Menno Simons: His Conversion and Subsequent Impact on the Beliefs, Practice, and Future of the Anabaptist Movement

Ryan D. Harker

Abstract


This paper is an examination of the eleven-year conversion process of sixteenth-century radical reformer Menno Simons from Roman Catholic priest to leader of the peaceful (Dutch/North German)Anabaptist movement, later to become aptly known as the “Mennonites.” In examining his conversion, particular attention was paid to the primary sources (Specifically, The Collected Writings of Menno Simons, J.C. Wenger, ed.). The early Anabaptists were a group consisting of many variant sects including and in addition to what the author calls the “peaceful Anabaptists” of Northern Germany/The Netherlands, among other groups which also valued peace/non-resistance. The various groups of Anabaptists made up what is known as the Radical Reformation, a movement that aimed to take the reforms of men like Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli further; thus it is sometimes called a “Reformation of the Reformation.” Although Menno articulated very clear beliefs and practices in his writings, his convictions were not shared by all groups under the banner of “Anabaptist.” It was for the purpose of understanding this context that secondary sources were also utilized. These Anabaptists, who in addition to rejecting infant baptism (hence the name “Anabaptist,” meaning “re-baptizer”) and the doctrine of transubstantiation, as well as other Catholic practices, largely taught against Christian participation in violence. Nonetheless, they had begun to be associated with violent radicals who likewise rejected infant baptism and transubstantiation. Regardless of their stance on violence, all Anabaptists were considered dangerous and a threat to society. The movement of Anabaptists that would later come to be called the Mennonites was a fledgling, highly disorganized movement at the time of Menno’s conversion. In the face of this near destruction, it is claimed that Menno’s timely conversion, his leadership of the fledgling movement, and the accessibility of his writings to the common people largely saved the movement from destruction. It is the contention of the author that it is chiefly for this reason that we can today speak of the “peaceful Anabaptists,” or the “Mennonites,” the descendants of Menno’s theology and practice.

Keywords


Menno Simons; Dutch/North German Anabaptism; Conversion

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