Menno Simmons: The “Stupid Priest”

It’s back! The church history minute! I can hear the groans and crickets now.

Menno Simons, 1610. Christoffel van Sichem. University Library, Amsterdam (via Wikicommons)

Who was he? Menno Simmons (Minne Simens) was an Anabaptist Reformer after having left the Roman Catholic Priesthood about twenty years after the beginning of the Reformation. Previously the Melchoirites and Münsterites were anabaptist groups, though they tended to readily accept that sometimes violence was needed to change the social order. Simmons joined sometime shortly after his brother, Pietr, was killed for being Anabaptist. The Anabaptists are now known as “radicial reformers”  who went past the reforms of Luther and Calvin. Particularly, they outright rejected infant baptism in favor of adult baptism (or baptism of repentance, or believer’s baptism), something other reformed groups (and most Protestant denominations, even today) did not give up. Since in the early centuries most of the followers were converts who had previously been baptized as infants, they gained the name Anabaptist (Re-baptist).

Why was he important? The early Anabaptists tended to be somewhat violent, often taking over cities and “ruling” them through military means. While this was not a requirement, it was also not expressly forbidden. Simmons radically changed that. He insisted on non-violence, or at least non-aggression. It was not right, he thought, to be killing other people for the supposed cause of Christ, and thus the Anabaptists changed their ways. This led to less fear of Anabaptists generally (which stopped them from being killed outright) and led to other Christian groups not being killed by the Anabaptists. Oddly, he and some other earlier Anabaptists, in an effort to affirm both the divinity and humanity of Christ suggested something often called the “celestial flesh” of Christ. Humanity was so corrupted, they reasoned, that the flesh of Jesus needed to be of a different sort. This was so controversial (and borderline heretical) that it was omitted from all official church documents that were written just 70 years after Simmons death onward.

Fun Fact: During the early years of serving as a Roman Catholic priest, Menno Simmons admits he never read the bible. Eventually he read the bible (after having doubts about transubstantiation) and found himself in agreement with Anabaptists, though found them too radical. Looking back at this time he said he didn’t read the bible because “I was such a stupid priest.” (source)

Where might I have heard of him? The Amish and Mennonite groups famous for their beards, barns, and horse drawn buggies are followers of Menno Simmons. However, many of the groups that look back to Simmons as their founder in some sense live completely modern lives, some also called Mennonites. Today most Anabaptists look to Simmons for some of their doctrines.


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