In the 16th century, there was a guy named Menno Simmons who lived in Zurich, Switzerland. At this time, Zurich was both pastored and ruled by (yes, that was a thing back then) a man named Huldrych Zwingli. Zwingli was a brilliant Bible teacher , and he set out to teach verse by verse through the New Testament, which was a radical idea at this point in history. He began in the gospel of Matthew in the early 1520s.
As he went, it became increasingly clear that the way the church in Switzerland was practicing their faith didn’t exactly line up with what they were seeing in the text. This is where Menno Simmons enters the story. In addition to having one of the burliest beards in all of church history (seriously, look it up, it was quite remarkable), Menno was part of a small group of men who challenged Zwingli.
Despite being a brilliant Bible teacher, Zwingli never quite had the confidence to rock the boat. He knew the magistrates in Zurich would never go for the kinds of radical changes that were being proposed, so he worked out a theological justification for keeping things the way they were. Menno fought back, arguing that they had to be faithful to their understanding of what the Bible was saying. He argued that the church needed to get out of politics, stop baptizing infants and give the people of the church a say in how it was run, among other things. Regardless of how you line up on these issues, Menno and his followers were convinced, and they issued an ultimatum.
In response, the city of Zurich condemned them for heresy and sentenced them to death. For the next several decades, Menno and his followers ran from both the Protestants and the Catholics . Pretty much everybody in Europe wanted to kill them. In spite of this, they remained faithful to what they believed, and at the time of Menno’s death, the group had several hundred adherents. Of course, everybody in Europe still wanted them dead. A short time later, they adopted the name Mennonite, a denomination that still exists today.
At this point, you might be saying, “Ok, that’s a nice story, but the Mennonites aren’t exactly a large, influential denomination.” Well, I’m not done yet.
Several decades later, a few hundred Mennonites were living in Amsterdam, because it was the only place in Europe where people weren’t trying to kill them. Sometime in 1608 or 1609, they ran into two guys from England, John Smyth (not the Pocahontas guy, a different John Smyth), and William Bradford. The historical record is a bit sketchy on exactly how all this took place, but many historians believe the Mennonites taught their beliefs – particularly believer’s baptism and the separation of church and state – to John and William, who took these teachings back to their own congregation. (There is disagreement about whether or not Bradford and Smyth were already beginning to work through these beliefs independently before meeting the Mennonites.)
A short time later, Smyth baptized himself and about three-dozen of his followers. They called themselves Baptists. There are now more than 75 million Baptists worldwide.
Smyth died three years later, and Bradford led his little group back to England, where religious persecution was still fierce. After a few more years, they were able to get a hold of a little boat called the “Mayflower” and sailed for the New World. Yep - in 1620, another word for Baptist was “Pilgrim.” These Pilgrims established one of the early colonies in what would one day become the United States of America.
By now, you’re probably starting to put the pieces together. Even though Menno Simmons died with a tiny group of intensely persecuted followers, his life and teachings, passed on through William Bradford, became some of the fundamental building blocks of American society. Separation of church and state, the democratic process, even the relatively civil manner in which we have historically practiced politics in the U.S. can all be traced back to this burly-bearded Swiss rabble-rouser.
Menno didn’t have an outreach strategy. In fact, he didn’t really believe in evangelism at all. He just stayed faithful to what he believed to be true and the faithfulness and his little community overflowed into the world around them. And this is where true significance is found, not in massive outreach programs or fundraising drives or packed worship concerts, but in faithfulness in the little things we encounter every day.
I can’t promise a story like Menno’s to those who remain faithful, but I can promise this. If insignificant people like us can remain faithful to a significant God, that in itself is significant. Maybe you’ll never be written about in the history books or influence millions like Menno did . Maybe nobody else will ever even see anything you’ve done, but God will, and that is very significant.
The Rev. Jason Koon is an ordained minister who lives in Morganton.