The modern Mennonite church began in the mid-1520’s as a small group of disgruntled reformers in Switzerland known as The Brethren. They differed from the other reformers in that they believed that the church should be a voluntary gathering of believers rather than a state-run institution. The Swiss Brethren became the Mennonites after the emergence of the Dutch leader and prolific writer, Menno Simons, who shared beliefs with the Brethren, although he didn’t seem to know any of them. (This group has historically been considered an Anabaptist group, though Menno Simons did not consider himself an Anabaptist.) One of the most distinctive characteristics of the Mennonite church today is its belief in complete pacifism. Ed Epp of the Mennonite Central Committee stated in a 1998 interview that “Mennonites represent the historic tradition of pacifistic Christianity, rooted in the 16th century, that opposes all violence, including serving as soldiers.” Mennonites today believe in extreme pacifism that includes refusing to serve in the military or own a weapon. They insist that, “in acts of war, harm always outweighs any good,” but these beliefs are based on misinterpreting Menno Simons’ writings and reading them out of context. Menno Simons was not a pacifist in this modern Mennonite sense, but rather adopted pacifist views only when it suited him for purposes of politics or self-preservation.
At age 20, Menno Simons became a deacon in the Catholic church and shortly thereafter he was ordained a priest. Though he could read Greek, Hebrew and Latin, Menno did not read any of the Bible until he had been a practicing priest for nearly two years, because he had been told that if he read the scriptures he “would be misled.”
In 1525, Menno began to doubt the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. Prompted by the writings of one or more of the Reformationists (probably Martin Luther), he turned to the Bible for answers. In 1531, the execution of Sicke Freeriks Snijder for the crime of re-baptism sent Menno to the scriptures again because he couldn’t understand why anyone would want to be baptized twice. He compared his previous learning with the scriptures, and realized that there was “no basis for infant baptism in Scripture.” From that point, Menno was highly sympathetic to the Anabaptists, but he didn’t join them, probably because of the bad reputation that Anabaptists had at that time.
Menno continued his work as the head priest at the church in Witmarsum. For nine months he preached against infant baptism and transubstantiation; he changed and removed a lot of the ceremonies of the church, and the Catholic church didn’t intervene. However, after nine months, Menno broke off from the Catholic church and joined the Anabaptists, at a time when the Anabaptists were the most unpopular — during the Münsterite revolution.
The Münsterites were a group of Dutch-speaking Anabaptists who invaded the German city of Münster, based on their belief that Münster was the New Jerusalem “chosen by God for the reestablishment of his kingdom on earth.” They introduced adult baptism, and forced it on everyone in the city, arguing that, “. . . since they were living in the last days, in which the tares would be removed from the wheat, it was right and proper to defend the gospel with the sword.” The first leader of this movement was a man named Jan Matthys, who went out of Münster to “slay the enemy,” was killed, and was replaced by John of Leiden. John of Leiden declared himself king of the “Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster,” instituted polygamy, eliminated private property, and forced more baptisms. Eventually, he sought to capture more cities and invaded Amsterdam and Bolsward. In Bolsward, he earned a follower in Menno Simons’ brother Pieter, who was murdered a short time later in a Münsterite massacre in that city.
In the summer of 1535, the armies of Bishop von Waldeck stormed Münster and violently and brutally defeated the Anabaptists and brought an end to their “kingdom.” It is rumored that the body of John of Leiden still hangs from a tower in Münster. A year earlier, Menno Simons encountered the Münsterites for the first time. In his words,
My soul was troubled, for I perceived that though they were zealous they erred in doctrine. I did what I could to oppose them by preaching and exhortations, as much as in me was. I conferred twice with one of their leaders, once in private and once in public, but my admonitions did not help…”
Menno also visited often with those who seemed interested in the Münsterite cult, to convince them not to get involved with the movement. Right after his brother’s death, Menno wrote his first known essay, “The Blasphemy of John Leiden,” but he never published it, because by the time he finished writing it, the Münsterite “kingdom” had fallen, so it “would be like celebrating on the graves of his enemies.” It is also hypothesized that he didn’t publish it because at that point of his life, he felt like a hypocrite for believing the doctrine of the Anabaptists while keeping the comfortable lifestyle of a Catholic priest.
When the Münsterite kingdom fell, Menno was deeply affected by the fact that those people were willing to give their lives for a lie, and he had been unwilling to give up his priesthood, so in 1536 he resigned his office in order to preach doctrines of the non-Münsterite Anabaptists without the “physical comfort” of the Catholic church. Shortly thereafter, he accepted a position of leadership among the Anabaptists in order to win back the souls of those who had followed John of Leiden, and were left without direction or leaders.
This was a dangerous step for Menno to take because at that time, to be non-Catholic “was social and economic marginalization, torture, and sometimes even death.” Catholics persecuted Protestants, and both Protestants and Catholics persecuted Anabaptists. Menno himself noted that they, “. . . persecute and destroy so many pious Godfearing Christians because of the idol temples of the ungodly . . . .” By giving up Catholicism, Menno and all other Anabaptists invited persecution and possible death in the “violent, hate-filled culture” of the 16th Century. It was into this atmosphere that Menno Simons wrote all of his essays and letters.
Many of his early writings were written directly against the Münsterites, including criticism of their use of the Old Testament to justify their use of violence in Münster. In his essay “Against the Blasphemy of John Leiden” he writes that Christians must “. . . leave the armor of David to the physical Israelites and the sword of Zerubbabel to those who build the temple of Zerubbabel in Jerusalem . . . For the body itself is in Christ, as Paul says,” telling the Münsterites that physical violence is to be left to the Old Testament, and that Christians are supposed to live in the New Testament.
Despite this criticism of the Münsterites’ use of the Old Testament to support their acts of violence, Menno himself regularly used the Old Testament when it supported his beliefs. According to Stayer, “Although Menno rejected the example of the Old Testament with respect to war, he accepted it in regard to pious rulers punishing the wicked with the sword.” In his essay “Reply to False Accusations,” Menno lists “Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Sennacherib, . . . Saul, Jeroboam, Ahab, and others” as rulers who lost position because of their sins. All of them are Old Testament rulers. In his “Foundation of Christian Doctrine,” Menno gives a two-page list of Biblical figures who were punished by God for “shedding innocent blood,” and that list also draws primarily from the Old Testament. Menno believes in salvation by faith and works, which he supports with the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses, and Sodom and Gomorrah, providing no evidence from the New Testament. In addition, his most oft-quoted support for not using violence is, ” . . . they have beaten their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks,” which is from the Old Testament passages Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3. This use of the Old Testament is important to note when reading Menno’s works, in order to be more aware of the numerous times he uses the Old Testament as support in his nonviolence writings.
Another important aspect of his writings, particularly any quotations taken from his work, is the context in which the statements were written. According to Harold Bender, “…Christianity meant for Menno the resolute abandonment by the Christian of all carnal strife and war, indeed of the use of force in any manner, as a throughgoing separation from the sin of the worldly social order,” but Menno’s writings reflect a distaste for a particular type of violence, not all forms of violence.
In his essay “The Blasphemy of John of Leiden,” Menno, on four different occasions, writes the sentiment that Christians should fight only with spiritual weapons, not with physical ones. In a general context, this would mean never using violence and weapons, but this essay was not written in a general context. This essay was written as a direct criticism of the methods and beliefs of the Münsterites, who believed in using violence to force people to worship the way they did. Menno quotes the passage from Ephesians that says,
Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
This passage clearly refers to spiritual battles requiring spiritual armor, but says nothing of physical worldly conflicts. Menno meant for it to be instruction against those like the Münsterites who would force doctrine on unwilling people, using physical force to solve spiritual problems.
When Menno wrote “Foundation of Christian Doctrine” to outline his beliefs, he knew that the people of his time were used to systems in which people were forced to follow whatever their leaders believed. In this context, he wrote to those who would follow his writings to tell them that they should not force others to join them, saying “Christ is our fortress; patience our weapons of defense; the Word of God our sword; and our victory a courageous, firm unfeigned faith in Jesus Christ,” and “O dear sirs, sheathe your sword. For as the Lord liveth you do not fight against flesh and blood, but against Him whose eyes are as a flame of fire. . .” He writes this because as a member of the broader Anabaptist movement, he was perceived to be in the same category as John of Leiden and the other leaders of violent Anabaptist uprisings. He needed to speak out against violence in order to distance himself from them, gain followers, and receive some sympathy from magistrates.
In the same essay, he writes to the people to warn them against groups like the Münsterites and against the mainstream Catholic church. He writes, “[The church leaders] are thieves and murderers, who with the sword of their false doctrine slay your poor souls and steal from you the Word and kingdom of the Lord. . .” He calls them Antichrists, but goes on to write that they will be judged by God. As mere humans it is not a Christian’s job to punish them. This is another way he tells his readers not to follow the Münsterite example of punishing the wicked, but rather to allow them to live until they’re judged by God.
In “Foundation of Christian Doctrine,” Menno also speaks to the church leaders, to criticize and instruct them. To the church leaders he writes,
O my dear sirs, what are you doing? Where in the world is the sword of righteousness, of which you boast, given and entrusted to you? You have to acknowledge that you have put it in the sheath, and in its stead you have drawn the sword of unrighteousness.
In this he is saying that anyone who claims to be a Christian should not be killing people for their beliefs, but rather teaching them the right way to live. Again, this statement is in the context of Christians killing Christians in the name of God. Menno never applies it to secular concerns (such as most of the wars of the 20th Century) because the wars and violence of his time were almost all fought over religious differences; his audience would not have been able to relate to wars that were not what might now be called “holy wars.”
In his essay “Reply to False Accusations,” Menno again tells the church leaders, “. . .[you] with your iron sword adjudicate in that which belongs exclusively to the eternal judgment of the Most High God, such as in faith and matters pertaining to faith.” In this statement, Menno does not criticize the church for the use of violence; he criticizes the church for the use of violence in matters of faith. This statement against violence is in the context of violence based on religion, and in no way does Menno imply that it applies to all types and instances of violence.
In this same essay, Menno makes many statements about peace. One of his most often quoted passages reads,
The Prince of Peace is Christ Jesus; His kingdom is the kingdom of peace, which is the church; His messengers are the messengers of peace; His Word is the word of peace; His body is the body of peace; His children are the seed of peace; and his inheritance and reward are the inheritance and reward of peace. In short, with this King, and in His kingdom and reign, it is nothing but peace…. True Christians do not know vengeance, no matter how they are mistreated. In patience they possess their souls. Luke 21:88. And they do not break their peace…
This and other statements on peace and nonviolence are very often taken out of context. Within the context of the essay in which they were written, these pacifistic sentiments are actually merely a defense against the accusation that Menno sought to take over a city and force people to follow his ideas as the Münsterites had done. These statements were written as assurance to the critics that Menno and his followers had no intention of overthrowing a city, and even gave Menno preferential treatment in some cities. It is unfair to apply them to a general case, when they were written in the heat of a very specific debate.
These writings on violence were all written in the cultural setting of state-run churches, as a part of Menno’s defiance of those institutions. “According to Menno, the true church was found in the local body of adult believers who voluntarily gathered to study the Word and pledged themselves to lives of discipleship and mutual aid one for the other.”Menno was opposed to the idea that the state should determine one’s religion. This belief in voluntary church membership was one of the main reasons that Menno wrote these essays discouraging violence. Menno didn’t want to contribute to anyone being forced to accept what he wrote.
Not only did Menno Simons promote nonviolence to prevent his followers from violently conquering cities, but he also promoted pacifism as a way of convincing the authorities not to persecute him and his followers. In his essay against John of Leiden, he writes about humans not being equipped or called to judge others. This was primarily as a way of telling the Münsterites and others that their actions were wrong, but it also served to tell church leaders that it is wrong to persecute anyone. He applies the concept of non-persecution to all Christians, saying, “O, God, it would be well if we would leave to the Lord his works . . . ” referring to allowing God to punish the wicked. In “The Blasphemy of John of Leiden” Menno uses the passage from Luke about “turning the other cheek,” as a support for his stance on nonviolence. Many theologians agree that this passage does not refer to every situation, but to situations in which a Christian is being attacked for his of her beliefs. Therefore even the scripture he quotes is in a specific context.
In his essay “Foundation of Christian Doctrine” Menno writes this advice to church leaders,
…beware lest you be like the reckless and the foolish in judgements concerning the faith, men who proceed without any knowledge of the matter, like irrational creatures. . . reviling the good and praising the evil, persecuting and condemning what they understand not. Again I say, Be not like those bloodthirsty violent and cruel men. But examine the Scriptures with trembling. With Solomon pray for wisdom…
This statement appeals to the leaders of the church by implying that if they don’t rationally examine what he has to say rather than automatically attacking him, they are like the Münsterites, who he refers to as “the reckless” and “those bloodthirsty, violent and cruel men.” Menno wrote this, hoping to dissuade the Catholic church from persecuting him, hoping that they would turn to the Scriptures, as he did, to examine his doctrine. His goal was to convince them that killing him would be wrong, and that they’d be no better than the Münsterites if they did.
To the pastors of Protestant churches, leaders of the Catholic church, and political rulers, he wrote “It is a frightful abomination and raging terror thus miserably to garrote, to kill, and wipe out those who with such ardent hearts seek the Lord and eternal life, and who would not touch a hair of anyone’s head upon the earth.” This clearly communicates the message that killing Anabaptists is wrong. He appeals to their sense of morality to avoid persecution and death.
Menno’s writings promotine re-baptism were viewed as an attack on the Catholics and Protestants. In “Reply to False Accusations” Menno wrote, “All Christians are commanded to love their enemies; to do good to those who abuse and persecute them; . . .” This statement has a dual purpose in his essay. First, it assures his critics that he is not violent. Second, as their enemy, he tells them that they are to love him and do good to him. It is another attempt to preserve his own life through Biblical argument and reason.
Menno’s most common method of promoting self-preservation in his writings was to threaten his enemies with God’s wrath. He wrote to his followers, “They persecute not you but Christ Jesus, who will in His own time judge them, and if they repent not, return it into their bosom.” About the Catholics he wrote, “. . .I fear that the chastening rod is already grasped, and the avenging sword of the Lord drawn. . . many of them will be devoured and consumed. For the senseless people want to be punished!” Menno also wrote warnings directly to the Catholics.
But when the messenger of death shall knock at the door of your souls and say, Give an account; you may no longer be stewards; when you must appear before the throne of the eternal majesty and before the poor miserable souls which have led off the true highway of Christ with your deceiving, false doctrine, idolatrous witchcraft, and wickedly liberal life . . . where will you conceal yourselves then from the wrath of God.
He also writes, “But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he bareth not the sword in vain; for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” In these statements and others, Menno tells his readers over and over again that killing and persecuting those who do God’s work (himself and other Anabaptists) will bring about God’s wrath on earth and in heaven. His main argument is that the Catholics and others, in killing Anabaptists, are “shedding innocent blood” and will therefore be condemned to hell (because of his belief in salvation by a combination of faith and works). Menno warns the Catholics that they need to turn from their ways so that they won’t be “… ashamed in the great and dreadful day of the Lord.”
Menno argues that if a ruler punishes a “heathen” in the name of God, those rulers had better “…look into the matter and not seat themselves rashly and carelessly in an unknown matter in the judgement seat of the Most High God.” Menno further argues that “…if you [Catholics] cannot reprove us with scripture, and acknowledge our [doctrine and conduct] to be best, then it would be heathenish, yes, ungodly and tyrannical, would it not, to crowd us out of life into death, from heaven into hell, with the sword and violence!” Essentially, Menno is saying that the Catholics need to examine the doctrine of the Anabaptists, and if they determine that they are wrong, they still shouldn’t punish them because it would be cruel to send them to hell. All these statements reflect Menno begging for his life more than they represent an actual deep belief in nonviolence and nonresistance.
According to Roth, “Menno’s writings challenge contemporary evangelicals to rethink. . . the easy alliance modern Christians have made with the political order,” but Menno himself seemed to desire an alliance with political powers of his time. To gain favor with the governments he lived under, Menno continually preached that the government is above the people and that rebellion against it is wrong. Menno displayed a belief that after the New Covenant of the New Testament was put in place, the control of military arms was given over from the church to the local government. In saying that, Menno shows the government that he respects their authority, and even believes that “. . . the office of a magistrate is ordained of God. . .” The Mennonite church today still upholds in their “Statement of Mennonite Doctrine” that, “We believe that the state is ordained of God to maintain order in society, and that Christians should honor rulers, be subject to authorities, witness to the state, and pray for governments.” When defending himself against the accusation that he will try to overthrow the government, it is interesting to note that he says that those who accuse him of this do so in order to excite the magistrates into killing him. This shows that survival was at the front of Menno’s mind when he was writing. In light of his activities later in life, Menno’s most interesting comment on the role of government is, “For we truly confess that all rebellion is of the flesh and of the devil.”
The Mennonite church today has a lot of strict rules about weapons and violence. Some comments from the Mennonite Church to the press have been, “Arms haven’t been shown to be an answer, and neither has war, . . .”a Christianity that aligns itself with a culture of violence. . . seems to make a mockery of the grace it proclaims as a gift to the non-believing world,” and “We believe that it is the will of God for Christians to refrain from force and violence in human relations and to show Christian love to all men.” Menno’s writings mesh with these in some ways. He does speak out against the use of violence to solve religious issues, but he also helped to author a statement in 1554 to all Mennonites which encouraged them to carry weapons if that was the custom in their country. His reason for that instruction was another case of self-preservation. If someone was seen not carrying a sword in a land where sword-carrying was the custom, they would be immediately identified as an Anabaptist, and be killed. Menno was far more concerned with survival than with appearing nonviolent.
Menno Simons, in his writings, speaks out against the concept of self-preservation, and actually seems eager to die. He said that, “. . .We ought not to dread death so. It is but to cease from sin and to enter into a better life.” In his first essay he wrote, “Now Christ Jesus was minded to suffer; and in the same way all Christians must be minded.” He even pushes interpretation of Scripture to claim that, “Christ wanted to drink the cup which the father had given him [the crucifixion].” His most graphic statement is, “We have no other weapons besides [Scripture], the Lord knows, even if we should be torn into a thousand pieces, and if as many false witnesses rose up against us as there are spears of grass in the fields and grains of sand upon the seashore.” Despite these statements, Menno’s actions show that he didn’t truly want to die for God as much as he claimed.
One account says that while traveling between two German cities, Menno was sitting with the driver of the carriage when some soldiers stopped the carriage. They asked Menno if Menno Simons was inside the carriage. Menno asked the people inside if Menno Simons was in the vehicle, and told the soldiers, “They say he’s not in there.” This account may not be true, but it does reflect the way in which Menno lived much of his life. Like many of his writings, his life focused more on survival than on pacifism. This lifestyle continued until he died of natural causes in January of 1561.
Beyond that, simply writing the things he did was a form of resistance of the type he spoke against. It was against the law to own his writings, yet he kept producing them. That was blatant disrespect for the government for which he claimed to have so much respect. Writing long dissertations against his enemies was hardly “turning the other cheek.” He was as human and earthly as anyone. When he was criticized, he retaliated. Even if it wasn’t directly with violence, it was certainly a form of rebellion and resistance.
Finally, probably the most damning evidence that Menno Simons was not a pacifist is that he believed in capital punishment. During his whole life, he never actually blended his beliefs in pacifism with his beliefs in punishing the wicked.(88) In his essay “Foundation of Christian Doctrine” he wrote about punishing the wicked, “Dear sirs, this is your calling and assigned task. . .” Even more dark, he wrote,
We know very well that theft is expressly forbidden in the Scriptures (Eph. 4:28); that according to civil statute and usage it is punishable by hanging, and according to God’s law will be punished with eternal death if there is no repentance.”
Later in his life he became even more adamant about the use of capital punishment. To the church at Franeker he wrote,
…there are some sins, as for instance murder, witchcraft, incendiarism, theft, and other like criminal deeds which eventually require and imply punishment at the hands of the magistracy…. Therefore act with discretion, and do not judge such matters involving capital punishment, especially if they are public, as you would other works of the flesh which do not constitute an offense and cause for reproach in the eyes of the world.
Menno would not admit directly that he believed in capital punishment, but always worded it in such a way that he believed that criminals should die, but he didn’t want to do it. However, whether Menno killed the criminal or handed him over to magistrates who would kill him made no difference. In the end, the criminal would still die because of Menno. To take what Menno is saying a step further, a hired killer is responsible for a murder, not the person who hired him. Menno seems to be saying that it is okay to kill or hurt people indirectly. This is not exactly the statement of a pacifist. Beyond that, Menno usually uses Old Testament support for his stance on capital punishment, while using the New Testament to support nonviolence.
Menno Simons was a courageous reformer who did much to support the idea that the church should be voluntary and not state-mandated, but he was not the pure pacifist that most Mennonite historians have painted him to be. He wrote about nonviolence in the wake of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster, to encourage his followers to avoid that path. Most of his pacifistic writings focused on the specific case of religious violence, not on all violence for any reason. He also wrote about nonviolence because it earned him special protection from Charles V in some cities. Because the cities knew he wouldn’t try to take over, they sheltered the hunted preacher. He also used his stand on pacifism as a way of telling his critics that if they harmed him, they’d be punished eternally for it. Though he claimed to want to die for Christ, everything in the way he lived his life seems to suggest that he wanted to preserve his life. (This is not necessarily a criticism. Menno’s favorite Biblical character was Paul, who wrote in the first chapter of Philippians that even though heaven is good, it’s better to stay alive and teach others.) The strongest evidence that Menno used pacifism because it was convenient and not because he firmly believed in it is that he was a strong believer in capital punishment. Through all his writings about not using violence to solve anything, he often amends it with an exception for the case of a criminal.
If Mennonites today truly examined the context of Menno’s writings, and examined his writings as a whole rather than in small sound bites about peacefulness, they might find that they have little historical or Biblical reason to avoid military service or self-defense. After all, their founder defended himself against soldiers and the Catholic church until he became one of the only early Anabaptists to die of old age.