By Barry Dyck
Five Hundred Years
Last Sunday the Steinbach Mennonite Brethren Church, my home congregation, celebrated its ninetieth anniversary. In providing the audience with a brief historical background of the church, Walter Fast referred back to the beginning of the protestant reformation 500 years ago.
Martin Luther (1483-1546) was born in Eisleben, Germany and developed an early interest in personal piety and a monastic lifestyle. He began his university education in 1501 achieving a Master’s degree in 1505. Later that year a dramatic incident in his life, which he perceived as a sign from God, caused him to terminate his study of law and enter an Augustinian monastery. In the ensuing years Luther continued his studies, received his doctorate, and became a professor of biblical studies.
In 1517 Martin Luther published documents which refuted some of the teachings and practices of the church of that day. He had two major emphases: The Bible, not church officials, provided ultimate authority in matters relating to Christian faith; and salvation and the forgiveness of sins could only be received from God and not through “good works” or the purchase of “indulgences”.
At that time the church and the state were virtually one and the same. This put Luther at odds with both, and in 1521 he was excommunicated from the church.
Luther’s teachings had by this time initiated a broader reform movement, part of which included the Anabaptist movement. Anabaptists were those who set aside the practice of infant baptism, a fundamental practice of the day, in favour of adult baptism where adults made a choice to receive baptism. Felix Mantz, Conrad Grebel, and Ulrich Zwingli were some of the more prominent leaders of this movement.
Menno Simons, the one whose name the Mennonites adopted, provided significant leadership to an element of the Anabaptist movement some years later. Our gallery describes the work of Simons as follows: “Menno Simons left the Catholic priesthood in 1536 to give new direction to a demoralized and violent Anabaptist movement in the Netherlands. He emphasized peace, the separation of church and state and a Bible-based faith and life. His motto: ‘For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.’ 1 Corinthians 3:11”
Since then this group of Mennonites has migrated from The Netherlands to Prussia (Poland) to Russia to Canada, and to Paraguay, Mexico, and other Latin American countries, in search of farmland and freedoms to live out their beliefs relating to religious practices, education and exemption from military involvement. Migrations have typically been precipitated by severe persecution or a loss of these freedoms.
While Mennonite Heritage Village remembers the culture that this people group developed during their migrations over almost 500 years, it is important that we also remember the faith movement that gave rise to these migrations and this culture.