Reading 4 – Tuesday, December 6, 2016
The Anabaptists–Second Front of the Reformation
By Larry Watts, U.S.A.
It was 1517. A lot was going on in ear- ly Sixteenth Century Europe. As we are about to enter 2017, we live exactly half a millennium after those times. The coming year will be marked by various commemorations of Martin Luther ’s defiant act in nailing to the door of the Wittenberg chapel his 95 theses against Catholic practices. That spark ignited a blaze that burned across the whole of Western Europe for a century and a half. In one place, Catholics martyred Protestants, who in turn killed Catholics in another. Unbelievably horrible examples were the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of Protestants in Paris, France, on August 24, 1572, and the prolonged Thirty Years’ War between
Protestants and Catholics (1618-1648).
Standing apart (theologically speaking) from both the Catholics and the Protestants was a smaller contingent of Christians called Anabaptists. The The German term is “Wiedertäufer” (“Again-Baptists” or “Anabaptists,” from the Greek ana, meaning “again”). The most distinguishing requirement of the Anabaptists was that individuals should join the church from free will. This also included a rejection of infant baptism, a rite, up to that time, that was performed for almost everyone born in Western Europe.
A natural outgrowth of “freewill” church membership is pacifism. Since the sword is an instrument of force, the Christian’s only sword should be the sword of the Spirit. Besides being called “Anabaptists,” some of the believers in this group were also known in their own time as “Radical Reformers,” because they had not yet come to the conclusion that taking up arms is unbiblical and contrary to the under- standing of salvation through freewill choice. While all of the Anabaptists differed with such prominent leaders of the Reformation as Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli on the need for believer baptism, they themselves were divided on the issue of meeting force with force. The leaders among them who took up the sword against their opponents eventually paid dearly. All who took up the sword perished by the sword.
The story of that turn in thought is an interesting one, which we will ad- dress here. The remnant of those early believers are known as Mennonites after their most prominent and outspoken Dutch leader, Menno Simons (1496-1561). While he joined the movement twelve years after it began, he became its most outspoken defender; and it was he who most forcefully championed non-violence. –Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964, p. 103.
Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Hulrych Zwingli of Switzerland, along with other Reformers, believed in infant baptism and what is call the pro- to-free tradition of church and state. However, some of the followers of Zwingli’s Reformed church were in- spired by his own preaching and came to question the idea that church mem- bership begins at birth (and infant bap- tism to wash away “original sin”). This, they said, is inconsistent with New Testament Christianity. The Scriptures clearly teach that we are saved by grace and justified by faith in Jesus Christ. The fruit of finding and accepting Jesus will be seen in repentance, public confession of faith in Jesus Christ, and separation from immorality and vice of all kinds. Infants cannot experience con- version and therefore cannot be candidates for baptism. True conversion will also be seen and evidenced by the fruit of the Spirit in the Christian’s life.
Love–something we don’t have until we give it away.
Joy–true joy is obtained only by true sacrifice.
Peace–yes, one can sell it, but he can never buy it.
Longsuffering–what the diligent obtain.
Gentleness–with humility, gentleness comes from a truly forgiving spirit.
Goodness–evidence of an unselfish, humble life.
Faith–one should guard carefully the fruit that the devil loves most to steal.
Meekness–a strong characteristic of the noble character.
Temperance–the tree on which grows the patience of the saints.
And so, in a meeting in Zurich on January 21, 1525, Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and George Blaurock, along with twelve others, baptized each other in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Historians consider this meeting as the beginning of what became the Anabaptist movement. Those who took part in this action understood that they were thus making themselves outlaws of the church and society. And the purge started almost immediately.
Spread of the early Anabaptists, 1525-1550
Shortly after that January 21st meeting. Zwingli, in a letter to a friend, expressed the opinion that the struggle with the Catholic party was “but child’s play” when compared with the erupting di- vision among Reformers. Both Protestants and Roman Catholics considered the Anabaptists dangerous and fought the movement from its inception with banishment, torture, burnings, drowning, and beheadings. In just five years, by 1530, most of the founding leaders had been killed for refusing to renounce their beliefs. The pacifist branches often had to flee to neutral cities or nations. While this helped to spread the message, it was also very risky, for a sudden change in alliances or an invasion would signal resumed persecution.
Other groups of Anabaptists were willing to stand and face their persecutors in combat, whether they were Catholic or Protestant forces. But all those who did this ended their lives in defeat on the battlefield. The most famous and last of these violent Anabaptists clashes was the Münster Rebellion of 1535. This and similar events played a large part in the development of the Anabaptist adherence to nonviolence.
During the early days of the Anabaptist movement, Menno Simons was serving as a Catholic priest in the Netherlands. “Educated a Roman Catholic, and ordained to the priesthood, he was wholly ignorant of the Bible, and he would not read it, for fear of being beguiled into heresy. When a doubt concerning the doctrine of transubstantiation forced itself upon him, he regarded it as a temptation from Satan, and by prayer and confession sought to free himself from it; but in vain.” –The Great Controversy, p. 238.
Ten years after the Anabaptist movement began, in 1535, Menno’s brother Pieter was among a group of Anabaptists who were killed near Bolsward when they attempted to overrun a Catholic monastery known as the Oldeklooster (or Bloemkamp Abbey).
After the death of his brother Pieter, Menno experienced a spiritual and mental crisis. He said he “prayed to God with sighs and tears that He would give to me, a sorrowing sinner, the gift of His grace, create within me a clean heart, and graciously through the merits of the crimson blood of Christ for- give my unclean walk and unprofitable life….” –Menno Simons’ Renunciation of the Church of Rome,” https://en.wikipe- dia.org/wiki/Menno_Simons.
The turning point
Little is known of this leader ’s early life except that he was born in Pingium, Holland. It was there that he was first assigned as a newly ordained parish priest in March 1524, at the age of 28. Seven years later, in 1531, he be- came the priest in his home village of Witmarsum. At this time, an anti-sacramental movement was growing in the Netherlands, probably due to the writings of Luther, Zwingli, and others. It is not surprising, then, that Men- no Simons began to question the idea that Christ was actually in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. As already mentioned, at first he refused to even read the Bible for fear of following in the steps of the “heretical” Reformers; but, overcoming his fears, he began to study it. There he found answers to his questions; and, as he suspected, he found himself agreeing with the Re- formers that Biblical authority ought to be the primary force in the believer ’s life. By 1528, he was known as an evangelical parish priest.
For another seven years, up until 1535, he remained a member of the Catholic Church, but two things happened that caused him to reconsider his acquired station in life. The first was the death of his brother already mentioned. Then he “witnessed in a neighboring village the beheading of a
man who was put to death for having been re-baptized. This led him to study the Bible in regard to infant baptism. He could find no evidence for it in the Scriptures, but saw that repentance and faith are everywhere required as the condition of receiving baptism.” –The Great Controversy, pp. 238, 239.
These and other events caused him to rethink his Catholic faith, but he was reluctant to leave the Catholic Church. He later wrote of his experience in these words: “I saw that these zealous children, although in error, willingly gave their lives and their estates for their doctrine and faith,… but I myself continued in my comfortable life and acknowledged abominations simply in order that I might enjoy comfort and escape the cross of Christ.
“Pondering these things, my con- science tormented me so that I could no longer endure it…. If I through bodily fear do not lay bare the foundation of the truth, nor use all my powers to direct the wandering flock who would gladly do their duty, if they knew it, to the true pastures of Christ–oh, how shall their shed blood, shed in the midst of transgression, rise against me at the judgment of the Almighty and pronounce sentence against my poor, miserable soul!”
The realization of the true condition of his soul led to an emotional, tearful cry to God for forgiveness. For nine months after that, he essentially preached Anabaptist doctrine from his Catholic pulpit. Some months later, at the age of 40, Simons withdrew from the Roman communion to fellowship with others who, like himself, had been greatly influenced by the writings of Luther.
It was a challenging time for Menno, as well as for the Reformation in Europe. With his love for truth, his newfound understanding of Scripture, and his own personal experiences, he soon be- came the commanding voice of the non- violent Anabaptist movement. He believed that God had called him to bring order out of those chaotic times. Having made peace with his Lord, he spent a year in hiding to find the direction of his new calling. During that time, he wrote works that seemed to echo his own experience: “The Spiritual Resurrection,” “The New Birth,” and “Meditation on the Twenty-Third Psalm.” In late 1535 or early 1536, he received the believer’s baptism and was ordained by Obbe Philips, founder of the movement. He soon married and emerged from his solitude with sure confidence in God and the sword of the Spirit to take up the battle with zeal on three fronts: unbiblical Catholic Church traditions, enforced Reformation religion, and violent Anabaptist fanatics. There was no love lost between Anabaptists and oth- er Protestant Reformers, not to mention the Catholics. Luther and Calvin called them “fanatics,” “scatterbrains,” “ass- es,” and just as bad as the papists.
For the rest of his life, the earthly sword followed him. He was a marked man, and those who were discovered to have sheltered him were executed. One of the first of these Anabaptist be- lievers was Taard Renicx of Leeuwar- den. In 1539, he gave his life for giving Menno a place to sleep for one night. In 1542, Charles V offered a 100-guilder reward for Menno’s arrest (about $28,000 USD in today’s money).
“In both Germany and the Netherlands a class of fanatics had risen, advocating absurd and seditious doctrines, outraging order and decency, and proceeding to violence and insurrection. Menno saw the horrible results to which these movements would inevitably lead, and he strenuously opposed the erroneous teachings and wild schemes of the fanatics. There were many, however, who had earlier been misled by these fanatics but who had renounced their pernicious doctrines; and there were still remaining many descendants of the ancient Christians, the fruits of the Waldensian teaching. Among these classes Menno labored with great zeal and success.
“For twenty-five years he traveled, with his wife and children, enduring great hardships and privations, and frequently in peril of his life. He traversed the Netherlands and Northern Germany, laboring chiefly among the humbler classes, but exerting a widespread influence. Naturally eloquent, though possessing a limited education, he was a man of unwavering integrity, of humble spirit and gentle manners, and of
sincere and earnest piety, exemplifying in his own life the precepts which he taught, and he commanded the confidence of the people. His followers were scattered and oppressed. They suffered greatly from being confounded with the fanatical Munsterites. Yet great numbers were converted under his labors.” –The Great Controversy, p. 239.
A common faith
While we may pass over this man and give more attention to those like Luther and Calvin, Menno Simons was closer to what Adventist Reformers are today than many who are better known. We also stand before three foes: The drag- on, the beast, and the false prophet. And the life he lived was also lived and suffered by many of our forefathers in the faith. His was an example of what the remnant will face at the end of time. He reminds us that “if the Head had to suffer such torture, anguish, misery, and pain, how shall His servants, children, and members expect peace and freedom as to their flesh?”
Like Menno, we seek first to take the Bible in its most direct and literal meaning, unless it is clearly symbolic, allegorical, or prophetic. At the same time, we need to be careful not to be so dogmatically literal in our interpretation that we become legalistic, as he sometimes was. In a similar way we also defend the doctrine of the divinity of Christ and the person of the Holy Spirit. Like him, we do not use the term “trinity” because it is not found in Scripture. Like Menno, we teach separation of church from the state and believe, “It is forbidden to us to fight with physical weapons…. This only would I learn of you whether you are baptized on the sword or on the Cross.” As Menno Simons believed, we realize that the gospel is a message of emancipation from human traditions. In many of his writings (more than 40 survive), he would often begin with the Biblical principle, “For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” 1 Corinthians 3:11. Despite being hunted and having a price on his head for a very long time, Menno died of natural causes in 1561 at the age 66, 25 years and one day after he renounced the Catholic faith–and proof that God takes care of His own.
His voice has been echoed and re- echoed over the past 500 years. One hundred years after Menno, Roger Williams (c. 1603-c. 1683) voiced similar ideas that laid the foundation for the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Constitution of the United States (1787), and Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (1863).
Quotes from Menno Simons
“True evangelical faith cannot lie dormant. It clothes the naked, it feeds the hungry, it comforts the sorrowful, it shelters the destitute, it serves those that harm it, it binds up that which is wounded, it has become all things to all people.”
“The regenerated do not go to war, nor engage in strife. They are children of peace who have beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning forks, and know no war….
“Our weapons are not weapons with which cities and countries may be destroyed, walls and gates broken down, and human blood shed in tor- rents like water. But they are weapons with which the spiritual kingdom of the devil is destroyed….
“Christ is our fortress; patience our weapon of defense; the Word of God our sword…. Iron and metal spears and swords we leave to those who, alas, regard human blood and swine’s blood of well-nigh equal value.”
“We who were formerly no people at all, and who knew of no peace, are now called to be … a church … of peace. True Christians do not know vengeance. They are the children of peace. Their hearts overflow with peace. Their mouths speak peace, and they walk in the way of peace.”
If it can be said of anyone, it can be said of Menno Simons: “And I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Write, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them.” Revelation 14:13. May this Reformer ’s desire and ours be one, as expressed in his words: “I seek and desire from my heart nothing [this He knows, who knows all things] but that the glorious name, the divine will, and the praise of our Lord Jesus Christ may be made known throughout the world.”
May God help us to be actuated by the spirit of the Reformers. Let us “fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life,” and “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” 1 Timothy 6:12; Jude 3. Let your light shine. From this day forward, dedicate your time and your very best talents to the progress of God’s cause. Maranatha! ■