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Heretic of the week: Menno Simons

Menno Simons

Menno Simons (1496-1561) was a Cath­olic priest from Friesland in what is now the Netherlands, but in his time was ruled by Spain. He was born in a town called Witmarsum, while his peasant father owned and farmed land in neighbouring Pingjum. His education was poor; while he was taught Latin and some Greek and the Latin Fathers, he had not read the Bible when ordained in 1515.

Assigned to the church in Pingjum as curate in 1524, he was not unaffected by the furore that Luther and his fellows aroused. Searching the Scriptures himself in 1526-27, Fr Simons decided that there was no biblical warrant for the Real Presence. Nevertheless, he did not then officially break with the Church.

The Protestant revolt produced many different heresies. But the most radical were the Anabaptists, who denied the Real Presence and infant baptism. Many also rejected any sort of temporal authority, which got them into trouble with authorities of all persuasions. Hearing of the execution of some of these, Fr Simons – who had never heard of rebaptism before – once more looked over the Bible with a view to determining whether they were right. He decided that there was no warrant for infant baptism in Scriptures. In the meantime, he was made pastor at Witmarsum. His brother having joined the Anabaptists and been slain fighting with them in 1535, Fr Simons officially threw off Church and priesthood on January 12 of the following year.

A pacifist by nature, Simons rapidly became the leading Anabaptist theologian in the Low Countries, Rhineland, and Switzerland through his writing and preaching. Under his guidance, the movement turned its back on the revolutionary violence that had marked its early years. Simons died quietly, but the movement lives on. Mennonites today range from conventional Protestants with an emphasis on peace – like the Quakers – to the Amish.