Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Menno Simons (1496-1561) in his own words

Menno Simons was a Roman Catholic priest who joined the much maligned Anabaptist movement in Friesland about a decade after its beginning in Zurich, Switzerland in 1525. One major branch of that movement eventually became known as "Mennonite" because of his prominence as a leader.

Menno managed to live a relatively long life in spite of a 1542 edict by Charles V which placed a price of 100 gold guilders on his head and threatened severe punishment for anyone offering him shelter or reading any of his works. In spite of that threat, Menno devoted his life to preaching and writing what was considered rank heresy in those days, that one should have the right to be a member of a church of one's choice rather than having to be baptized into the official state church in the region of one's birth.

The following represents a selection of his words from various parts of "The Complete Writings of Menno Simons," a Herald Press book translated from the Dutch by Leonard Verduin and edited by John C. Wenger:

    My dear friends, I tell you the truth, I am no Enoch, I am no Elijah, I am not one who sees visions, I am no prophet who can teach or prophesy otherwise than what is written in the Word of God and understood in the Spirit...

    At one time I was wicked and carried the banner of unrighteousness for many years. I was a leader in all kinds of folly... the fear of God was not before my eyes. Yet everyone sought me and desired me. The world loved me and I it. Everyone revered me.

    But my conscience tormented me so that I could no longer endure it. The blood of innocent martyrs I knew of fell so hot on my heart I could not stand it. I thought to myself, I a miserable man, what am I doing? If I continue in this way, and don’t live according to the truth I have, if I don’t put away the hypocrisy, the impenitent, carnal life... If I don’t use all my powers to direct the wandering flock who would gladly do their duty if they knew it, how shall their blood rise up against me in the judgment?

    So I prayed to God, with sighs and tears, that he would give me, a sorrowing sinner, the gift of his grace, create in me a clean heart, and graciously through the merits of the blood of Christ forgive my unclean walk and frivolous, easy life and give me wisdom, courage and a manly spirit so that I might preach his exalted name and holy word in purity.

    Let me repeat, I have formerly acted shamefully against God and my neighbors; and I still sometimes think, speak, and act recklessly, which I sincerely regret. But I desire and seek sincere teaching, true doctrine, true faith, true works and an unblamable life. For this I must pay dearly with so much oppression, trouble, labor, sleeplessness, fear and anxiety, shame, heat and cold, and at last with torture, yes, with my blood and death.

    So while others rest on easy beds and soft pillows we have to hide in out of the way corners. While they revel in the music of trumpet and lute at weddings and baptismal banquets, we have to be on guard whenever a dog barks for fear an officer has come to arrest us.

    We do not agree with those who teach a mere historical faith which knows no conversion, spirit and fruit. On the other hand, we do not agree that we can be saved by our own merits and works. 

    True evangelical faith cannot lie dormant. It clothes the naked, it feeds the hungry, it comforts the sorrowful, it shelters the destitute, it returns good for evil, it seeks that which is lost, it binds up the wounded, it becomes all things to all people. 

    Some charge that we have our property in common. This charge is false. But we do teach that all truly believers are members of one body. Since they are one, it is Christian and reasonable that they love one another, that one member be concerned for the welfare of the other. The whole scripture speaks of mercifulness and love, which is the only sign whereby true Christians may be known.

    They say we will not obey the magistrates... We have obeyed them when not contrary to the word of God. We intend to do so all our lives. 

    (But) Love compels us to respectfully and humbly show all high officials what the Word of God commands them, how they should rightfully execute their office to the glory and praise of God... to punish the transgressors and protect the good; to judge rightly between a man and his fellows; to do justice to the widows and orphans and to the poor, to rule cities and countries justly by a good policy and administration, not contrary to God’s Word but to the benefit of the common people.

    We who were formerly no people at all, and who knew no peace, are now called to be a church of peace. True Christians do not know vengeance... Their hearts overflow with peace. Their mouths speak peace, and they walk in the way of peace.

    The regenerated do not go to war, or engage in strife. They are the children of peace, who have beaten their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and they know no war. Since we are conformed to the image of Christ, how then can we kill our enemies with the sword? Spears and swords made of iron we leave to those, alas, who consider human blood and swine’s blood as having well nigh equal value.

    Therefore, my precious brothers and sisters in the Lord, take the crucified Christ as your example, and the apostles and prophets of God. Learn through them how they all came in at this very narrow gate and have left all things hanging at the entrance. They were so endowed and trained by God that they knew nothing, sought nothing, loved and desired nothing but the eternal treasure--God--and eternal life.

The following is a translation of words on a simple stone memorial more recently erected at Witmarsum, Menno's home village:

Witmarsum may with right its Menno Simons claim,
In Netherlands the first of church-reforming fame.
He took his stand there, from the priesthood broke,
And in a little house the word of freedom spoke.
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