Menno Simons was born in 1496 in Witmarsum, Friesland, in the Holy Roman Empire. He grew up in a poor peasant environment, but very little is known concerning his childhood and family. He was training for the priesthood. His training was void of Biblical knowledge however. Before or during this training, he had never read the Bible, out of fear that he would be seduced toward error. When he later reflected about this period, he called himself “stupid.”
Simons was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1515 or 1516 at Utrecht, he was then made a chaplain in his father’s village Pingjum (1524). He was not happy as a priest however. Around 1526 or 1527, questions surrounding the doctrine of transubstantiation caused Menno Simons to begin a serious and in-depth search of the scriptures, which he confessed he had not previously studied, even being a priest. At this time he arrived at what some have termed an “evangelical humanist” position.
Menno’s first knowledge of the concept of “rebaptism”, which he said “sounded very strange to me”, came in 1531. This came through the means of hearing of the beheading of Sicke Freerks Snijder at Leeuwarden for being “rebaptized.” This was a sudden shock that such a practice could carry grave consequences and shaped his views of separation from state-sponsored religion. A renewed search of the scriptures left Menno Simons believing that infant baptism is not in the Bible. He discussed the issue with his pastor, searched the Church Fathers, and read the works of Martin Luther and Heinrich Bullinger. While still pondering the issue, he was transferred to Witmarsum.
At Witmarsum he came into direct contact with Anabaptists preaching and practicing believer’s baptism. Later, some of the Münsterite disciples came there as well. While he regarded them as misled and fanatical, he was drawn to their zeal and their view on the Bible, the Church, and discipleship. When his brother Peter was among a group of Anabaptists killed near Bolsward in 1535, Menno experienced a spiritual and mental crisis. He said he “prayed to God with sighs and tears that He would give to me, a sorrowing sinner, the gift of His grace, create within me a clean heart, and graciously through the merits of the crimson blood of Christ, he would graciously forgive my unclean walk and unprofitable life. He was able to look past the hypocrisy of the Munsterite movement despite being personally effected by it to come to Christ.
Menno Simons rejected the Catholic Church and the priesthood on January 12th, 1536, casting his lot with the Anabaptists. His date of baptism is unknown, but by October of 1536 his connection with Anabaptism was well-known. In that month Herman and Gerrit Jans were arrested and charged with having lodged Simons. Simons now began to bear the stigma of being an Anabaptist. He was probably baptized not long after leaving Witmarsum in early 1536.
Simons was ordained around 1537 by Obbe Philips. Obbe and his brother, Dirk Philips, were among the peaceful disciples of Melchior Hoffman (the more radical having set up the kingdom in Münster). It was Hoffman who introduced the first self-sustaining Anabaptism to the Netherlands, when he taught and practiced believers’ baptism in Emden in East Frisia. Menno Simons rejected the violence advocated by the Münster movement, believing it was not scriptural. Pacifism has always been a hallmark of the Amish and Mennonites. Menno’s theology was focused on separation from this world, and baptism because repentance symbolized this.
Menno evidently rose quickly to become a man of influence. Before 1540, David Joris, an Anabaptist of the “inspirationist” variety, had been the most influential leader in the Netherlands. By 1544, the term Mennonite or Mennist was used in a letter to refer to the Dutch Anabaptists. Simons’ influence spread throughout the area.
Twenty-five years after his renunciation of Catholicism, Menno died on January 31st, 1561, at Wüstenfelde, Holstein, and was buried in his garden. Unlike many Anabaptist leaders he lived a full life having escaped martyrdom. Simons was married to a woman named Gertrude, and they had three children, two daughters and a son.
Menno Simons’ influence on Anabaptism in the Low Countries was so great that Baptist historian William Estep suggested that their history be divided into three periods: “before Menno, under Menno, and after Menno”.
The Anabaptists insisted on adult baptism. By contrast Martin Luther defended infant baptism; it stemmed from his view of the church as ideally an inclusive reality in a Christian society. Menno Simons based his rejection of infant baptism on the concept of the church as a disciplined group of individuals who have voluntarily committed their lives to Christ. The conclusion, because of his view, was believer’s baptism by immersion could be the only form of valid baptism. He viewed sanctification as a lifelong process that does not completely rid the presence of sin from one’s life.
Although some Anabaptists in Amsterdam and Münster in the 16th century engaged in excesses, Dutch Mennonites generally became pious and peaceful. Menno transformed from Catholic priest and apologist to pacifist Anabaptist reformer – a transformation linked to his relationships to the radical Münsterites and peaceful Melchiorites. In his 1539 Christian Baptism Menno Simons stated his reluctance to engage in disputes, which may have stemmed from his reluctance for years to announce his true convictions. His teachings afterwards strongly pervaded the movement however.
Those who have boldly stood for truth should not be forgotten. Simons is illustrative of the fact that believer’s baptism by immersion has the stream of freewill and God’s grace saving and sustaining us. Both streams are flowing to the river of truth. One can accept free-will without believing you can lose your salvation. It is just as much a possibility as believing in pre-destination and eternal security while not being a 5-point Calvinist. Thank the Lord for men like Simons who came out of blindness into truth and were active in organizing churches after a New Testament pattern.