committed to historic Baptist & Reformed beliefs

 

CHAPTER VI.

Biography of Menno Simon—Account of his Publications—
Church Government among the Baptists—Missionary Excursions.

 

WE propose now to give some account of Menno Simon, to whose labors the Baptists of Holland were so deeply indebted.

This great man was born at Witmarsum, in Friesland, in the year 1505. Very little is known of his early life. It is not known where he studied; but it is evident, both from his writings and from the admissions of his opponent, that he was a first-rate scholar. Mosheim says, that he had acquired “learning enough to be regarded by many as an oracle.” Though he was educated for the priesthood, he was entirely ignorant of the Scriptures, excepting such portions as are contained in the Missal and the Breviary. Nay, more, he was not only ignorant but hostile, “speaking evil of things which he knew not,” after the manner of the Romish priesthood of that age, who were irritated by the Reformers’ constant appeal to the Word of God, and refused to admit it, maintaining that the authority of the Church was supreme. The fact that Luther and his coadjutors proposed to derive their religious views from the Bible, led these sapient priests to identify the Holy Book with heresy, and therefore to refrain from perusing it. So Menno Simon afterwards confessed.

But he was a thinking man. Having been ordained in 1528, he became Vicar of Pingium, a village in Friesland. The celebration of the mass was of course a frequent duty. He had been taught to believe that when the priest uttered the words, “Hoc est corpus Mewn” (This is My body), the wafer was changed into the body of the Lord Jesus. His reason was shocked and disgusted. Could these things be true? Did Christianity teach them? Such questions could not be answered unless he examined the original record. He determined to do so, and in the year 1530 he read the New Testament. The perusal opened his eyes. He renounced transubstantiation. Continuing to read, more enlightenment followed. As he learnt, he taught. He preached so differently that he began to be regarded as an evangelical minister. But as yet it was only light; spiritual life was wanting.

We mentioned in a former section the martyrdom of Sicke Snyder, at Leeuwarden. Menno heard of it, and then for the first time was informed of the existence of the people called “Anabaptists.” The effects produced on his mind, and the ultimate results, were thus stated by himself some years afterwards:—

“It sounded very strange in my ears to of a person being re-baptized. I examined the Scriptures with diligence, and meditated on them earnestly; but could find in them no authority for infant-baptism. As I remarked this, I spoke of it to my pastor; an after several conversations he acknowledged that infant-baptism had no ground in the Scriptures. Yet I dare not trust so much to my under?standing. I consulted some ancient authors, who taught me that children must by baptism be washed from their original sin. This I compared with the Scriptures, and perceived that it set at nought the blood of Christ. Afterwards I went to Luther, and would gladly have known from him the ground; and he taught me that we must baptize children on their own faith, because they, are holy. This also I saw was not according to God’s Word. In the third place I went to Bucer, who taught me that we should bap?tize children in order to be able the more diligently to take care of them, and bring them up in the ways of the Lord. But this, too, I saw was a groundless representation. In the fourth place, I had recourse to Bullinger, who pointed me to the covenant of circumcision; but I found, as before, that according to Scripture the practice could not stand. As I now on every side observed that the writers stood on grounds so very different, and each followed his own reason, I saw clearly that we were deceived with infant?baptism.”

In 1530 Menno returned to Witmarsum, his native village, where he remained five years, discharging his duties as a Romish priest. “There,” said he, “I preached and said much from the Word of God, but without any influence from the Spirit, or any proper affection for the souls of men; and I made, by these my sermons, many young persons, like myself, vain boasters, and empty talkers; but they had very little concern for spiritual things . . . I entered with ardor into the indulgence of youthful lusts; and like the generality of persons of similar pursuits, sought exclusively after gain, worldly appearance, the favor of men, and the glory of a name.” Nevertheless, he continued to inquire after truth, and the Lord graciously guided and blessed him. As his views became clearer, his heart was affected, and at length all the marks of genuine conversion appeared. Then came a time of trial. Should he retain his position as a priest, or forsake all and follow Christ? “If I continue in this state,” he exclaimed, “and do not to the utmost of my ability expose the hypocrisy of false teachers, and the impenitent and careless lives of men, their depraved baptism and supper, with their other superstitions, what will become of me?” True to his convictions, he faith?fully and fearlessly proclaimed the Gospel.

“I began,” he said, “in the name of the Lord, to teach publicly from the pulpit the doctrine of true repentance; to guide the people in the narrow path; to testify con?cerning sins and unchristian behavior, and all idolatry and false worship; as also concerning baptism and the supper, according to the sense and fundamental prin?ciples of Christ, as far as I at the time received grace from my God. Also, I warned every man against the Munster abominations in regard to a king, to polygamy, to a worldly kingdom, to the sword, &c., most faithfully, until the great and gracious Lord, perhaps after the course of nine months, extended to me His fatherly Spirit, help and mighty hand, so that I freely abandoned at once my character and fame among men, as also my antichristian abominations, mass, infant-baptism, loose and careless life, and all; and put myself willingly in all trouble and poverty, under the pressing cross of Christ the Lord. In my weakness I feared God. I sought pious people, and of these I found some, though few, in good zeal and doctrine. I disputed with the perverted; and some I gained through God’s help and power; but the stiff-necked and obdurate I commended to the Lord. Thus has the gracious Lord drawn me through the free favor of His great grace. He first stirred in my heart. He has given me a new mind. He has humbled me in His fear. He has led me from the way of death, and through mere mercy has called me upon the narrow path of life into the com?pany of His saints. To Him be praise for ever. Amen.”

This reference to the “Munster abominations” serves to point out the peculiarity of his circumstances. He was fully a Baptist in principle; but the outrageous conduct of the men of Munster (about whom we shall have to speak at large in a subsequent section) had exposed all persons bearing the Baptist name to unmerited opprobrium; in fact, no man’s life was safe who attached himself to that body. Menno distinguished, however, between the precious and the vile. Repudiating the monstrous dogmas and pretensions which characterized the Munster mania, against which he always earnestly protested, he embraced the sentiments held by the genuine Baptists, and joined one of their churches. This was in the year 1535.

During the first year after his baptism, Menno lived in retirement, meeting with the church from time to time, and diligently employing all the means in his power for the increase of knowledge and piety. But he could not be hid. The Church recognized his talents for usefulness, and wisely determined to call him out to labor. We will again cite his own words..

“He who bought me with the blood of His love, and called me to His service, unworthy as I am, searches me, and knows that I seek neither gold, nor goods, nor luxury, nor ease on earth; but only my Lord’s glory, my salvation, and the souls of many immortals. Wherefore I have had, now the eighteenth year, to endure such excessive anxiety, oppression, trouble, sorrow, and persecution, with my poor feeble wife and little offspring, that I have stood in jeopardy of my life, and in many a fear. Yes, while the priests lie on soft beds and, cushions, we must hide ourselves commonly in secret corners. While they are at all nuptials and christenings, and at other times make themselves merry in public with fifes, drums, and various kinds of music, we must look out for every dog, lest he be one employed to catch us. Instead of being greeted by all as doctors and masters, we must be called Anabaptists, clandestine holders-forth, deceivers, and heretics. In short, while for their services they are rewarded in princely style, with great emoluments and good days, our reward and portion must be fire, sword, and death.

“What now I, and my true coadjutors in this very difficult and hazardous service, have sought, or could have sought, all the well-disposed may easily estimate from the work itself and its fruit . . . And through our feeble service, teaching, and simple writing, with the careful deportment, labor, and help of our faithful brethren, the great and mighty God has made so known and public in many cities and lands the word of true repentance, the word of His grace and power, together with the wholesome use of His holy sacraments; and has given such growth to His churches, and endowed them with such invincible strength, that not only have many proud hearts become humble, the impure chaste, the drunken temperate, the covetous liberal, the cruel kind, the godless godly; but also for the testimony which they bear, they faithfully give up their property to confiscation, and their bodies to torture and to death—as has occurred again and again to the present hour. These are no marks or fruits of false doctrine (with that God does not cooperate), nor under such oppression and misery could anything have stood so long, were it not the power and the word of the Almighty. Whether all the prophets, apostles, and true servants of God, did not through their service, produce the like fruits, we would gladly let all the pious judge.”

The issue was, that Menno became a Baptist minister. The last twenty-five years of his life were spent in toilsome and perilous efforts for the spread of the truth. Repeatedly compelled to change his abode, and living for the most part in a state of wandering and exile, his life was no doubt greatly embittered. Having married, too, at an early period of his ministry, his sufferings were increased by the exposure of his wife and children to the same distress as he himself endured. But he laboured on without fainting, and God abundantly blessed him. Let us listen to him once more.

“Perhaps a year afterwards, as I was silently employing myself upon the Word of the Lord, in reading and writing, there came to me six or eight persons, who were of one heart and soul with me; in their faith and life (so far as man can judge) irreproachable; separated from the world, according to the direction of the Scriptures; subjected to the Cross of Christ; and bearing a hearty abhorrence, not only of the Munster, but also of all worldly sects, anathematizings, and corruptions. With much kind entreaty they urged me, in the name of the pious who were agreed with them and me in one spirit and sentiment, that I would yet lay a little to heart the severe distress and great necessities of the poor oppressed souls (for the hunger was great, and very few were the faithful stewards), and employ the talent, which, unworthy as I am, I had received from the Lord.

“As I heard this I was very much troubled; anguish and fearfulness surrounded me. For on the one hand I saw my small gift; my want of erudition; my weak and bashful nature; the extremely great wickedness, willfulness, perverse conduct, and tyranny of the world; the powerful large sects; the craftiness of many spirits; and the heavy cross, which, should I begin, would not a little press me. On the other side, I saw the pitiable extreme hunger, want, and necessity of the devout pious children; for I perceived clearly enough that they wandered, as the simple, forsaken sheep when they have no shepherd.”

“At length, after much prayer, I resigned myself to the Lord and His people, with this condition. They were to unite with me in praying to Him fervently, that, should it be His holy pleasure to employ me in His service to His praise, His fatherly kindness would then give me such a heart and mind as would testify to me with Paul, Woe is me if I Preach not the Gospel! but should His will be otherwise, that He would order such means as to permit the matter to rest where it was. ‘I For if two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of My Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them’ (Matthew 18:19, 20).”1

Before his time the Baptists of Holland had been unable, from various causes, to realize, as completely as was to be desired, the advantages of church organization. Menno, instructed them in these matters, and in establishing regular government and discipline. It might be said that he exercised a sort of Apostolic supervision over them. At any rate, his labors and journeyings were Apostolical. “He traveled in West Friesland,” says Mosheim, “the territory of Groningen, and East Friesland, then in Guelderland, Holland, Brabant, and Westphalia, and the German provinces, along the shores of the Baltic, and penetrated as far as Livonia, and gathered an immense number of followers, so that he was almost the common father and bishop of all the Anabaptists.”2

Such exertions could not fail to attract the special notice of the persecuting government of the Netherlands. A proclamation was issued, offering pardon (if the informer were a Baptist), the freedom of the country, and a large pecuniary reward, to any one who would deliver up Menno to the authorities.3 Sometimes he was in imminent danger of being seized. On one occasion a Christian brother, in whose house he had taken shelter, was apprehended, cruelly tortured, and then put to death, because he would not betray the servant of God. Another narrow escape is thus narrated by his daughter:—

“A traitor had agreed, for a specified sum of money, to deliver him into the hands of his enemies. He first sought to apprehend him at a meeting; in which, however, he failed of success, and Menno escaped in a wonderful manner. Soon after this, the traitor, in company with an officer, passed him in a small boat on the canal. But the traitor kept quiet till Menno had passed them to some dis?tance, and had leaped ashore in order to escape with less danger. Then the traitor cried out, ‘Behold, the bird has escaped us!’ The officer chastised him, called him a villain, and demanded why he did not tell of it in time; to which the traitor replied, ‘I could not speak: for my tongue was bound.’ The lords were so displeased at this that they punished the traitor severely—a warning and lesson to all bloodthirsty traitors.”4

At last Providence appeared for him. The Lord of Fresenburg, a territory between Holland and Lubeck, had frequently visited the Netherlands, had witnessed the perse?cution of the Baptists, and had admired their piety and steadfastness. When they were driven from their homes, he allowed them to settle on his estates. Great numbers availed themselves of the privilege. Flourishing settle?ments were founded, and many Baptist churches established. There Menno also found a peaceful retreat, and pursued his labors without molestation. A printing establishment was founded there, whence his numerous works were issued. And there he died, on the 15th of January, 1561, in the village of Odesloe. His remains were deposited in his own garden.

No account of the manner of his death has been pre?served. But his “doctrine, purpose, and manner of life” were “fully known.” The “end” of such a man was undoubtedly “peace.”

Menno Simon was a voluminous writer. His works have been collected and published in a handsome folio volume. We will mention the principal treatises contained in it.

I. “An Evident Demonstration of the Saving Doctrine of Jesus Christ.” In this work he discusses the following subjects:—1. The time of grace. 2. Repentance. 3. Faith, which he defines, “An embracing of the Gospel through the agency of the Holy Spirit.” He shows that the believer relies upon Christ and His grace; that he embraces His promises; and that he is justified, not by works, but by faith, which is not of men, but the gift of God; and that this faith is not without fruits, but worketh by love. 4. Baptism. He defends the confining of baptism to believers from Matthew 28:19, Mark 16:16, and by the arguments usually adduced by Baptists; and replies to the arguments in favor of P?obaptism. In this chapter he employs a very severe style of writing. It was common to the authors of that and the next age. The Reformers, and after them the Puritans, treated their adversaries with very little courtesy; and certainly they received none from their opponents. 5. The Lord’s Supper. 6. Secession from the Church of Rome. 7. The calling of ministers in the Church. 8. The doctrines to be preached by ministers, showing that the Scripture is the only rule of faith. 9. The life of ministers, and their support. He denies the lawfulness of ministerial stipends. This was one of his mistakes. In this chapter also he cautions magistrates, learned men, and the common people against false ministers, meaning those who had identified themselves with insurrections against the civil power. He shows that the only sword which the Christian ought to use is the sword of the Spirit, and that with this sword Christ so protects His Church that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. He also admonishes the Church, under persecution, to walk in the practice of all Christian virtues.

II. “Fundamental Doctrines from the Word of God.” This treatise closely resembles the first. He writes very clearly and fully on the spirituality of the kingdom of Christ, and contends that none but the regenerate are true members of the Church.

III. “A Consolatory Admonition to the People of God under Persecution.” Having adverted to the ordinary topics of consolation, he warns his brethren very earnestly against taking up arms in defense of religion.

IV. “The Doctrine of Excommunication.” It is shown that excommunication is designed to bring sinners to repentance, and preserve the Church in its purity. This is well. But when Menno goes on to maintain that the pious must withdraw altogether from the excommunicate, and have no dealings with them, and that excommunication dissolves all society between father and children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives,—union with Christ by faith being infinitely more important than any earthly union,—we cannot but confess that his scheme was far harsher than the New Testament would warrant. There was much disputing on this subject between the men of severe measures and their moderate brethren; but the latter were in the minority during the period now under consideration.

V. “Reply to Gellius Faber, Minister at Embden.” All the peculiarities of the Baptists were stated and defended in this work. Faber had not only written against them, but had also stirred up persecution and inflamed the minds of the people. Hence Menno hits him hard. Faber, too, gives sturdy blows. They were both rough men.

VI. “A Piteous Supplication of Poor Christians, addressed to Magistrates,” &c.

VII. “A Brief Vindication of Miserable Christians and Dispersed Strangers, &c., addressed to all Divines and Preachers in the Netherlands.” In these two works Menno defends himself and his brethren against the accusations brought against them. He exposes the calumnies of their foes, and indignantly remonstrates with magistrates and ministers for allowing themselves to be led away by misrepresentations and lies, invented for no other purpose than the accomplishment of the ruin of innocent people.

VIII. The most interesting of all Menno Simon’s works is the “Narration of his Secession from Popery,” in which he traces and describes the various experiences through which he passed, and the struggles he endured ere he attained full deliverance.5

In common with the Baptists of that period generally, Menno Simon held that no Christian should undertake the office of magistrate, or bear arms, or bind himself by oath. Whatever may be thought of these sentiments now, it is evident that they originated in the views entertained by Baptists respecting the purity of the Church. Maintaining that a Church of Christ should consist exclusively of pious persons, they concluded, necessarily, that such persons would not be law-breakers, that they would abhor all violence, and that their word might be relied on. Among them, therefore, no magistrate would be required. Their principles would be incompatible with the employment of force, even in self-defense. It would be outrageous to call upon them to confirm any statement by an oath, since the word of true men ought always to be taken. All this may be admitted. Menno Simon and his friends seem to have forgotten, however, that they were living “in the world,” and that there were certain duties incumbent on them as members of society. Yet these were harmless notions, and might have been borne with. They would have been borne with had forbearance been the temper of the age.

It is manifest that the doctrinal opinions of the Baptists of this period harmonized, with few exceptions not of great moment, with those entertained by the Reformers of all persuasions. With regard to the constitution and government of Christian Churches, they and the Reformers materially differed. According to the latter, infant-baptism formed the basis of Church membership, and the Church and the nation were identical. The Baptists, on the contrary, would admit no members to their churches but on personal profession of repentance and faith, on which profession the parties were baptized. All their subsequent arrangements were founded on these prerequisites. Every church was a family of believers. When they sat down at the table of the Lord, they felt that they were one in Christ and “members one of another.” The Church, in their estimation, was a holy society. All the rule and discipline tended to the preservation of that holiness. So Baptists have thought and practiced from the beginning.

We do not find any material difference between them and ourselves in regard to the organization and management of churches. The opposition they encountered was so violent that they were compelled to meet in secret, and at such times as they were able. Doubtless, whenever it was practicable, they spent the Lord’s-day together in spiritual exercises, “according to the commandment.” On these occasions, if ministers were present, they preached and taught, and administered the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper: if no minister was present, there was mutual exhortation, with prayer and praise. Care was taken to ascertain who among them were possessed of suitable gifts; and these persons, after a season of probation, were solemnly set apart to the ministerial office, by prayer and the imposition of hands. Sometimes they sent out brethren on missionary tours, to gather together scattered disciples or comfort afflicted churches. This proved not unfrequently a perilous task. Several instances of martyrdom are recorded, resulting from the discharge of this duty. The itinerant missionary was apprehended as a suspected man; for the fact of his being a stranger, and often a foreigner, was sufficient to arouse suspicion. Examination disclosed the secret, and death followed.

We will give a few extracts from the “ Martyrology,” which will illustrate this part of the subject.

Joriaen Simons and Clement Dorks, together with Mary Jones, “fell into the hands of the tyrants at Haarlem,” in 1557. “From the very gates of their prison they made known the Word of the Lord, for the reformation of all.” When called on to declare their faith, they said “that they had been baptized on a confession of their faith, according to the command of Christ,” and that “infant-baptism was not from God, but in opposition to His Word.” They observed the Supper of the Lord “agreeably to the institution of Christ, after His own usage and blessing when with His Apostles.” They “could not acknowledge the Pope and the Romish Church to be the Church of God.” They acknowledged “no other punishment of offenders in the Church than evangelic excommunication, thereby to separate the bad from the good, that a pure Church might be presented to the Lord, in which there might be nothing impure or defiled.”6

It was observed of two godly women who were beheaded at Ghent, in 1564, that “they had separated themselves (agreeably to the direction of the Holy Scriptures) from the Popish Church of Antichrist, as corrupted with many impurities, and filled with the unfruitful works of darkness, and doctrines and commandments of men, in opposition to the Holy Word of the Lord. They had also united themselves with the true members of Christ, and with them, according to their weak ability, endeavoured to observe the Lord’s commandments and ordinances. They were therefore deprived of life by the persecutors and haters of the truth.”7

In 1559, “Jan Bosch, commonly called Jan Durps, was a pious, worthy man, a linen-weaver by trade, living at Maestricht. Though the truth was very much obscured by the Papacy, yet the light of Divine grace shone into his mind, and genuine Gospel truth was brought home to him. He repaired to the Church of God, and yielded the obedience which Christ the Son of God prescribed and commanded. After he had for a season adorned his Christian calling, the Church ordained him, and the charge of it was entrusted to him, that by reading and exhortation he should serve them. After many refusals he consented, and discharged his duty with fidelity, and employed his talents to the best of his ability.”8

“Jan de Swarte, a man of excellent character, from Nipkerke, and his wife and children, came to the knowledge of the truth, and were united to the Church of God. He was afterwards chosen and ordained to be a minister of the Church. In this office he, according to his ability, and in meekness, so conducted himself (not only as deacon by caring for the poor, but also, according to the gift he had received from God, in the dispensation of the word of exhortation) that he became greatly endeared to all that knew him.”9 We have noticed his martyrdom in a previous section.

“In the year 1560, the brother Claes Felbinger, a locksmith, a willing servant of the Word of God (he was then on trial), was apprehended,” and put to death. This brother “was called to the ministry of the Gospel in the year 1556, but had not received the imposition of hands.”10

“In the year 1562, the brother Franciscus van der Sach, a native of Rovigo, in Italy, a minister of the Word of God (being still on probation), with another, his fellow-messenger, named Antonius Walsch, was. apprehended at Capo d’Istria.” He was subsequently drowned at Venice, as has been before stated.11

The following cases illustrate the statement respecting the dangers attending missionary excursions in those days. “In the beginning of the year 1536, Jeronimus Kels, of Kufstein, with Michiel Zeepsieder, of Walt, in Bremen, and Hans Overacker, of Etschland, were commissioned to go into the earldom of the Tyrol; but being come to Vienna, in Austria, they were seized, having been betrayed by the innkeeper with whom they lodged. While at supper, the people there sought to discern who they were by drinking their healths; and when they found out their views, by their declining to respond to the toasts, the landlord sent for paper, and wrote a letter in Latin, which, among other words, contained the following: ‘Here are three persons, who, I think, are all Anabaptists.’ They were arrested, and died in the fire at Vienna.”12 In 1537, “Juriaen Vaser, by desire of some zealous brethren, was sent to Pogstall, in Austria, where he joyfully began to teach the Word of the Lord, notwithstanding that he was just come out of prison at Metlyng. He gathered the faithful together, and formed a church agreeably to God’s command. But he could not escape the foils of a crafty knave, who, feigning a desire to learn from him, as a minister, the nature and ground of the truth, brought with him many servants, whom he ordered to lay hold and capture this Juriaen Vaser when a suitable opportunity should occur. This was faithfully performed.”13 Vaser was beheaded. In the year 1545, “Brother Hans Blietel, having been sent by the Church to Riet, in Bavaria, was there apprehended; for money had been offered by them of Riet to any one that should take him. There was in consequence a traitor who gave him good words, affected much zeal, wished ardently to be with him, and drew him to his house. The brother thought it was for the welfare of his soul, and went with him.” The wretch endeavoured to extort money from him, and, failing in that, betrayed him to the magistrates, who condemned him to the flames. “When the dear brother Hans reached the place of execution outside the city, he thought upon the Church, and called out with a loud voice, in the midst of the assembled people, asking if there was any one present who would have courage to inform the Church of God in Moravia, that ‘I, Hans Blietel, have been burnt for the sake of the Gospel, at Riet, in Bavaria.’ A zealous man, full of piety, then discovered himself. His zeal was inflamed by this question, and, as he could not get near Hans, he called out to him and said that he would tell and make known to the Church in Moravia that he had been burnt at Riet for the faith.”14

 

1  The above account is extracted from Menno Simon’s Narrative of his Secession from Popery.

2  Ecclesiastical History, cent. xvi. sect. 3, part 2, chap. vi. sect. 8.

3  Martyrology, i. p. 242.

4  Martyrology, p. 241.

5  See Baptist Magazine, vol. x., pp. 361-368, 401-406 containing a Memoir of Menno Simon, by the late Rev. William Rowe, of Weymouth.

6  Martyrology, ii. p. 166.

7  Ibid. p. 357.

8  Martyrology, p. 240.

9  Ibid. p. 338.

10  Ibid. p. 279.

11  Ibid. p. 335.

12  Martyrology, i. p. 157.

13  Martyrology, p. 161.

14  Martyrology, p. 268. The Martyrology is an abridgment of a large folio volume, in Dutch, by T. J. van Braght, a Mennonite minister. The first edition was published at Dordrecht, in 1660; the second, illustrated by more than a hundred engravings, at Amsterdam, in 1685. A full translation of the work, by J. Daniel Rupp, was published at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in an octavo volume of 1048 pages, in 1837. The late Rev. Benjamin Millard, of Wigan, was the author of the translation issued by the Hanserd Knollys Society.

 
 
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