Menno Simons was born in 1496 in Witmarsum, Friesland, Holy Roman Empire. Very little is known concerning his childhood and family except that he grew up in a poor peasant environment. His father's name was Simon, Simons being a patronym, and he had a brother named Pieter.
Simons grew up in a disillusioned war-torn country. Friesland was ravaged by war in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Landsknecht soldiers haunted the Frisian lands in the 1490s to force the 'Free' Frisians to accept the duke of Saxony-Meissen as their head of state. The duke was the governor of the Netherlands for the Habsburg family. One of the archenemies of the Habsburgs, the Duke of Guelders, invaded Friesland in 1515 and conquered half of it. Saxony ceded the other half to the Habsburgs. The Frisians tried to regain their freedom but they were too weak and eventually accepted the imperial authority of the Habsburg emperor Charles V.
Simons learned Latin and some Greek, and he was taught about the Latin Church Fathers during his training to become a priest. He had never read the Bible, either before or during his training for the priesthood, out of fear that he would be adversely influenced by it. When he later reflected upon this period in his life, he called himself stupid.
Roman Catholic Church
He was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1515 or 1516 at Utrecht. He was then appointed chaplain in his father's village Pingjum (1524).
Around 1526 or 1527, questions surrounding the doctrine of transubstantiation caused Menno Simons to begin a serious and in-depth search of the Holy Scriptures, which he confessed he had not previously studied, even being a priest. At this time he arrived at what some have termed an "evangelical humanist" position.
The house near Bad Oldesloe
in which Simons is believed to have worked
Menno's first knowledge of the concept of "rebaptism", which he said "sounded very strange to me", came in 1531 after hearing of the beheading of Sicke Freerks Snijder at Leeuwarden for being "rebaptized" ["Snijder", meaning "tailor", was probably not the family name, since Freerks is the patronym form of Freerk and Sicke was, in fact, a tailor by trade). A renewed search of the scriptures left Menno Simons 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 Münsterite disciples came there as well. While he regarded them as misled and fanatical, he was drawn to their zeal and their views of the Bible, the Church, and discipleship.
In 1535, his brother Pieter was among a group of Anabaptists killed near Bolsward because of his participation in the violent takeover of a Catholic monastery known as the Oldeklooster (or Bloemkamp Abbey). This monastery, near Bolsward in the Dutch province of Friesland, was seized on 30 March 1535 by about 300 Anabaptists of Friesland, both men and women, led by
Jan van Geelen, an emissary of the Anabaptists of Münster. They thereby won a strong position and from here tried to conquer the entire province. The imperial stadholder Georg Schenck van Toutenburg was put in charge of capturing the old monastery from the Anabaptists. He supposed that he would be able to do so easily, but found himself compelled to conduct a regular siege. On 1 April he decided to bombard the monastery with heavy artillery and tried to storm it. Four times he had to lead his soldiers into the fire. On the third assault they succeeded in taking several positions. Some of the fortifications and the church remained in Anabaptist possession. On 7 April the monastery was finally stormed after a severe battle. 300 Anabaptists were killed. Of the ones who did not lose their lives in the storming, 37 were at once beheaded and 132, both men and women, taken to Leeuwarden, where 55 were executed there after a short trial. Jan van Geelen escaped.
After the death of his brother Pieter, 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..."
Menno Simons rejected the Catholic Church and the priesthood on 12 January 1536, casting his lot with the Anabaptists. The exact date of his new baptism is unknown, but he was probably baptized not long after leaving Witmarsum in early 1536. By October 1536 his connection with Anabaptism was well known, because it was in that month that Herman and Gerrit Jans were arrested and charged with having lodged Simons. He was ordained around 1537 by Obbe Philips. Obbe and his brother, Dirk Philips, were among the peaceful disciples of Melchior Hoffman (the more radical of Hoffman's followers having participated in the Münster Rebellion). It was Hoffman who introduced the first self-sustaining Anabaptist congregation in the Netherlands, when he taught and practiced believers' baptism in Emden in East Frisia. Menno Simons rejected the violence advocated by the Münster movement, believing it was not Scriptural. His theology was focused on separation from this world, and baptism by repentance symbolized this.
For true evangelical faith is of such a nature that it cannot lie dormant; but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love; it dies unto flesh and blood; destroys all forbidden lusts and desires; cordially seeks, serves and fears God; clothes the naked; feeds the hungry; consoles the afflicted; shelters the miserable; aids and consoles all the oppressed; returns good for evil; serves those that injure it; prays for those that persecute it; teaches, admonishes and reproves with the Word of the Lord; seeks that which is lost; binds up that which is wounded; heals that which is diseased and saves that which is sound. The persecution, suffering and anxiety which befalls it for the sake of the truth of the Lord, is to it a glorious joy and consolation.
Menno evidently rose quickly to become a man of influence. Before 1540, David Joris, an Anabaptist of the "inspirationist" variety, had been the most influential leader in the Netherlands. By 1544, the term Mennonite or Mennist was used in a letter to refer to the Dutch Anabaptists.
Twenty-five years after his renunciation of Catholicism, Menno died on 31 January 1561 at Wüstenfelde, Holstein, and was buried in his garden. He was married to a woman named Gertrude, and they had at least three children, two daughters and a son.