XVI RECENT ACCUSATIONS AGAINST MENNO SIMONS
Various charges against Menno Simons, some of them of a most serious nature, have been advanced by his most recent biographer, K. Vos. (1)
Menno, according to this author stated an untruth in the account of his conversion: He says, when he had lived about one year as a priest in Witmarsum, namely in 1532, the unscripturalness of infant baptism was first asserted in those parts of Friesland and he knew not who the men were who first advanced this teaching or whence they came, neither had he ever seen them. This is false, says Vos; Menno must have heard of Peter Woodsawer through the Philips brothers, even if he did not meet him personally. However Menno Simons does not here speak of the time when Peter Woodsawer went forth to teach and baptize. It was more than a year after the teaching of the unscripturalness of infant baptism was first advanced in or near Witmarsum that Peter Woodsawer appeared on the scene. We do not know who were the men (Melchiorites) that first spread this doctrine in those places, but on the other hand we do know that in many instances men who advanced new and forbidden doctrine purposely veiled their identity. There is no indication that Menno ever saw these men. To say that he here speaks an untruth is to make an assertion which is utterly incapable of proof.
In the preface to the second edition of the Foundation, Vos alleges further, Menno asserted that "the contents of the new book were the same as of the old, only a few typographical errors were corrected and a few passages made clearer in style, language or form, but nothing was changed from the first principles and contents.'' (2) Here again, says Vos, Menno did not tell the truth. But a careful reading of Menno's statement leads to the result that he says expressly, he made many changes. "I have in some instances made additions, have cleared up what was obscure, corrected the mistakes, eliminated what was unnecessary," etc., in other words, he had rewritten the book. And in order that no one might mistake the revision of the book for the first edition he also changed the title and in the preface makes mention of the title under which the first edition was published. It is correct that Menno says, he made "no changes from the first principles and contents," but this statement is made in the same paragraph in which he alludes to the additions and eliminations in the revision. (3)
Vos says that in Menno's account of the debate with Martin Micron an untruth is found (560a; 11:365) but fails to say wherein the alleged untruth consists. Further this author on the authority of Martin Micron accuses Menno of saying an untruth twice in the course of this debate. Two times, so Micron contends, Menno denied a statement which he had previously made and hence he is guilty of untruthfulness. But the audience before which Menno made a denial of the alleged statements was practically the same before which he had made the first statements. It must be remembered that there were no impartial judges to preside at this debate and there was danger that one participant would quote the other in a way that he was convinced to have been misquoted and consequently he would deny the statement. This accusation against Menno is based wholly on the assertion of one of his bitterest opponents, who held that a Christian government was under duty to persecute Menno and his friends. That such accusations can not be uncritically accepted need not be said. Martin Bucer, the leading reformer of Strasburg, asserted that Hans Denck would not condemn the horrible fratricide committed by Thomas Schugger in St. Gall - a charge which is a blot not on Hans Denck's but on Martin Bucer's name. (4)
It is unnecessary to say that Menno Simons denied this charge. He complains bitterly that Micron "has dishonestly adulterated, changed, mutilated and glaringly misinterpreted my words and testimony" (617a; II:423a). "I hope that I should rather suffer to be put to death," he says, "before a wilful untruth, be it small or great, should pass over my lips" (608b; II:413b). "That they have thus shamefully trampled upon me, is but little to me, for I am aware that honor is not due me, being born of Adam, etc. But that I should be a fickle liar, a falsifier and artful rogue as through the slanderous, untrue, rude and bitter spirit of envy I am depicted by our opponents, from this may the merciful Lord ever preserve me" (597a;II:399b).
Vos refers to Samuel Cramer to substantiate his accusation concerning Menno's untruthfulness in his debate with Micron. We must remind liim of the fact that Cramer held Menno to have been virtually a Unitarian, besides other unfounded opinions concerning Menno Simons. This question can not be settled by appeal to authority, it must stand on its own merits.
In his first books, this author says further, "Menno manifested himself as one who is clothed with authority, one who .... shall fulfill a principal part in the looked-for coming of the Lord. As one sent of God he provides his books with wishes of blessing which in the name of God and Christ shall fall to the believers' part through Menno." (5) In vain do we look for evidence to substantiate these charges; our author brings a number of quotations which show that Menno believed the advent of Christ to be near, but contain no indication whatever of a thought that he should have any part to fulfill in its consummation. On the contrary, his writings contain numerous passages showing clearly that he believed it probable that he would not be among the living in the day of the Lord. He says in the first edition of the Foundation:
"An if I must give my blood for it, I shall not fare worse than did John at the hands of Herod. - I do not consider my life better than did the dear fathers. Neither may they take anything except my mortal perishing body and flesh which, if I lived a thousand years, must once die." (6)
This passage and many others of similar thought show the fallacy of the opinion in question. What this author says concerning Menno's wishes of blessing indicates that he his failed to gain the proper point of contact with Menno Simons.
"Although Menno," so we read again, "has not appropriated for himself some Old Testament name, as did so many of the Anabaptist leaders [Hofmann, Matthys and John of Leiden], he nevertheless has as high an opinion of his own importance as they had." (7) Here again an assertion is advanced which is clearly erroneous. There is abundant evidence to show that Menno Simons did not ascribe to himself any authority except such as the Scriptures give a minister of the Gospel. Many quotations to that effect can be given from his writings. He says in the first edition of his Foundation:
"Therefore read these our writings which we have given out and prove them in all wisdom, not by general councils, not by long usages, not by imperial laws, not by papal decrees; let not your decisions be influenced by placards and threatened cruelty, but judge these things alone by the Gospel and the example of the Lord Jesus Christ and his holy apostles by which indeed the doctrine and life of a Christian must be judged and measured; and if you do this, you will without doubt find our doctrine and life to conform to the same. And if in these our writings we should have humanly erred in anything, in such instance we shall be willingly corrected from the word of the Lord." (8)
To support his supposition that Menno believed himself clothed with special divine authority this author quotes a passage from Menno which in part is based on I Cor. 6:3. "Know ye not that we shall judge angels?" The passage is taken from Menno's Meditation on the Twenty-fifth Psalm, where it is found in connection with the verse: "Consider mine enemies for they are many and they hate me with cruel hatred." The passage is here given at length, and the part quoted by Vos printed in Italics.
"When I was of the world, I spake and did as the world and the world hated me not. - While I served the world, the world rewarded me. All men spake well of me even as their fathers did of the false prophets. But now that I love the world with a godly love, seek from my heart its salvation and blessing, admonish, instruct, and rebuke it with Thy holy word and, point it to the crucified Christ Jesus, the world has become to me a grievous cross and a gall of bitterness. So great is its hatred that not only I myself but also all who show me love, mercy and favor must in some places look for imprisonment and death. (9) O blessed Lord, I am considered, by them more unfavorable than a notorious thief and murderer.
Am I not as a lost sheep in the wilderness of this world, chased, pursued and sought unto death by ravenous wolves? - My flesh had almost said, I am deceived, because I find the unrighteous and unconcerned living in great quietness and peace, in riches and prosperity, while the godly must endure so much hunger, thirst, persecution and affliction. Their habitation is insecure; with difficulty they earn their bread; they are accursed, defamed, persecuted and despised of all men; they are hated of all men as the filth of the world and as an abomination. O blessed Lord, mine enemies are many and great. - I am considered their mortal enemy because I point out to them the way of righteousness. O Lord, I am not ashamed of my doctrine before Thee and Thy angels, much less before this rebellious world, for I know of a surety that I teach Thy word. I have not taught anything but true repentance, dying unto our sinful flesh and the new life which is of God. I have taught the true faith in Thee and in Thy blessed Son, that it is to be working and powerful through love. I have taught Christ Jesus and Him crucified, very God and very man, etc., etc.
"If all the prophets, apostles and evangelists have not taught this with great clearness from the beginning, I shall willingly say that my shame and oppression is just. - Had I not the word of Christ, how gladly would I be taught it, for I seek it with fear and trembling; in this [namely in following the Word] I can not be deceived. I have by Thy grace through Thy holy Spirit believed and accepted Thy holy truth as the sure word of Thy good pleasure. It shall not deceive me in eternity. Let them write and call, twist and threaten, let them dispute and boast, destroy, persecute and kill, if they choose, still Thy word shall triumph and the Lamb shall gain the victory. Yea, I am assured and certain that with this my doctrine which is Thy word, in the day of the revelation of Christ, I shall judge not only the world but also the angels. And though I and my beloved brethren were totally extirpated and one and all taken from the earth, nevertheless Thy word shall remain the eternal truth" (174b; I:225b).
It should be observed that the quotation given by Vos begins in the middle of a sentence, leaving out the antecedent of the pronoun "this" in the first clause and obscuring the fact that Menno speaks here of the word of Christ. Had the last sentence been added in which Menno refers to the possible success of his enemies who sought to take his life, it would have been made clear that he did not pretend to know that he would live to see the advent of Christ, excluding the insinuation that he believed himself to be called to fulfil a principal part in that event. Vos refers to a quotation of the passage in question by Cardinal Hosius, as given by Brandt in his History of the Reformation. It must be said that Hosius' quotation is more impartial and more to the point than the one given by this author.
On the authority of the cited passage from the first epistle to the Corinthians Menno Simons gives repeatedly expression to the thought that the true Christians will judge the world (e. g. Folio Edition P. 605a, marginal note): the doctrine which they advocate will he the judge in so far as this doctrine is the word of Christ (John 12:48). In all probability he would have readily admitted that he could not explain whether the saints will have a personal part in the judgment of the world. It should be noticed that he speaks in the context of the terrible persecution and infamy to which he and his friends were subjected for the sake of God's word, and his point is that those who here suffer with Christ shall with Him reign and be glorified. This, to his mind, was the import of the cited verse from first Corinthians. The charge of K. Vos (10) that Menno "announced himself as the judge in the judgment to come" is altogether baseless.
The second and last passage quoted by Vos to support his proposition that Menno had a high opinion of his own importance, as much so as the leaders of the Munsterites, follows.
I rejoice from my heart that such faithful men are found who are ready to seal the holy commandments and testimonies of the Lord by giving their possessions and their blood, although you [Micron] upbraid me with this matter. Nor do I doubt that at the day of Christ they shall be a part of my crown." (605a; II:409b).
Vos does not seem to be aware that here again Menno expresses himself in the language of Scripture. The apostle Paul repeatedly speaks of those who had been led to Christ by him as his crown. (Phil 4:11; 1 Thes. 2:19). It seems almost unbelievable that on the ground of these passages Menno is put in the same category as Jan Matthys and John of Leyden as concerns his own estimate of himself.
Menno Simons advocated the view that ministers of the Word should not be engaged for a stated income either from the state or from the congregation, nevertheless a few writers have supposed that he received a fixed salary. "Nature was in his instance stronger than doctrine," says K. Vos. This assertion is based on a statement found in one of Menno's letters. The letter was printed apparently for the first time in the folio edition of his works, 1681, or about one hundred twenty years after it was written. An older manuscript copy is not known. Clearly the text of this letter bears unmistakable signs of faultiness and corruption. (11) The passage on which the said assertion is based follows.
"It was not with the thought of burdening you that I have written in my last letter to my intimate brother concerning the sixty Thalers annually. I took the liberty of so writing, for I need it yearly. - If something be sent for my need, send it the first opportunity; for the slaughtering time is at hand and I have little wherewith to buy. O, brethren, pardon my writing; necessity compels me" (392a; II:232b).
It is by no means certain that Menno wrote this appeal. However, assuming this to be the case, the above quotation would indicate that at least some of the brethren were informed that Menno needed sixty Thalers annually. Equally evident it is that there would have been no necessity for him to write as he did, had he received a salary of that amount a year. It need not be repeated here that Menno and the early Mennonite Church openly disapproved of fixed salaries for ministers. A few years after Menno's death Leonard Bouwens was disposed from the ministerial office on several charges, one of which was to the effect that he had accepted fifty Thalers for his service. (12)
A false accusation against Menno and his friends is also the insinuation of Vos (13) that they forbid to greet any one who was not of their own persuasion. Certainly this would be a characteristic of rank enthusiasm. There is absolutely no evidence for this assertion and there is abundant proof that it is unfounded. Menno writes on the passage II John 10, 11 ("... neither greet him, for he that greeteth him is partaker of his evil deeds," German and Dutch translation).
"If some would say, John has forbidden the common usage of greeting my answer is that before my God I can not understand that John said this in regard to the common custom of greeting, but he says: If some deceiver should come to us who has forsaken the doctrine of Christ, we should not receive such an one into our houses, lest he deceive us, and we should not greet him as a brother that we may not be partakers of his evil deeds. But not so with the worldly greeting. For if the worldly greeting had such inherent power that it caused me to be partaking of the transgression of those whom I greet, it must follow that I must be partaker of adultery, uncleanness, drunkenness, avarice, idolatry and blood-shed of the world as often as I greet a worldly man according to the common custom, or if I answer to his greeting. O no! not this greeting, but the greeting or the kiss of peace indicates unity (475a; II:278a).
K. Vos says: (14) "Whenever Menno became involved in a dispute, he overwhelmed his opponent with abusive words, but as soon as the latter refused to yield, but held him down to the point, and as soon as Menno was forced to argumentation, our man stood embarrassed. So he showed himself against John a'Lasco, Martin Micron, Adam Pastor and Leonard Bouwens." Here again this author makes statements which can not be substantiated. To assert that Menno in these instances poured abuse over his opponents, but stood embarrassed when they insisted on arguments is more than his own contemporary accusers have ventured to say. Menno in his Brief and Clear Confession, of 1544, testifies that in the discussions held at Embden he "in love" conferred with John a'Lasco and his co-laborers and they permitted him to depart in peace. He addressed them in the said book in a strikingly amicable tone. What Vos says concerning Menno's harsh dealings with Adam Pastor and Leonard Bouwens is an assumption which is without any evidence whatsoever. The assertion that he used abusive speech against his opponents at Wismar, and stood embarrassed when they desired arguments is based on the clearly biased report of his opponent Micron.
It is true that in his writings Menno is sometimes over-severe in his arraignment of conditions in the state churches. On the other hand, a comparison with the leading state church reformers shows that on point of abusive speech far severer criticism is due to them than to Menno. John Calvin who was more moderate on the point in question than either Luther or Zwingli speaks of Menno Simons personally in almost unbelievably abusive terms. (15) Never did Menno stoop down so low as to use such epithets, even not against the corrupt sects whom he denounced most severely.
Menno Simons' writings give unmistakable proof that he was an able defender of the principles and doctrines for which he and his friends stood. His defence of believers' baptism and of the voluntary principle excels the argumentation of his assailants on these points; it is second only to that of Hubmaier. None other but Martin Micron, his principal antagonist, himself, in a letter to one of the reformers speaks of the great power exerted by Menno through his writings. (16)
The strange assertion that Menno confessed himself to be a cowardly character is based on an evident misunderstanding of a passage found on page 258a of the folio edition (page 5, part 1 of the English edition) of his works. He does not say, as has been supposed, that he urged his own faint-heartedness as a reason against his ordination, but that he, in considering the call which he received, recognized "my small gift the timidity of my flesh." A cowardly person would not have consented to become a leader of those who were put to death as fast as they could be apprehended.
(1) It is a matter of sincere regret that this author who is the pastor of a doctrinally neutral Mennonite church, not only repeats some of the old slanders of Menno Simons' opponents, hut adds serious new accusations which are altogether groundless.
(2) Vos. Menno Simons, p. 39.
(3) A comparison of the preface of the earliest known edition of the revision (in the socalled Eastern language in which Menno rewrote this book) with later Dutch edition reveals no material difference. The first translation from the Eastern into the Dutch language was printed in 1558. It has often been reprinted and has served as the basis for the English translation.
(4) Thomas Schugger was reputed to be an Anabaptist, but this was denied by the Anabaptists.
(5) Vos, Menno Simons, p. 58.
(6) Dat Fundament des Christelycken leers,, 1539, fol O2a. Compare also fol. L7a.
(7) Vos, Menno Simons, p. 59.
(8) Dat Fundament des Christelycken leers,, 1539, fol O2a. Compare also fol. L7a A striking refutation of the view in question is the prayer quoted on p. 75.
(9) The words "in some places" are not contained in the first edition of the book.
(10) Vos, Menno Simons, p. 218.
(11) Compare Vos, Menno Simons, p. 139.
(12) Verclaringhe, etc., by J. O. (Jacques Outerman), 1609, parag. 304.
(13) Vos, Menno Simons, p. 116.
(14) The same, p. 29.
(15) Nihil hoc asino posse fingi superbius, nihil petulantius hoc cane. Corp. Ref. Calv., vol. 10, part 1, page 176.
(16) Corp. Ref., vol. 45, p. 68. Quoted, Moeller-Kawerau, Kirchengeschichte, vol. 3, p. 117.