Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: Menno Simons

Uncomfortable truths taught by Menno

Yes, dear reader, true Christian faith as it is required in Scripture, is so living, active and strong in all those who through the grace of the Lord have rightly obtained it, that they do not hesitate to forsake father, mother, wife, children, money and possessions for the Word and testimony of the Lord; to suffer all manner of scorn, disgrace, hardship and prison, and finally to have their weak bodies burned at the stake, as may be frequently seen in many pious children of God and faithful witnesses for Christ especially in these our Netherlands.

Those who trust in their works or ceremonies for salvation deny thereby the grace and merits of Christ. For if our reconciliation consisted in works and ceremonies, grace would come to naught and the merits and virtue of the blood of Christ would all be void. O no! It is grace and will be grace in all eternity, all that the merciful Father, through his dear Son and Holy Spirit has done for us grievous sinners.

This is my joy and the desire of my heart, that I may extend the borders of the kingdom of God, make known the truth, reprove sin, teach righteousness, feed the hungry souls with the Word of the Lord, lead the stray sheep to the right path, and win many souls for the Lord through his Spirit, power and grace.

To this end we preach as much as opportunity and possibility affords, both in daytime and by night, in houses and in fields, in forest and wilderness, in this land and abroad, in prion and bonds, in water, fire and the scaffold, on the gallows, and upon the wheel, before lords and priests, orally and by writing at the risk of possessions and life, as we have done these many years without ceasing.

-excerpts from the Complete Writings of Menno Simons.

These words of Menno make us squirm, don’t they? But can we deny them, disregard their truth, and still call ourselves Mennonites? or even Christians?

Mennonite vs Menno

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

The quiet in the land

According to the Scriptures, Christians should lead quiet and peaceable lives. Is that the same as being “the quiet in the land?” That slogan has taken deep root among many who call themselves Mennonite.

The words come from Psalm 35:20: “For they speak not peace: but they devise deceitful matters against them that are quiet in the land.” This psalm is a prayer of David when he was being hunted by Saul and his army. Both Saul and David knew that it was God’s plan to make David king in the place of Saul. Yet David attempted to live peaceably until that day should arise, twice refusing to take Saul’s life when the opportunity was given him. Saul, on the other hand, was determined to slay David and retain the kingship for himself and his family.

I believe we can take from David’s example that it is not God’s plan for us to become politically active, nor to agitate to replace a government that we feel to be misguided and oppressive. But I do not believe it is God’s will to take this further to the point of being quiet about our faith in order to avoid persecution. This is what the German Pietists did by remaining in the Lutheran Church and partaking of its sacraments. This is what the Mennonites in Russia did when they banned the reading of the writings of Menno Simons.

I do not believe that being “the quiet in the land” to such an extent is compatible with true Christian faith. Peter admonished us to “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear,” (1 Peter 3:15). There is a real danger that we can become so quiet about our faith that no one would ever have cause to ask us about it. And if they did, we might not have a clue what to say.

In our search years ago for a church that still held to the old Anabaptist faith, we found many Mennonite churches that were like that. They called themselves Mennonite, but had no idea what that signified.

Even for those of us who retain the faith that was held by Menno Simons, it is time to strengthen those things that remain. Let’s not be shy about talking about that faith with each other, endeavouring to discern how the Spirit is leading in our personal lives and in our collective life. I believe there are people around us who will find the old faith attractive, offering something solid to hold on to in a world that appears to be crumbling. Let’s not be so quiet that they cannot hear.

The fear of some people who called themselves Mennonites

Beginning in the 16th century many Mennonites fled persecution in Friesland and Flanders and settled in the Vistula delta region of Poland. Here they gradually lost their evangelistic fervour and their faith dwindled to a mere outward conformity to some principles that they felt to be the essence of the faith. It seems they ceased to read the writings of Menno Simons and lost any concept of what it meant to be of the same faith that he upheld.

When Prussia annexed the Vistula delta region in the late 18th century, many of these people moved into southern Russia (today Ukraine). Here they could live in peace and began to feel that their peace depended upon keeping quiet about the real foundations of the Mennonite faith. When two men had Menno Simon’s writings printed for the benefit of those who called themselves Mennonites in the Russian colonies, the Mennonite church reacted strongly.

In August of 1835, all 29 elders and ministers of the Moltotschna colony signed a letter demanding that all copies of Menno’s book should be confiscated and destroyed. The pretext was that some people of other faiths, or some government officials, might read those writings and cause trouble for the so-called Mennonites.

Abram Friesen, one of those who had arranged for the printing, had a different impression of the true motive for banning the book:

“One would like to ask these men: How come do you want to put the lighted lamp under a bushel? Oh, that they might take the words of Christ in Matthew 5:13, 14, 15 to heart! They would have to call out woe upon woe for having done so foolishly. For what do these good men think of this? Menno feared neither tyranny nor persecution, neither pressure nor disfavour, hatred nor poverty, but in this book has freely professed before all men his ground and faith, and confessed the Lord Jesus Christ before men according to Matthew 10:31-39. But without imminent threat of danger these good elders and teachers are afraid without reason, for the hearts of the higher authorities are favourably inclined concerning freedom of conscience and worship and rule over the pious with great gentleness. Not only do they refrain from interfering in their faith and principles but often refer us back to them.

“On the contrary, the elders and teachers, who should be more in favour of the work consider it a great risk, and fear hatred from people of other religious persuasions. I only fear that a different matter in their own conscience aroused hatred in themselves because Menno Simon’s 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.

The last two paragraphs are taken from By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them, by Peter Toews, emphasis added.

The faith of Menno Simons

Thus we do not contend with carnal, but with spiritual weapons, patience and with the word of the Lord, against all flesh, world and devil, trusting in Christ. Nor shall there ever be found other weapons with us. Therefore, be not afraid of us (behold, in Christ Jesus I lie not); for we do not desire your destruction, but your regeneration; not your condemnation, but your everlasting salvation; not your flesh and blood, but your spirit and soul; on account of which I have these seven years suffered and yet suffer slander and scorn; anxiety, suspension, persecution, and great peril of being imprisoned.

The more the word of the Lord is extended, by the grace of God, to the reformation of some persons, who, however, are few, the more hatred and bitterness increases against me; so that up to this hour I could not find, in all the country, where, alas, the mere boasting of the divine word is a great deal more plenty than the fear of God, a cabin, or hut (blessed be the Lord) in which my wife and little children can safely sojourn for a year or two. O, cruel, unmerciful Christians ! O, that all magistrates and princes, as also all the wise and learned knew the seeking, intention and desire of my heart, as also of my beloved brethren who, by the grace. Spirit and word of God, are converted into a new spirit or new birth !

If they rightly understood our teaching how soon their hearts and minds would be changed into a different sense ! But as all of them, with but few exceptions, are nothing but earth and flesh and not gifted with the Spirit of Christ; therefore, alas, we hear nothing from them but upbraiding and slander, can expect nothing from them (I mean the evil-disposed) but the stake, water, tire, wheel and sword, as a reward of gratitude, that we have sought and yet seek our conversion, salvation and eternal life, and that of the whole world, with such diligence, solicitude, pains and labour from our inmost heart. For I strive after nothing, of which God is my witness, but that the God of heaven and of earth, through his blessed Son, Jesus Christ may have the glory and praise of his blessed word; that all men may be saved; and that they may awaken in this convenient time of grace, from their profound sleep of sinfulness; that they may lay by all adhering sin and the damnable works of darkness; that they may put on the armour of light, that they may thus become, with us by true penance, faith, baptism, Supper, ban or separation, love, obedience and true life, one holy, Christian church and body in Christ Jesus. Something which the whole world today yet opposes with all its strength with both shoulders and horns; not being willing that Christ Jesus, forever blessed, shall reign over them. Yea, they persecute, banish, burn, murder, and destroy all those who willingly teach and uphold the glory, praise, honour, will and commandments of the Lord.

Jesuitical craftiness

It was clear to true Christians (often called Anabaptists) until the late Middle Ages, that the Church of Rome was the Antichrist foretold by the apostles. In the sixteenth century Menno Simons made it very explicit. The following are only a few of the references to Antichrist in his writings.

Since Christ has commanded that believers should be baptized, and not infants, and the holy apostles taught and practised thus, in accordance with the instructions and commands of Christ, as may be seen in many places of the New Testament, all reasonable-minded men must admit, that infant baptism, although alas, practised by nearly the whole world, and maintained by tyranny, is nothing less than a ceremony of Antichrist, open blasphemy, an enchanting sin, a molten calf; yea, abomination and idolatry.

Beside this, the use of the cup is withheld from the people in the Roman church. If it were the Lord’s Supper, as they pretend, they would, in every respect, use it according to the ordinance of the Lord. But this custom shows that it is not the Supper of Christ, but a deluding seduction of Antichrist.

In short, they preach and lay before the poor people, lies for truth ; darkness for light; death for life, and Antichrist for Christ.

Behold, beloved sirs, friends and brethren, we openly declare that the sending and calling of your preachers are neither of God nor his word, but are from Antichrist, the dragon and the beast ; that they are not called to preach the word of the Lord, by the Spirit of God, and the church, but they are called and lured by their lusts with the priests of Jeroboam, to worship the golden calf, 2 Chron. 13: 8, 9.

Antichrist rules through hypocrisy and lies, with power and sword; but Christ reigns patiently with his word and spirit.

After the Reformation, the Protestant churches took up the refrain, even though they continued to practice many of the characteristics of Antichrist. They baptized babies, claimed that salvation was ministered by means of the sacraments and enlisted the sword of secular authorities to attack all who did not conform to their teachings.

Finally, the Roman Catholic church felt it had to do something. With the advent of the printing press it could no longer conceal the Scriptures from the people. The Jesuits, masters of sophistry and disinformation, came to the rescue.

The first was Francisco Ribera, a Spanish Jesuit, who published a commentary on the book of Revelation in 1590. He proposed a new interpretation of Revelation, saying that the first part applied to ancient pagan Rome, and the rest referred to a future period of 3½ years, immediately prior to the second coming. During this 3½ years the Antichrist, a single individual, would appear He would persecute the saints of God, rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, deny Jesus Christ, pretend to be God and conquer the world. Immediately afterthis Christ would return to judge the world.

Other Jesuits added to this line of thought, the most influential being Manuel de Lacunza, His book, The Coming of the Messiah in Majesty and Glory was published in Spanish in 1810, under the pen nmae of Juan Josafat Ben-Ezra. He differed from Ribera’s interpretation in that after the 3½ years of tribulation Christ would return and rule from Jerusalem for 1,000 years and then the Judgment would come.

Edward Irvine, a Presbyterian minister, discovered Lacunza’s book and translated it into English. The book appeared in 1827 and Irvine’s preaching began to be mostly focused on this millennial teaching. He was excommunicated in 1830 and a new denomin ation formed, the Catholic Apostolic Church. In 1830 Margaret MacDonald, a 15 year old Scottish girl in Irvine’s congregation, had visions that a secret rapture of the church would occur before Antchrist would appear. Irvine accepted this as a divine revelation and added this new wrinkle to his millennial teaching.

John Nelson Darby was first a lawyer, then a Church of England clergyman and later the most prominent figure in the Plymouth Brethren movement. He was a regular attender of the prphecy conferences that began in Powerscourt, Ireland in 1830. Here he was exposed to Irvine’s teachings, heard of Miss MacDonald’s supposed visions and went to hear them from her at her home in Port Glasgow, Scotland.

Darby added the dispensational teaching to the mix, saying that God has offered salvation to mankind in six different ways in six dispensations, all of which have failed. The seventh and final will ne Christ’s millennial kingdom. Darby popularized this dispensational pre-tribulation premillennial doctrine through extensive writing and preaching. C.I. Scofield learned the doctrine from Darby and gave it a major boost in North America with his Scofield Reference Bible. Lewis Sperry Chafer learned the doctrine from Scofield and went on to found Dallas Theological Seminary in 1924, from which many well known prophecy teachers have graduated.

Chafer taught for many years that Benito Mussolini was the Antichrist and would establish a new Roman Empire that would lead to the Great Tribulation. There have been numerous other failed attempts to identify some well known figure as the Antischrist. Despite this, the doctrine has now so pervaded Evangelical Christianity that to question it seems almost heresy.

The Bible is enough

Image by Pexels from Pixabay 

A reader of my French blog recently mentioned the book Le roi des derniers jours, l’exemplaire et très cruelle histoire des rebaptisés de Münster (1534-1535), written by Barret and Gurgand, first published by Hachette in 1981.

I obtained a copy of the book and found it a meticulous, almost day by day account of how currents of lutheran and anabaptist thought entered a Roman Catholic city until its citizens opted for a form of anabaptism that at first conformed quite closely to Biblical anabaptism.

The first divergence of the Munsterites from mainstream anabaptism was to take political control of the city. This led to further steps, as seeing themselves as the New Jerusalem prepared for Christ’s return to reign, arming themselves to resist the army assembled by the Roman Catholic bishop, naming John of Leiden as king, community of goods and polygamy. Dreams and visions provided the basis for all of these steps. The supposed latter day kingdom of Christ came to a horrible end in June 1535.

A treatise by Menno Simons on the Blasphemy of John of Leiden appeared earlier that year, possible occasioned by the death of his brother who had gotten caught up in that movement. Menno was still a Roman Catholic priest at the time he wrote this but renounced that faith at the beginning of 1536 and united with the peaceful anabaptists.

In his writing against John of Leiden he states that Christians have only one king, Jesus Christ and his kingdom is a spiritual kingdom of love and peace. Christians cannot bear arms or fight, cannot mete out punishment to evildoers. The ultimate judge of all will be Jesus Christ when he comes again and that day has not come yet.

Some years later he included the following thoughts in another writing:

Brethren, I tell you the truth and lie not. I am no Enoch, I am no Elijah. I am not one of those who sees visions, I am no prophet who can teach and prophesy otherwise than what is written in the Word of God and understood in the Spirit. (Whosoever tries to teach something else will soon leave the track and be deceived.) I do not doubt that the merciful Father will keep me in his Word so that I shall write or speak nothing but that which I can prove by Moses, the prophets, the evangelists and other apostolic Scriptures and doctrines, explained in the true sense, Spirit, and intent of Christ. Judge ye that are spiritually minded.

Once more, I have no visions nor angelic visitations. Neither do I desire such lest I be deceived. The Word of Christ alone is sufficient for me. If I do not follow his testimony, then verily all that I do is useless, and even if I had such visions and inspirations, which is not the case, even then it would have to be conformable to the Word and Spirit of Christ, or else it would be mere imagination, deceit, and satanic temptation. For Paul says, Let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith. Romans 12:6.

Evangelism in a time of persecution

Two brief excerpts from the writings of Menno Simons (1496-1561)

This is my only joy and the desire of my heart, that I may extend the borders of the kingdom of God, make known the truth, reprove sin, teach righteousness, feed the hungry souls with the Word of the Lord, lead the stray sheep into the right path, and win many souls for the Lord Through His Spirit, power and grace.

To this end we preach as much as opportunity and possibility affords, both in daytime and night, in houses and in fields, in forests and wildernesses, in this land and abroad, in prison and in bonds, in water, fire and the scaffold, on the gallows, and upon the wheel, before lords and princes, orally and by writing at the risk of possessions and life, as we have done thes many years without ceasing.

The Quiet in the Land

MennoSimons

Throughout Christian history, there has always been a united, visible body of believers who professed much the same faith regarding conversion and a personal relationship with God but who refused to conform to the state enforced form of worship of their day. The Martyrs’ Mirror catalogues the faith, and the persecution of these people because of their faith, from the time of the apostles up to the time the book was published in 1660.

Other people decided to live their faith in a way that would not bring persecution. They conformed to the outward practices of the state church, Reformed, Lutheran or Roman Catholic, but professed an inward piety and heartfelt devotion to God

The label of pietism first appeared in the seventeenth century. Some members of the Lutheran Church professed to have received forgiveness of sins through a conversion experience that warmed their hearts and led them to a deeper communion with God. They remained in outward fellowship with the Lutheran Church, attending worship services regularly, receiving communion, and baptizing their babies, but sought fellowship in private gatherings with like-minded people to testify of what God had done for them.

Sometimes the pietists called themselves “the quiet in the land”, from Psalm 35:20. That term, and pietism itself, appealed to large groups of Mennonites who had grown weary of persecution, and may even have forgotten why they had been persecuted. When Mennonites from Prussia settled on colonies in Ukraine 200 years ago they agreed not to proselytize the Russian people. Around them were other German colonies, Roman Catholic and Lutheran. The Mennonites absorbed pietist teachings from Lutheran pietists and called themselves “The Quiet in the Land.”

That term is not part of our Mennonite heritage. Indeed, I feel it marks the abandonment of that heritage. Menno Simons wrote a lengthy article in 1539 entitled Why I do not Cease Teaching and Writing. In other articles he wrote:

This is my only joy and the desire of my heart, that I may extend the borders of the kingdom of God, make known the truth, reprove sin, teach righteousness, feed the hungry souls with the Word of the Lord, lead the stray sheep to the right path, and so win many souls for the Lord, through His Spirit, power and grace,” and

We preach, therefore, as much as is in our power, both day and night, in houses and in the open air, in forests and in wildernesses, hither and thither, in this and in foreign lands, in prisons and in dungeons, in water and in fire, on the scaffold and on the wheel, before lords and princes, orally and by writings at the risk of possessions and blood, life and death; as we have done these many years.”

The reluctance of the pietists to unite with the persecuted church may have saved them much physical suffering. The result of this individualistic approach is the tendency to interpret the Bible in the light of one’s own experience, rather than subjecting one’s experiences to the light of Scripture. They are convinced that they have attained to a level of spiritually and communion with God that is not shared by the common run of professing Christians. Such a person may conform to the outward practices of a church for the sake of avoiding censure or persecution, but does not feel bound to give account of his faith and life to other Christians.

Instructions for parents from Menno Simons

The world desire for their children that which is earthly and perishable, such as money, honour, fame and wealth. From infancy they train them up to vice, pride, haughtiness and idolatry. But with you, who are born of God, this is not the case; for it behooves you to seek something else for your children ; namely, that which is heavenly and eternal, and hence it is your duty to bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, as Paul teaches.

Moses commanded Israel to teach their children the law and commandments of the Lord, to talk of them when they sat down in their houses, and when they walked by the way, and when they lay down, and when they rose up. Now, since we are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people, that we should show forth the praises of him who hath called us out of darkness into his marvellous light; therefore it behooves us to show ourselves patterns and examples in all righteousness and blamelessness. And to appear unto the whole world as we are thereunto called; for if we do not keep a strict eye upon our own children, but permit them to follow their evil inclination, corrupt nature and disposition, not correcting and chastising them according to the word of the Lord, we may with the greatest propriety lay our hands upon our mouths, and remain silent. For why should we teach those not of our household, when we take no pains to preserve our own families in the love and fear of God? Paul says, “If any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel”.

My beloved brethren and sisters in Christ, who sincerely love the word of the Lord, thus instruct your children from youth up, and daily admonish them with the word of the Lord, setting a good example. Teach and admonish them, I say, in proportion to the development of their understanding; constrain and correct them with discretion and moderation, without anger or bitterness lest they be discouraged; spare not the rod, if reason and necessity require it.

Beloved brethren in Christ, if you rightly know God and his word, and believe that the end of the righteous is everlasting life, and the end of the wicked eternal death, endeavour to the utmost of your power, to conduct your children in the way of life, and divert them from the way of death, as far as in you lies. Pray to Almighty God for the gift of his grace, that in his great mercy, he may guide and preserve them in the right path, through the directing influence of his Holy Spirit. Watch over their salvation as for your own souls. Teach, instruct, admonish, threaten, correct and chastise them, as circumstances require. Keep them away from naughty, wicked children, among whom they hear and learn nothing but lying, cursing, swearing, fighting and knavery. Have them instructed in reading and writing, bring them up to habits of industry, and let them learn such trades as are suitable, expedient and adapted to their age and constitution. If you do this, you shall live to see much honour and joy of your children. But if you do it not, heaviness of heart shall consume you at last. For a child left to himself, without reproof, is not only the shame of his father, but he bringeth his mother to shame.

-Menno Simons, 1557

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