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Featured Article: "Menno Simons (1496-1561)"

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Menno Simons by Jacobus Burghart, 1683.
Scan provided by Mennonite Library and Archives.
MLA Photo 2006-0138

Menno Simons (ca. 1496-1561) was the most outstanding Anabaptist leader of the Low Countries during the 16th century. His followers became known as Mennonites (Mennisten). He was not, however, as is popularly assumed, the founder of the movement in the Netherlands. He became its leader after it had been in existence in that area for a number of years. His significance lies in the fact that he assumed the responsibilities of leadership at the crucial moment of the movement when it was in danger of losing its original identity under the influence of chiliastic and revolutionary leaders who succeeded in winning large followings. He maintained original peaceful Biblical Anabaptist concepts and won many who had been in danger of being swallowed up by the Münsterites.

Menno was born in 1496 (exact date unknown) in the little village of Witmarsum, Dutch province of Friesland. Little is known about his youth and parental home. His parents, who lived in Witmarsum, were very probably dairy farmers. His father's first name was Simon, hence the son's name Menno Simons(zoon). Since Menno did not enter the priesthood until the age of 28, it can be assumed that he made the decision for this career not so early in life. He may have received his training in a monastery of Friesland or in a neighboring province. Menno knew Latin, and Greek was not entirely foreign to him. During his study he acquainted himself with some of the Latin Church Fathers. He did not read the Bible as such before his second year as a priest. Naturally he knew large sections of it, e.g., through the Roman missal.

Albert Hardenberg used Menno Simons as an example of men who had "stupid teachers" and who without "learning and sound judgment ran away from monasteries." He also states that he met Menno as a rural priest. Hardenberg received his training at the Aduard Monastery near Groningen (1527-30) at the time when Menno was serving as a priest in Friesland. What occasion brought the two together? Was Menno also a graduate of Aduard? In that case Hardenberg did not speak very respectfully of his alma mater. In any event not too much significance can be attached to his statement regarding Menno's training since he was jealous of Menno's success and not inclined to give an objective evaluation. He says of Menno that he "took the Bible into his hands without formal training causing such great damage among Frisians, Belgians, the Dutch. . . . Saxons, . . . all of Germany, France, Britain, and all surrounding countries that posterity will not be able to shed sufficient tears because of it" (Spiegel, 117).

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