Saturday, July 21, 2012

Pingjum and Witmarsum, Netherlands

The Netherlands—July 21

I expected flat land . . . sure enough, as far as the eye can see. I expected water . . . canals crisscross the countryside. I expected to see windmills; you know, the traditional ones you see in all Dutch pictures. Saw exactly none (well, maybe or two, from a long way off.) In their stead, huge, energy-generating windmills like you see in southern New Mexico and west Texas dotted the landscape.

And why is this country called The Netherlands and Holland and the citizens are called Dutch? Seems in conversation with people the names are used interchangeably. OK with me. Just curious.

We rented a car in Münster and drove the 2 ½ hours to two little towns in the upper part of the country (called Friesland.) Everything was green and the weather was cool. We have come to Witmarsum and the neighboring village of Pingjum, the birthplace and burial place of Menno Simons.

When we first arrived, we were a little hungry and needed a bathroom. No sidewalk cafes here so we went to the Otter Bar, the first place we found open. We had coffee and French fries with peanut sauce. It was surprisingly wonderful! We quickly ascertained, in real time, one other thing—Dutch is both very close to and really different from German.

These are very small villages. I think Pingjum has less than 700 residents.
But both villages were absolutely charming—neat houses and yards, flowers everywhere, thatched roofs, sheep, horses, and cows grazing in the fields. Those thatched roofs are amazing and totally a mystery!

We were not sure what we would find here but it seemed the logical next place to come. We stopped at a little cafe in Pingjum and met a very friendly young couple who ran a pizzeria there. They had both grown up in Pingjum. When I asked her what there was to see in town besides the one "secret church", she said, "That's it! You've seen it all."

Menno lives on, however, in the memory of this area. His story is a fascinating one.
Menno Simons, 1496-1561, was born in Witmarsum. His first parish as a Catholic priest was in Pingjum. By his own confession, he lived a not so exemplary life and was afraid to read the Bible. Over time, between doubts that arose concerning some particulars of Catholic dogma and encounters with Lutheran thought, Simons began to consider seriously the way of the reformers. By 1529, he considered himself an “evangelical humanist” (but not yet a Christian.)
In 1530, Menno moved back to Witmarsum and took over a vacant parish. The execution of an “Anabaptist” in a nearby town made a deep impression on Menno Simons. He struggled with how anyone could be so committed to a belief that he would die for it, especially a belief about baptism—so Menno was driven to the Bible. The result: he became convinced that he could find no trace of infant baptism in Scripture. As a result, he experienced doubts not only about the Catholic dogma but the about the Protestant beliefs as well.
In 1535, his brother, Pieter, was with a group of Anabaptists that was rounded up and executed, prompting a deep crisis of faith for Menno. In a short time, he came to a personal faith in Christ and decided to join the Anabaptists.
Menno soon earned a reputation among the Anabaptists. His travels, preaching, and writing were so influential that many Dutch and German Anabaptists soon became known as Mennonites.
Simons reacted strongly to the disaster at Münster, rejecting the radical chiliasm and violent means taught by Matthys, Leiden, and the other leaders of the “Anabaptist Kingdom” rebellion. He worked diligently to overcome the negative reactions toward, the fragmentation of, and loss of direction experienced by the nascent movement. Nevertheless, even though he taught pacifism, Simons and anyone who followed him were placed under a death sentence. (In 1545, the man who had baptized Menno six years earlier was burned at the stake for that crime.) We came across, quite accidentally, a “secret church” in Pingjum where Mennonites had met in the early 1600s.
He spent much of the rest of his life on the run. He and his family (wife and three children) were often separated and in hiding. He continued to write and speak and work to bring together the fractured brethren. His body of work is among the most comprehensive and extensive treatments of Anabaptist thought.
Menno died in 1561 and was finally laid to rest in Witmarsum.

Oh yes . . . we realized driving into this area that we were just a few kilometers from the North Sea. So, upon leaving Pingjum, we drove to Zurich (yep, Zurich, The Netherlands), a really tiny place right on the sea, just below the dike. A short walk takes you up to the top where the ocean spreads out before you. The dike is massive and runs for many miles along this coast. The flat land on the inland side would be under several meters of water if the dike were not there. 

Beautiful farm country and, like I said, flat.

First we arrived at Witmarsum, location of Simon's burial.

The whole village is covered with flowers this time of year. Every other house or so has a thatched roof.

This is, apparently, the current meeting place for the small Mennonite community.

This sign at this church indicates that this building was build a little over 50 years ago. They had met out near the Menno monument in a stone building since 1879. Before that, it was safer for them to meet secretly.

This stylized church was placed here by an organization of Mennonite communities in 2008 to represent the many varieties of Mennonites around the world who share both the history of struggle as well as an openness to their future.

It is built on the site of the old "secret church" and is next to Simon's burial place.

This plaque spells out some more about the church monument.

I took this picture because it gives the name of the group of Friesland Mennonites who are involved with this monument.

Menno Simons' burial monument with attendant curmudgeon.

The plaque at the burial site.

On to Pingjum, 3 kilometers away!

This is the "secret church" meeting house.

Look to the right . . . . (when you go to the secret church, you look both ways before entering.)

Look to the left . . . does anyone even live here?

A plaque at the site of the secret church.

"Menno's secret church"  Apparently it is not so secret anymore.

Our little cafe in Pingjum. It was the only place we could see that actually had people in it. On Saturday, everyone is either in their backyard or somewhere else.

This is such beautiful, fertile farming country.

This thatched was perfectly cut and shaped on this house. How do they do that?

Climbing up the inward side of the dike.

Looking north along the dike, on the ocean side.

Mike touches the North Sea, just because when you are there, you have to.

Walking along the dike . . . from bottom to top, it is stone, asphalt and tar, dirt fill and grass at the top.

At the top of the dike. At the left is almost the whole town of Zurich.


  1. If you actually care to get a thorough answer to your question about the use of the terms Netherlands, Holland, and Dutch, wikipedia has a nice article on it: (What would we do without wikipedia?)

    But the highlights:
    Netherlands and Holland are used interchangeably, although technically Holland only refers to two of the provinces. Dutch was used to describe all Germanic speakers or inhabitants of the Holy Roman Empire in the late 1500s. I guess the name just stuck.

    Despite traveling more north for this visit, did the churches get any smaller when you left the urban areas?

  2. I am so loving your diary and the fabulous pictures. Thanks for being so you.

  3. How did you get to the Minnist Skultsjerkje - the hidden church in Pingjum? I want to visit and to get directions from google maps.