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Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1426

First published: Confession, 1554 (English translation, 1871); Die nieuwe creatuere, 1539 (English translation, 1871)

Edition used: “Confession of My Enlightenment, Conversion, and Calling”; The New Birth and Who They Are Who Have the Promise , translated and edited by Irvin Buckwalter Horst. Lancaster, Pa.: Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society,...

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First published: Confession, 1554 (English translation, 1871); Die nieuwe creatuere, 1539 (English translation, 1871)

Edition used: “Confession of My Enlightenment, Conversion, and Calling”; The New Birth and Who They Are Who Have the Promise, translated and edited by Irvin Buckwalter Horst. Lancaster, Pa.: Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, 1996

Genre(s): Nonfiction

Subgenre(s): Exegesis; hermeneutics; theology

Core issue(s): Amish people; Baptism; Communion; conversion; faith; grace; Mennonites; the Sacraments

Overview

The book contains two articles and an introduction to each by the editor. The two articles are considered to be among the most important contributions made by Menno Simons, a Dutch priest and subsequently an Anabaptist preacher and an important figure in the Reformation. “Confession” was written to explain Menno’s decision to leave the Catholic priesthood and to counter accusations that he was part of the extreme radical arm of the Reformation exemplified by the Anabaptist group that captured and held the German city of Münster from 1534 to 1535. “The New Birth” was written to explain the behavior that should characterize a follower of Christ and to challenge the established religious leaders with regard to their behavior.

In “Confession,” Menno described his service as a Catholic priest, starting in 1524. Early in his Catholic career, it troubled him that the bread and wine used in the Communion service did not appear to change into the flesh and blood of Jesus. The Catholic Church’s doctrine of transubstantiation argued that such a change took place. He tried to allay his doubts but could not escape them no matter how much he prayed. As a result, he was inspired to study the New Testament, in which he found no basis for the literal transformation.

When Menno heard that an Anabaptist was beheaded for being baptized as an adult, he studied the New Testament with regard to baptism. The word Anabaptist means “baptized again or rebaptised” and was coined to describe a loose group of Reformation activists who believed the Bible taught that baptism should come after a person had declared his or her belief in Christ, not as an infant before that decision could be made. Infant baptism was the policy and theology of the Catholic Church, and most infants were baptized. Therefore, baptism as an adult was generally a second baptism and was held to be a capital offense. Menno’s study led him to agree with the Anabaptists.

As Menno searched the New Testament for information on these questions, he was also bothered by his life as a priest. He found it too comfortable and too loose morally. The Bible seemed to teach that followers of Christ should live a much more meaningful life of sacrifice, service, and moral uprightness. He explored the thoughts of Martin Luther and other leaders of the Reformation on these and other questions, and after struggling with them for some time, he began teaching his convictions while continuing to serve as a priest. Later, in 1536, about twelve years after he began his New Testament studies, he abandoned his position as a Catholic priest.

Menno used the “Confession” to refute the accusation that he was allied with the Münster Anabaptists. In 1534, an Anabaptist group took control of the German city of Münster and ruled it for about a year. Münster was freed from the Anabaptists’ control in 1535, but the policies and actions of the group while controlling the city gave all Anabaptists a bad name. They embraced a number of questionable practices, including the community of goods (in which individuals turned everything they owned over to the group, for use by the group), polygamy, and violence, often killing their opponents. In refuting the accusation, Menno describes his many arguments against the Münster Anabaptists. He also outlines the events leading to his association with the Anabaptists as follows. Shortly after he left the priesthood, members of a group not associated with Münster in any way asked him to take a leadership role with them. After considerable discussion, prayer, and meditation, he agreed and was ordained as an Anabaptist preacher, probably in late 1536.

In the final part of the “Confession,” he describes his life as an Anabaptist preacher, including the lack of resources and prestige, and the danger of persecution and death because of his beliefs. He spent much of his Anabaptist life hiding from authorities. Still, he declares his primary concern to be the salvation of those he taught and his satisfaction with his position in the center of God’s will.

“The New Birth” describes what Menno believed were the characteristics of the true Christian and contrasts them with the characteristics of the majority of professing Christians of his day. The New Testament compares Christian salvation to a second birth, hence the “new birth” terminology. Menno says that salvation is attained through faith in Jesus Christ and given by the grace of God, not earned by human behavior. However, he also argues that true Christians will demonstrate their faith and salvation by their behavior. That behavior includes honesty, sobriety, faithfulness to one’s spouse, charity to those in need, repaying evil with good, nonviolence, the baptism of believing adults, use of Communion as a symbolic reminder of Christ’s suffering, and separation from those who behave otherwise. He argues that professing Christians who do not demonstrate these behaviors are not among those “who have the promise.”

Christian Themes

In these two papers, Menno challenged the church of his day on many of the fundamental issues that have been debated throughout church history. His beliefs include that the Bible is the word of God and should be literally applied as instructions for Christian life and that baptism is for believers on confession of faith, not for infants who could make no such confession. The bread and wine of the Communion are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus, not literally converted into such during Communion. Salvation is not earned but granted by the grace of God, dependant only on the faith of the believer and not earned in any other way. However, true believers demonstrate their faith by living as they are commanded to live in the writings of the New Testament. Those who profess belief but live in opposition to the principles taught in the New Testament are not Christians at all and have no claim on the promises made to Christians.

The principles espoused by Menno in these and other works were embraced by some Anabaptists, who later identified themselves as Mennonites in honor of Menno. The Mennonites disagreed on the interpretation of these and other issues and split repeatedly. In one of these splits, in 1693, Jacob Amman and his followers separated from the Mennonites to form the Amish community. One question leading to the split was that of separation from the world and maintenance of a simple life more or less free of worldly technology. Subsequently, the Amish split into several groups, the most fundamental of which still reject or restrict the use of many modern conveniences (such as automobiles, televisions, and telephones) to maintain their separation from the world and proximity to God. The Christian themes of forgiveness and repaying evil with good were profoundly demonstrated by a Pennsylvania Amish group in 2006. A non-Amish man took ten Amish schoolgirls hostage. He shot all of them, killing some and seriously injuring the others, then shot and killed himself. The response of the relatives of the dead and injured girls was to forgive the perpetrator and to pray for him and his relatives. The principles and spirit of the “Confession” and “The New Birth” were still affecting lives four and one half centuries after they were written.

Sources for Further Study

  • Goertz, Hans-Jurgen. The Anabaptists. Translated and revised by Trevor Johnson. New York: Routledge, 1996. Sets the historical stage for Menno Simons and his writings. Includes a table that outlines the chronology of the Anabaptists’ early years.
  • Kraybill, Donald B. Who Are the Anabaptists? Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2003. A brief history of the Anabaptist movement and its offspring groups, the Hutterites, Brethren, Mennonites, and Amish.
  • Menno Simons. The Complete Works of Menno Simons. LaGrange, Ind.: Pathway, 1983. Contains alternate translations of the two papers considered here. Lends itself to a complete study of all Menno’s written ideas.
  • Urry, James. Mennonites, Politics, and Peoplehood. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2006. Traces the development of the organizations most closely linked to Menno Simons’s name, the Mennonite churches.
  • Voolstra, Sjouke. Menno Simons: His Image and Message. Newton, Kans.: Mennonite Press, 1997. Considers the contributions of Menno Simons to theology and his place in religious history.
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