The Glory and… the Gloom


The Birth of “Anabaptism”, Men to Emulate, Darts that Destroy,
a Distressing Detour, the Dutch Demise, yet… Christ is Conqueror

                                                                                                                                                                  Jaime van Heiningen

      It was through Martin Luther in 1517 that the Reformation was ignited in Europe – it only took a ‘spark’. Luther’s ‘95 theses’, image007exposing the church’s shameless commercialization of “indulgences”, and his daring act of nailing them to the Church door of the Wittenberg Castle in Saxony, provided that spark. It also earned him the wrath of the Pope, as well as of the “Holy Roman Empire” and its brand-new Emperor Charles V, once he had ascended the throne at 19 years of age.

In Switzerland, only a few years later, another Reformer arose, Ulrich Zwingli, and then, in the early 1530’s, John Calvin arrived on the scene in France. These, we might say, represented the three main dimensions of the Reformation. However, in Switzerland, a fourth dimension came into view. That happened when several of Zwingli’s friends parted company with him. These men, Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz and George Blaurock, could not see eye to eye with Zwingli over the procedures to see change effected in so many practices of Catholic tradition.

      Zwingli, reforming at his own pace, always sought to maintain a cordial relationship with the civil authorities, seeing them as a vital link to get certain reforms implemented among the population in general. The three men, on the other hand, felt that the pace was far too slow, and in any case, there was a better way… The Scriptures should be followed without waiting for the authorities to get onboard. How could worldly authorities be expected to decide and implement spiritual issues? Bible believers should simply start to gather in the Lord’s name, whether that was acceptable to the world and the authorities or not.

      One issue proved especially thorny: should babies be baptized? Or was baptism to be applied exclusively to people who knew what they were doing, i.e. to believers who showed evidence of being the Lord’s? Whereas today that issue may ruffle few feathers, at that time it proved to be a major stumbling block – Catholics and Protestants saw infant baptism as a “Sacrament”. Under no pretence should babies be deprived of it! And the ‘rebaptizing’ of someone already sprinkled as a baby was a major affront to the Church, if not to God himself, the clear implication being that ‘sacramental baptism’ was perceived as of no value. Grebel and friends were ‘asking’ for big trouble…

      In early 1525, they and others met secretly in the home of Manz’ mother for prayer, Bible study and discussion. At this meeting, Blaurock, who had been a priest, asked Grebel to baptize him. He then baptized all the others present. This was done by sprinkling – immersion had not yet occurred to them – nevertheless it was a true ‘watershed’. Word leaked out and henceforth the movement would be known as “Anabaptist” (“Rebaptizers”).

      The following year Grebel was imprisoned. Then, having managed to escape, he died a natural death not very long afterwards. Manz and Blaurock continued faithfully, preaching and teaching, as did others, until, at different points, they too were imprisoned, tortured and later martyred, Manz by public drowning (1527), and Blaurock by burning at the stake (1529). Many thousands in the years thereafter, men as well as women, suffered similar fates.

      However, far from stamping out the movement, what the authorities, civil and ecclesiastical, were really accomplishing, was what the Jerusalem authorities had ‘achieved’ many years before them: “those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word” (Acts 8:4); “and the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord” (11:21).

      God’s Word, and its glorious Gospel of salvation in Christ, passed from town to town and from country to country, but in its wake, how much blood was shed, how many hearts were broken, how much suffering was endured and how many tears flowed…! Even so, it may be said that truly this was a story of Glory! Glory for the Redeemer and glory for the redeemed! Many (underground) groups or congregations came into existence.

      As will always happen, when Satan finds that persecution is spurned by the Lord’s people, he prepares other fiery darts. The darts of fanaticism on the one hand, and false teaching on the other, are favorites, used to great effect by the “prince of the world”. It was so in NT times and it was so again in the period under discussion. His dark strategy paid off handsomely. The lack of thorough Bible knowledge, not just an intellectual understanding, but above all a spiritual grasp of Bible principles, even among some of the leaders of the movement, caused havoc.

      The apostle John, some 60 years after the Lord’s ascension, wrote to the believers: “Do not marvel, my brethren, if the world hates you” (1 Jn. 3:13), and the Anabaptists didn’t. He also wrote: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (4:1), but this dismal trap was not avoided – very many Anabaptists fell into it headlong. Muddle-headed ‘prophets’ among them started to prophesy all kinds of things about the Lord’s return, and when in the city of Münster in Germany, not far from the borders of Holland, many citizens joined the Anabaptist movement, Münster was declared the “New Jerusalem”. It proved to be a debacle of the first order.

      The movement by then had spread to Holland. Dutch Anabaptists, known as “Doopsgezinden” (baptism-minded) – the name that is now their official ‘denomination’ – started to leave behind everything and travel to join their brethren in Münster, just as others did from other parts of Western Europe.

One RC priest in the north of Holland, who neither before he was a priest, nor during the first ten years as a priest, had ever read the Bible, had become a Bible-loving priest! His name was Menno Simons. When his only brother was killed as an Anabaptist, Menno experienced a deep spiritual crisis. But by then he had learned where to go – back to the Bible. Later he wrote that 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 through the merits of the crimson blood of Christ, graciously forgive my unclean walk and unprofitable life…” His life was transformed, and it led to his exit from RC-ism!

image009      One thing that had powerfully impacted Menno for years was the fact that Anabaptists, on the whole, even as they were horribly persecuted, would surrender peacefully and be led to the prison house, the pyre, the gallows, the scaffold or the torture chamber, blessing their persecutors and giving testimony of Christ in one way or another. Now that he had come out of organized religion himself, Menno might have aspired to an unobtrusive way of living… Rather what he desired was to be useful to his Savior, whatever the cost. It didn’t take him long to find out that God had, indeed, important work for him to do.

      It was the time (in 1535), that Anabaptists, the Dutch “Doopsgezinden” among them, were packing up and moving to Münster, the ‘New Jerusalem’. Menno realized that this was more than just an innocent illusion – it was a dangerous delusion, and it could be fateful; it could not be of God. His efforts to persuade many to come to their senses and stay where they were, did not meet with much success. Although he was no more than a young convert himself, albeit with a love for God’s Word and a commitment that were neither cheap nor shallow, Menno, like a latter day Jeremiah, had that discernment that could see a tragedy in the making… Gloom seemed to be unavoidable!

      Events ran their course in Münster. The RC bishop and his army besieged the city. The citizens suffered under the lack of basic necessities, but the heavy hand of obsessive leadership within the city, now truly divorced from Biblical guidelines, was even more oppressive. If the first leader, killed in action, might justifiably be called a maniac, his successor, a Dutchman like the first, surely qualified as a super-maniac. Among the things he introduced and enforced was polygamy, he himself taking 16 wives. When the bishop finally, after 18 months, managed to retake the city, many Anabaptists were massacred.

      It stands to reason that after these tragic events, all Anabaptists, everywhere, were looked upon with even greater suspicion and alarm than before. However, God had men like Menno – waiting in the wings – who were ready by his grace to pick up the pieces. Menno, from now on, always had to keep a low profile, yet God used him wonderfully among very many old and new groups, teaching and counselling from the Bible, always just a few steps ahead of those who were eager to see him burn. He amazingly died a natural death in 1561.

Whereas in many countries his followers started to be called “Mennonites”, in Holland they stuck with “Doopsgezinden”. Historians image011reckon that in the worst 45 years of persecutions (1530-1575), some 3500 Dutch Doopsgezinden were arrested and imprisoned, and of these, 1400 were killed, mostly burning at the stake. But faith was alive, love among the believers strong, and the testimony shun brightly!

      The suffering didn’t spell ‘gloom’ – however horrific. These were times of Glory! It had seemed that through the Münster debacle, gloom was about to settle definitely on this work of God, but by God’s grace it lifted! How much the faithful prayers and efforts of Menno and others meant to God’s work! They were men and women who “loved not their lives”.

      Satan, however, was not yet done. One dreadful dart was still available: it was the dart of lethargy! The persecutions ceased and the Doopsgezinden were at last accepted as ‘worthy members of society’ – it caught them with their guard down. Suddenly the world around them proved to be a lot friendlier, so, very gradually, they got conformed to it. The ideas of ‘denominationalism’ began to encroach. Solemn Bible warnings to be wide awake and alert went unheeded. However slow the process, it was relentless – it just went on-and-on, for centuries.

      The Gospels and Revelation document how our Lord, a total of 12 times, tells his followers to “be awake” or to “watch”. He concludes his parable of the “virgins”, for instance, in which even the “wise ones” went to sleep, sternly saying: “Watch therefore…!”Paul and Peter repeat the command another six times. Who would have thought that dozing off (spiritually) is such a serious matter? Let’s have another look at Menno’s ‘descendants’ – i.e. in Holland alone. What has recent research established?

*      Today there is not one pastor among them who believes that the Bible is the Word of God…!

*      Only a tiny minority of Doopsgezinden believe that God influences human lives.

*       Fully 90% of them do not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God. At the most He was an example, a spiritual leader, a teacher –

*“Kracht van een minderheid”  <>.

      Lethargy has done its work and gloom has settled in. It has come to stay! The light of the ‘candlestick’, shining so brightly during most of a century, has been snuffed out; the ‘Gates of Hades’ have prevailed. Does it remind us of the daughter-in-law of Eli, high priest in Israel? She breathed her last and, as she realized what had come upon the nation, she uttered: “Ichabod” – “the Glory is gone!”

      But how to reconcile this obvious and stark reality with the Lord’s promise that He would build his church, and that the Gates of Hades would not prevail against it? At this point we do well to keep in mind that, all through the centuries, the pattern has been just as gloomy. We might ask about the thriving congregations, so full of light, life and love, of the apostles’ times – where are they? In their case too, once they had ‘dozed off’, certain situations would appear to warrant compromise. So they’d call it ‘the only sensible and pragmatic thing to do’. Losing their footing, popular false teachers and prophets would do their bit, and down the slippery slope they went… Had not the Lord and the apostles seen it coming? (Mt. 7:15-23; Acts 20:29-31; 1 Ti. 4:1-3; 2 Ti. 4:3-4; 2 P. 2:1-3, etc.).

      The answer to the question, about the Gates of Hades not prevailing, is found in the fact that Jesus was speaking, not of local or regional churches, even less of denominations, but of his universal church – the “body of Christ”, consisting exclusively of all the truly redeemed! He never said that local or regional “battles” might not be won by the enemy…

      Precisely because of such an enemy with such clever strategies, our Lord put such emphasis on the need to be awake and alert! Are you involved in a local work and testimony? If so, realize that that work and that testimony will eventually succumb and disappear, unless there is a conscious and a constant dependence-on-Christ, a looking to HIM and HIS Word for his guidance and his enabling!

      Praise God for days of glory, but beware, days of gloom are only just ahead!

Matthew 6:23