Menno Simons and the Mennonite Church: Background information when reading Irma Voth

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Irma Voth

A Novel

by Miriam Toews

Irma Voth by Miriam Toews
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2011, 272 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2012, 272 pages

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Jennifer Dawson Oakes

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Beyond the Book:
Menno Simons and the Mennonite Church

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Menno Simons was an Anabaptist religious leader born in 1496 in Witmarsen (the Netherlands). Although he was not the founder of this branch of religion, he was a very important figure in the organizing of the Dutch Mennonite church, and his followers became known as Mennonites.

Menno Simons According to the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia, Simons was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest at Utrecht in 1524, but quickly began to question some of the church's beliefs and practices when, "while he was administering the Mass he began to doubt whether the bread and the wine were actually being changed into the flesh and blood of Christ." Consequently, he began a serious study of the scriptures along with works by humanist, Desiderious Erasmus and Protestant leader, Martin Luther.

In the early 1530s, Simons came in contact with Anabaptist teachings. The word "Anabaptist" means "one who baptizes over again" and relates directly to adult baptism - a practice that, unlike infant baptism, allows people to choose their religion. Generally speaking, Anabaptists believe in the separation of church and state, in "plain living," practicing pacifism and non-violence, that the Bible is the highest authority of the faith, and that church membership should be a choice. They reject some of the more conventional Christian norms, such as participating in government, taking oaths, and wearing wedding rings.

In his study of the scriptures, Simons was taken with the idea of "believer's baptism" and began teaching it, though he hadn't yet decided to leave the Catholic Church. However in 1535, when Simons's younger brother, Pieter, was killed near Bolsward (the Netherlands) along with 300 other Anabaptists who occupied a monastery in hopes of gaining religious acceptance, Menno Simons disavowed both the Catholic church and his priesthood, and on January 12, 1536, he officially aligned himself with the Anabaptists.

In 1537, Simons was asked to become an elder in the Anabaptist movement. He reluctantly agreed. This was a time of religious reformation in Europe and persecution was common for those who broke away from the accepted faiths. Simons worked diligently and wrote on many subjects, using the Bible as the cornerstone for all of his work. Simons was integral to the "[r]eformation movement, representing a Christian brotherhood and a Christian way of life," and he was a very early proponent of "...such basic principles as separation of church and state, freedom of conscience, voluntary church membership, democratic church government, holy living, and the Christian peace witness in a world of strife."

While some Anabaptists follow the teachings of Menno Simons - today there are more than 1.5 million Mennonites around the world - others can also be found in the Amish, Hutterite, and Brethren communities.

This article is from the October 19, 2011 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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