Mennonite History

by Daniel Kauffman
© Copyright, Mennonite Publishing House

Three bodies of people...are in evidence as we study the history of the Reformation period. These are:

1. The Roman Catholics.--The Greek Catholics are not known in this struggle, as the conflict was waged outside their territory. At the beginning of the struggle the governments of western Europe were in control of the Catholics. The abuse of power was largely responsible for working the reaction and bringing the struggle known as the Reformation. The things about the Catholic Church which stirred the consciences of right thinking people were the corrupt practices and immorality of priests, the sale of indulgences, the ritualistic formalism of the Church and lack of spiritual life on the part of the masses; while the arbitrary power and grasping after wealth on the part of the Roman Catholic hierarchy were often displeasing to politicians many of whom welcomed the uprising in the days of Luther and Calvin.

2. The Protestants.--This name comes from a manifesto to Emperor Charles V of Germany, drawn up in 1529 by a number of princes who had espoused the struggle of Luther, in the form of a protest against what they considered unjust measures by the Emperor and by the Pope. From this time forward the word "Protest-ants" applied to those opposed to the Pope and his party. These princes supported their claims by force of arms. The conflict between Catholics and Protestants was so severe that it finally settled into a Thirty Years' War that came to a close by the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. This treaty, among other things, stipulated a guarantee of religious toleration for Catholics and Protestants, but not for Anabaptists of Mennonites. The close of the War of the Reformation found the following Protestant bodies: Lutherans, Reformed, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians.

3. The Anabaptists.--Possibly we should have said "Mennonites;" for the original Anabaptists were the Swiss brethren who organized at Zurich, Switzerland, in 1525, which was the beginning of the organization of the Church which afterwards bore the name "Mennonite." The word Anabaptist comes from the doctrine held by Mennonites and others that baptism to be valid must be upon confession faith and that people who have not been thus baptized, though they may belong to some church, must be baptized according to Scripture before they can be scripturally received into fellowship. All people holding this belief were known as Anabaptists. Of this class were a number of bodies, some of which had no connection with Mennonites whatever. The class of Anabaptists to which the Swiss brethren, Menno Simons, Dirck Philips, and their brethren belonged stood for a complete separation of Church and State, baptism only upon confession of faith, nonresistance, nonconformity to the world, a holy life, and other tenets of Christian faith and life which were afterwards embodied in what is now known as the "Mennonite Confession of Faith." The sufferings of Anabaptists during Reformation times were most severe, for being nonresistant they refused to fight for any purpose, against either Catholics or Protestants, and were therefore marks for malice and persecution from both these warring parties. Thousands were put to death, and the rest driven about from place to place, finding refuge wherever they could.

At the close of the Reformation the dominant religions in the nations of central and western Europe were as follows:

The Roman Catholics retained control of Austria, France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy, although there were large bodies of Protestants in several of these countries, most notably the Huguenots of France. A portion of southeastern Europe was under control of the Greek Catholic Church and of the Turks.

Of the Protestant countries the Lutherans had control of a number of states in Germany and the Scandinavian countries, the Reformed were in control of Switzerland and Holland, the Presbyterians in Scotland, and the Episcopalians in England.

Among the churches that have grown out of the Anabaptist movement are the Mennonites, Hutterites, Baptists, Quakers and Dunkards. The Mennonites and Hutterites were contemporary with Luther and other Protestant reformers of his day, the rest appeared on the scene later. These never attempted to control the governments in any country, as they opposed the idea of union between Church and State and were against mixing religion with politics.

To what extent the Mennonites and other Anabaptists are descendants from or successors to the Waldenses is an open question. The similarity in faith and in family names furnishes some ground for the claims of certain historians that there is a connection between the two. But as for the first organized congregation of Swiss brethren or Mennonites (that at Zurich in 1525) it is known that the leaders and at least some of the members had formerly been Catholics. The same is true also of Menno Simons and some of his coworkers in Holland. As to their leading tenets of faith, they were similar to the faith of the Novatians, Waldenses, and other evangelical bodies which had existed before them. Among the more prominent issues which brought upon them the wrath and persecution of the state churches, both Catholics and Protestants, were their rejection of infant baptism, their insistence upon a freedom of conscience, their refusal to have any part in carnal warfare, their discipline requiring faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and repentance for sin as requisites for baptism and a holy life as a requisite for continued fellowship, their zeal in not only contending for the tenets of faith which they espoused but also in turning the light of truth upon the shortcomings of their opponents, and their contending for a complete separation of Church and State.

Distinction between Mennonitism and Protestantism

When we say "Mennonitism" we mean the same as Anabaptism, for the Mennonites (though not known by that name until later) were the pioneer Anabaptists. The distinction between this movement and that of Protestantism consists in this: While the Protestant movement was a political as well as a spiritual reformation, the Anabaptist movement was wholly a spiritual one. Grebel, Blaurock, Manz, Menno, Philips, and their brethren believed in a complete separation of Church and State, held to the doctrine that religion is an individual heart experience and that therefore each individual is personally responsible to God alone for his spiritual standing and that the Bible alone should be taken as his rule of life, to be accepted without question and faithfully obeyed regardless of what may be the attitude or requirement of the State. Logically this made them nonresistant in life, and scripturally orthodox in fundamentalism. On the other hand, the Protestant movement (besides the various doctrinal standards of different Protestant leaders) was a united effort on the part of ecclesiastical and politically leaders to correct the abuse of Romanism, and to support this contention, if need be, by force of arms. This committed them to a policy of State-Churchism, and logically made Protestants as well as Catholics the persecutors of nonresistant people who could not subscribe to their program. The issue involved in this distinction between the two movements was twofold: (1) State-Churchism Vs. individual conscience and choice; (2) the sword, and what is behind it. While times have changed, circumstances now are different from what they were then, and issues have shifted somewhat, yet the fundamental difference between these two schools of thought and classes of people remains substantially the same.

Trials and Persecutions

It cost something to be a Mennonite in those days. Many were burned at the stake, and the times were rare when they were entirely free from persecution. Menno himself was pursued with murderous fury, but the Lord preserved him in a remarkable way. His writings were spared and he was permitted to die a natural death. Switzerland, Austria, Holland, Germany, and other European countries were the scenes of many outrages against this defenceless people. As the persecutions became too severe in one country, they would flee to some other country where they might enjoy a greater degree of freedom. It was not until many of them had found in America an asylum where they might have the privilege of worshiping God unmolested that the rigors of persecution began to relax to any great extent in Europe. Holland was the first to extend toleration, and later on Russia extended an invitation for the Mennonites to settle in that country. While Holland and several other countries extended toleration to Mennonites--at times--before there were any permanent settlements of Mennonites in America (persecution ceased permanently during the latter part of the 16th century), it was not until after this time that persecutions were discontinued in a general way in Europe.

But in the face of severest persecutions the Church prospered in many places. The Taufgezinnten in Switzerland, the Doopsgezinden in Holland, the Hutterites in Moravia (different names by which these people were known in different countries), and Mennonites in other countries, all were faithful in their labors and exerted a wholesome influence.

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