Mennonite Origins and the Mennonites of Europe
By Harold S. Bender
A. The Soil of the Mennonite Faith
CHAPTER 1: The Beginning and Growth of the Christian Church
Nineteen hundred years ago and more, One came to earth from the heavenly glory, the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth, Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world. He humbled Himself and took upon Himself the form of a servant, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. This same Jesus invited men to believe on Him, to learn of Him, and to follow Him. To as many as believed He gave the power to become the sons of God, and with these disciples and believers He established His church upon the rock, the church against which the gates of hell shall not prevail. To this church He gave a great commission, to go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature, and to teach them to observe all things whatsoever He commanded. This church He endowed with the power of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, A.D. 30, in the city of Jerusalem, so that they were able to preach His Gospel with power unto the saving of countless thousands of men.
We of today are the heirs of the faith and life of this church. Because these disciples of old and their successors to this day have carried the Gospel unto the uttermost parts of the earth and have built the church in every land, and have followed in the footsteps of Jesus and kept His commandments, we have entered into the kingdom of God, and have become disciples of Christ. The unbroken chain of faith down through the ages, the never-ceasing preaching of the Gospel, the devoted discipleship of Christians through the centuries, these things have brought us the Gospel which makes us joint heirs with Christ. Because of them we are Christians today. True, we have made our own choice, we have chosen t6 accept Christ as our Saviour, and to endeavor to keep His Word, but this opportunity would never have come to us had it not been for the church of the past nineteen centuries.
Most modern Mennonites are the descendants of Teutonic tribes of what is now Switzerland, Germany, and Holland, who lived in heathen darkness until the missionaries of the church found them in the early Middle Ages and brought the Gospel to them Swiss, Dutch, and German people they were, who were evangelized after a fashion by Roman Catholic missionaries in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and who until the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century continued in the faith and worship of the Roman Catholic Church.
What kind of church was this which brought our Teutonic ancestors into the fold of Christ?
The Catholic Church of the Middle Ages was the direct descendant of the early church founded at Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost in the year A.D. 30, which had through valiant missionary endeavors spread over the whole known world and gradually, by about the year A.D. 1000, brought Christianity to all of Europe. This was a great achievement. We of modern times with our missionary organization on a great scale have not yet equaled their victorious conquest of the world in which they lived. For this we honor the early church and acknowledge its faith and power.
Nevertheless, along with this great expansion and missionary conquest, along with its maintenance of the true faith and worship of God and Jesus Christ as Saviour, we find that strange and remarkable changes took place in the church which were for the most part not only undesirable, but positively evil. The simple faith and organization, the pure life and effective work of the early New Testament church, were transformed into a complex organization, partially perverted doctrines, and sadly declining life and morals. Many of the most precious possessions of faith of the early church were forfeited by these changes, and consequently in many respects the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages was no longer the true church of Christ. Let us trace some of these changes.
In the first place, the church which Christ established was composed of believers only, men and women who had personal experience of faith in Him, who knew that their sins were forgiven, and who pledged their lives to Him as their Lord in trust and obedience. During the centuries that followed it came to be the custom to include everyone in the church, primarily by the rite of baptism shortly after birth. Thus the church was no longer composed of persons who had repented of their sins and been born again by the Spirit of God, but of the entire population of those countries which had accepted nominal Christianity. Many of these people were true believers, but many more were traditional Christians, simply following the customs and ways of the times. Nominally they were Christians, but actually they were without an inner heart experience of salvation and with no commitment to live a life of holiness and to keep the commandments of Christ.
In the second place, the organization of the church was transformed from that of a simple, practical form of church government, under the leadership of local ministers and elders, into a great ecclesiastical institution with centralized authority in the hands of the bishops and archbishops, culminating in one dictatorial authority, the pope. In this church the members were the subjects of the church, the ordained priests and bishops constituting the church in reality. Many of these priests and bishops were unworthy of the office and power which they held, to say nothing of the fact that such a form of church government is neither taught nor recognized in the New Testament as a right form of government for the church.
In the third place, contact with God was no longer possible except through the priests of the church. The blessings of God and His grace were available to the people solely through the ministry of the priest, and in particular through the performance of certain ceremonies known as the seven sacraments, which included baptism, the Lord's Supper, and similar ordinances. Thus, for the average Christian the Christian life meant not faith in Christ and personal experience of the grace of God, and an obedience to the teaching of Christ and the apostles as found in the New Testament, but rather obedience to the priest, receiving the ceremonies of the church, and obeying the rules of the church as made known through the priest.
In the fourth place, salvation was accordingly not secured through faith in Christ, but through performance of the works required by the church. The great doctrine of justification by faith as it is taught by the Apostle Paul in the Book of Romans and elsewhere, the forgiveness of sins through the precious sacrifice of Christ on the cross-all this was in reality lost. Instead, there was substituted a formal system of religion, with faith in the performance of church ceremonies and good works, which is much like the religion of certain of the more advanced heathen peoples. That there were large numbers of hungry hearts, who not having found the Gospel did not find peace with God, and who were seeking a better way than that which they had, goes without saying. The restless seeking after the true life hid with Christ in God was expressed in a great multiplication of religious forms and outward worship which did not satisfy. Lacking inner peace and seeking something better, large numbers of Christians, both men and women, decided to follow the advice given by the church and enter monasteries and convents which were established in great number in the Middle Ages. There, by sacrificing the ordinary way of life, by giving up the privilege of marriage and family life, private property, private independence and freedom, and by the performance of good works, they sought the peace which they were unable to find elsewhere.
In the fifth and last place, since the mass of Christians never had the privilege of reading the New Testament firsthand, and were required to worship in a service conducted in the Latin language which they could not understand, and since they seldom heard the preaching of the Gospel or the admonition to holiness and righteous living which only those who preach the Word of God in its purity can give, standards of morals sank lower and lower. Great masses of Christians paid no attention at all to the ideals for living which Christians today consider necessary, not because they desired to be evil but because they did not know how to be otherwise. Through the centuries ways of living grew up which were far from Christian. A few wealthy landholders oppressed the peasants into serfdom so that they were practically slaves to their masters. There was much injustice, oppression, and abuse. Immorality was widespread, and brutality and violence were practiced on every hand. Many priests and bishops of the church lived on a low level of morals, in some respects being even worse than the common people in the practice of the prevailing sins of the age.
In the light of these serious and dreadful changes and perversions which took place in the professing church through the centuries, it is almost a marvel that the true faith survived at all. That it did survive is due chiefly to two things. In the first place, in spite of the fact that the Holy Scriptures were not made available to the people, and were read chiefly in Latin by the priests of the church during the Middle Ages, the Scriptures were preserved. They were there for anyone to find in them the truth of the Gospel, and to bring revival. ]n the second place, there were faithful and devoted followers of Christ in all the centuries, even though their number may have been small, very small at times. Here and there were individuals who endeavored in spite of the corruption and decay of the church to live lives of holiness and purity. Here and there were small organized groups who endeavored to revive and reform the church. Sometimes revivals broke out, as a result of which thousands of Christians were led to better things. Again and again, however, the official church persecuted these groups, sometimes with a brutality and a severity which brought martyrdom to thousands. Very little is known of some of these earnest Christians through the centuries, although the names of some of the groups and a few of their leaders have been handed down to us.
The most important of these groups were two, the Waldenses, founded by Peter Waldo of Lyons, France, about 1170, and the Brethren of the Common Life, who existed in Holland and Western Germany from the fourteenth century on. After the year 1300 stronger movements for reform arose, led by great and influential leaders such as John Wycliffe (1324-84) in England, and John Huss (1370-1415) in Bohemia. Persecution, however, destroyed every attempt to reform the church in a larger way.
In the midst of this darkness, God in His mercy and power brought a great revival to pass. This revival, commonly known as the Protestant Reformation, is the most important thing that has happened in the history of the church since the apostolic days.
CHAPTER 2: The Reformation and Its Fruits
The great revival which came to the church in the sixteenth century, known as the Protestant Reformation, is of particular interest to Mennonites, because it was out of this revival movement that the Mennonite Church was born. We must therefore seek to understand what was happening in Switzerland, Germany, and Holland in the Reformation so that we may know how our own church came into existence.
In the providence of God, a leader arose in the church in Germany in the early years of the sixteenth century who had a vision of what the Christian experience of salvation ought to be in the light of the teachings of Christ and the apostles in the New Testament. Because he found in his own experience that it was alone through faith in the atoning work of Christ that the sinner could find forgiveness for his sins and have peace with God, and because he felt that this great experience of justification through faith alone was the very heart of the Gospel, this man was irresistibly impelled to testify to this great truth and to proclaim it to men everywhere. This leader was Martin Luther (1483-1546), who lived most of his life in the town of Wittenberg in Saxony, about seventy miles southwest of what is now Berlin, Germany.
In addition to a deep devotion to the great truth of the Gospel which he had found in his own experience, Martin Luther also had a strong conviction that the Word of God alone should be the source of all Christian truth, and that only through this way could men come to faith and life in the Gospel.
Not only did Martin Luther believe these great fundamental truths of justification by faith alone, and the exclusive authority of the Word of God, but he also had great character and power of will. Once he found the truth of God, he was determined to give his life to it, regardless of what might happen. It was as a young professor in the University of Wittenberg that he first began to teach and to preach the great truths on which the Reformation was founded. An able preacher and writer, he soon found a remarkable response in his students, among the Christians of his town, throughout all Germany, and in fact throughout all Europe. Everywhere men had been hungry for the Gospel which he had rediscovered. Everywhere they were eager to find the way to God through faith in Christ, and to discard the degraded and corrupt Roman Catholic Church with its salvation by works, its denial of the Bible to the people, and its dreadful burden of ceremony and forms imposed by the priests.
So it was that within a very few years after Martin Luther's first proclamation of the new discovery in 1517, thousands of Christians in all parts of Europe flocked to his banner. Luther had at first not intended to found a new church, but rather to reform the old church. Soon he saw, however, that the authorities of the Roman Catholic Church were determined to crush him and the movement which had gathered around his preaching, and by the year 1525 he concluded that there was no other way but to organize a new church which would do away with Catholic practices, doctrines, and organization, and pattern its faith, life, and organization after the New Testament. So he set up what has since been known as the Lutheran Church, or the Evangelical Church of Germany. In a few short years this church spread throughout most of northern and central Germany, and all of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland, as well as other scattered places in Europe. In fact, the Lutheran movement was so powerful that it seemed about to sweep all of Europe and to overthrow completely the Roman Catholic Church.
Martin Luther, however, failed in his original intention of establishing a pure Christian church based upon the New Testament only. He was too much bound in his thinking to the traditions and customs of the past, and was unwilling to go the whole way in breaking away from Catholic practices. He originally intended to establish a church composed of believers only, but when he saw the low state of spirituality and morals among the masses of the people, he feared that by so doing most of the people would be outside of the evangelical church, and would thus be left to the Catholic Church. Accordingly, he made up his mind that the best plan would be to take over the entire population into his new church, and seek to use the spiritual-minded members and leaders of the church to lead the unspiritual and carnal members into a deeper experience. Thus, the Lutheran Church was established as a universal state church, with infant baptism required of all and with no serious attempt to exclude from the church those who were guilty of sin and failure. This idea of a universal state church Luther took over from the Catholic Church, but he did not take over the Catholic system of church government through bishops, archbishops, and pope.
The compromise which Luther made was a very serious one. Because of this compromise it became impossible to establish a truly evangelical New Testament church according to the teachings of Christ and the apostles. There was no true discipline in the church. Many Christians continued to be guilty of unchristian living in the Lutheran Church just as they had been before in the Catholic Church. In fact, many misunderstood Luther's doctrine of spiritual liberty and salvation by faith, and assumed that as long a~ they professed the proper doctrines, they would not need to pay much attention to the life. Morals in many Lutheran districts at first sank lower than they had been in the Catholic Church. Thus we see that there was both great good, and some evil, in the Lutheran movement. A long step forward had been taken through the re-establishment of the doctrine of justification by faith, but much still remained to be done. We owe a great debt to Martin Luther, but we must never forget that our forefathers, as Mennonites, were unwilling to accept the Lutheran church system and for that reason were persecuted by the Lutherans in their time.
The most serious charge which must be brought against Luther and his movement is that he agreed to the principle of permitting the ruler of a territory to determine the religion of the people of that territory, and that he further agreed, indeed advocated, that force should be used to persecute those who refused to accept the religion authorized by the ruler. This principle remained in force, even in Protestant countries, for two hundred years or more after the Reformation, and led to severe persecution and death for thousands of people, particularly our own Mennonite forefathers.
As the Reformation spread throughout Europe, other leaders arose in addition to Martin Luther who were more uncompromising in their break with Catholicism. These leaders in a general way may be grouped together in one group as Calvinists or Reformed. Since the first Anabaptists or Mennonites arose in Switzerland where the Reformed type of Protestantism was dominant, we should become better acquainted with this movement.
The first leader of this group was Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), a Protestant preacher in Zurich, Switzerland, from 1519 to 1531. Both Zwingli and his followers in general accepted the doctrines and policies of the Lutherans. But they differed on one fundamental point. This point was, that the ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper had only symbolic meaning and no value in themselves as vehicles of God's grace and blessing. However, this difference was sufficiently great to keep the Zwinglians and the Lutherans apart. In addition, the Zwinglians were inclined to be more strict in their demands for righteous living by Christians, and emphasized more the doctrine of obedience to God than the inward experience of forgiveness of sin. Thus on the whole the Reformed movement was more aggressive in attempting to apply Christian principles to life. However, they made the same compromise as the Lutherans in establishing state churches inclusive of the entire population of the country. Zwingli began his preaching of the Reformation in Zurich in 1519 and from his pulpit in this city exercised great influence over the Swiss Reformation until his death in 1531. Most of the population of Switzerland north of the Alps followed his leadership into the Protestant camp, as was also the case in certain sections of southwestern Germany.
Shortly after Zwingli's death another great leader arose who became the dominant figure among the Reformed branch of the Protestant movement, even though he was a Frenchman and exerted his influence chiefly from his post as leader of the Protestant church in Geneva, Switzerland. This man was John Calvin (1509-64). Calvin was one of the greatest leaders of the Christian Church, and next to Martin Luther the most influential figure in the history of the Protestant Reformation. A man of unusual ability as a writer and speaker, of deep conviction and determined to lead the church into full obedience to the will of God, Calvin threw himself with all his rich gifts of mind and character into the battle to establish a thoroughgoing Protestant church. Through his influence it seemed for a time that all of France would become Protestant, but unfortunately the power of the Catholics was too great, and ultimately the Catholics were able by force of arms to suppress and destroy most of the French Protestant movement. A small remnant remains, often called "Huguenots."
Meanwhile Calvin's influence through his writings reached farther and farther, especially through his great doctrinal book, published in 1536, called Institutes of the Christian Religion. Refugees from England and Scotland found their way to him at Geneva and returned home again to plant the influence of John Calvin's teaching firmly in England and Scotland. One of these refugees, John Knox (1515-72), became the leader of the Scottish Reformation, and established Calvinism as a form of Protestantism in that country. He exerted his greatest influence as a preacher in Edinburgh from 1559 to 1572. Since both Calvin and Knox taught a form of church government which included the use of a body of elders or presbyters as a governing body in each church, the Scottish reformed church came to be known in time as the Presbyterian Church, although its official name remained "The Church of Scotland." In England, although the Reformation was greatly influenced by Calvin's teaching and its doctrine was largely Calvinistic in character, the church itself never became Presbyterian.
Calvinism also became the dominant faith in Holland after 1560 where the Reformed Church became the established church.
The Reformation had a stormy time in England, but after a long period of ups and downs from 1531 to 1580, it finally won England fully under Queen Elizabeth I. The Church of England became largely Calvinistic in doctrine but episcopal in government.
The Protestant Reformation made great strides within the first generation after Luther began his work. However, the Roman Catholic Church was not dead. It rallied all its forces in a tremendous struggle to drive out Protestantism, crush the Protestant churches, and bring back the lost territory to the fold of the mother church. Thus began a great conflict which lasted over a hundred years, 1521-1648. During the latter pan of this struggle the Catholic countries of Europe engaged in a great war of extermination against the Protestant countries. This war, lasting from 1618 to 1648, has been known as the Thirty Years' War. In the end neither side won, both sides agreeing in 1648 to mutual toleration. Thus finally after almost a century and a half the religious situation in Europe was stabilized. Most of northern Europe, including the Scandinavian countries, two thirds of Germany, most of Switzerland, all of Holland, and all of England and Scotland, with scattered sections in France and Hungary, had become Protestant. The remainder of Europe, including France, Spain and Portugal, Italy, Austria, Bohemia, and Poland, remained Catholic. Eastern Europe, including Russia and the Balkan countries, being in the fold of the Greek Orthodox Church, was not at all influenced by the Protestant Reformation. This pan of Europe seemed to be in another world.
The Reformation had great and blessed results for the progress of the Church of Christ. It freed half of Europe from its deadening bondage to Roman Catholicism and opened the way for millions of Christians to read the Bible for themselves, to have a personal, warm, and living Christian experience, and to proclaim the Gospel of free salvation by faith in Christ to the entire world. Gradually the bondage of superstition and fear, and of an outward formal religion, was cast of, and a new and more progressive and vital type of Christianity was established. Had it not been for the establishment of state churches with their intolerance and persecution of those who did not accept the creed of the state church, still more rapid progress would have been possible. Even so the Protestant countries of Europe, particularly England, Germany, Holland, and Switzerland, have been leaders in the forefront of progress, both materially and spiritually, ever since that time.
But with all its blessings, it must be remembered that the Reformation was not a satisfactory restoration of Christianity to its true, original character as intended by Christ. Its great weakness was the failure to insist upon a transformation of life and society into a truly Christian way of life in full obedience to Christ's teachings. This failure the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement proposed to make good.
B. The First Mennonites and Their Faith
CHAPTER 3: The Beginning of the Swiss Mennonites
The Mennonite faith had its origin in Switzerland in Reformation times. Certain followers of Ulrich Zwingli were unable to accept the compromise which he and Luther made in setting up a Protestant state church system. They and many others like them in western Europe had been expecting a complete reformation of the church, and a restoration of the New Testament Christianity taught by Jesus and the apostles. They wanted the church to be composed of believers only, men and women who had an experience with God and who had committed their lives in unreserved obedience to His Word. They wanted no half-Christian profession following the customs and traditions of the time, and maintaining an outward form of godliness but denying the power thereof. It was these people who completed the Reformation which Luther and Zwingli began. They were the founders of the Mennonite fellowship.
It must be kept in mind of course that the founders of the Mennonite brotherhood in Switzerland did not adopt the name "Mennonite" for the new fellowship which they established. This name was given to it much later. In fact, even today the Mennonites of Switzerland do not have it as their official name. The name "Mennonite" was given to that branch of the church which was established in Holland, in which Menno Simons became the leader after the year 1536. It was only later that the name "Mennonite" was carried over from Holland into Germany and into Switzerland, and finally into America. The first name of the church in Switzerland was simply "Brethren." These Brethren had no other name. Since there were Brethren in various places in Europe in the course of the following years, it soon became the custom to refer to the ones who first founded the church in Switzerland as the Swiss Brethren. The enemies of the Brethren called them "Anabaptists" because the Brethren refused to accept infant baptism as a valid baptism and insisted upon adults being baptized upon confession of their faith. The name "Anabaptist" means literally "rebaptizer." Thus, in history, the early Mennonites in Switzerland, as well as elsewhere in Europe, are formally known by the name "Anabaptist." This is rather confusing, since other groups, somewhat similar to the Mennonites, particularly in the matter of insisting upon adult baptism, were also called Anabaptists, and thus the name came to be used to refer to a number of religious groups, some of which had radically different viewpoints on certain questions from the Mennonites proper.
The birthplace of the Mennonite Church is to be found in the city of Zurich, Switzerland, in the year 1525. The City Council of Zurich had decided to suppress the small company of people in Zurich under the leadership of Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and George Blaurock, who had refused to have their children baptized and who insisted that a thoroughgoing reformation should take place in accordance with Zwingli's original promise. Before taking radical measures, however, the City Council had decided to give the Brethren a chance to defend themselves in public in a debate in which Zwingli and his friends were to refute the arguments against infant baptism. As soon as the debate was over, the City Council issued strict decrees forbidding them to meet, to teach, and to have fellowship together. The little group of devoted Brethren who felt in their hearts deeply convinced that they should follow the teachings of the New Testament completely, and who endeavored to set up a church according to the pattern of Christ and the apostles, were faced with tragic alternatives. If they surrendered their position, they would be untrue to their conscience, but if they refused to obey the edict of the Council, they would be subject to persecution and arrest. In their extremity they met together for prayer, seeking guidance from God, the date being about January 21, 1525. They found the guidance they sought and were convinced that they should institute a brotherhood of believers upon the basis of baptism and confession of faith. In that meeting they baptized one another, Conrad Grebel baptizing George Blaurock, and Blaurock baptizing the remainder of the group. From that meeting they went forth with joyful conviction that they should continue their fellowship, and should teach and preach their faith, and summon men everywhere to become members of the body of Christ. Thus the Mennonite Church was founded in a prayer meeting.
The story of this meeting, which is contained in an eyewitness account in the Hutterian Chronicle, is so moving that it is well worth publishing here.
Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and others came together and found that there was among themselves agreement in faith. They realized in the sincere fear of God that it was firstly necessary to obtain from the divine Word and the preaching of the same a true faith which worketh by love, and then to receive the true Christian baptism upon the confessed faith, as the answer of a good conscience toward God (I Peter 3:21), being resolved henceforth to serve God in all godliness of a holy Christian life and to be steadfast in affliction (persecution) to the end.
And it further came to pass, as they were assembled together, that great anxiety came upon them and they were moved in their hearts. Then they unitedly bowed their knees before God Almighty in heaven and called upon Him, the Searcher of all hearts, and implored Him to grant them grace to do His divine will, and that He would bestow upon them His mercy. For flesh and blood and human forwardness did by no means lead them to take such a step, for they knew what would tall to their lot to suffer and endure on account of it.
After they had risen from their prayer, George Blaurock arose and earnestly asked Conrad Grebel to baptize him with the true Christian baptism upon his faith and knowledge, And entreating him thus, he knelt down and Conrad baptized him, since there was at this time no ordained minister to administer this ordinance. After this was done, the others likewise asked George to baptize them. He fulfilled their desire in the sincere fear of God, and thus they gave themselves unitedly to the name of the Lord. Then some of them were chosen for the ministry' of the Gospel, and they began to teach and keep the faith.
Conrad Grebel (1498-1526), son of a wealthy iron merchant and a leading citizen of the city of Zurich and indeed of all Switzerland, was the leader of the group. He was still a young man, not more than twenty-five years of age, endowed with great gifts and well trained in six years of university study at Basel, Vienna, and Paris. The remainder of the group were largely average citizens of the city of Zurich, a baker, a tailor, a cooper, a bookseller, a goldsmith, and others of the middle classes. But it made no difference what their occupation or what their class was. They were all possessed of a great vision, and a deep and confident faith in God, and dedicated their lives unreservedly to the practice and the preaching of their faith.
During the following months and years, the witness and life of the Brethren and their aggressive missionary endeavor's led to a rapid and far-reaching spread of the new church. The Swiss government authorities of Zurich and neighboring cantons tried every means to stop the movement short of the death penalty, but they failed. Imprisonment, exile, torture, fine, all were of no avail. Finally, in January, 1527, they imposed the death penalty, the first of the martyrs in Zurich being Felix Manz. Conrad Grebel had died a few months before of the plague. George Blaurock was burned at the stake two years later in Tyrol, after his exile from Zurich. But still the movement grew, and for almost a hundred years there was a strong and vigorous church in the country round about Zurich. The last martyr of this district was Hans Landis, who was executed in the year 1614. As late as 1750 there were still a few scattered remnants of the church in the Canton of Zurich.
Meanwhile the movement became even more vigorous in neighboring Swiss cantons such as Berne and Basel, and in neighboring districts of Austria, Tyrol, and South Germany. wherever the Brethren went they founded churches, and wherever the churches were founded the authorities desperately tried to stamp out the movement by persecution and execution. For almost three hundred years this persecution continued in Switzerland, but, praise God, the authorities were not able to destroy the church, and there are still fourteen churches in Switzerland with a membership of about 1,900 baptized persons. The oldest church is that in Langnau in the Emmenthal, which has existed since 1528. We shall learn more of the experiences of these Swiss Mennonites in a later chapter.
However, the bitter persecution did succeed in destroying the church in all the neighboring territories of South Germany, Austria, and Tyrol. It is true that one branch of the church in Austria, which in 1528 under the leadership of Jacob Hutter and others had adopted Christian communism as a way of life, and were accordingly called Hutterian Brethren, were able to maintain themselves for a long time in their native land. But they also were finally driven out and by about the year 1770 the last remnant of this group had been forced to flee to Russia, from whence they all migrated to South Dakota in the years 1874-80. In 1963 the Hutterites, with a total baptized membership of nearly 14,000, were living in nearly 120 settlements, known as "Bruderhofs," in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, and Washington. The story of this group will be told in a later chapter.
Meanwhile the message of the Brethren had traveled far and wide by leaps and hounds. Through traveling missionaries it finally found lodging in the extreme northwest part of Germany in the city of Emden in 1530, and from there traveled over into Holland to the city of Amsterdam in the same year, and shortly after to other regions in the Netherlands. From this seed came the founding of the Mennonite church in Holland, as will be related in a later chapter.
Enemies of the Swiss Brethren did their best to destroy the movement in its very beginning by misrepresentation and abuse as well as by persecution. They were falsely accused of all sorts of crimes and wickedness by men like Zwingli, who became desperate in their opposition as they discovered the spiritual power of the new church and the appeal it made to the masses. A common charge was that the Brethren were a revolutionary and seditious party aiming at the overthrow of the state and society. Such accusations remind one of the charge against Paul that he was "turning the world upside down." It is needless to say that these charges were untrue and have been so proved by historians, but it is no wonder that the enemies of our forefathers thought they were "revolutionary" in view of the demand they made that all of life should be made fully Christian. Such action will always seem revolutionary to a world which has been lulled into a false sense of security by a compromising, easygoing half-Christianity.
CHAPTER 4: Early Swiss Mennonite Leaders
The Mennonite Church was blessed with able and courageous leaders in its early years, who were truly men of God. The achievements of these men are the more remarkable when we consider the tremendous obstacles under which they had to labor. Men like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and John Knox, even though they at times had to labor under great difficulty, and frequently had to exercise courage and faith, nevertheless had an easy road compared to the founders of the Mennonite Church. When Martin Luther was in danger he found protection from the king of his country, and throughout his labors as a reformer he found rulers of states and armies placed at the disposal of the evangelical cause to defend it against its Catholic enemies and to promote its expansion. Never did Martin Luther have to suffer persecution, and seldom was the Lutheran Church suppressed in its own territory. Ulrich Zwingli was the recognized leader of his own canton, fully supported by the government of his state, and authorized to be the leader of an army in defense of Swiss Protestantism. John Calvin was a dominant figure in the government of the city of Geneva for a generation, and John Knox was the officially appointed and salaried pastor of a great city church. By contrast, most of the early leaders of the Mennonite Church died as martyrs, while their followers were hounded, persecuted, and executed. In spite of this, men of unusual ability and character gladly took upon themselves the leadership of the "accursed sect of the Anabaptists" and gave their lives "for the brethren." We have space to consider but a few of these great men --Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, George Blaurock, Michael Sattler, and Pilgram Maqpeck.
Conrad Grebel, c. 1498-1526
Conrad Grebel may truly be called the founder of the Mennonite church. Had it not been for his faith and devotion, and his courageous assumpti6n of the leadership of the first group of Brethren, there might never have been a Mennonite church. Born in Zurich, Switzerland, about 1498, of a rich and influential titled family, Conrad came from the highest social class of Switzerland. His father was an outstanding member of the City Council of Zurich, a wealthy iron merchant, who served repeatedly as ambassador of the Canton of Zurich to the meetings of the Swiss Confederacy.
The son of such a family would naturally have the advantage of the best that the world of his time could give him. He mingled with the best famines of Switzerland (his sister married the noted Dr. von Wan, burgomaster of St. Gall, and formerly rector of the University of Vienna), enjoyed all the privileges which wealth could buy, and was marked for an outstanding career in his native land. Receiving a rant from the King of Austria, he studied for three years (1515-18) at the University of Vienna, after having earlier spent one year at the University of Basel. Following this he spent two years at the University of Paris with a scholarship from the King of France. Altogether he spent six years in the best universities of his time, receiving a thorough training in humanistic studies and becoming a master of Latin and Greek. As a talented scholar he looked forward to an attractive career in his native land.
How Grebel came to be the leader of a "despised sect" is a thrilling story. He was not deeply religious in his university days. In fact, on the contrary he lived the typical life of a carefree and loose-living university student. On his return to his home in 1520, he came under the influence of the brilliant and powerful new evangelical preacher in Zurich, Ulrich Zwingli, who had assumed the pulpit in January, 1519. Zwingli, himself an able scholar, gathered around him the young men of Zurich and inspired them with the challenge of the Gospel. Like many others, Conrad Grebel was thoroughly converted and threw himself enthusiastically into the great work of reforming the church. He became Zwingli's most ardent supporter and was soon known, even beyond the confines of his own city, as one of the promising future evangelical leaders.
However, Grebel soon found himself in conflict with Zwingli, the man who had won him for the Gospel. Being a devoted and able student of the New Testament in the original Greek, he became convinced that only a complete and thoroughgoing reform of the church after the pattern of the New Testament would be sufficient. To his dismay, however, he discovered that Ulich Zwingli was not ready for such a thoroughgoing reform, but preferred to make a compromise with the existing traditions and establish a state church. When Grebel, learning this, demanded of Zwingli that he proceed with the establishment of a church of believers only, with true Gospel discipline and with a program of a thoroughgoing application of Christianity and the teachings of Jesus to everyday life, Zwingli refused.
The break with Zwingli came in 1524. Those who shared Grebel's views met with him for Bible study and prayer and rallied to the standard of a full Gospel reform. Condemned by Zwingli in the bitterest terms, Grebel sought contacts with other leaders with whom he could associate; however, all these attempts failed and when the City Council of Zurich finally condemned Grebel's entire group and forbade him and his friends to teach and preach their faith, the die was cast.
Grebel's career was a short one. Out of the eighteen months from the founding of the church in January 1525, until his death of the plague in the summer of 1526, at least nine months were spent in prison. The remainder of the time he spent largely in itinerant evangelism in the neighboring cantons of Switzerland. He hoped to write an exposition of his faith, in defense of the principles of the church, but was prevented from doing so, except for one small pamphlet written in prison, which was apparently published in the year 1526 after his death. Even this booklet has been lost, except for extracts quoted by Zwingli.
Conrad Grebel is not widely known and acclaimed like Luther and Zwingli, but his influence will live until the end of time in the lives of hundreds of thousands, both in the Mennonite Church and in other related movements. Without a commission from the state, without ordination from the church authorities, without benefit of theological training, with only the New Testament in his hands, and an abiding conviction that Christ meant that men should order their lives according to His teachings, Conrad Grebel challenged the world of his time. He gave his all to his faith, sacrificing an attractive career among men for the sake of the kingdom of God.
Felix Manz, c. 1498-1527
Like Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz was a university student and the son of a good Zurich family; his father had been one of the clergy of the Zurich cathedral. From the beginning he was a follower of Zwingli but soon joined with Grebel and others in the demand for a thorough reformation. Meetings of the Brethren were held in his house in 1524, where he expounded the Old Testament from the original Hebrew, and the records make it clear that he was a leader with Grebel in the earliest days of the brotherhood. He was in prison several times in 1525 and 1526, but ceased not his preaching and baptizing in the territory around Zurich. In December 1526, he was arrested for the last time and executed on January 5, 1527, by drowning in the Limmat River in Zurich as the first martyr of the Brethren at the hands of the Zwinglians. Eberli Bolt, who was burned at the stake on May 29, 1525, by the Catholic authorities of Schwyz, Switzerland, was the very first martyr of the Brethren, but he apparently was executed as a Protestant, not because he was one of the Brethren.
George Blaurock, c. 1490-1529
Next to Conrad Grebel, George Blaurock was the most influential leader in the very beginning of the Mennonite Church in Switzerland. We know little of his origin except that he came from Bonaduz, a town in the eastern Alps. At the beginning of the evangelical movement he came to Zurich to converse with Zwingli. Finding that Zwingli, according to his understanding of the Gospel, did not follow the teachings of Christ, he turned to Conrad Grebel and his friends and decided that they were holding to the truth. Early in 1525 he joined them, took part in debates which were set for the defense of the faith in the year 1525, and suffered the persecution which all the Brethren had to face. He was of unusual ability as a speaker, and aggressive and courageous to an extreme. After exile from Zurich in January 1527, he traveled about Switzerland preaching at various places, including Bern, Biel, and Appenzell, and finally in May, 1529, went to the Tyrol, just east of Switzerland. After four short months of effective ministry there he was burned at the stake at Clausen, on September 6, 1529. It is claimed that he preached to the crowd that witnessed his execution. Blaurock is largely responsible for the founding of the church in the Tyrol and Austria.
The summary of Blaurock's life and death as given in the Martyrs' Mirror is well worth noting. "About this time in the year 1529 was George Blaurock (after he had proclaimed and spread the truth for two or three years in Switzerland and especially in Tyrol in which he traveled, in order to be a source of salvation by his stewardship of his talent and by his zeal for the house of God), together with his companions, captured at Gufidaum and burned alive with fire not far from Clausen."
Michael Sattler, 1495-1527
One of the most attractive figures in the early history of the church is that of Michael Sattler, who was acclaimed even by his enemies as 'a true friend of God." Formerly the prior of a monastery in the Black Forest, and a well-educated man, Sattler knew the Scriptures in the original languages. He was attracted to Zurich by the teachings of the Brethren in the year 1525, and being found among them was arrested and exiled from Zurich. He must have been baptized as a member of the group, for shortly thereafter we find him on an itinerant ministry throughout southwestern Germany, including the cities of Strasburg and Horb. A pastoral letter to the congregation at Horb reveals him to be a man of deep piety and warm love for the church. It is believed that he called together a conference of leaders of the church in February, 1527, at a place called Schleitheim, not far from Schaffhausen on the Rhine on the Swiss border. That conference is known to have prepared and published a confession of faith called "The Seven Articles of Schlcitheim," which is the earliest known Mennonite confession of faith. Sattler was probably its author.
Three short months after this conference Sattler was arrested, condemned, and burned at the stake in Rottenburg after grievous torture. The record of his suffering and death, and his testimony to the church, have been preserved and published. It is one of the most moving stories of martyrdom and faithfulness in the early history of the church. Thus Sattler's influence has extended far beyond the two short years of his ministry in the early days of the Brethren.
Pilgram Marpeck, c. 1495-1556
One of the most unusual men among the early leaders of the Anabaptist Brethren in Switzerland and South Germany was a mining engineer named Pilgram Marpeck. Born at Rattenberg in the Tyrol, Marpeck was well trained in the schools of his day, and early distinguished himself as a mining engineer in his home country. He was elected to the City Council of his home town in 1523, and by 1525 was a mine magistrate.
He was converted to Lutheranism in 1526, but in another year found that the Swiss Brethren were more true to the Scriptures and cast his lot with them. In 1528 he was made to suffer greatly because of his faith, being expelled from his position and suffering confiscation of his property. He fled for refuge to the city of Strasburg, where he served for several years as a distinguished engineer in the employ of the city. At the same time, being active in preaching and testifying to his faith, he began to baptize converts and organized a church. Banished from the city of Strasburg in 1532 he later found his way to Augsburg, where he spent the last years of his life, serving from 1544 to his death in 1556 as an engineer in the employ of the city.
Marpeck was an able leader and writer. At least three books written by him have been preserved, one of 1542 entitled Admonition, a treatise on baptism and the Lord's Supper, a second of 1544 entitled An Explanation of the Testament, and a third written about the same time, a large volume entitled Vindication. These three volumes are the most extensive source material for the teaching of the early Swiss Brethren, and may still be read with profit. Marpeck, the only one of the Swiss leaders to be allowed an extensive career in the church, may be considered the "Menno Simons of the South" in terms of his influence and significance.
CHAPTER 5: The Founding of the Dutch Mennonite Brotherhood
The seed of the Mennonite faith had been sown in Northwest Germany and Holland in the year 1530, first in the city of Emden, then in the city of Amsterdam, and from there throughout all of the Low Countries. Unfortunately the man who scattered the seed through this territory became sadly confused in his understanding of the nature of the Gospel of the church, and so combined with the true ideals of the Swiss Brethren some fanatical notions about the establishment of an earthly kingdom of God. This man was Melehior Hofmann (1495-1543), at first a Lutheran lay-preacher, in 1530 an Anabaptist in Strasburg, then a wandering Anabaptist preacher for a few years, who ended his life in a ten-year. imprisonment in Strasburg in 1543. Because of Hofmann's fanaticism, much confusion existed in the minds of his followers for the five years after 1530. Gradually, however, the atmosphere cleared, and two parties developed out of the confusion. One was the radical revolutionary party which captured the majority of Hofmann's followers and perverted the whole movement into a dreadful enterprise to establish the kingdom of God on earth by force. These men, led by a certain John of Leiden and a certain John Matthys, finally were able to get control of the city of Munster in Northwest Germany in the year 1534, where they established their "kingdom" and remained in power for a short period of time. in the following year, however, they were completely overthrown by the rightful authorities of that territory, and the movement was wiped out. Meanwhile the other party, the minority of Hofmann's followers who had refused to go along with John of Leiden and his radicals, remained as a body of peaceful Brethren holding very similar doctrines to those of the Swiss Brethren, their spiritual ancestors. This group was organized in the year 1533, two years Ix-fore the tragedy at Munster, under the leadership of two able brothers, Obbe and Dirk Philips, who lived at that time in the city of Leeuwarden in Friesland, the northwest corner of Holland. These brethren, who came to be known as Oblenites, were horror-stricken at the out-come of the revolutionary Hofmannite faction, and were more than ever convinced that the peaceful, Scriptural Anabaptist faith as espoused by them was the true way of God. This group of Obbenites was the beginning of the Dutch Mennonite movement.
Until the Munsterite movement had spent its force, the Obbenites made slow progress. However, when it became evident to all that Munsterism was an utter failure, hundreds of earnest but misguided Christians were glad to return to the true Christian way. In the year 1536 and after there was a rapid growth of the Obbenite group throughout all of Northwest Germany and Holland which revealed that it was destined to become a great and powerful movement, even more powerful than the movement of the Swiss Brethren which began in Zurich in 1525.
Before we trace the further history of this group, let us compare it to the Brethren in Switzerland. In all basic doctrines and practices the two groups were identical. Both held to the Holy Scriptures as the sole authority for faith and life, both desired a church composed of believers only, and both insisted upon a genuine life of Christian holiness and obedience to the Word of God. Since, however, there was no direct connection between the Swiss Brethren and the Obbenites, except for the slender roundabout connection through Melchior Hofmann, we must believe that the Obbenites and Swiss Brethren achieved a common faith because they both found their doctrines in a simple acceptance of the New Testament. The history of the Swiss Brethren in the early years is more clear and consistent, whereas the history of the early years of the Obbenite movement is more confused and uncertain. However, once the Obbenites found their way through the confusion of the times, and once they acquired able and strong leadership, they were equally as effective, if not more so, in the spreading of the true Gospel and the establishment of a New Testament church, as were the Swiss Brethren in their time and place. Today descendants of both the Swiss and the Dutch branches of the Mennonite Church find themselves in hearty agreement on all the fundamental tenets of faith and practices of the Gospel.
In the year 1536 the Obbenites won to their cause a very able Catholic priest, who was at that time serving in the parish of Witmarsum, Friesland, only about thirty miles from Lecuwarden. This priest, named Menno Simons, who was baptized by Obbe Philips in the year 1536, shortly afterward was persuaded to accept ordination as an elder or bishop, and from that time on became the outstanding leader of the group. Soon after this Obbe Philips made a tragic decision. He turned his back upon the faith which he had first espoused and disappeared from the movement. His brother, Dirk Philips, remained an outstanding leader in the group until his death in 1568.
Because it was soon clear to all that Menno Simons was the outstanding leader of the group, people gradually began to name the group after Menno, first using the name "Menist" about the year 1545, later changed to "Mennonite." This is the origin of the name of the Mennonite Church. Since Menno Simons' writings were numerous and powerful, and since he soon became the most widely known figure of the whole movement, writers and historians generally came to call both the Swiss and the Dutch Brethren after his name. Later, however, the Dutch Mennonites preferred to call themselves "Doopsgezinde," in German "Taufgesinnte," which translated into English would be something like "Baptism-minded." Accordingly today the followers of Menno in his own native land of Holland are no longer called Mennonites, whereas his followers in Germany, and the descendants of the Swiss Brethren, are the ones who call themselves Mennonites.
The story of the expansion of the early Mennonite movement into Holland and North Germany is a thrilling one. Menno, although a price was early placed upon his head, traveled and labored unceasingly throughout Holland and northern Germany from Amsterdam to Lecuwarden, to Groningen, to Emden, to Cologne, to Ltibeck, and according to tradition, up the Baltic coast as far as Danzig. He was particularly influential through his writings, a total of twenty-four titles being published from the year 1539 to 1561 under his name. Several of these were extensive books. One of them, entitled The Foundation, became very popular and was a powerful force in spreading the faith of the Mennonite Church. Menno was a good leader, and was looked up to by his brethren as the father of the church until his death at his home in Wuestenfelde near Lubeck in 1561.
But the founding of the church in many places in Holland and northwestern Germany was due as much to Menno's colaborers as it was to himself. Dirk Philips early served the territory from Lubeck eastward, making Danzig his headquarters. The church in Danzig, which is still in existence, was apparently founded by him. Another very able leader was Leonard Bouwens, who was ordained in 1546 as minister and 1551 as elder and was in charge of the territory in Holland. A third able leader was Gillis of Aachen, who was ordained in 1542 to serve the territory around Cologne.
The strongest growth of the movement was in northwestern Holland in the province of Friesland, where very early a large portion of the population were converted and baptized into the Mennonite Church. However, strong churches were also established around Amsterdam, Haarlem, and Rotterdam, and on down into the territory of Flanders. From 1540 to 1570 the Mennonite movement was the strongest Protestant movement in the whole Low Countries. It was not until later that the Calvinist movement outdistanced it.
In Holland, as in Switzerland, the Catholic authorities persecuted the new movement thoroughly. Hundreds of martyrs lost their lives, and thousands were persecuted with imprisonment, torture, and exile. The persecution in Flanders was so severe that except for those who fled into Holland, few of the brethren survived. Because of the harsh rule of the Catholic overlords of Holland, who were at that time Spanish, a revolt broke out soon after the middle of the sixteenth century, which led to a long and bitter war, though it finally brought the independence of Holland. The leaders of this war of independence were Protestants to a large extent, and since they themselves were persecuted, they were more inclined to be tolerant of the Mennonites, even though the latter as nonresistants did not take part in the war. This measure of toleration enabled the Mennonite Church in Holland to maintain itself in spite of earlier persecution. In the latter part of the century it prospered greatly, whereas the Mennonite movement in South Germany and Switzerland was almost exterminated at about the same time.
CHAPTER 6: Early Dutch Mennonite Leaders
The early leaders of the Mennonite Church in Holland are more widely known than those in Switzerland. Whereas Conrad Grebel, Pilgram Marpeck, and Michael Sattler are less known names among us today, Menno Simons is a household name, known even outside the bounds of the church. He has been supposed by many to be the founder of the Mennonite Church, but it is clear from the preceding chapters of this book, that this is not the case. Menno joined the church eleven years after its beginning in Switzerland, he never lived in Switzerland, his writings were not available in German until the year 1575, and he differed in certain points on theology and church discipline from the Swiss Brethren. Nevertheless, he is one of the great leaders of the church, and deserves full credit for his able and devoted service in the earliest days of the brotherhood.
Menno Simons, 1496-1561
Menno Simons was born in the little town of Witmarsum, a few miles from the North Sea in Friesland, Holland. He came from a peasant family, but, being set apart for the Catholic priesthood, received the usual training for that office and by 1524 entered upon his career in the church. For twelve years he served as parish priest, 1524-36, first for seven years in the town of Pingjum and then for five years in his hometown of Witmarsum.
Even though Menno Simons was a Catholic priest, he himself testifies that he knew nothing of the Bible until years after he was in the service of the church. He was a typical priest of his time, performing the duties of his office which consisted of the conduct of the service of worship called the mass, baptizing children, hearing confessions, and caring for his parish, but indulging in the common amusements of card playing and drinking, and failing to take life very seriously.
The story of Menno Simons' conversion as told by himself in his own writings is an interesting one. It was not a sudden conversion, but one that finally came with overwhelming power at the end of a long period of struggle. The struggle began in the very first year of his service as a priest in 1525, when he began to doubt that the bread and wine of the mass were actually changed into the body and blood of the Lord. Tormented by doubts on this point he finally decided to seek help in the New Testament. He had never read the Bible before, since he accepted the teaching that the church was infallible and The Bible was not necessary. But once having decided to read the Bible he was inevitably led to a conversion experience and a complete break with the Catholic Church. He found, of course, that the New Testament does not teach the Catholic doctrine of transformation of the bread and the wine of the communion into the body and blood of Christ, and when he discovered this, he was forced to decide either for the Scriptures or for the church. He decided for the Scriptures. This did not lead to an immediate break with the church or to a full experience of conversion, even though it came after practically four years of struggle. It was not long until he was led to doubt another major pillar of the church, namely1 the doctrine of infant baptism. He was led to this experience by learning of one of the "brethren," a man named Sicke Freerks, who was executed in 1531 in the city of Letuwarden because he had been baptized the second time. Again Menno sought the answer to his doubts about baptism in the Scriptures, and again he found that the Catholic doctrine was not taught in the New Testament.
But it was another four years until Menno came to the final decision in the break with the church. This decision was brought about when Menno saw the grievous damage that was done by the revolutionary doctrines of John Matthys and the Munsterites who had succeeded in misleading hundreds in the immediate vicinity of Witmarsum. A band of these poor people, thinking that they too could help to establish a kingdom of God on earth, had been involved in a brief battle with the authorities in which most of them were slaughtered. When Menno Simons saw how these poor "sheep without a shepherd" had been willing to die in endeavoring to find the true faith, while he himself was continuing a life of ease and pleasure unwilling to stand for his faith, he was deeply convicted in his soul. Finally about April, 1535, he surrendered to God, and pledged his life henceforth to the Gospel.
Shortly thereafter he found his way to the Obbenite group in Leeuwarden, where he was baptized in January, 1536. As related earlier, he accepted the call to serve as an elder or bishop, receiving ordination to this office at the hands of Obbe Philips in 1536. He at once gave himself unreservedly to the shepherding of the brethren, to the defense of the Gospel, and to the preaching of the faith to all men. He used his gifts of writing effectively and became widely known "trough his books.
The following extracts of Menno Simons' own writing effectively describe his experience of conversion and his call to service.
"Behold thus, my reader, the God of mercy, through His abounding grace which He bestowed upon me, a miserable sinner, has first touched my heart, given me a new mind, humbled me in His fear, taught me in part to know myself, turned me from the way of death and graciously called me into the narrow path of life, into the communion of His saints. To Him he praise forevermore. Amen."
"When I heard this [the call] my heart was greatly troubled. Apprehension and fear was on every side. For on the one hand I saw my limited talents, my great lack of knowledge, the weakness of my nature, the timidity of my flesh, the very great wickedness, wanton-ness, perversity and tyranny of the world, the mighty great sects [the persecuting state churches], the subtlety of many men, and the indescribably heavy cross which, if I began to preach, would be the more felt; and on the other hand I recognized the pitifully great hunger, want, and need of the God fearing, pious souls, for I saw plainly that they erred as innocent sheep which have no shepherd.
"When the persons before mentioned did not desist from their entreaties, and my own conscience made me uneasy in view of the great hunger and need already spoken of, I consecrated myself, soul and body, to the Lord, and committed myself to His gracious leading, and I began in due time [i.e., after having been ordained to the ministry of the Word] according to His holy Word to teach and to baptize, to labor with my limited talents in the harvest field of the Lord, to assist in building up His holy city and temple and to repair the dilapidated walls."
For the remaining twenty-five years of his life Menno lived the life of an itinerant evangelist and bishop, fleeing from place to place to find refuge. A price of two thousand guilders had been placed upon his head, but he was able to escape his enemies and lived to die a natural death in 1561 after twenty-five years of service.
From 1536 until 1543 Menno labored in Holland, spending the years 1541 to 1543 in and about Amsterdam. During these years he published seven books and booklets. From 1543 until 1546 he labored faithfully in Northwest Germany in the neighborhood of Emden and Cologne. From 1546 until his death in 1561 he had his headquarters in Holstein, first at Wismar on the Baltic, and later in a small town between Hamburg and Lubeck called Wuestenfelde. The last years of his life he spent in relative peace, since the Count of Rheinfeld, on whose land he settled, tolerated and protected Menno and permitted him to establish a small print shop in his home. From this print shop many additional booklets were published and new editions of his older books were printed.
Menno Simons is undoubtedly the greatest figure in the history of the Mennonite Church. He had a sane and balanced program emphasizing both a sound faith and a sound life. He was a fearless leader and a capable organizer. In thorough loyalty to the Word of God, he labored unceasingly for the establishment of true Christianity among men.
Dirk Philips, 1504-68
Little is known of Dirk Philips, except that he was born in Lecuwarden, Holland, in 1504, was an able coworker of Menno Simons, and the writer of an influential hook called Enchiridion. With his brother, Obbe Philips, he was one of the cofounders of the church in Holland, being numbered in the little group in 1533 in Ieeeuwarden who took their stand against the fanaticism of the followers of Melchior Hofmann. He was ordained as an elder in the church and served the territory from Lubeck eastward along the Baltic. He settled in the city of Danzig and was the first bishop of the church in that city, where he died in 1568.
Leonard Bouwens, 1515-82
Leonard Bouwens was born at Sommelsdyk in the Netherlands in 1515. As a youth 'he was active in political affairs and was known as an orator. He was converted to the Mennonite Church and ordained a minister in 1546, being further ordained as elder by Menno Simons himself in 1551. Bouwens was the most able evangelist among the early leaders, being active for over thirty years until his death in 1582. He kept a list of the converts baptized by him, which contains no less than 10,252 names. He was a good leader and a capable bishop, serving the congregations in Holland.
Other leaders of the Mennonites of Holland served faithfully, among whom was Gillis of Aachen, who was horn about 1500 and served the churches in the vicinity of Cologne. He was ordained as bishop by Menno Simons in 1542. In 1557, after fifteen years of faithful service, he was arrested for his faith near Antwerp and, losing courage, recanted. He was, nevertheless, beheaded by the authorities in spite of his tragic surrender.
No doubt many others might be named, but the great trio of Menno Simons, Dirk Philips, and Leonard Bouwens will remain the outstanding leaders of the early Dutch Mennonite Church. They were the men who carried the banner in those critical days, and who built a strong organization with numerous active congregations and thousands of members.
By Harold S. Bender and C. Henry Smith, Mennonite and Their Heritage, Herald Press, Scottdale, Pennsylvania. Used by permission. Copyright 1942, revised edition 1964. This is the first 39 of 148 pages from Part I of this book, on Mennonite in America, written by Bender.