XVIII MENNO IN WÜSTENFELDE. HIS DEATH. HIS PLACE IN THE HISTORY OF THE REFORMATION
Soon after Menno had left Wismar he seems to have settled in Wüstenfelde ("the desert field") near Oldesloe in the county of Fresenburg between Hamburg and Lübeck in Holstein. It is not definitely known just when he with his family first came to this place. Here the Brethren were protected by the nobleman Bartholomew von Ahlefeld. This man had been an officer in the Netherlandish army and witnessed their persecution and martyrdom in the Netherlands. They impressed him favorably as quiet useful people and he decided to permit them to settle on his estate called "the desert field." Notwithstanding the dangers to which he exposed himself by tolerating them, he remained their friend but, if taken to account by the higher authorities, he would probably not have admitted that he knew these people to be Anabaptists.
Says an old chronicler: "This nobleman privately gave them liberty to live on his estate and cared for them faithfully. At a time when he received orders from the king not to tolerate them, he sent a servant to them, in agreement with the order of the king, announcing to them that within a day they must depart or bide the consequences; but afterwards he sent a trusted servant to inform them of the cause for this order and advised them that the men should absent themselves for a week or two, or abide in their houses. In the meanwhile he succeeded in quieting this excitement through one of the courtiers. After this the exiles came from every side until there was a little congregation there that lived in comparative quiet." (1)
Menno Simons seems to have obtained his livelihood at times through his own manual labors. Later he was to a greater extent directly occupied with the obligations of his calling. At Wismar he incurred a severe injury on one of his lower limbs of which he was never fully restored, hence he, in view of the prevailing persecution, in order not to expose himself to unnecessary danger, he signed some of his letters "The cripple, your brother." At Wüstenfelde the congregation consisted for the most part of exiles.
From 1546 to 1552 Menno Simons seems to have found it impossible to have any of his writings printed. In 1552 (or toward the close of the preceding year) he succeeded in establishing a small printing outfit and consequently a considerable number of his books was published in this and the following years. Where he set up his press is not known, later it was located at Wüstenfelde. His printer was at one time waylaid and arrested by a neighboring nobleman, but his patron von Ahlefeld compelled the latter to release him. From here Menno traveled extensively; he is known to have visited in Friesland and other states in this period. Some of the older writers have opined that on one of his journeys the persecuting authorities succeeded to apprehend and arrest him, but evidently this is an error. One of the Frisian Mennonite writers, Peter Janz Twisck, gives us an account of the dangers which Menno encountered. He says:
"Menno Simons' daughter in our presence related the following incident: A man who attended the meetings of the Brethren agreed that he would betray him to the authorities for a certain sum of money. He pledged himself that he would deliver Menno into their hands or would forfeit his life. However, this he could not accomplish, for whenever he watched for him in the places where the meetings were to be held, Menno escaped through the providence of God. And at one time when this traitor, accompanied by an officer, undertook to find and apprehend him, Menno unexpectedly passed before them in a small boat on the canal, but the traitor kept silent until Menno had passed them some distance and had leaped ashore on the other side. Then the traitor said: 'Behold, the bird has escaped.' The officer was enraged and demanded why he did not speak in time, to which the traitor replied: 'I could not speak, for my tongue was bound.' The magistrates were angry and the betrayer had to give his head because he let Menno escape."
"From a reliable source I have heard that Menno at Eenighenburg, a village in North Holland, at one time went into a church after the priest had completed the services for that day, and with great boldness, readiness of speech and learning he conversed with him in Latin about various Papistic superstitions. The priest was greatly surprised and after he had resigned his office, he related at length his conversation with Menno. Not infrequently Menno conversed with priests. A certain cloister he entered without disclosing his identity and spoke to the prior with great boldness, admonishing him earnestly and pointing out their great errors. Although a decree containing his name, description of his clothing, person, etc., was nailed to the church doors, with the promise of hundred or a few hundred guilders to any one who would cause his arrest, yet God preserved him from all the designs and cunning devices of the persecutors."
The well-known story of Menno escaping arrest through a sort of half lie has proved to be a fable. It is as follows: Menno was fleeing for his life and was overtaken by catch polls who halted the carriage in which he with others was traveling. Upon their question, "Is Menno Simons in the carriage,?'" he is said to have turned to his fellow travelers with the remark, "It is asked whether Menno Simons is in the coach," and receiving a negative reply, he said to his pursuers, "The friends say, no." This story is of late origin and is unhistorical. Not Menno but a minister named Hans Buscher effected his escape in this manner. Later the story was ascribed to Menno Simons. (2)
The year 1557 brought bitter disappointment to Menno and his friends. Gillis of Aachen, having fallen into the hands of the Catholic authorities in the Netherlands, recanted his faith. In consequence he was beheaded and his body broken upon the wheel, at Antwerp, on May 10, 1557. Had he remained steadfast he would have been burned alive. Some of the older writers say he was visited by a minister of the Brethren after his recantation and upon confession was reinstated into the church. His last words, it is said, were, "It is too much to lose both body and soul." His death was not recorded by Van Braght in the Martyrs' Mirror.
The last years of Menno's life were saddened by the dissentions on the question of the ban, which led to a division. His wife and son - John - died before him while two daughters are known to have survived him. He died at Wüstenfelde in 1561, the date being probably January 31.
"His last exhortation," says a trustworthy writer "he gave on his death bed, while his end seemed near, an evidence of his unquenchable zeal. He, however, recovered and was better for several days; but on the day of the anniversary of his renunciation of the Roman Catholic Church he had a relapse, and on the day following, being Friday January 13 , 1561, in the sixty-sixth year of his life, he fell asleep in Jesus, and was buried in his own garden."
The exact place where his body was laid to rest is today unknown, the settlement or village of Wüstenfelde having been so completely destroyed in the Thirty Years War that no trace of it remained. (3)
Thus the way-worn pilgrim was permitted to die in peace and enter into the joy of his Lord. His was a life of toil under the most adverse conditions, a life of persecution and suffering. He was in dead earnest to serve his God. The opposition and scorn of the world made no impression on him. It has been rightly said that he lived a martyr's life. That the truth of God, the Gospel of His Son Jesus Christ be accepted and carried out in life and practice, and that men be brought to a knowledge of evangelical truth was the concern of his life. A mere profession of Christianity and observation of outward forms without the regeneration of the heart and the pertinent fruits he heartily despised. State-made Christianity he considered a miserable counterfeit.
Menno Simons was not the founder of a church. He was not a reformer in the sense that, in his opinion, the church with which he identified himself was in need of a reformation. He was the most noteworthy religious leader of the Netherlands in the Reformation period. In a strict sense he represented only the Brethren in the Netherlands and North Germany, but the Swiss Brethren of the South as well as the Huterites of Moravia differed from him on only a few points. His writings have been persistently ignored by church historians. They are an indispensible source of information concerning the principles, aims and life of one of the strongest religious parties of Reformation times. During his lifetime the Mennonites were practically the only non-Catholic church in the Netherlands. (4) Says Professor De Hoop Scheffer: "The Reformation among the masses of the Dutch people was first of all wrought by the people called Anabaptists." Only after Menno's death was the Calvinistic reformation introduced in Holland and later the church founded by John Calvin was made the state church.
While in the affairs of the world Menno Simons was by no means as prominent as the reformers who represented the state-church Reformation, he was as an advocate of pure evangelical principles, more than the equal of these men. The principle that the Holy Scriptures are the only valid foundation for the doctrine and practice of the church he upheld more consequentially and unswervingly than the leading reformers. He differed from them on the question of free will and predestination. The doctrines of baptismal regeneration and the remission of sins through the observance of the Lord's supper he opposed on the ground that they are antagonistic to the principle of justification by faith. At variance with all the leading reformers he understood the great missionary commission of the Lord to be valid for all time. He insisted on strict church discipline.
In contrast to Luther, Zwingli and Calvin, Menno Simons advocated the voluntary principle. He rejected the thought of a national church or state-church to which they adhered. Holland was the first country to accept the principle of liberty of conscience. Here the Mennonite element was stronger than in any other country, and Mennonite teaching on religious liberty had a wonderful victory. The very presence of the numerous Mennonites proved the correctness of their opinion that various creeds may exist side by side in a given land without endangering existing political conditions, that for prosperity the church is not dependent on the subsidy of the state, and that it is not the business of the state to decide questions of creed, much less to kill or persecute those who do not accept certain religious teachings. Against the protests of the Calvinistic state church theologians of Holland the government tolerated Mennonites and other dissenters. (5) It will be remembered that in Holland the Pilgrim Fathers found an asylum before coming to America in 1620.
After Menno's death Dirk (or Theodor) Philips was the most influential minister among the Brethren in North Germany and the Netherlands. His Hand Book of the Christian Doctrine is, besides Menno Simons' writings, the most important doctrinal work of the Brethren in the North. This book was translated into French, German and English. Three German editions were printed in America. The first English edition appeared in 1910. The complete works of Dirk Philips were recently published in volume 10 of the Bibliotheca Reformatoria Neerlandica. Dirk Philips died in 1568. (6)
(1) Preface to the Folio Edition of Menno's Works, also English Works, part I, p. 8.
(2) D. B., 1868, p. 25; Vos, Menno Simons, p. 261.
(3) At Wüstenfelde as well as at Witmarsum a Menno monument has been set. Menno medals also have been made. Of the various supposed pictures of Menno none is acceptable as genuine. In all probability he never had his likeness taken.
(4) There were circles of Davidians in the Netherlands. They did not formally renounce the ruling church, and could not be properly designated as a church.
(5) Knipscheer, De Nederlandsche gereformeerde synoden tegenover de Doopsgezinden, 1563-1620, in D. B., 1910, 1911.
(6) K. Vos (Menno Simons, p. 131) speaks of Dirck Philips contemptuously as "this run away Franciscan monk." This designation is characteristic of the tendency of this book. The charge that Philips was "afraid of his skin" (Vos, p. 329) when in 1567 he decided to call the leaders of the contending parties to Embden instead of going to the Netherlands, is unacceptable. Only in 1561 he had been in the Netherlands in the interest of the cause for which he labored. A more appreciative valuation of Dirk Philips' character, by Professor Henry E. Dosker, is found in The Princeton Theological Review, April, 1915, p. 306.