VIII FROM THE FLIGHT FROM COLOGNE TO THE DISCUSSIONS AT WISMAR
From the Electorate of Cologne Menno went in 1546 to Holstein in Northwest Germany. In this province his family seems to have lived until the end of his life. The place of their sojourn in the first years after their flight from Cologne is not known; later the family moved to Wüstenfelde near Oldesloe.
The most active co-laborers with Menno were, besides Dirk Philips, the elders Gillis of Aachen and Leonard Bouwens. Gillis had been a priest in the vicinity of Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle). The exact time of his renunciation of Romanism is not known. Probably in 1542 he was ordained an elder. He was a zealous worker. More than twenty martyrs whose confessions are extant admitted that they were baptized by Gillis of Aachen.
Leonard Bouwens of Sommelsdyk was ordained an elder in 1551. Of his previous life nothing is known, except that before his conversion he was a "Rederijker," a member of a society which flourished in the principal cities of the Netherlands. Their aims were of a literary and general educational nature. When the Reformation movement reached the Netherlands, many of the Rederijkers gave it a friendly reception.
The churches whom Leonard Bouwens served in the capacity of an elder were for the most part located in the provinces of the Netherlands where the persecution was most severe. Bouwens declared his willingness to comply with the desires of the church in those parts and accept the office of an elder; his wife, however, was not entirely resigned to have her husband expose himself to so great dangers. She sent word to Menno Simons asking him to bring his influence to bear upon the church, that this should not be asked of her husband. Presumably the ordination had not yet taken place, and was to be performed by Menno Simons. Menno replied in a letter in which he enlarges on the subject of consecration. The letter follows.
"Most beloved in Christ Jesus. Grace and peace be to you. Dear, faithful sister in the Lord. My inmost soul is grieved in your behalf, more so than I can write. For I understand from our beloved brethren that it is so very difficult for you to acquiesce to the desire and petition of the afflicted and shepherdless congregations in regard to your beloved husband. I cannot severely reprove you for your attitude if I look upon the flesh and not upon the spirit and love. I also understand from the words of Leonard and Helmicht that you entertained the hope that Leonard should be released from the office by me. Most beloved sister in Christ Jesus, I trust that by the grace of God I sincerely love you with a godly love and am willing to serve you and all the pious with my blood whenever necessity requires it. Then, beloved sister, who am I that I should resist the Holy Spirit? And it is well known to you that the Church, without my knowledge, has asked that he should be ordained and has called him to this office. As the Church so earnestly desires of him to serve in this capacity, and his conscience, doubtless, constrains him to comply, how could I then oppose it. especially since I find nothing in Leonard to give any Scriptural ground for advising against his ordination?
"Dear sister, I am very sorry that I cannot comply with your desire in this matter, for your sorrow and grief pierces my heart, as often as I think of it. But the love of God and of our destitute brethren must ever be considered first. Yea, being called of the Lord and through the operating power of your God you have of your own free will consecrated yourself to serve not yourself, not your own flesh, but Christ Jesus and the brethren all the days of your life. I hope that you have made this vow from your heart, even if it cost your possessions and life. And you see now before your eyes how highly the existing need requires that which is asked of you. Therefore think of the days of your enlightenment and fulfil humbly and obediently what, not of constraint but willingly, you have vowed and promised unto the Most High.
"O, beloved sister, look at the sad abandonment and need of your beloved brethren. - Our inmost souls must be moved at their great need when we take to heart the great hungering and thirsting of many pious hearts and the regrettable seducing and deceiving of false teachers, the discord engendering sects and other like evils. Inasmuch as the merciful Lord has granted to our beloved brother His divine knowledge, has enlightened him with His Holy Spirit and gifted him with speech and wisdom, so that the brethren are pleased with him, sincerely love him and desire that he should make use of his talent, and if you out of regard to flesh and blood should oppose this and not acquiesce therein, this would seem to me to be nothing else but when you see your brethren in imminent danger of death, in peril of fire or water or suffering great pain and misery, you would for self-seeking ends not rescue them or endeavor to help them.
"Dear sister, love your brethren as Jesus Christ has loved us. If you should for the sake of your brethren lose what you possess, remember that Christ for our sakes, for a time, left the glory of His Father and the company of angels, that we might obtain an inheritance in heaven which shall abide forever. So long as we live we shall have sufficient of the necessaries of life, if we fear God, depart from evil and do well unto others. Yea, sister, be comforted and of good cheer. The eternal Truth has promised us eternal bliss. If we seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness, the necessaries of life shall be added unto us. But if you are anxious concerning your husband's life, remember and believe that our life is measured by spans, that life and death are in the hands of the Lord, that not a hair falls from our heads without the will of our Father; He protects us as the apple of His eye.
"Elijah, David, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abed-nego, Peter, Paul, all escaped the hands of the tyrants and no man could injure them in the least so long as the appointed day and hour had not yet come. For as long as the merciful Lord has more pleasure in our life than in our death, they shall not succeed in taking our life; but whenever our death is more pleasing to the Lord than our life, we shall not escape their hands.
"O beloved sister, if even our dear brother should not serve his brethren in this capacity, he has nevertheless for a number of years already committed himself to the imminent danger of death, oppression, homelessness, reproach, persecution, anxiety, spoiling of his goods, water, fire, and the sword. And even if he had not subjected himself to the cross by baptism but could sojourn in or pass through any country in all liberty, you nevertheless would not know at what moment he would have to put off his tabernacle of clay and appear before his God.
"Therefore, beloved, faithful sister, be strong in the Lord, take good courage, commend yourself to the most high God who holds heaven and earth in His hand, who has given you and your husband body and soul, has called you through the Word of His grace, purchased and redeemed you with the blood of His blessed Son, who has washed, sanctified, cleansed and quickened you through His Holy Spirit; His mercy is over all His works; He knows your going out and your coming in. Dear sister, strengthen your beloved husband and do not weaken him, for it is required of us, as we love God so also to love our dear brethren.
"In short, take toward your neighbor the same attitude that Christ is taking toward you; for by this only sure and immutable rule must all Christian matters be measured and judged. Lo, beloved, faithful sister, as the Church calls our beloved brother to this office and service, I can indeed not with a good conscience oppose or else I would love flesh more than Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior, and my sincerely beloved brethren.
"May the almighty, merciful Lord do in this matter according to I lis divine pleasure and guide the heart of my beloved sister, so as to be resigned to His holy blessed will. I sincerely thank you, dear sister, for the gift of your love you have sent me. My wife greets you lovingly with the peace of the Lord. The Lord Jesus Christ be forever with you, most beloved friend and sister. Amen.
"Menno Simons, Your brother in the Lord."
Presumably Menno Simons' purpose in writing this letter was accomplished. Leonard Bouwens became one of the most active elders. He kept a list of baptisms administered by him, which shows that from 1551 to 1568 he baptized 10,251 persons.
To all appearance the territory of the Netherlands and North Germany was divided into districts, one of which was assigned to each of the elders. Dirk Philips lived in Schottland, a suberb of Danzig on the Baltic, and labored principally in Northeast Germany. (1) The cities and provinces due east of the Netherlands constituted Menno Simons' district; he alone administered baptism in this territory. Nevertheless he traveled extensively in other parts. Traces of his labors are noticeable in modern Russia (Livonia) and as far north as the Swedish island of Gothland.
In 1546 the elders held a discussion with a representative of the Davidians at Lübeck and in the succeeding year a conference was held at Embden. Toward the close of the same year the elders met at Goch.
From 1552 to 1554 Menno published a number of books, among them his comprehensive reply to Jelle Smit, called Gellius Faber, Reformed minister in Embden, who had written a book warning the authorities of Menno and his friends and decrying their doctrine as unscriptural and injurious to the welfare of both church and state. (2) Menno's reply to Faber is the largest of his books. The account of his conversion and call to the ministry which has often been printed under the title Menno Simons' Renunciation of the Church of Rome was originally a part of this book. (3)
In 1553 we find Menno Simons at Wismar in Mecklenburg, one of the cities of the Hanseatic League. In this city the Lutheran reformation was partly introduced in 1542 but, similar as in other provinces where the new state church was not yet fully established, the government showed itself lenient toward the Mennonites, although they were by no means openly tolerated. They had a congregation in this city. Menno writes of his experience in this place in a way which throws interesting light on the attitude of the authorities of Wismar toward the dissenters.
Menno had in Wismar a few discussions with Hermes Backereel and Martin de Cleyne, called Micron. The former came to Wismar from London. After the Smalcaldian war, when Menno saw himself compelled to leave Cologne, the Zwinglians also were oppressed in certain states. Many went to England, among them John a'Lasco and Hermes Backereel. They organized churches in London during the reign of Edward VI, and prospered for a time. The sudden death of this ruler, who was succeeded by his sister Mary, "the bloody," compelled all Protestants to leave England. On September 15, 1553, one hundred seventy-five persons embarked in two Danish ships at London for the continent of Europe. But whither could they go? The countries that could be reached by way of the sea were nearly all of the Catholic religion. They decided to go to Lutheran Denmark. King Christian of Denmark received them friendly, but when he learned that they were Zwinglians, he ordered them to leave his country. In the cold season of the year they saw themselves again compelled to take to sea.
One of the ships carrying the fugitives arrived at Wismar on December 21. The ship froze fast in the ice some distance from the shore and the exiles found themselves unable to land without assistance. The citizens and authorities of Wismar were obviously inclined to take the same attitude toward them, as the King of Denmark. Martin Luther had repeatedly given advice that Zwinglians should not be tolerated under Lutheran government; but here were people in danger of life and in sore need of help.
Menno Simons, in his defense against Martin Micron, describes the event of their coming to Wismar as follows:
"In the year 1553, a little before midwinter, it came to pass that word came to the brethren [at Wismar] to the effect that a ship load of people had arrived from Denmark, who for the sake of their faith were driven from England, and that they lay a short distance from the shore frozen up in the ice.
"When the brethren heard this, they were moved with Christian mercy toward them, as was proper and reasonable. They counseled together and did what was in their power to help them out of the ice and to make an acceptable way for them to get into the city without any commotion; as they also did, although they knew that to do so might bring to them trouble with the government.
[Marginal note:] "The brethren did not for fear of the cross, omit their service for them.
"They met them with wheat bread and wine, so, if there should be any sick or of delicate health among them, that they might refresh and strengthen them therewith. And after they had escorted them into the city, they brought together twenty-four Thalers out of their poverty and presented them to the leading men among them, that the needy, if there were any such among them, might be served and helped. The money they refused and said, 'We need no money and ask only that work may be secured for some of us.' In this our brethren assisted them as much as they could.
"In like manner one of our number, to be of service to them, offered to take the children of John a'Lasco into his house and to do the best he could for them. To this suggestion Hermes Backereel answered, 'No, this would not be proper; for John a'Lasco is a man who often has dealings with lords, princes and other high personages; it might (Oh, reader observe) injure his reputation if his children should sojourn with such people. Hearing this I observed that we had not met with the plain, true, humble pilgrims of Christ" (551; II:355).
On December 26, 1553 Menno had a discussion with Hermes Backereel on various points of doctrine. Thereupon the Zwinglian party sent one, named Bartholomew Huysman, to Martin Micron, a minister of their persuasion at Norden in East Friesland, to request him to come to their assistance in the debate with Menno. Micron came to Wismar on January 25, 1554, and had two conferences with Menno. On February 6 the questions of baptism, the incarnation of Christ, the oath, divorce, the calling of the ministers and the civil authorities were discussed. The meeting lasted without interception for eleven hours and ended with a common meal. On February 15 the two men met again and discussed not without bitterness on both sides, on the incarnation of Christ.
The discussions between Menno Simons and the Zwinglian leaders at Wismar must not be thought of as public affairs. Public debates between Zwinglians and Anabaptists were entirely out of the question within Lutheran territory. Menno writes: "The discussion was granted Hermes and his friends on the condition that they should tell no man (since I was a poor, delicate man and hated of all the world) where the meeting took place. Upon this they, on their part, gave our brethren their hand, promising that they would never betray it. But how they have kept their word, their deeds have shown." It is clear from Menno's statements that the magistrates of the city in general entertained not unfavorable opinions of the Brethren; they did not molest them as long as they kept themselves in quietness and did not attract public attention. But public meetings of the Brethren were entirely out of the question; the authorities would have exposed themselves to grave dangers, had they granted them such liberties. The local authorities would not have admitted, if called to account, that they were aware of the presence of Anabaptists in the city.
On the question of the attitude of the Wismar authorities toward the Brethren, Menno's writings contain some interesting data. He says: "In similar manner they [the Zwinglian exiles] have failed to return gratitude to the city which showed them more kindness than all the eastern lands and Denmark, when in midwinter they knew not where to find shelter [and were permitted to remain in the city for some time]. By their unsalted, partial writings they have caused the city to be suspected by lords and princes and by other cities, that the authorities tolerated and favored us, although they knew no more of my place of abode than of the hour of their own death" (552; II:356). Apparently the magistrates knew not Menno's dwelling place, and did not desire to know it. In his Epistle to Martin Micron Menno writes: "Besides you have given information concerning the place where I dwelled until that time, which Hermes had upon his inquiry learned from a little child, although it was well known to you that everywhere my life is undeservedly sought, out of mere hatred of the truth" (603; II:407).
Again Menno writes: "Not long after the first discussion at Wismar it was known in the streets of Embden where Menno lived and that Micron and his friends had a discussion with him." (551; II:365). "When I had thus answered his [Micron's] last question, they left me and went to the front part of the house. - I was told by the brethren that he was still arguing there .... also some of his companions, standing about the door near the street, became too loud in their talk. Then they were told by some of the brethren, it were well if they would go, since [in consequence of attracting public notice] we would all be in danger of being driven from the city." (564; II:370).
Martin Micron published under the title A True Account, in 1556, a part of the proceedings of his discussions with Menno. In this book he advanced charges of a personal nature against his opponent. Menno in turn wrote A Very Plain and Pointed Reply to the Antichristian Doctrine and false Account by Micron Concerning the Discussion between Him and Myself, Held in 1553. (4) This is one of Menno Simons' largest books and contains material which is of considerable historical interest. On April 12, 1556, Micron wrote to Heinrich Bullinger in Zurich informing him that about two weeks ago Menno's Reply was published and unless a strong answer was made "there is danger that many unlearned persons will be led astray by Menno's book," (5) an evidence that his opponents recognized the great influence of his writings.
A few weeks after the discussion at Wismar, namely on February 23, when the arrival of the exiles from England had become known in other parts, they were banished from the city. They went to Lübeck. The Mennonites had not attracted public attention to the same extent. While the Zwinglians had not been in danger of their lives at Wismar (apparently they did not expect that they would be permitted to stay) the laws demanded the severest measures against the Anabaptists. An edict was published on August 1, 1555 by six cities of the Hanseatic League, namely Lübeck, Hamburg, Rostock, Stralsund, Wismar and Lüneburg against the Anabaptists as well as against the "Sacramentarians" (those who denied the real bodily presence of the Lord in the supper, i e. the Zwinglians). In all probability Menno Simons had previously returned to Holstein.
In Wismar seven elders and ministers held a conference in 1554 and adopted a number of rules and resolutions having reference to Christian practice and church discipline. These Wismar Decisions have been preserved, but evidently not in their original form. The articles, in the form in which they have been handed down to us, are of doubtful authority; the text is in part clearly corrupt and unreliable.
(1) It is not known when Dirk Philips began his labors at Danzig. About the time of Menno's death there was here a center of church endeavors.
(2) Faber speaks of "the sign Thau" which, he says, the Anabaptists supposed they had received. The word Thau occurs in the Vulgate version of the Bible in Ezech. 9:6. The early Zurich or Froschower version renders the passage similarly as the Vulgate: "Alle die aber, so das zeichen Thau an jnen habend, sollend jr nit anrüren." Menno obviously held the sign Thau to be symbolic of a holy life. (Folio edition, pp. 183a; 636a).
(3) This booklet has been repeatedly printed in Dutch, German and English. The first English translation is probably that of Ira Chase which was published in 1825 by the "Baptist General Tract Society" under the title, Menno's Departure from Popery.
(4) Copies of one of the earliest if not the original edition of this book are in the library of Crozer Theological Seminary and the Samuel Colgate Baptist Collection.
(5) Ottius, Annales, p. 125. - The book Micronius, zijn leven, zijn geschriften, zijn geestesrichting," by J. H. Gerretsen, gives a one-sided account of the discussions at Wismar. Compare Theologisch Tijdschrift, Leyden, 1896. pp. 309-312.