No. 15, Spring 2001
Menno Simons: The New Birth
About Easter 1535 a Catholic priest from the far northwestern town of Witmarsum, Holland, sat down and wrote a blistering attack against Jan van Leiden, a revolutionary Anabaptists leader. In 1534 van Leiden had seized control of the Westphalian city of Muenster in the belief that Christ would soon return there. Emulating this action, his followers around Witmarsum took control of an old monastery near Bolsward. But when the authorities recaptured it, the priest’s younger brother Pieter was killed. As the priest wrote, the words spilled from his quill like water through the floodgates; they were bitter words of accusation, and the piece came to be called “Against the Blasphemy of Jan of Leiden.” Upon completion, however, the priest did not feel a sense of release or relief. He felt only accusation – not from humans who would have applauded his attack, but from God. So Menno Simons – for it was he – put the “Blasphemy” in a drawer and never mentioned it again. It was discovered among his daughter’s papers in 1627 and published for the first time.
Menno grew up in the Roman Catholic Church and by 1524 had been ordained a priest. According to the Church’s teachings, ordination provided him with a “perfect” or “indelible” character, which enabled him to consecrate the “host,” to forgive sins, and extend the other sacraments to the faithful. The fact that he, as priest, lived an immoral life, as he himself later confessed, could therefore not affect his sacramental actions. By 1525 the writings of Martin Luther attacking the Catholic doctrine of the mass came to Menno’s attention. One day, as he was celebrating mass, he began to doubt that the bread and wine were really being changed into the flesh and blood of Christ. To find an answer to his doubts, he read further in the writings of the reformers, but found only a confusion of human opinions. Like Luther, he then turned to the Bible. Finding no confirmation for the Church’s teachings even there, he concluded that the Church had misled him.
Around 1532 he heard that a certain Sicke Snyder had been executed for rebaptism (actually for being baptized upon his confession of faith). This seemed strange to him, even though the Church itself spoke of entry into a monastery as a “second baptism.” Once again, he turned to the writings of the reformers, then to the Bible, but could find no satisfying justification for infant baptism.
Having come to rely more and more upon the Bible, Menno studied it diligently so that by 1534, when the emissaries of Jan van Leiden appeared in his region, he had studied it for some nine years. People around Witmarsum called him an “evangelical preacher” because of his biblical expertise, and he easily defeated the messengers from Muenster in public debates. When his brother was misled by them, he turned angrily on their leader.
All of the new theological insights Menno had achieved by 1535 had not motivated him to leave the Catholic Church. He continued to perform its sacraments though he no longer believed in them. Even when people around him – his brother included – were misled by the Muensterites, all he did was talk, debate, attack. But as he was writing the “Blasphemy” he stumbled on the opening verses of Matthew 7 with its story of the person who so clearly saw the splinter in his brother’s eye but could not see the beam in his own. Like Paul on the road to Damascus, Menno suddenly saw Christ standing before him and accusing him of hypocrisy. For some ten years his knowledge of Christ’s teachings had been increasing, but he refused to live up to it. He could have saved the poor misguided people, but for his ease and convenience had refused to join them. He was crushed. His anger against Jan van Leiden turned into a cry for mercy to God; a cry for forgiveness and grace enough to take up the cross of Christ and follow Him.
Finally he left the Catholic Church, accepted baptism upon confession of his faith, and took his place with the persecuted persons who had been misled by Jan van Leiden. The first two tracts he wrote after this experience deal with conversion, the “new birth.” Through his example and preaching of the new birth, Menno now transformed the movement to what a famous Dutch historian has called the most peaceful movement of all in the sixteenth century.
What Menno teaches us through his example is that a knowledge of God’s truth, as important as it may be, does not make us into Christians. We must be changed, transformed, born again by the power of the Holy Spirit before we can become disciples of Christ. Knowledge of the truth without conversion all too often only leads to arrogance and contention; conversion leads to humility and service to others. Having experienced conversion at the precise point that he had completed the “Blasphemy,” Menno knew that he was at least as guilty in God’s sight as Jan van Leiden, perhaps even more so because he knew better. If that were so, how could he be Leiden’s accuser? That is why Menno never published his attack against Jan van Leiden.