V MENNO'S LABORS IN THE NETHERLANDS
Before the end of the year 1536 we find Menno in East Friesland, Germany. Peter Jans of Blanckenham, who was beheaded in June 1540 at Kampen, (1) testified that he was baptized by Menno Simons in 1536 at Oldersum in East Friesland. Presumably Menno returned soon to Groningen or West Friesland. On January 8, 1539, Tjard Reynders of Kimswerd in West Friesland was executed because he had received Menno Simons into his house and had himself been baptized.
"About the year 1539," writes Menno, "a very pious and God-fearing man named Tjard Reynders was apprehended in the place where I sojourned, for the reason that he had received me, a homeless man, out of compassion and love, into his house, although in secret. A short time after this he was, after a free confession of his faith, executed and broken on the wheel as a valiant soldier of Christ, according to the example of his Lord, although he had the testimony, even of his enemies, that he was an unblamable and pious man." (2)
Concerning Menno Simons' early labors in West Friesland we have an important testimony in a letter written in May 1541 by the imperial counsellors in that province to the regent of the Netherlands, Mary, the former Queen of Hungary. This letter (3) which is preserved in the royal archives at Brussels and is here published for the first time in the English language, is as follows:
"Most serene, right honorable, most mighty Queen, most gracious Lady. We offer ourselves as humbly as we can for Your Majesty's service. Most gracious Lady, although the error of the cursed sect of the Anabaptists which in the last five or six years has very strongly prevailed in this land of Friesland, but now - the Lord be praised - through the publication of divers placards and through executions which have been carried into effect against transgressors of that sort, this sect would doubtless be and remain extirpated, were it not that a former priest Menne Symonsz who is one of the principal leaders of the aforesaid sect and about three or four years ago became fugitive, has roved about since that time once or twice a year in these parts and has misled many simple and innocent people. To seize and apprehend this man we have offered a large sum of money, but until now with no success. Therefore we have entertained the thought of offering and promising pardon and mercy to a few who have been misled [by the Anabaptists] and who desire grace [having recanted their faith] if they would bring about the imprisonment of the said Menno Symons. However we would not be so bold as to do this ourselves but desire first to advise Your Majesty of it, praying to he informed of Your Majesty's good pleasure and command which we, to the extent of our power, are willing and ready to carry out, as knows God Almighty. May He long spare Your Majesty in good health and happy reign. Written at Leeuwarden on the nineteenth day of May, 1541. Your Majesty's very humble and obedient servants, the counsellors ordained of the Imperial Majesty in Friesland."
The civil authorities of West Friesland believed, as is shown by this letter, that the church in those parts would have been extirpated, had it not been for the labors of Menno Simons. This document shows also that the Anabaptists were considered guilty of death, even if they recanted. The imperial counsellors in this letter asked the queen for permission to release a few apostate Anabaptists on the condition that they betray Menno Simons into the hands of the authorities. The reply of the queen bears the date of May 31, 1541. The queen had no objection to the plan of the counsellors provided that not over two of such who had been rebaptized should be given their liberty and this on the condition that "they were truly penitent and pledged themselves to report to the authorities all Anabaptists whom they might at any later time find in Friesland." Here as well as in certain German provinces all Anabaptists who fell into the hands of the authorities were as a rule executed, even if they denied their faith. As early as 1527 the Duke of Bavaria gave orders to burn those who refused to recant and behead those who recanted.
The plan of apprehending Menno Simons by employing traitors of that sort was not successful. The poor men who permitted the executioners to convert them to the national faith, professed that faith, as a rule, only as long as they found themselves in the clutches of the persecutors. Notwithstanding the extraordinary measures taken by the government to arrest Menno Simons, he continued his labors in West Friesland for some time. The "Criminal Sentence Book" of Leeuwarden, in a document dated Nov. 14, 1542, contains the confession of a brother named Sjouck Hayes, to the effect that Menno Simons in the same year had preached in a field not far from the city of Leeuwarden. (4)
Emperor Charles V published a severe edict against Menno Simons, on Dec. 7, 1542. (5) This important document which here follows shows vividly the untold difficulties and dangers under which Menno labored.
By the Emperor.
"To our worthy, beloved Mayors, Jurors, and Counsellors, etc., of our city of Leeuwarden, Greeting: -
"Whereas, it has come to our knowledge and we have fully ascertained that a [former] priest, Menno Symonss, formerly pastor at Witmarsum in our land of Friesland, being polluted with Anabaptism and other false teachings, had departed out of the said land, but we have now obtained trustworthy information that he has again secretly returned into our aforesaid land where he is now sojourning, endeavoring at night and other unseasonable times and in divers places to seduce by his false teachings and sermons the simple people, our subjects, and to lead them away from the faith and unity of the Holy Church; and that he also has undertaken to make a few books treating on his aforesaid erroneous teachings, and to circulate and scatter the same among our aforesaid subjects, which he has no right to do and we can not tolerate the same;
"Therefore, to take appropriate steps in this matter, we ordain and command herewith, that you everywhere in your jurisdiction, do publish, cry out and proclaim in the places where such matters are usually brought to the knowledge of the public, that every one in our aforesaid land, of whatever station he may be, should be on his guard, not to receive the same Minne Symonss into his house or on his property, or to give him shelter, or food, or drink, or to accord him any favor or help, or to speak or converse with him, in whatever manner or place it may be, or to accept or keep in possession any of the aforesaid books published by the same Minne, or any other books that he may publish at any future time - all on penalty of punishment on life and property, as heretics, as may be found due according to the law and our previous placards;
"And further that we have permitted and authorized every one of our subjects, whoever he may be, and permit and further authorize through this decree, that they may apprehend the same Minne wherever they may be able to find him, no place or jurisdiction excepted, and send him captive to our court in Friesland; for which they, in case they accomplish this, shall receive for a recompense, besides the expenses they may have incurred in this matter, the sum of one hundred golden Karolus gulden, which shall be paid them by our General Treasurer of Friesland without any hesitancy.
"To him who may undertake and accomplish this work, we decree and promise grace and pardon regarding that which he may have committed against us in the matter of Anabaptism or other heresy, or in lesser crimes, on condition, in case he was polluted by Anabaptism or other heresies, that he repent of the same and come again to the unity of the holy Church.
"In the same manner we most earnestly command, on pain of the most grievous penalties, that ye do the utmost diligence to investigate and inquire concerning the said Minne among his followers and adherents who may be apprehended anywhere within your jurisdiction and, together with such information as ye may obtain, to send them as prisoners to our aforesaid court, that they may be dealt with according to their deserts.
"We hereby also give authority and special command to you and all our subjects, in whatever jurisdiction it may be found possible to apprehend him, to be guided by the instructions above given; we bid and command every person as regards the above said capture [of Menno] to put forth their united efforts and render all help and assistance that may be asked of them toward that end. In doing this they will incur our pleasure.
"Given in our city of Leeuwarden under our secret seal, published as a placard, on the seventh day of December of the year 1542.
"By the Emperor to his Majesty's Stadtholder, President and Counsellors in Friesland.
"Received on December thirteenth and published on the fourteenth day of the same month."
In the perusal of this important decree, it will be noticed that Menno Simons is not accused of crime except heresy, "Anabaptism." In the eyes of the Catholic Emperor this was the greatest of crimes. Grace and pardon is promised to Anabaptists who recant and come back into the national church and to those who are guilty "of lesser crimes," if they deliver up Menno Simons to the authorities. The expression, "lesser crimes," has reference to any crime in the catalogue, since "Anabaptism" was considered a greater "vice" than anything else. Hence Menno says correctly that the worst criminals were offered pardon if they would deliver him up to the magistrates. (6) The edict also shows that all those of like faith with Menno Simons were "sought unto death." And not only those who rendered him any service whatever or talked with him, but also those in whose possession any of his writings were found (7) were threatened with the severest penalties ''in life and property." That he preached at night, as said in the edict, Menno did not deny, but in his defence against Gellius Faber he points out that, notwithstanding the persecution, he preached more in day-time than at night.
There is unmistakable evidence of Menno Simons' labors in that period in West Friesland. Nevertheless, it is probable that in the first years after his ordination the principal field for his ministerial labors was the province of Groningen, including the city of the same name, located between West and East Friesland. In Groningen he baptized, in 1539, Quirinus Peters, who later went to Amsterdam, and, with five others, was burned at the stake, April 16, 1545. (8) Of those who were baptized by Menno in this province - their number was presumably large - this martyr is the only one whose name has come down to us.
In 1541 Menno Simons went to Amsterdam. Shortly before he left the eastern parts of the Netherlands, he wrote a tract, A Loving Admonition in which after many noteworthy exhortations he says :
"And above all pray for your poor and willing minister who is sought with great diligence to be delivered up to death, that God, the gracious Father, may strengthen him with His holy Spirit and save him from the hands of those who so unjustly seek his life, if it be His Fatherly will; and if it be not His will, that He may then grant him in all tribulation, torture, suffering, persecution and death such heart, mind, wisdom and strength," etc. (9)
From 1541 to 1543 Menno Simons stayed mostly in Amsterdam and North Holland. The names of two brethren are known whom he baptized at Amsterdam, namely the aged Lukas Lamberts and the book-seller Jan Claeszoon (Claassen). Both suffered martyrdom on Jan. 19, 1544. (10) Claeszoon was a minister of the Gospel and made it his business to circulate Menno's writings. The meetings of the congregation in Amsterdam were held in his house. The martyr Claes Gerbrands who was burned at the stake at Wormer, Aug. 6, 1552 (11) testified that he heard Menno Simons preach in Amsterdam (probably previous to 1543).
In the period of Menno Simons' labors in the Netherlands he wrote a number of books. The Foundation of the Christian Doctrine is among them the most important. It was printed in 1539 or 1540, the title page bearing the first and the last page the second date. Only two copies of this edition are extant. This book was revised and partly rewritten by Menno Simons and published about 1554 under the title A Foundation and Plain Instruction of the Saving Doctrine of Jesus Christ. The revision has been often printed in Dutch, German and English, four German editions and one English having been published in Pennsylvania. The original edition of 1539 was reprinted unchanged in 1616. At least three copies of this reprint are in American libraries. (12)
In the preface Menno says that he has set forth the faith and principles of the brotherhood. "We ask the God-fearing governments and all men to read and consider the exposition of our faith, that they at last may know for what teachings we stand and why we daily suffer persecution, are banished, ''plundered, abused and killed as innocent sheep for the slaughter. - In all humility we desire most earnestly that ye may thoroughly investigate and learn the summary of our cause and doctrine. We pray you not to esteem us worse than thieves and murderers whose case ye diligently examine before ye execute or banish them. That for which we are made to suffer is not a small matter; it does not concern earthly possessions, not name or reputation, nothing merely temporal and earthly, but it concerns God and His word, eternal life or eternal death. Therefore in considering these matters, do not look upon long usages and customs of the fathers, not upon the wise and learned of this world; the matter is deeply hidden from their eyes. - No one may discern it except he who desires to live according to the will of God (John 7:17). - Look, we pray you, only upon God's word and doctrines, upon the example and practice of the prophets, Christ and the apostles; let them be your rule of conduct and book of counsel in these matters and you shall forthwith begin to see whether we are without or within the truth." (13)
In the chapter "On True Penitence" Menno says :
"In short, this is the principal part of our doctrine, namely to 'abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul' (I Pet. 2:11), to 'crucify the flesh with the affections and lusts' (Gal. 5:24), to 'be not conformed to this world' (Rom. 12:2), to 'cast off the works of darkness' and 'put on the armour of light' (Rom. 13:12), to 'love not the world neither the things that are in the world' (I John 2:15), to 'put off the old man' and 'put on the new man which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness' (Eph. 4:22-24), namely faith, love, hope, righteousness, peace, joy in the Holy Ghost, readiness to bear the cross, generosity, mercy, chastity, sobriety, an earnest hatred and reproving of sin and a true favor and love to God and His blessed word." (14)
"O dear honorable lords" says Menno in the conclusion to this book, "grant to your humble servants that we may teach and live according to the will and according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as His holy, blessed word has taught and commanded us. - There is verily no other instruction to eternal life than God's word alone." (15)
Another important book of this period is Christian Baptism, 1539. (16) The book Of the True Christian Faith and its Power appeared probably in 1541. It was never reprinted in its original form but was revised and partly rewritten and published in 1556 with some changes in the title. The original print was supposed to be lost, but a defective copy was found a few years ago at Kiel; only one complete copy is known and this is in America. (17) All later prints follow the revision of 1556 which differs largely from the first edition. The purpose of this book is, so Menno informs us in the preface, to point out that the body whom he represented were "not legalists and do not put undue emphasis on works, neither refuse to give that which is most important, its rightful place," as they were "slandered of all the world" and especially of "the learned." (18) The fact that the accusation of legalism against Menno and his friends has only recently been re-asserted (19) is evidence of the importance of this book. Extensive quotations on the point in question will be given elsewhere.
Menno Simons' most notable co-laborers in the earlier years of his ministry were Obbe and Dirk Philips. Obbe Philips' eventual withdrawal from the Brethren (probably in 1541) has already been mentioned. When he forsook the brotherhood, Menno Simons, it has been supposed, decided to become his successor as the leader of the Brethren and thus the further existence of the Brotherhood was assured. (20) While it can not for a moment be questioned that Menno Simons rendered the Brotherhood in the Netherlands and North Germany services whose importance can be scarcely overvalued, the assumption that without his labors the denomination would have perished has all probability against itself. Menno Simons was by no means the only leader of the Brethren in this trying period. Dirk Philips, the noted co-laborer with both his brother Obbe and with Menno, was a man of strong convictions; as a positive character he was second to neither. Clearly Obbe Philips lost his former influence before he drew back and renounced the Brotherhood. This is evident from the noteworthy fact that the number of his followers was very small when he severed his connection with the Brethren. Menno Simons informs us in 1554 that not ten persons could be found who were of one mind with him.
(1) D. B., 1875, p. 65.
(2) 234. II:11. Compare Van Braght, p. 438. K. Vos (Menno Simons, p. 41) alleges that Tjard Reynders had, according to Jan van Batenburg's testimony at an earlier date "burned a women's cloister in West Friesland at the Woulden." Batenburg simply says, there was a report to that effect. It is clear from his confession that Batenburg was not convinced of the correctness of this evil report. Compare De Hullu. J., Bescheiden betr. de Hervorming in Overijssel, p. 247.
(3) Printed in D. B., 1864, p. 138 seq.
(4) D. B., 1906, p. 4.
(5) Reprinted D. B., 1864, p. 144 seq., and Vos, Menno Simons, pp. 235-238.
(6) 224. II:11. Compare Van Braght, pp. 438, 449. The expression "the crime of Anabaptism" occurs in various edicts.
(7) To have a book of Menno Simons was made a crime. This explains why in one of the earliest books of Menno, a copy of the Foundation of 1539 now in the Mennonite Library at Amsterdam, the name of the author is erased and "Dirk Jans" written in its place. It is not known who was the owner of this book.
(8) Van Braght, p. 457.
(9) 637; II:448.
(10) D. B., 1864, p. 146; Van Braght, p. 451.
(11) Van Braght, p. 515.
(12) In the library of Hon. Samuel W. Pennypacker, Schwenksville. Pa., of Rochester Theological Seminary, Rochester. N. Y., and Union Theological Seminary, New York.
(13) Dat Fundament des Christelyken leers, fol. A3a seq.
(14) The same. B4a.
(15) The same. S6a.
(16) Of the original print two copies are known (in the libraries of the university of Kiel and of Juniata College). A third copy which was used by Elder John Holdeman, Jasper, Mo., has not yet been found.
(17) In the library of Juniata College, Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. It is bound together with two other original prints of Menno, namely the Christian Baptism and The Reasons why Menno Simons Continues to Write. An identical volume, containing these three books (one incomplete) is at Kiel. The two books here named were later reprinted in their original form.
(18) Uan dat rechte Christen Ghelooue ende zijn cracht, fol. B7b.
(19) E.g. by W. J. Kühler, Het Socianisme in Nederland, p 43: Menno and his followers "found themselves altogether upon the standpoint of the law." (Compare also p. 44 of the same book).
(20) Vos, Menno Simons, p. 35.