“The rise of Menno and the failure of denominationalism” – November 15, 2015

Disclaimer: These are unedited notes, not a presentation.

Today we will be looking at the rise of Mennonitism. In many ways, you could say we will be looking at why things are why they are today. For many of the same problems which plagued the earliest followers of Menno, still plague us today. And we still don’t have solutions on how to fix these issues. Today’s Sunday school may be the most enlightening for contemporary reality and also the most saddening.


Like I said last week, everything changed after Munster in 1535 for Anabaptism. Things didn’t completely die down for the eschatologically minded Anabaptists immediately. For example in 1536, near the Hague, Adriaen Adriaensz (when you first and last name are basically the same, that is never a good sign) proclaimed himself to be the King of Israel. When he tried to take a small city, he and 13 of his followers were killed. But after Munster, all Anabaptists were seen as enemies of the public order throughout the North. Between 1534 – 1536, more than 200 Anabaptists died in Holland and more than 50 died in Friesland, none of their names have been preserved, nor their accounts told in martyr literature.


Today, I’m going to try to create a chart to make everything a bit easier to follow. But four signifiant Anabaptist groups emerged in the late 1530’s.


The first were the Munsterites who strove to create cities according to the Munster example. They pretty much died off in the 1540’s when they lost all their leaders.


The second is the Batenburgers – this is a group we will talk about when I discuss the excluded Anabaptists. They were not pacifists. There band lasted for quite awhile. I don’t want to give too much away about them though. Let’s just say there is a reason we have tried to forget them.


The third is the Davidjorists. They were the followers of David Joris who I talked about in my sermon on demons and the devils. David Joris was a pacifist who promoted a more spiritual form of Anabaptism. Practices, church, and the like were not important. He rejected the need to form actual congregations. He believed that people could be reborn by the Spirit and live lives of meekness, love, and peacefulness. The goal was to strive for spiritual perfection and to rid oneself of pride. His form of Anabaptism was very successful and for the first few years after Munster, it appeared that this would be the type that would win. However, in 1539, a great number of davidjorists were executed in the Netherlands and Joris had to flee. He first hid in Antwerp before later reestablishing himself in Basel. However, his absence opened the door for another leader to emerge to try to collect all the fragmented pieces of Anabaptism.


That brings us to the fourth strand of Anabaptism – Menno Simons. Menno was born in 1496 in Witmarsum, a small town in the land of Friesland which belonged to the province of Frisia. At 28 years old, Menno became a vicar of the Catholic church in Pingjum. Then in 1532, the was appointed as priest in his home town of Witmarsum. This is the church that he served in Witmarsum. We know that at this time, Menno began to preach more evangelically (I use the term like I tried to use it last week, he was reform minded, but still aligned with the Catholic church). However, he was strongly opposed to any fanaticism that resembled Munster. It wasn’t until 1536, when he was 40 years old, that Menno left the Catholic church.



It wasn’t until 1540, after David Joris left, and a vacuum of leadership appeared, that Menno became a leader within the Anabaptist movement. But from this moment on, Menno would spend much of his life traveling, from east to west and from north to south, to bring together the Dutch and Northern German Anabaptist movement.


Unlike David Joris, Menno promoted the formation of local congregations. He appointed regional leaders to oversee these churches. He also called elders to baptize and preach. He was firm in his belief that each church must form itself only around Christ,with the Gospel as its guide. The Old Testament should be read typologically. The Gospels and they alone are the norm. The Christian life is to mirror Christ’s. He opposed Luther’s belief that grace and faith are enough. For Pure faith is only visible in works. There is no faith without works.


One of the reasons I believe that Menno was so successful, is because he was just so ordinary. He wasn’t a good theologian. He didn’t have an elevated view of himself, nor promote any eschatological endings to the world. He was a breathe of fresh air after all the charismatic, prophetical teachers who exaggerated their importance. Menno was a completely ordinary, humble man who based everything off of his arguments taken from the Scripture. And as Piet Visser points out, Menno was the first Anabaptist leader who was really taken seriously by his adversaries.


One of the weaknesses of Mennonitism quickly became apparent – sure the Gospels are taken as the norm, but who’s reading or interpretation of the Gospels was correct? Mennonites tried to avoid creating any specific dogma, but too many various interpretations sprung up. So how were these churches to become ones “without spot or wrinkle” if they didn’t know what interpretation is right.


Menno quickly faced a management problem in maintaining the purity of the church. Against his desire, he could not avoid institutionalizing his movement, nor could he not create regulations about church discipline. So already in the late 1540’s we see rules and regulations put in place to protect the purity of the church. Regulations such as distinctive Mennonite views on the incarnation, a prohibition of outside marriages, strict regulations against divorce, you weren’t allowed to do business with banned members, nor were you allowed to carry weapons. And as there became more members, more regulations were implemented. And Mennonitism spread rapidly, especially along the coastal areas, along the waterways, and in the centers of commerce and industry.


It is important to note that the rise of Calvinism occurred at this time, as well. And Calvinists borrowed a lot about their understanding of church polity and purity from the Mennonites. This further fostered a need to institutionalize the church to protect itself from Calvinism.


Menno’s rise didn’t last long. And much of what happened after his demise, resembles what is currently happening in Mennonite church USA. Menno tried hard, really hard to hold the church together, to bring all these fragmented groups together. But the harder he tried, the more it forced the movement to become institutionalized. And this meant that local congregations and people were not able to experience the freedom which drew so many originally to Anabaptism.


Here are a few ways that Menno tried to hold this thing together. First, he created a common hymnal which promoted Mennonite songs. Then the Biestkens Bible was created. This was a new translation that differed significantly from the one which the earliest Anabaptists used and created. One of the most interesting differences, is that this is the first Anabaptist bible which did not use include the epistle to the Laodicians in it. For some reason the earliest Anabaptists included this book after Revelation. I have no idea why or what it was about that book which inspired them so much. They are the only Christians that did so. And then in 1561, the first collection of martyr histories and songs were published.

However, at this time Menno became physically weaker. And people were also become more and more critical of the use of discipline in the church. The most important issue took place in 1557 in Friesland. It was Menno’s last journey to his homeland. A church there had just banned a woman because she refused marital avoidance of her banned husband. This upset many, who argued that she should not be forced to leave the one whom she loved. Two elders of the church, insisted that she should not be banned. And ultimately, Menno argued that both the wife and her husband should be banned and now so should be the elders who had supported them. This hardline position which he defended, caused quite a few people to oppose him. They believed he was abusing his authority. After this, the first split within Mennonitism occurred. The waterlanders broke off. They became the more liberal branch within the movement who opposed the use of the ban. We will come back to them in a minute. Menno died in 1561.


After Menno’s death there was a struggle for leadership. Two main leaders emerged – Dirk Philips, Menno’s closest friend and Lenaert Bouwens. Bouwens was an impressive evangelist. In his lifetime, he traveled throughout Frisia converting more than 10,000 people or about 6% of the population to Mennonitism, by himself. However, over time his congregation became upset because Bouwen traveled more than he cared for his church. For his frequent absences, Dirk Philips decided to suspend him. That didn’t make the Frisian congregations happy either.


So the Frisian congregations decided to ban together, and form something resembling a conference. This would help them resolve conflicts more efficiently and help provide for vacancies of ministers, while also regulating care for the poor. This is the beginning of the frisian church. Well in the 1550’s things turned bad in the areas around Belgium. War broke out and all protestants were persecuted. Mennonites here had to flee and many decided to settle in Frisia. And immigration always causes problems for unity. And these Flemish were more conservative than the Frisian. They didn’t trust conferences, they wanted more strict discipline. So a split happens, Flemish church and the Frisian church.


Another small denomination arose, they were the High Germans. These were germans who emigrated from the Rhine area to the new Dutch Republic during the last quarter of the 16th century. They formed congregations of significance in Haarlem, Amsterdam, and Leiden.


Then finally, the Waterlanders, the ones ousted by Menno. They went an entirely different way. Comprising of about 20% of the Dutch Anabaptists, they concentrated themselves on the western coast area of Friesland and the region between Amsterdam and Alkmaar. At some point, these Anabaptists began to call themselves Doopsgezinden, to distinguish themselves from the Mennonites. They did not want to revere a man, but imitate Christ. They disagreed that one should have marital avoidance and they also were lenient on the ban and only applied shunning in exceptional cases. After all they argued, Christ accepted sinners and ate with them. The Waterlanders believed that Christ’s rule of love trumps all. They were the most open-minded group of the Anabaptist-Mennonites.

In 1568, the Waterlanders adopted a congregational order, to avoid quarrels over authority between congregations. They were also the first group to adopt a confession of faith. It was not a document to define, but to guide and help explain. Even in the 16th century, the Waterlanders allowed members to accept governmental offices, except for judges because only God can judge life and death.


But the splits, they kept a coming. I’m not going to go into too much more detail, but the conservative Mennonites continued to argue about who was most faithful to the teachings and principles of Menno. So in the late 16th century, the Frisians divided into the Hard Frisians (Old Frisians) who were the hard liners. And the young Frisians or the soft Frisians who were more lenient. A little later, the Old Frisians split again when the ultra-orthodox Frisians came into existence. Somewhere later, there even was a Middle Frisians who didn’t agree with anyone.


Similarly the Flemish had the Old Flemish and the Young Flemish and who knows how many more. There we a lot. Some towns in Frisia had between 7 to 11 Mennonite churches at one time. Most of the churches completely faded into oblivion and had less than a dozen members. All these schisms did have one benefit. The Dutch Anabaptists created an unparalleled body of hymns. By 1800 over 150 different hymn books with an estimated 15,000 different songs appeared. Divisions stimulated poetic creativity. And each group created an abnormal amount of hymns.


Here is something that is interesting, while the conservative Mennonite groups kept splintering, it was the liberal Waterlanders who succeeded in finding a way towards unity. They slowly initiated conversations with the more liberal minded branches of Mennonitism. Instead of focusing on theological differences, they found ways to work together, like caring for the poor, and singing the Psalms. The waterlanders were also some of the most active in compiling martyr stories. They thought that by including stories from all the different groups, they may find ways to bring them all together.


In a few weeks, we are going to spend two weeks talking about the Mennonites in Harlaam and Amsterdam, and their wealth along with their contributions to the enlightenment. We may talk about the War of the Lambs then. And the break that happened then between the Lamists and the Zonists. So I thought we would talk about the development of Anabaptism in Menno’s homeland – Friesland during the rest of our Sunday School.


We don’t know much about congregational life in Friesland in the 16th century. We do know that Mennonites made up about 20% of the population there. In the 17th century, there were about 20,000 Mennonites there, or about 12% of the population. And at the end of the 18th century, that number shrank to about 13000 or 8% of the population. By the end of the 17th century, most of the splintered Mennonite groups had somewhat reconciled here. And the most liberal to the most conservative agreed to form the Frisian Mennonite Society. However here, local autonomy reigned.


1672 was a turning point for Frisian Mennonites. This was the year in Dutch history known as the Year of Disaster. The Dutch Republic was heavily threatened by France and England. A national military was needed to combat Louis XIV’s army. And Mennonites were very willing to help out where they could. First, they contributed through their shovels by constructing defensive walls around their cities, and they also provided large amounts of fund in exchange for recognition for their pacifistic principles. This brought about increased social acceptance for Mennonites.


Mennonites in Friesland were never an isolated people. In Harlingen, in the 18th century, Mennonites played a crucial role as a political pressure group for tax upheaval. Mennonites here also started the Dutch Society for Public Welfare. There motto was: “God’s harmonious universe was made for happiness here and now.” All throughout Friesland, the local departments were made up of majority Mennonites.


Mennonites in Friesland, like elsewhere in the Dutch Republic, were often extremely wealthy. They were the well-to-do. Many ship owners, tradesman, and large farmers.


The most important Mennonite town in Friesland is Harlingen, known as the capital of world trade in the Dutch Golden Age. Harlingen is a lively port by the Wadden Sea, a monument city where you can roam wonderful old alleys. Mennonites consisted of a large majority of the population, abut 1/3. It had about 9000 residents during the Golden Age and population remained stable until the beginning of the 19th century. Most Mennonites settled around the Zoutsloot, the salt Ditch. They became factory owners, traders, and shipmasters. They were involved with the international trade of limber and textiles and they produced bricks, tiles, soap, and salt. Almost all of the economic elite in the city were Mennonite familes.

During the 18th century, almost all the treasurers of the Mennonite conference were members of Harlingen’s Mennonite church. They owned an orphanage and also a house for the poor. In 1742, the Harlingen minister and president of the conference was suspended by the government. Johannes Stinstra was accused by the Calvinists to have anti-Trinitarian beliefs. This didn’t make Mennonites very happy with the larger state.

In 1780, England declared war on the Dutch Republic. This was a strong catalyst for the political awakening of Mennonites in Friesland. However, they remembered that the local stadtholder had never been nice to them. He always sided with the Calvinists and never ceased to attack religious minorities.

In 1777, William V visited Friesland. When he did, he invited the largest Mennonite congregations an audience. And in 1780, local merchants in Friesland founded the Patriot society. This society fervently opposed the stadtholder, and also furnished funds and officers to the local civilian militia. Many of these members were the wealthy Mennonite merchants.

In 1781, a Mennonite bookseller of Harlingen published a Dutch edition of John Adam’s Treatise on the Interest of a treaty of commerce with the United States of America. In it, he reminded the dutch merchants of the vast opportunities they would have when the English trade monopoly in America was broken. It was partially due to the pressure of the Mennonite merchants that Friesland recognized the United States of America in 1782. Sam Adams was so impressed, that he invited a rich Mennonite from Harlingen to join the celebration in the Netherlands as his guest.


With reference to the events in America, each Frisian city established their own militias or “Free Corps” which were local private societies of order-loving citizens to practice the use of arms. We know that in the Frisian towns, nearly 15% of the officers were a member of a local Mennonite congregation. At that time, Mennonites made up about 8% of the population, so Mennonites were overrepresented.

The Frisian Patriots had their heydey between 1783 and 1786. At this time, many members decided to change parties. The Patriots hopes of a political revolution were shatterd and the stadtholder’s power was restored. Many Patriots fled elsewhere, including the Mennonites involved.

During this period, it appears that the old ideal of pacifism did not bother many Mennonite men, marching with their Free Corps. There are no conversations in the church minutes that argued against involvement.


Friesland did have its revolution finally in the winter of 1795 – the Batavian Revolution. In anticipation of the arrival of the French Revolutionary army, joined by those patriots who fled in 1787, a group of wealthy and educated citizens formed a Revolutionary Provincial Committee. Their headquarters was the home of a Mennonite industrialist – Pier Zeper, and they did manage to orchestrate a bloodless revolution. Mennonite ministers were also invited to join this government, they were elected chair of the assembly, and there were also overrepresented in leadership.

Mennonites were also charged with drafting a new Frisian constitution. However, it never materialized. A year later, a group of Patriot radicals took over power in Friesland. These radicals longed for a more egalitarian state, with social equality for all. The well-to-do-Mennonites on the other hand did not want to lose their power and their wealth. They did not want a radical democratic experiment in Frisia. Well the radical ones. After this, the political engagement of the Harlingen Mennonites dropped sharply. It is clear that their intense engagement in politics eroded their old ideals of pacifism and their refusal of political offices.


The Mennonite church in Harlingen was demolished in 1997. It demanded too much maintenance. The converted the diaconal residences which were adjacent into its new church.


Pictures to show, the Witmarsum Menno Simons Monument. This monument is today where the location of Menno Simon’s home used to be. For years, his home was used as a conventicle by the Anabaptist community. In 1828, the house was replaced by a real church.


The Mennonite church in Pingjum goes back to 1600. It is a hidden church and can hardly be discerned from the surrounding houses. Occasionally, services still take place here.


Interesting story about Harlingen – in the 1560’s the Flemish often sought refuge in Harlingen, the women refugees often occupied themselves with manufacturing cloth. The preliminary treatment of the cloth, which is dyeing it blue, is done with ones feet in a tub. So these women were called Tub Dancers. Who says Mennonites can’t dance!