Monday, 16 August 2010


The importance and impact of Menno Simons (see previous post) cannot be stressed too highly. One noted historian divides Anabaptism in the Low Countries into three phases: “before Menno”, “under Menno” and “after Menno”.

His travels in the church’s service took him from the Rhineland across the Baltic lands to Danzig (Gdansk) in Poland, and records show that he won followers wherever he went – some of whom died as martyrs, refusing to renounce the truths he had taught them. In the judgement of the Mennonite Encyclopaedia:

“Menno's significance lies in the fact that he prevented the collapse of the northern wing of the Anabaptist movement in the days of its greatest trial and built it up on the right Biblical foundation. He did this as its leader, speaker, and defender, through his preaching as he journeyed from place to place, and through his simple and searching writings. Particularly the Foundation-Book did much to restore the original Anabaptist concepts and principles, which were in grave danger of being lost. His writings were effective not so much because of their superior and logical qualities as a theological system, but because behind them stood a man formed according to the Scriptures who sincerely and honestly wanted to give all for the Christian church and the glory of God. Through Menno's courageous and devoted life a distinctive witness in the Reformation movement, representing a Christian brotherhood and a Christian way of life, was preserved.”

He knew full well that he could be arrested at any moment. He also knew the crucial importance of unity among the scattered groups of Anabaptists who claimed allegiance to him. He had to mediate and be diplomatic, yet to set a tone that others could follow. He called leaders’ conferences, he encouraged debate, he urged brotherly grace.

This has led to Menno being treated in the history books as a moderate among the Radical Reformers. Given the tight line he had to keep, this would hardly be surprising. Many of his writings restate the root principles and doctrines of Anabaptism and plead for wholesale acceptance of them.

But Menno was no lamb! One of his writings can serve as our example: ‘The Reason Why Menno Simons Does Not Cease Teaching And Writing’, written in the 1540s, is outspokenly hard-line in its exposure of sin, its naming of idols, and its call to repentance and a holy life.

“When I look to find a magistrate who fears God, rightly performs his office and uses his authority properly, I find, as a general rule, nothing but a wine-sodden Lucifer...

“Again, when I look to find true pastors and teachers, such as are sent of God, quickened by the Holy Spirit; who sincerely seek the salvation of their brethren; who are not earthly-minded, but preach the saving word of our beloved Lord Jesus Christ, in purity of heart, and who are blameless in their doctrine and life - I find instead nothing but robbers of the glory of God, and murderers of souls; deceivers, blind watchmen, mute dogs, masters of sects who are carnally, earthly and devilishly minded; enemies of the cross; serving their bellies instead of serving God; false prophets, idolaters, vain talkers, liars, and tricksters. If any person does not believe my words, let him prove their walk by the word of the Lord; let him compare their doctrine, sacraments, spirit, object, walk and life with the doctrine, sacraments, spirit, object, walk and life of Christ, and even common sense will teach you who has really sent them, and what fruits their teachings bear!”

Menno would not be the first apostolic radical to be accused to being kindly when present and tough when writing from afar - St Paul had the same thing levelled at him [2 Corinthians 10:1]. Perhaps the underlying principle here is to show grace and understanding to open hearts, while slicing into falsehood and self-centredness in backslidden or blind hearts, with a view to winning them. We see Jesus Christ Himself doing this, so we may safely conclude that this is the heart of the true radical. And yes, where necessary, it is obnoxious!

Thursday, 5 August 2010


Some of God's radicals operated in days when the Church was strong and advancing. Others lived in times of hardship, confusion and decline. Their (equally heroic) task was to lead the way to restoration; to 'rebuild the walls', like Nehemiah in his day. One such ‘rebuilder’ was Menno Simons [1496-1561].

Born in rural Friesland, son of a dairy farmer, he showed piety and intelligence and at the age of 28 he became a Roman Catholic priest. But he was nagged by inner doubts about some aspects of Catholic practice, so he read widely, including the (officially banned) Martin Luther. The burning of an Anabaptist believer as a heretic, not far from Menno's home, threw him into mental turmoil. The Anabaptists (see my last few posts) were everywhere condemned, but their teachings resonated in his own heart. As he studied scripture, he became convinced that he was called to walk with these persecuted brethren.

At this very point, however, the Radical Reformers’ movement was in turmoil. One group, at Münster in Germany, had fallen into religious mania. Nearer to home, a group of Anabaptists had occupied the cathedral in Bolsward and proclaimed revolution. Both groups had been ruthlessly wiped out by the authorities. Even so, Menno sensed that the Anabaptists were at core 'like sheep without a shepherd' (the Bible, Mark 6:34). In this darkest hour, he felt an inner call from God.
I renounced my worldly reputation and my easy life, he wrote, and I willingly submitted myself to distress and poverty under the heavy cross of Christ. I surrendered my soul and body to the Lord ... and commenced in due time ... to teach and to baptize, to till the vineyard of the Lord,... to build up His holy city and temple and to repair the tumble-down walls.

For the next twenty years he and his family were fugitives. With a price on his head, Menno toured Holland and northern Germany, never staying in one place longer than a few months. Always in danger, Menno preached, baptised and reconciled brethren. He wrote letters and books setting out a balanced Anabaptist theology. One of his key themes was the ‘new creation’: people, the Church and society can be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the love of Christ. In this lies hope for mankind’s future, in any age.

Menno was never captured. Even so, his hardships left him crippled in later years. Only one of his children reached adulthood. And he bore the constant burden of care for the Church. If Almighty God had not preserved me, he wrote, I would have gone mad. For there is nothing on earth that my heart loves more than the Church, yet I must live to see her in this sad affliction.

So he pressed on. Through his labours, Anabaptism was not only saved from extinction but given new vigour. Mennonites gained a foothold in northern Europe, then in America, and they still exist in significant numbers today. Menno’s was an apostolic ministry, not in the out-front manner of a Paul but the more hidden manner of an Epaphras or a Titus. It was also truly radical in that Menno searched for the roots of New Testament Christianity, returned to those roots, and did all he could to protect, strengthen and publicise these roots. Menno offers today's evangelical Christians an inspiring model of leadership that balances zeal and discipline, passion and theological depth, courage and wisdom.

Monday, 2 August 2010


Historical evidence suggests that the only group among the Radical Reformation (Anabaptists) who targetted and achieved a united purpose as a movement, were the Swiss Brethren (see previous post). This has a lot to do with them being the first. By the time the word spread to Central and North Germany, persecution had already been let loose. Menno Simons , pioneer and apostolic leader of the Northern wing, was left a fugitive with a bounty on his head, travelling to support and help isolated groups of fearful believers. Regional unity was impossible under such conditions. The same was true for the Hutterites in Central and Eastern Germany.

So let's look at the third thumbnail definition of a radical movement, as used by secular historians (see post of 17 June), and see if the Anabaptists fit it. Did the Radical Reformation have as its aim a change to the current system of power ?

In any welling up of mass protest in history, there will have been hawks and doves: those who wanted revolution at any price and those who sought peaceful means. Even the mainstream Lutheran reformers had their rabble-rousing wing, under such men as Andreas Karlstadt, who led the masses in the burning of statues and Roman Catholic trappings, and who was implicated in stirring up the Peasants' War.

The Anabaptists had them too, like the fiery and unpredictable Hans Hut. These did seek an overthrow of corrupt feudal systems and rampant social and religious injustice. The Peasants' War did happen and some Anabaptists took part. Then there were the events at Münster in Westphalia where, under prolonged siege, the Anabaptist inhabitants set up their own kingdom, appointed a ruler and made new laws - a kind of shellshocked version of Calvin's Christian Republic in Geneva. It ended bloodily and was all the established churches needed to condemn Anabaptism for evermore.

The bulk of the Radical Reformation leaders, however, were against such things. Central to their beliefs were a) the separation of Church and State , and b) Christian non-violence. They accepted that the State was corrupt and might use force against them, but they were not to do so in return. It was against all their priciples to accept worldly offices such as magistrate, so there were never going to be any William Wilberforces among them.

Theirs was indeed a refusal of the world's power systems, but by another means: by "coming out, being separate and touching nothing unclean" (the Bible, 2 Corinthians 6:17). While others might seek to change the political and social systems by legislation or revolution, the Radical Reformation by and large did not see a Spartacus-like Jesus of Nazareth, but one whose kingdom was "not of this world" (the Bible, John 18:36). Their alternative was a new way of living as a collective, based on love, forgiveness and all Christian virtues.

So the Radical Reformation cannot fit the letter of the historians' third criterion, for they neither agitated politically nor (in the vast majority of cases) took part in any revolutionary activity. But in another sense, the definition scarcely fits a movement which had a different concept of 'power' , 'rule' and 'authority'. That they insisted on full observance of their belief and practice by all members, on pain of being cast out of the fellowship, shows a degree of commitment that suggests group radicality. And let's not forget, in the eyes of the State, their actions were indeed revolutionary and subversive enough to warrant every attempt to snuff them out. That, at least, is radical!