art in the churches.

At this second disputation two young Zwinglians, Conrad Grebel and Simon Stumpf, demanded the immediate abolition of the mass. They urged Zwingli to establish a free church composed of voluntary believers. These demands Zwingli flatly refused. From October 1523 until January 1525, there was a growing tension between Zwingli and Grabel. Grabel and his colleagues advocated the creation of

Christian congregations patterned after those of the New Testament. Only those believers should be admitted to membership in the church who were walking in newness of life. Zwingli, after hesitating for some time on the question of infant baptism and possibly on nonresistance, decided against the demands of Grebel. Nevertheless, Grebel and a young friend named Felix Manz held Bible readings, expounding the Word of God from the original tongues.

On January 17, 1525 the first great disputation between Zwingli and the Brethren was held. Speakers for the Brethren were Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz and a converted priest named Wilhelm Reublin. At this disputation Zwingli advocated making only such changes in the churches as the city council would approve. He also defended infant baptism. Grebel, however, insisted that the only authority is the Word of God, and advocated setting up congregations of voluntary believers. The city council naturally gave the victory to Zwingli. On the other hand, Zwingli admitted that it would be "dangerous" to have any further debates with the Brethren. The next day (January 18) the council issued a decree exiling those who refused to baptize their infants. On January 21 the council published a mandate restraining Grebel and Manz from holding further Bible study meetings. It was probably on this same day that fifteen brethren met together at Zollikon, a village on Lake Zurich, and formally organized a church. Zwingli stated that this took place "a few days" after the debate of January 17, 1525.

It is thus clear that Martin Luther was the chief founder of the Reformation, and that the founders of what is now called the Mennonite church separated from the Swiss reformer, Zwingli, while the Zwinglians were still observing the Catholic mass. The main issues which led Grebel and his friends to break with Zwingli were the tempo of the reform, infant baptism, a free church of voluntary believers, and the need of church discipline. Possibly nonresistance was also somewhat of an issue.

It should be emphasized that Muenster, although a dark blot in history, does not represent the faith of the Swiss Brethren nor of the Dutch Anabaptists. Mennonites have always placed chief emphasis on the New Testament while the Muensterites appealed to the Old Testament in support of their horrible practices. Unfortunately, however, the Muenster tragedy actually has been an occasion for a misrepresentation of Mennonitism in church history. The injustice of this is apparent when it is recalled that Mennonitism arose as a sane Biblical movement at Zurich in 1525 and is represented today by several hundred thousand Mennonites. On the other hand, the Muenster tragedy, which took place 1534-35, was the result of the fanatical leadership of a few sensual men. Obbe Philips opposed the Muensterites vigorously and placed the "ban" on all those becoming infected with their errors. Indeed this was the origin of the practice of "shunning" among the Dutch Mennonites.

In 1496 a Dutch couple of Witmarsum in Friesland named their infant son Menno. Since the name of Menno's father was Simon the custom of the day in Holland made the child's name Menno Simonszoon,--called Simons for short. As a youth Menno received training for the Catholic priesthood, perhaps in the Franciscan Monastery at Bolsward, near Witmarsum. In the monastery Menno received training in reading and writing Latin and in a study of the Church Fathers, but he never read the Bible. In 1524 he was consecrated as a priest, and for seven years he served in the Pinjum parish near Witmarsum. In 1531 he was transferred to his hometown where he served for five more years. His work as priest consisted in the celebration of the mass, in offering prayers for the living and the dead, in baptizing infants, in hearing confessions of sin, and sadly enough, in playing cards and drinking. Until this time Menno had feared to read the Bible, for only the Catholic Church, Menno had been taught, could infallibly interpret the Scriptures.

The story of Menno's conversion is interesting. One day in 1525, during the first year of his priesthood, while he was celebrating the mass, a doubt crept into his mind as to whether the bread and wine actually became divine. This doubt of the truth of transubstantiation was to lead to Menno's first soul-struggle. Menno first thought that this was a suggestion from the devil, and he tried by using the confessional to get it out of his system. After much worry Menno finally decided upon a course of action. He resolved to study the New Testament. This was a most important decision, for in the end it was bound to lead him from the Catholic Church; he finally had to choose between following the Word of God and following the church. For Menno this was a very hard decision.

We have already seen the part which Martin Luther played in the origin of the Swiss Brethren movement. It was Luther again who helped Menno Simons solve his problem. For Luther (through his writings) taught Menno one great truth: A violation of human commands cannot lead to eternal death. And yet Menno did not become a Lutheran; he developed his own doctrine of the Lord's Supper.

But it was Martin Luther who convinced Menno that the ultimate authority in all matters of faith was the Word of God and nothing else. Menno was convinced of this about 1528, but strangely enough he went right on celebrating the mass.

In 1531 Menno Simons heard of an incident which became the occasion for his second soul-struggle. Jan Trijpmaker, a Melchiorite, had baptized a Dutchman named Sicke Freerks in 1530. This man Freerks was executed for his faith at Leeuwarden on March 20, 1531. Menno Simons was exceedingly astonished; the idea of a second baptism was for him completely new. To the horrified Menno now came the question: Is the Catholic Church also unbiblical as to baptism? Again Menno turned to the writings of the leading reformers. Luther said that infant baptism was justifiable because babies have "hidden faith," just as a believing adult is also a Christian even while he is asleep. Martin Butzer said that infant baptism was a pledge that the parents would give the child a godly training. Henry Bullinger, Zwingli's successor in Zurich, said that just as the Old Testament sign of the Covenant (circumcision) was performed on infants, so also the New Testament sign of the Covenant (baptism) shall be performed on infants. To Menno these arguments seemed logical enough but he was not so much interested in logic as in the Word of God. And he could find nothing of infant baptism in the New Testament.

Through all this strain and stress Menno remained a Catholic priest. He continued baptizing infants and saying mass. In fact he even accepted promotion to become head-pastor at Witmarsum. Menno was thus living a double life. He was believing one thing and practicing another. What would it take to make Menno Simons follow the Lord in loving obedience? The answer came in 1534-35 when the Muensterites came to Holland teaching their abominable and fanatical views. Even Menno's own brother was swept along with the deluded folks, and lost his life in a little battle with the authorities on April 7, 1535.

Menno of course took up the battle fight with the Muensterites. And yet he was not a happy man. For in fighting Muensterites was he not defending Catholicism? And were not those 300 misguided souls, who perished when his own brother lost his life, more honorable than he? They gave their lives for their error; was he not willing to give anything for the truth?

About April 1535 Menno surrendered to God, crying for pardon and peace. What a decision this was for the Obbenites and for the future Mennonite Church! Strangely enough, Menno apparently remained in the Catholic Church for yet another nine months, preaching evangelical doctrines from a Catholic pulpit. But this could not go on indefinitely, and in January 1536 Menno Simons renounced the Catholic Church and thus took the step which he had known for a long time was God's will for him. As was already mentioned, he was probably baptized by Obbe Philips. Before we criticize Menno for his timidity, we should remember what this step meant for him. It meant that in the eyes both of the world and of the civil authorities he was a heretic of the worst sort, even more dangerous than an ordinary criminal. While Luther and Zwingli modified their programs to secure political protection, the Anabaptists went bravely ahead and organized a church which they felt was true to the teachings of the New Testament. For this step they were willing to part with possessions, friends, family, and even life itself.

Obbe Philips and the Obbenites would not allow Menno to live a private life for any length of time. It is true that for several months he evidently devoted himself to quiet meditation and study. During this time he probably preached on occasion but had no pastoral oversight. But a number of Obbenite brethren felt that Menno Simons ought to assume the duties of an elder. Consequently a deputation of brethren called on Menno and pleaded with him to accept the leadership of the brotherhood. Menno hesitated. The Brethren came a second time. This time Menno accepted the call. It was probably early in 1537 when Menno was ordained as elder (bishop). The ordination was assuredly performed by Obbe Philips, the Leeuwarden surgeon and founder of Dutch Anabaptism. Incidentally Obbe himself later lost heart and laid down his ministry and withdrew from the church; because of this Menno called him a "Demas." Menno now took the lead in building up the brotherhood and saving it from the radical movements of the day.

From its very inception in 1525 the Mennonite Church has held the principle of nonresistance. Conrad Grebel, the founder of the Swiss Brethren Church, wrote in September 1524: "True, believing Christians are as sheep in the midst of wolves. . . . They use neither the worldly sword nor engage in war, since among them taking human life has ceased entirely, for we are no longer under the Old Covenant." Felix Manz, a colleague of Grebel, said, "No Christian smites with the sword nor resists evil." Pilgram Marpeck said of the Christians, "All bodily, worldly, carnal earthly fighting, conflicts and wars are annulled and abolished among them through such law." The Dutch Mennonites took the same stand as the Swiss Brethren. Dirck Philips testified that "The people of the Lord arm themselves not with carnal weapons . . . but with the armor of God, with the weapons of righteousness . . . and know of no war. They render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's. Their sword is the sword of the Spirit which they wield with a good conscience through the Holy Ghost."

The first country in which the Mennonites weakened on the doctrine of nonresistance was in Holland. After the Napoleonic period the Dutch Mennonites took a progressively weaker stand, and by the middle of the last century nonresistance among them was about dead. Mention has already been made of the determined group of Mennonites who emigrated from Balk, Holland, to New Paris, Indiana, in 1853, to maintain the doctrine of nonresistance. Very few Dutch Mennonites took a stand for the historic faith of the church during the first World War.

The "church" for the Mennonites is not a building. The building is the "meetinghouse"; the local group of believers is the "congregation" and the service is the "meeting". The minister is the "preacher"--a selected brother who proclaims the gospel, not a professional pastor. At least these were the older views; in recent years American Mennonites are tending to adopt the terminology of other Protestants.

Preaching in the early meetings was simple and Biblical, packed with admonitions to live a life separated from the "world" and to walk close to God. Oftentimes the preachers were also the schoolteachers of the community and hence were leading men in the congregation. The chief work of the preacher was to conduct the Sunday services, not to furnish spiritual life in lieu of any effort on the part of his congregation; each member was expected to stand on his own feet before God and to read the Bible for himself. It was the proclamation of the Word of God which was to occupy the preacher.

Ultimate authority rested largely in the congregation throughout most of Mennonite history.

In general the emphasis was on simplicity of organization; no need was felt for great supreme courts to exercise lordship over God's flock.

Mennonites have been characterized historically by a love for the Word of God, and by a strict demand for holiness of life. Much sound wholesome piety was found among the pioneers. With this piety went a commendable modesty which frowned on "testimony meetings" and tended to regard them as an evidence of spiritual pride. The emphasis was placed on the deeper life with God, rather than on a noisy emotionalism. The fads, fineries, and styles of the world were shunned, although the ordinary conventions of life were followed eventually.

 

Theology

The Anabaptists and early Mennonites believed that both the Old and New Testaments were God's infallible and Holy Word. In this they agreed with other Protestants. But they also held that the Old Testament as a religious system has been superseded by the New Testament. All doctrine, they insisted, must have a New Testament basis, and the Sermon on the Mount received special emphasis. It was in this view of the relation of the Testaments that they grounded their high ethical demands. The Old Testament permitted war, oaths, divorce, and polygamy; but God has now given a more complete revelation of His will for men. It is therefore not right to set aside the higher ethic of the New Testament in favor of that which God once permitted because of the "hardness of heart" of the ancient Israelites. Christians cannot therefore swear an oath nor serve as a soldier. The leading reformers considered this interpretation heresy, and proceeded to try to wipe out Anabaptism with force--quite as the ancient Israelites had used capital punishment on blasphemers. Their understanding of God's will has also led Mennonites to oppose membership in secret societies.

The second point on which the Anabaptists differed from the reformers was on the nature of the church. Zwingli turned down Grebel's proposal to establish a free church of voluntary believers in Christ, and after some consideration Luther also decided to retain the state church, a system in which the citizenry as such were considered members of the national or provincial church. Luther felt that there were not enough real believers to form a church. The true Christians in the state church, he said, should meet together for fellowship and prayer and should try to win the merely nominal Christians to a living faith in Christ. Associated with the state church system was infant baptism, which was also rejected as an unbiblical doctrine by the Anabaptists. The early Mennonite view of the church may be briefly summarized as follows: The New Testament church was composed of voluntary converts who had been baptized upon the confession of faith in Christ, and it was a church in which a wholesome discipline was exercised. It was also a church in which the members bore one another's burdens; the Mennonite mutual-aid organizations of today are carrying on the traditional spirit of the group. It was also a suffering church, not a ruling political body which punished heresy with the power of the state. The church must expect persecution from without; membership in Christ's spiritual kingdom entitles one but to suffering now; the glory is in the world to come. A contemporary of Menno Simons wrote: "The followers of Obbe Philips, who are today called Mennonites, taught that no other condition of Christ's kingdom is to be expected then that which exists today, namely, persecution by the world." The Christian life, therefore, is one of following faithfully in the footsteps of Jesus and of bearing patiently the reproach of the world; it is not especially a matter of emotional exaltation and pleasure. The holy life is the significant earmark of true Christianity.

On the other doctrines of the Christian faith, Mennonites agreed with Protestants generally, It is true that there are several exceptions to this rule: Mennonites always opposed the Reformed (Calvinistic) doctrine of a limited atonement and of a predestination which determines who shall accept the gospel; and there was considerable emphasis, at least in recent years, on the need of perseverance in the Christian life.

By way of summary it may be said that Mennonites have a splendid understanding of the relation of the Testaments to each other; they have a fine grasp of the plan of salvation; they have a good emphasis on the necessity of a holy life; and they insist on the high calling of the Christian Church.

 

THE AGE OF THE REFORMATION

IV. THE ANABAPTISTS

Besides the Lutheran and the Reformed, there was a third general Reformation movement, the Anabaptist. Its sources were in the groups of dissenters before the Reformation called the "Brethren." This old evangelical body was naturally greatly quickened by the religious revolution brought on by Luther. Few of those who belonged to it, however, joined either the Lutheran or the Reformed side of Protestantism. The Anabaptists, as they came to be called by others, went on in their own way, producing their own leaders and carrying on their own quiet but active missionary work. A great increase of their numbers resulted, in southern and western Germany, the Netherlands, Moravia, Austria and Switzerland.

The medieval "Brethren" were most numerous among the working people of the towns of Germany and the Netherlands. Their religious movement had some connection with the movement of social unrest among these working people and the peasantry in the later Middle Ages. Hence in many of the Anabaptists the spirit of protest against the wrongs suffered by the poor was strong. They were to some extent involved in the Peasants' War of 1525, the culmination of the revolts of the oppressed classes. Some of them denied the right of private property. But revolutionary social ideas were not held by all of them, nor were they generally given to violent actions. Their usual attitude toward wrongs was one of quiet endurance.

The Anabaptists in general held the great doctrines of the Reformation, which were directly in line with their evangelical ancestry. They all differed from Lutherans, Zwinglians and Calvinists, however, by their ideas regarding the nature of the Christian Church. The Church, they said, is composed of believers in Christ. No others have a right to be in it or to have anything to do with it. Hence almost all of them rejected infant baptism. For, they argued, baptism signifies entrance into the Church. But infants, because they cannot believe, cannot belong to the Church. Therefore their baptism is meaningless. The name Anabaptist, meaning those who baptize again, arose because those who joined the churches of this movement were rebaptized, on the ground that their baptism in infancy meant nothing. The Anabaptists would have nothing to do with any state church or its members. A church under the power of rulers who may or may not be true believers is no true church, they said. Thus they cut themselves off from fellowship with other Protestants; for all of the Protestant national churches except the French were state churches.

The Anabaptists were great lovers of the Bible, and in Germany they were using a German translation from the Vulgate or Latin version before Luther's Bible came out. They purposed to live strictly according to the teaching of the New Testament. Hence many of them would not take oaths or offer any resistance to evil. Their lives were, as a rule, simple, upright, and industrious. In their churches they kept a strict watch over one another's conduct. Persecutions far worse than those endured by any of their contemporaries came upon them, for other Protestants as well as Roman Catholics were hostile to them. Some of the Anabaptists met death at the hands of Lutherans and Zwinglians. Roman Catholic rulers directed at them their fiercest attacks, especially in the Netherlands.

The greatest leader of the Anabaptists was Menno Simons (1492-1559). For twenty-five years he shepherded the scattered Anabaptist societies in Germany and the Netherlands. The purified then of fanatical errors, encouraged them in their sufferings, won large additions to their numbers by his preaching, and drew them together into a great brotherhood. This took from him the name Mennonite.

In 1608 some men of Puritan views who had left the Church of England fled from persecution to Holland. Some of them later were the Pilgrims of Plymouth. Others came under the influence of Mennonites and adopted their views. About 1611 some of these latter founded in London the first Anabaptist or Baptist church of England. Other early English Baptists were in association with Dutch Mennonites. From these first English Baptists have come the Baptist churches of the English-speaking world. The Mennonite name is still borne by churches in Germany and by churches of German origin in Russia and America.

 
 
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