This Wikipedia article excerpt is provided in order to give a bit of historical context to the circumstances surrounding Henss and Rich family history and migrations. More history texts are available here.
The early history of the Mennonites starts with the Anabaptists in the German and Dutch-speaking parts of central Europe. The German term is “Wiedertäufer” (that is, Again-Baptists, or Anabaptists via the Greek ana [=”again.”]). These forerunners of modern Mennonites were part of the broad reaction against the practices and theology of the Roman Catholic Church known as the Protestant Reformation. Its most distinguishing feature is the rejection of infant baptism, an act that had both religious and political meaning since almost every infant born in Western Europe was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. Other significant theological views of the Mennonites developed in opposition to Roman Catholic views or to the views of other Protestant reformers like Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli.
Some of the followers of Zwingli’s Reformed church felt that requiring church membership beginning at birth was inconsistent with the New Testament example. They felt that the church should be completely removed from government (the proto-free church tradition), and that people should join only once they were willing to publicly acknowledge that they believed in Jesus and wanted to live in accordance with his teachings. At a small meeting on January 21, 1525, Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and George Blaurock, along with twelve others, baptized each other. This meeting marks the beginning of the Anabaptist movement. In the spirit of the times, many groups followed, preaching any number of ideas about hierarchy, the state, eschatology, and sexual license, running from utter abandon to extreme chastity. These movements are together referred to as the Radical Reformation.
Many government and religious leaders, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, considered voluntary church membership to be dangerous — the concern of some deepened by reports of the Münster Rebellion, led by a violent sect of Anabaptists. They joined forces to fight the movement, using methods such as persecution, banishment, torture, and sometimes executing them as heretics.
Despite heavy efforts of the state churches, the movement spread slowly around Western Europe, primarily along the Rhine. Many of the earliest Anabaptist leaders were killed in an attempt to purge Europe of the new sect. By 1530, most of the founding leaders had been killed for refusing to renounce their beliefs. Many believed that God did not condone killing or the use of force for any reason and were therefore unwilling to fight for their lives. These pacifist branches often survived by seeking refuge in neutral cities or nations, such as Strasbourg. Their safety, however, was often tenuous, as a shift in alliances or an invasion could mean resumed persecution. Other groups of Anabaptists, such as the cult of the Batenburgers, were eventually destroyed by their very willingness to fight. This played a large part in the evolution of Anabaptist theology.
In the early days of the Anabaptist movement, Menno Simons, a Catholic priest in the Netherlands, heard of the movement and started to rethink his Catholic faith. He questioned the doctrine of transubstantiation, but was reluctant to leave the Roman Catholic Church. His thinking was influenced by the death of his brother, who, as a member of an Anabaptist group, was killed when he and his companions were attacked and refused to defend themselves. In 1536, at the age of 40, Simons left the Roman Catholic Church. Soon thereafter he became a leader within the Anabaptist movement. He would become a hunted man with a price on his head for the rest of his life. His name became associated with scattered groups of nonviolent Anabaptists he helped to organize and consolidate.