Thursday, September 24, 2009

Ancestors: Menno Simons

The story of the Mennonites is an interesting one. It began with a man named Menno Simons. He is probably not really one of your ancestors, but he did start the church that took his name. Annie's ancestors, the Schroeders and the Schmidts, and some others were believers and that had a lot to do with where and how they lived. So I'm going to start with a little history of Menno, and work out from there. The story is way too big for one post.

Menno was born in 1496. He lived in the Netherlands in an area called Freisland. He became a priest in the Catholic Church in 1515 or 1516 - which would make him 19 or 20. I also have him becoming a priest in 1524. So I am guessing that he might have started his studies at 19 or so, and been ordained at 24 or so.

The Netherlands, at this time was torn by wars and lawlessness. The Hapsburgs, the Duke of Guelders, and the Duke of Saxony-Meissen were all fighting for power and control, and the people were caught in the middle. There is way too much history for this short post, but suffice it to say that war was pretty personal in those days, and that when the people were caught between the armies that they suffered greatly. No matter who eventually won the war, they always lost.

I'm going to quote from Wikipedia about Menno's exposure to the Anabaptist's, and his eventual rejection of Catholicism:

"Menno's first knowledge of the concept of "re baptism", which he said "sounded very strange to me", came in 1531. This came through the means of hearing of the beheading of Sicke FreerksSnijder at Leeuwarden for being "rebaptized". A renewed search of the scriptures left MennoSimons believing that infant baptism is not in the Bible. He discussed the issue with his pastor, searched the Church Fathers, and read the works of Martin Luther and Heinrich Bullinger. While still pondering the issue, he was transferred to Witmarsum. Here he came into direct contact with Anabaptists, preaching and practicing believer's baptism. Later, some of the M√ľnsterite disciples came there as well. While he regarded them as misled and fanatical, he was drawn to their zeal and their view on the Bible, the Church, and discipleship. When his brother Pieter was among a group of Anabaptists killed near Bolsward in 1535, Menno experienced a spiritual and mental crisis. He said he "prayed to God with sighs and tears that He would give to me, a sorrowing sinner, the gift of His grace, create within me a clean heart, and graciously through the merits of the crimson blood of Christ, he would graciously forgive my unclean walk and unprofitable life…"[5] "

It is hard to imagine how very different it was to live back in the 1500's - or even the 1800's. Now it is hardly a matter to raise an eyebrow if a Lutheran marries a Baptist, or if a Mennoite marries a Methodist. I guess eyebrows are still raised if one of them marries a Mormon, but that is a post for another day. When I was growing up in the early and mid 60's, there was still a lot of strong feelings about Missouri Synod Lutherans marrying an American Synod Lutheran. You still sent Christmas cards etc, but you had to watch those American Synod guys - they were pretty liberal. I say all of this not to poke fun (too much) but to try to illustrate that changing from being a Catholic Priest to being and Anabaptist was not just changing religion, it was like changing species. Yes, Bill decided to become a Romulan. Or maybe a Vulcan.... Klingon? Chimpanzee? You left your family and friends behind. It was Chava eloping with the christian Fyedka in 'Fiddler on the Roof'. It was hope and heartbreak rolled up together. Bittersweet.

Leaving the Catholic Church was leaving the mother ship. It was leaving not only the predominant faith, but the Church that stood behind kings, the Church who had many Popes that were in reality powerful kings in their own right. You were leaving a church that didn't like quitters, and might well ask pointed questions, and pull off your arms if they didn't like the answer. Leaving the Catholic Church pretty much consigned you to hell on earth in many ways, if not hell eternally. So it wasn't something that was done on a whim, or without thought.

Annie's family belonged the the Alexanderwohl congregation of the Mennonite Church. This congregation is remarkable in that it's roots can be traced back to the mid 1550's. It started in Flanders, in the Netherlands and moved many times. Each time a move was made care was taken that none were left behind. When the different branches of my family moved, first from Germany to Russia, and then from Russia to America, they moved as family units. When the families in the Alexanderwohl Church moved, they all moved, or all that wanted to go.

Well it is late now, and I'm about ready for bed. A lot of the early history of the Church is kind of sketchy. Most early histories are a little sparse with the details. That very lack of detail seems to call to me, whether the story is in the Scriptures, or in an old family history. So very much of the story can be lost by not having the details, and not taking the time to try to imagine what really was happening. Let me quote briefly from 'The Story of Alesanderwohl' by David C. Wedel:

"The origin of the Alesanderwohl congregation takes us to Flanders, a province in the Netherlands in the sixteenth century. During the years 1556 to 1565 hundreds of these Flemish people fled the northern provinces of the Netherlands because of the severe persecution and settled with many others around Amsterdam. During the first half of the seventeenth centurey, 1600 to 1650, and even before, many of these people migrated to West Prussia. They settled in the Danzig area, between the Vistual and the Nogat rivers.

.... They were promised religious freedom and were welcomed because of their farming abilities. They built beautiful farms, planted orchards , established roads and water canals and their Holland windmills beautified the countryside."

There now, wasn't that easy. in just a few paragraphs we have them easily leaving the faith of their fathers, pulling up stakes and moving to Amsterdam, then West Prussia - this is several hundred miles, and all by wagon. They we have them building houses, farms, road, and canals, and planting orchards, and having beautiful farms. There is nothing wrong with recording all this, but I hope that you will take a little time and think what it takes to plant a garden, yet alone an orchard. How much work is it to spade a garden, how much work to 'establish a canal'. Yikes. They were a hard working, faithful, pious people. I'm sure they had their faults and foibles, but people you can look to for an example of how to live, and what can be accomplished by persistence, consistency, and working together for a common end. People you can be proud to have in your family tree.

1 comment:

Annie of Blue Gables said...

That is a very nice post. I can hardly wait for the next installment. Also to copy paste this into a wp document and mail it to my mom. She will be so pleased. Thanks, Sweet Friend.