Today, we tend to think of Mennonites as descended from all early Anabaptists. However, the followers of Menno Simons had some distinctive practices that set them apart from other Anabaptists of their era. Looking at them through the eyes of David Joris and his disciples can help us to understand what set them apart more clearly.
Joris’ approach clashed dramatically with the leadership style of Menno Simons. As I discussed in part one of this series, Joris was charismatic; people were drawn to him.
He excelled at accommodation, diplomacy and mediation between different Anabaptist sects, "ranging from the peaceful followers of Obbe Philips to the marauding adherents of Jan van Batenburg." (Zijlstra 251). Simons, on the other hand, was a rural priest whose focus on the purity didn’t make any sense to Nikolaas Meyndertsz Blesdijk, the primary lieutenant of Joris:
Blesdijk pictures the Mennonite elders as hostile and closed-minded, both unwilling and unable to carry on a religious discussion with orderly marshalling of evidence and in the spirit of gentleness (sachtmoedicheyt) that distinguish a true teacher.
Instead of behaving civilly and honorably, argues Blesdijk, the Mennonites are hypocritically preoccupied with distinguishing and separating themselves, whether by manner of dress, appearance or words …
Since they shun their opponents, forbidding all moral human contact with them, in total disregard of the initiation of the ban in Matthew 18 and the New Testament examples of its use, it is not surprising that they are so fixed in their opinions: they seldom speak with anyone who thinks otherwise than they. (Stayer, "Davidite vs. Mennonite" 464)
This Davidite description of Mennonites could easily have been written by a liberal city dweller today writing about the life patterns of an Amish or conservative Mennonite community.
From the perspective of the Davidites, the village life of homogeneous interactions was backwards and ignorant. Whereas for Simons, it was an asset, strengthening loyalty within the group and purity which became foundations of Mennonite community.
He called the Davidites "good-for-nothing, frivolous, cross-fleeing loud-mouths" who bragged about their freedom (Stayer, Anabaptists and the sword 476).
Blesdijk also emphasized the gentleness of Joris. This personal charisma allowed Joris’ to get away with a lot.
Waite says, "It would appear, then, that Joris’ middle-ground approach allowed him to take further liberties with his choice of words" (103). At times, this ability to accommodate almost any Anabaptist flavor took on what James Stayer calls "a chameleon-like quality" (290). His advocacy of a moderate Anabaptism became a central part of self-image:
Joris certainly saw himself as a major Anabaptist rival to the violent tactics of radical Münsterites and Batenburgers. He believed that his moderating influence "from within" spared the Netherlands from even more damage at the hands of Anabaptist radicals. Joris’ believe that he had reduced the level of terrorism might be the target of a healthy skepticisim were it not for its confirmation by two sources hostile to the prophet, Nicolaas Meynderstz van Bledijk’s Historia Vitae and the terrorist commander himself, Jan van Battenburg (Waite 116).
Ultimately, Joris’ approach to Anabaptism failed to establish a tradition that could outlast his death. He spent the last 10 years of his life living the life of an aristocrat under an assumed name in Basel.
In contrast, the rural and conservative leadership style of Menno Simons created a 400 year quietist tradition. For centuries, the majority of Mennonites maintained the rural character of the movement. In the United States, it is only in the past century that Mennonites have begun to contend with the liberalism of the modernized city that Joris wrestled with 400 years ago.
Stayer, James M. Anabaptists and the Sword. Lawrence, Kan.: Coronado, 1976. Print.
Stayer, James M. "Davidite Vs. Mennonite." Mennonite Quarterly Review 58 (1984): 459-76. Print.
Waite, Gary K. David Joris and Dutch Anabaptism 1524-1543. Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 1990. Print.
Zijlstra, Samme. "Menno Simons and David Joris." Mennonite Quarterly Review 62 (1988): 249-56. Print.