Charles Buck Theological Dictionary
A sect in the United Provinces, in most respects the same with those in other places called Anabaptists. They had their rise in 1536, when Menno Simon, a native of Friesland, who had been a Romish priest, and a notorious profligate, resigned his rank and office in the Romish church, and publicly embraced the communion of the Anabaptists. Menno was born at Witmarsum, a village in the neighbourhood of Bolswert, in Friesland, in the year 1505, and died in 1561, in the duchy of Holstein, at the country-seat of a certain nobleman, not far from the city of Oldesloe, who, moved with compassion by the view of the perils to which Menno was exposed, and the snares that were daily laid for his ruin, took him, with certain of his associates, into his protection, and gave him an asylum. The writing of Menno, which are almost all composed in the Dutch language, were published in folio at Amsterdam, in the year 1651. About the year 1537, Menno was earnestly solicited by many of the sect with which he connected himself, to assume among them the rank and functions of a public teacher; and, as he looked upon the persons who made this proposal to be exempt from the fanatical phrenzy of their brethren at Munster (though according to other accounts they were originally of the same stamp, only rendered somewhat wiser by their sufferings) he yielded to their entreaties.
From this period to the end of his life he travelled from one country to another with his wife and children, exercising his ministry, under pressures and calamities of various kinds, that succeeded each other without interruption, and constantly exposed to the danger of falling a victim to the severity of the laws. East and West Friesland, together with the province of Gronigen, were first visited by this zealous apostle of the Anabaptists; from whence he directed his course into Holland, Guelderland, Brabant and Westphalia; continued it through the German provinces that lie on the coast of the Baltic sea, and penetrated so far as Livonia. In all these places his ministerial labours were attended with remarkable success, and added to his sect a prodigious number of followers. Hence he is deservedly considered as the common chief of almost all the Anabaptists, and the parent of the sect that still subsists under that denomination. Menno was a man of genius, though not of a very sound judgment: he possessed a natural and persuasive eloquence, and such a degree of learning as made him pass for an oracle in the estimation of the multitude. He appears, moreover, to have been a man of probity, of a meek and tractable spirit, gentle in his manners, pliable and absequious in his commerce with persons of all ranks and characters, and extremely zealous in promoting practical religion and virtue, which he recommended by his example as well as by his precepts.
The plan of doctrine and discipline drawn up by Menno was of a much more mild and moderate nature than that of the furious and fanatical Anabaptists (whose tumultuous proceedings have been recited under that article, ) but somewhat more severe, though more clear and consistent than the doctrine of the wiser branches of that sect, who aimed at nothing more than the restoration of the Christian church to its primitive purity. Accordingly, he condemned the plan of ecclesiastical discipline that was founded on the prospect of a new kingdom, to be miraculously established by Jesus Christ on the ruins of civil government, and the destruction of human rulers, and which had been the fatal and pestilential source of such dreadful commotions, such execrable rebellions, and such enormous crimes. He declared publicly his dislike of that doctrine which pointed out the approach of a marvelous reformation in the church by the means of a new and extraordinary effusion of the Holy Spirit. He expressed his abhorrence of the licentious tenets which several of the Anabaptists had maintained with respect to the lawfulness of polygamy and divorce; and, finally, considered as unworthy of toleration those fanatics who were of opinion, that the holy Ghost continued to descend into the minds of many chosen believers, in as extraordinary a manner as he did at the first establishment of the Christian church, and that he testified his peculiar presence to several of the faithful, by miracles, predictions, dreams, and visions of various kinds.
He retained, indeed, the doctrines commonly received among the Anabaptists, in relation to the baptism of infants; the millennium, or one thousand years' reign of Christ upon earth; the exclusion of magistrates from the Christian church; the abolition of war; and the prohibition of oath enjoined by our Saviour; and the vanity, as well as the pernicious effects of human science. But while Menno retained these doctrines in a general sense, he explained and modified them in such a manner as made them resemble the religious tenets that were universally received in the Protestant churches; and this rendered them agreeable to many, and made them appear inoffensive even to numbers who had no inclination to embrace them. It, however, so happened, that the nature of the doctrines considered in themselves, the eloquence of Menno, which set them off to such advantage, and the circumstances of the times, gave a high degree of credit to the religious system of this famous teacher among the Anabaptists, so that it made a rapid progress in that sect. And thus it was in consequence of the ministry of Menno, that the different sorts Anabaptists agreed together in excluding from their communion the fanatics that dishonoured it, and in renouncing all tenets that were detrimental to the authority of civil government, and by an unexpected coalition formed themselves into one community.
Though the Mennonites usually pass for a sect of Anabaptists, yet M. Herman Schyn, a Mennonite minister, who has published their history and apology, maintains, that they are not anabaptists either by principle or origin. However, nothing can be more certain than this fact, viz. that the first Mennonite congregations were composed of the different sorts of Anabaptists; of those who had been always inoffensive and upright, and of those who, before their conversion by the ministry of Menno, had been seditious fanatics; besides, it is alleged, that the Mennonites do actually retain at this day some of those opinions and doctrines which led the seditious and turbulent Anabaptists of old to the commission of so many and such enormous crimes; such particularly is the doctrine concerning the nature of Christ's kingdom, or of the church of the New Testament, though modified in such a manner as to have lost its noxious qualities, and to be no longer pernicious in its influence. The Mennonites are subdivided into several sects, whereof the two principal are the Flandrians, or Flemingians, and the Waterlandians. The opinions, says Mosheim, that are held in common by the Mennonites, seem to be all derived from this fundamental principle,
that the kingdom which Christ established upon earth is a visible church, or community, into which the holy and just alone are to be admitted; and which is consequently exempt from all those institutions and rules of discipline that have been invented by human wisdom for the correction and reformation of the wicked. This principle, indeed, was avowed by the ancient Mennonites, but it is now almost wholly renounced: nevertheless, from this ancient doctrine many of the religious opinions that distinguish the Mennonites from all other Christian communities seem to be derived. In consequence of this doctrine, they admit none to the sacrament of baptism but persons that are come to the full use of their reason; they neither admit civil rulers into their communion, nor allow any of their members to perform the functions of magistracy; they deny the lawfulness of repelling force by force; and consider war, in all its shapes, as unchristian and unjust: they entertain the utmost aversion to the execution of justice, and more especially to capital punishments: and they also refuse to confirm their testimony by an oath.
The particular sentiments that divided the more considerable societies of the Mennonites, are the following: The rigid Mennonites, called the Flemingians, maintain with various degrees of rigour the opinions of their founder, Menno, as to the human nature of Christ, alleging that it was produced in the womb of the Virgin by the creating power of the Holy Ghost; the obligation that binds us to wash the feet of strangers, in consequence of our Saviour's command: the necessity of excommunicating and avoiding, as one would do the plague, not only avowed sinnere, but also all those who depart, even in some light instances pertaining to dress, &c. from the simplicity of their ancestors; the contempt due to human learning; and other matters of less moment. However, this austere system declines, and the rigid Mennonites are gradually approaching towards the opinions and discipline of the more moderate, or Waterlandians.
The first settlement of the Mennonites in the United Provinces was granted them by William, prince of Orange, towards the close of the sixteenth century; but it was not before the following century that their liberty and tranquility were fixed upon solid foundations, when, by a confession of faith published in the year 1626, they cleared themselves from the imputations of those pernicious and detestable errors that had been laid to their charge. In order to appease their intestine discords, a considerable part of the Anabaptists of Flanders, Germany, and Friesland, concluded their debates in a conference held at Amsterdam in the year 1630, and entered into the bonds of fraternal communion, each reserving to themselves a liberty of retaining certain opinions. This association was renewed and confirmed by new resolutions in the year 1649; in consequence of which the rigorous laws of Menno and his successors were in various respects mitigated and corrected.
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Buck, Charles. Entry for 'Mennonites'. Charles Buck Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/cbd/m/mennonites.html. 1802.