The Fugitive: Menno Simons, Spiritual Leader in the Free Church Movement
Myron S. Augsburger. Waterloo, ON and Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2008. 398 pages.
This is an historical novel with a purpose. Written by the well known Mennonite churchman, Myron Augsburger, it celebrates the founding of a global Anabaptist church and it does it by providing an “easy reader” on the namesake of the Mennonites. Its intention is to make Mennonite history accessible. It is “fiction” which seeks to be as historically accurate as possible and reflects an exceptionally close reading of Menno’s extensive writings. To that end the author mines previous biographies, Menno’s extensive writings, and even oral tradition. The basic outline of his story—the seminal dates of service, the various places of residence, the identities of fellow Anabaptists—is known from Menno’s own writings and serves as the framework of the book. This of course leaves a lot of room for a great deal of imagination, for Menno Simons remains an obscure historical figure.
Augsburger’s Menno is an exceptionally gifted man—an intelligent, passionate, popular, and powerful preacher. He is almost always reasonable, thoughtful, and generous: he is often “impressed” with another’s insight (111); he is given to “careful argument” (244); and his various rebukings are departures from an otherwise fundamentally gentle nature (217). He is humble, embarrassed that the movement acquires the name “Mennist” (288). Except for his “reckless” time as priest in training, Menno is always caring, loving, and pious.
Menno is even liberal minded for his age. He champions women in leadership (184), advocates for “tolerance and social freedom” (299), and works hard to remove “barriers between people” (212). He is clearly more Erasmian than Lutheran, more generous and tolerant than his Dutch associates, and more open to “unity with diversity” than the Swiss brethren (327). He loves life, the environment, and the wider society; he embraces “the smell of the sea” (241), the infusion of aromas from “kilns and bakeries” (275), “the beauty of spring” (283). He feels deeply when he is betrayed by his Dutch associates, when he is met by the love of his children, when he grieves yet another friend’s martyrdom. The book’s title, Fugitive, suggests the framework for the book, but it does not illuminate its thesis or central motif. That central theme is Menno as Anabaptist leader par excellence.
If much of Menno the man arises from the materials of his vast writings, other characters and associations in the book are even more fully the creations of the author. Historians know little more about Gertrude than that she was Menno’s wife, but Augsburger presents her as heroine. She is a beautiful, cheery, and sensitive woman, and when she marries him she is dutiful and loving. And she simultaneously exhibits an independent spirit and serves as Menno’s ever supportive helpmeet; she urges him to write, but wonders if she, herself, should become a leader (224). Other characters are equally lauded: Menno’s siblings, as well as his three children, are given names and personalities, again mostly with positive attributes; the children, for example, are “innocent and joyful” (253). Augsburger takes similar poetic license in creating an Anabaptist network: Menno may not know the notable Swiss Anabaptists, but he has heard of all them—Conrad Grebel, Hans Hut, Michael Sattler, Hans Denck, Felix Manz—and follows their stories closely.
The book’s central task, however, is not really to present Anabaptism through fiction. To my mind many of the characters are a bit too pious to constitute real “flesh and blood” characters. What Augsburger does in this book is what Menno does in his: he never ceases preaching, and he is a fine preacher. Augsburger tucks away dozens of little sermons: “the quest for holiness . . . was a lifelong enactment of one’s faith” (98); his was “a revolution . . . brought on by transforming power of Christ” (123), “I seek only to be faithful to Word of the Lord” (133); “we are formed by the Spirit within us” (176); “salvation was not in mere rites of religion” (189); “the church is a fellowship of people who are followers of Jesus” (257); “salvation was experienced as a personal faith response to Christ” (312); “he that loves not, knows not God” (331). And often these truths are conveyed with positive metaphors and circumstance: “the dawning of light in Menno’s mind,” for example, “came like the rising of the sun across the polders, shimmering on the waters. . . .” (70). Menno’s ideas seem recast in the language of Augsburger himself.
Still, Augsburger deserves credit for lifting a personality out of Menno’s massive devotional works. My only concern is that in seeking to make Menno readable for today’s reader, Augsburger has created a twenty-first-century Menno whose docetic Christology is de-emphasized and rather astonishing diatribes are cast as aberrational. His advocacy of pluralism, gender equality, and separation of church and state seem more post-Enlightenment than early modern European. The nation-centric note in the afterword that the United States was the first country to embrace the idea of separation of church and state lacks relevance and distracts from the aim to reach a global audience.
Still, the book has many strengths. It does make Anabaptism accessible to lay readers and offers an empathetic reading of a gifted and energetic leader.