Menno Simons (1496 – 1561) – As the Reformation spread across Europe many groups (such as the Anabaptists) wanted to bring the church even closer to the biblical model portrayed in the New Testament. Among these groups, were individuals who became prominent leaders of certain causes. One such individual was Menno Simons.
Simons was born in 1496 and lived north of the Netherlands in Friesland. Growing up he experienced the ravages of war that involved his homeland in the early 1500′s. He was of poor peasant parentage, and his education was limited to his training to become a priest. He was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest around 1516.
Like many of the Reformers, Simons’ beliefs concerning church practices were affected by his in-depth search of the scriptures which started around 1526. During this time of study, serious questions arose concerning the doctrine of transubstantiation (the change of the substance of the bread and wine into the actual Body and Blood of Christ). Menno could not find any evidence of this doctrine in the Bible. “I did not get very far in it before I saw that we had been deceived.” He concluded that the meaning of the Lord’s supper was symbolic. Infant baptism, also not found in the Bible, was another issue he had concerns about. In 1531 he discussed his issues with his pastor, searched the writings of the Church Fathers, and read the works of Martin Luther and Heinrich Bullinger. It was at this time he came into direct contact with Anabaptists who were preaching and practicing believer’s baptism.
On January 12, 1536, Menno Simons turned from the Catholic church and the priesthood casting his lot with the Anabaptists. Menno evidently rose quickly to become a man of influence. He assumed leadership during a crucial period in which the Anabaptist movement was in danger of losing its original identity. He dedicated his life to the preaching of the gospel and the shepherding of the brethren and became the most prominent leader of the peaceful Anabaptists in the Netherlands and Northwestern Germany. Pronounced a heretic he was in constant danger, hounded by authorities, and continually had to seek refuge from persecution. Menno always managed to remain one step ahead of his enemies and died a natural death in 1561 in Wüstenfelde, Schleswig-Holstein (Germany), 25 years after his withdrawal from the Catholic Church. He was buried in his own garden.
The prolific writing of Menno Simons and his moderate leadership were essential in unifying the nonviolent wing of the Dutch Anabaptists and in maintaining their peaceful beliefs. The term Mennonite was used to refer to the Dutch Anabaptists, and was also adopted by the Swiss Anabaptists who emigrated to America. Today there are almost 1.5 million Mennonites in more than 70 countries around the world.