Only the small sign, ‘Menno’s Fermanje’, distinguished the house from others in the street. Three simple windows and a door. Modest living quarters in the front, and a high roof over the rear section for the farm animals. A typical Friesian village farmhouse, just a few doors down from the towering pre-Reformation church around which the village of Pingjum was built.
We knocked. A dog barked menacingly from inside. Shuffling footsteps. Barks now muffled. A long pause, and the door opened. A grey-haired portly man with a stubble beard looked out inquiringly.
Was it convenient to see inside?
Usually only by appointment.
Then, smile. He detected a foreign accent and welcomed Romkje and me inside.
Four strides later we found ourselves inside a hidden Mennonite church, a schuilkerkje, filling the rear section of this apparently ordinary farmhouse. The varnished wooden floor, with rows of straight-backed woven-reed chairs for the women, was surrounded on three sides by a low wooden partition behind which the men would sit on pews, backs to the walls, facing the lecturn on the fourth side.
We were standing in the oldest existing Mennonite house of worship, built around 1600 in the town where Menno Simons served as a Catholic curate, prior to leaving the priesthood to join the Anabaptists in 1536. The Reformation, and its more Radical stream calling for adults to be rebaptised as a confession of their own saving faith, had spread from Germany and Switzerland to Holland. The authorities responded ruthlessly. One poor tailor from Leeuwarden, Sicke Freerks, was beheaded for being rebaptised.
This severe action prompted Simons to search the Scriptures on the subject of baptism. He was by now a priest at Witmarsum, the village next to Pingjum, close to where the 30 kilometre Afsluitdijk today joins Friesland after crossing what used to be the Zuider Zee. His search led him to leave the Catholic Church and join the Anabaptists. Many of the earlier leaders of the movement had already been martyred, and Simons quickly found himself thrust into leadership among his fellow believers. In Friesland, Anabaptists soon became known as “Mennisten”, later “Mennonites”, followers of Menno Simons.
We had earlier tracked down a memorial to Menno Simons among some trees a kilometre or so outside Witmarsum, traditionally the first site where he met with other Anabaptists in a farm house, encouraging them to stand firm in the face of persecution. Simons himself risked arrest and execution as he itinerated extensively, not only in Friesland and other parts of Holland, but also into Germany and Denmark. His teachings also spread through his books which he published secretly up until he died a peaceful, natural death in 1561, in Oldesloe (then part of Denmark).
Two years before his death, the Mennonites were granted limited religious freedom – although executions of Anabaptists continued until 1574. Worship gatherings would be tolerated so long as their meeting houses were secluded and unnoticeable, in the manner of the meeting house we were now visiting.
Mennonites spread eastwards from Holland to Gdansk (Danzig), some fleeing from persecution as far as southern Russia. Later emigration took them westwards across the Atlantic to Kansas, Manitoba and other parts of US and Canada, where large communities live today, some following very traditional lifestyles.
The custodian of Menno’s Fermanje (Menno’s place of exhortation) told us he regularly received busloads of American and Canadian Mennonites on pilgrimages back to Friesland. Others come from Germany and now Russia. We then noticed the dual slide projectors suspended from the ceiling, the drop-down screen, and the brochures and postcards in various languages awaiting the next busload of pilgrims to walk through the door.
Typically they stand in awe, he said. One group of men spontaneously joined hands around the pulpit and began to weep together. The custodian asked after the display of emotion. They were weeping because Menno Simons himself had stood on that spot, he heard. Oh no, he corrected, that building wasn’t built until 1600, about 40 years after his death. Not true!! they retorted. Menno had preached there! (After all, the sign did say, ‘Menno’s Fermanje’.)
OK, OK, he acquiesced, Menno had preached there.
Over-romancing the past? Perhaps. But we do well to remember the men and women who paid the price for the religious freedoms we too often take for granted today.
And to recall that religious freedoms – as upheld in Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights: The right to believe, to worship and witness; The right to change one’s belief or religion; The right to join together and express one’s belief – are still under serious threat today right here in Europe, in countries like Belgium, France, Greece, Belarus and Russia.
Till next week,