After centuries of persecution, the defenceless Christians of Europe were scattered and demoralized and the persecutors began to feel they were rid of these people whose existence was so troubling to them. They were troubling because they taught, and lived, a faith that testified of the truth and power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Then these supposedly defeated Christians reorganized, began to once more boldly preach the gospel and their numbers grew rapidly. Three of their most prominent leaders were Dietrich Philips, Menno Simons and Leenart Bouwens. Leenart Bouwens left no writings but baptized over 10,000 during his evangelical ministry. Dietrich and Menno travelled much, often at the risk of their lives, and also wrote much. Many of Menno’s writings were aimed at people outside of the church, explaining the faith and pleading for tolerance from the authorities. This made him especially dangerous and a large reward was offered for his capture. This notoriety led to all those of the same faith being called Menno’s people, Mennists and finally Mennonites.
Menno adamantly denied being the founder of a church or religious movement, rather seeing himself as a shepherd to the sheep who had been scattered by persecution. There are dozens of denominations in our day calling themselves Mennonite. Most of them are made up of linear descendents of people who once were of the same faith as Menno, but have little idea what that faith was. The majority have never read Menno’s writings, there are even some who call themselves Mennonites but have no idea where the name came from.
Among those whom we might call ethnic Mennonites, those of Netherlands descent have much less interest in the writings of Menno Simons than those who are of Swiss descent. Why is this?
In the 1820’s several men in the Molotschna Mennonite settlement in Russia (composed of people whose family lineage went back to the Netherlands) took it upon themselves to have a new printing made of the writings of Menno Simons. This alarmed the leaders and in 1829 a statement was issued, signed by all 29 Mennonite elders and ministers in Molotschna which forbade their church members to read, or even own, such a book. The letter demanded that all the copies that had been printed should be destroyed. The reason given was that these writings might fall into the hands of neighbours of a different faith, or even government officials, and thereby cause trouble for the churches. To refute that thought, Peter Toews* mentions a couple of instances from Prussia where government officials had read Menno’s writings and found nothing objectionable, even expressing the wish that more of the Mennonite people should read them.
Toews* quotes one of those responsible for printing the Menno Simons books as saying: “I only fear that a different matter in their own conscience aroused hatred in themselves because Menno Simons’ teaching severely reproves the Mennonites of the present and especially the ministry. Consequently they feel ashamed and reproved and therefore prefer not to have these books in their congregations.”
*Toews, Peter (1841-1922), By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them