views updated May 18 2018


ETHNONYMS: Anabaptists, Doopgesinden, Mennists, Mennonists, Pennsylvania Dutch, the Plain People, Swiss Brethren, Taufgesinnten, Wiedertaufer


Identification. The name "Mennist" or "Mennonite" was first used in the Netherlands during the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation when it was applied to the followers of Menno Simons, a disaffected Roman Catholic priest who was influenced by the left-wing Anabaptist reformers. Excluding the related groups, the Amish and Hutterite, there are today eighteen distinct Mennonite groups in North America: Chortitzer Mennonite Church, Conference of Mennonite in Canada, Evangelical Mennonite Conference, Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference, Old Colony Mennonite Church (Manitoba), Reinlander Mennonite Church, Old Colony (outside Manitoba), Old Order Mennonite, Sommerfelder Mennonite Church, Church of God in Christ Mennonite (Holdeman), Evangelical Mennonite Brethren, Brethren in Christ Church, Mennonite Brethren Churches of North America, Mennonite Church, Evangelical Mennonite Church, General Conference Mennonite Church, Old Order River Brethren, and Old Order Mennonite. Other communities, congregations, and denominations related to the above have been established throughout the world.

Location. The Dutch Mennonite movement originated in Emden, East Friesland, and from there spread to Groningen, Friesland, and other Dutch and adjoining Belgian provinces. In northern Germany, Mennonite communities were founded in Schleswig-Holstein, Westphalia, and the Rhineland. In Switzerland, Anabaptist leaders had organized congregations more than a decade before Simons joined the movement in 1536. Currently, the major concentrations of Mennonite populations are, however, not in those areas where they originated. As early as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Mennonites often left these European countries to escape severe persecution. The first community of Mennonites (1683, Germantown, Pennsylvania) was established by a Dutch group from Krefeld, Germany. In 1710, the largest colonial settlement was established in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, by Swiss and South German Mennonites. Even earlier migrations in the 1500s and 1600s from the Netherlands and Germany led to the formation of large Mennonite settlements in the Polish-Prussian region of Danzig and the Vistula Delta. During the late 1700s some left Prussia for the Russian Ukraine where they had been invited to organize agricultural settlements. Again in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Mennonites left Prussia, Poland, and Russia to settle in North and South America. After World War I, many from Russia, Canada, and Germany emigrated to Latin America. Presently, Mennonite congregations and communities are found throughout the world: the Soviet Union, China, Western and Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and North, Central, and South America.

Demography. The world Mennonite population in 1984 was approximately 700,000: North America, 310,000; Africa, 107,300; Asia, 113,600; Australia, 100; Caribbean, Central and South America, 76,300; Europe, 38,700; and Soviet Union, 55,000.

Linguistic Affiliation. Owing to the dispersion of Mennonite communities and their missionary activities, linguistic affiliation is diverse. Some American communities (including Latin America) use Plattdeutsch (Low German) in daily conversation, and High German for religious functions. Often, English is the only language spoken, especially in North America, and others speak French, Swiss, or predominantly High German (Switzerland, France, and West Germany). In Latin America, Mennonites often speak German, Spanish, and English. Elsewhere, various African and Asian languages are spoken.

History and Cultural Relations

Anabaptist historians have in the past tended to view Zurich, Switzerland, as the epicenter from which the movement extended to the Swiss Confederation, the Netherlands, Austria, Bavaria, Wurttemberg, and the Palatinate. Today, it is argued that this view oversimplifies an otherwise socially, politically, and ideologically diverse movement. Mennonite Anabaptism was a product of both the sixteenth-century Protestant reforms and the fundamental changes taking place in politics and economics across Europe. Thus, like other Reformation religions, they were contending not only with the Roman church but also with changing and discontinuous feudal forces. Unlike mainstream reformers, however, they rejected infant baptism and called for a community of believers or "rebaptizers" (thus, anabaptists)those who subscribed to the practice of adult baptism upon the confession of faith. The rejection of infant baptism was more than symbolic; it was a challenge to both church and civil authoritya violation of ecclesiastical and civil law. Baptism signified the voluntary commitment of the adult believer not only to the church but also to the closed community of believers, or Gemeinde. Adult baptism symbolized a contract or covenant with God and communityan agreement to respect the Gemeinde and its binding authority. Unlike the more radical contingents of the Anabaptist movement (especially the Hutterian Brethren), the Mennonites embraced the emerging ideology of private property. The ideological roots of contemporary Mennonites can be traced to the Swiss Brethren (in Switzerland and South Germany) and the North German and Netherlands Mennonites.

Interaction with non-Mennonites varies with the group in question. For example, the Holdeman strictly limit interaction not only with non-Mennonites but with members of other Mennonite groups. The General Conference Mennonite Church or the Mennonite Brethren are less concerned, if at all, with limiting interaction with outsiders. Relations with governments and non-Mennonites have frequently been strained during wartime as most are conscientious objectors. During World War I, they were severely treated by the United States government and their neighbors who often perceived them as German sympathizers. In some cases, they were forbidden the use of the German language, their parochial schools were closed, and their barns or homes painted yellow. Still today, most refuse military service and others refuse to take oaths, vote, or serve in public office.


Historically, the Mennonites were settled as peasants on feudal estates, as yeomanry on independent farms, and as artisans and merchants in the towns of feudal Europe. Early in the movement, many were driven from the towns and forced into agricultural areas and pursuits. The city of Danzig, for example, refused some habitation. As Mennonites migrated from the Netherlands and other places around Europe and settled in Prussia, Poland, and Russia, they endeavored to establish village settlements. In Poland, they became distinguished and were known as Hollanderdorfer. But as private property in land increasingly replaced (feudal) usufruct rights, these traditional settlement patterns were disrupted. Yet, with each move, they sought again to reestablish villages, especially in Russia. In North America, a few village settlements were established but were soon threatened, as they had been elsewhere, by private property in land and private Household accumulation. Only in the less developed areas of the world (in particular, Belize) have these village settlement patterns survived into the present day.

In rural North America today, Mennonites are settled in a manner not unlike other farmsas dispersed private family farms. Swiss Mennonites established a settlement pattern known as the Hof. In the Jura Mountains of Switzerland and in southern parts of Germany they were independent yeomanry who sometimes settled compact or cluster villages (Haufendorfer). The Swiss and German Mennonites settling in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Kansas lived on isolated private farmsGermantown, Pennsylvania, was one exception. Among the largest population concentrations today are Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and south-central Kansas. Throughout the twentieth century, increasing numbers of Mennonites in North America have settled in urban areas. Today, less than one-third of Mennonites live on farms, one-third in rural communities (but nonfarm), and one-third in large urban areas.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. From their Beginnings, the Mennonites have been known for their agricultural skills. In the Netherlands and Prussia they drained swamps and built and maintained sophisticated canal Systems. The Swiss Mennonites bred exceptionally productive dairy cattle. In the eighteenth century, the Russian state recruited Prussian Mennonites to assist in developing agriculture in the Ukraine. Some became known for their dairy herds, merino sheep raising, and orchards, and the Russian Mennonites were pioneers in the production and marketing of the famous hard winter (turkey red) wheat, which later brought them to the attention of land agents in the United States and Canada. Today, most have become wage laborers, successful entrepreneurs, educators, or professionals, and only a minority earn a living by farming. Yet in Africa and Asia, many are still agrarian producers, and in Belize, the Mennonites provide nearly all the food consumed and Marketed in the country.

Industrial Arts. In Russia, they manufactured farm equipment for local use as well as for marketing. Among those groups discouraging commercial activity there are many who are skilled carpenters and cabinet and furniture makers.

Trade. Throughout their history, the Mennonites have depended on trade. In the Baltic, they were involved in the cereal grain trade. In Russia, they sold wool, wheat, and farm equipment. In North America, many become known not only for grain production but for processing and storage of grain. Although their communities have often been extensively involved in commercial activities, they have also been quite self-sufficient. Some of the more conservative groups such as the Holdeman strongly discourage wage labor or commercial occupations. In some cases, they are forbidden to earn interest or carry insurance.

Division of Labor. In Poland, Prussia, and Russia, the low level of development of technology required a community division of laborfarming or dike construction and maintenance necessitated a degree of cooperation that families alone could not provide. Otherwise, within households, there has been and for some, such as the Holdeman, there remains a strict division of labor between the sexes.

Land Tenure. In feudal societies, Mennonites normally held usufruct rights to land and allocated some for communal and family use. As peasants were emancipated and land was transformed into a commodity throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, communities played increasingly smaller roles in the allocation and management of land. In North America, however, during the last part of the 1880s, some settlements of Russian origin continued to distribute and use land in a manner contrary to the prevailing private farmstead. The Swiss Mennonites had established early in their North American experience a freehold land tenure pattern that emphasized the individual private farmstead.

Kinship, Marriage and Family

Kinship The Mennonites practice bilateral descent and use kin terms typical of bilateral kindreds.

Marriage. Historically, Mennonites were forbidden to marry non-Mennonites and, in some cases, members of other Mennonite groups. Presently, only the more conservative ones proscribe marriage outside the group. Marriage is strictly monogamous, and historically families negotiated the conditions of marriage (again, arrangements varied from group to group). Currently, only among the more conservative Mennonites are such arrangements made. The Umbitter (matchmaker) was usually a role played by the church pastor or elders among the Dutch, Prussian, and Russian Mennonites. Among the Old Colony and Holdeman Mennonites a form of matchmaking continues. Yet, even among the more liberal denominations, informal marriage arrangements and a Concern for selection of partners from within the church continue through church-sponsored events like camps, retreats, and institutions of higher education. Among all these groups the marriage ceremony is taken as seriously as baptism and is a ritual centered in the congregation and performed by church elders or pastors. The Swiss Mennonites, unlike those descended from the Netherlandish wing, have historically conducted the marriage ritual in the home. Although most currently conduct church weddings, they tend to be simpler than typical Protestant ceremonies. Presently, residence is neolocal, and only the more strict of the denominations strongly discourage and sometimes sanction divorce. In former times, it was common for the bride and her family to assemble a dowry. Historically, there have often been cousin marriages.

Domestic Unit. Until recently, small extended families were common and are still typical among some groups. Among contemporary Mennonites the nuclear family tends to predominate. New households are typically created in each generation, usually but not necessarily at marriage, and are ordinarily dissolved at the death of the last spouse.

Inheritance. Inheritance practices vary from group to group and through time. In the past, both rules of primogeniture and partibility are found. Today, however, property devolves bilaterally. In rural areas, it is often the case that property passes to persons who have taken care of the owners in their later years.

Socialization. Generally, children were and continue to be raised according to strict codes of conduct. Among some, dress codes are strictly enforced for all age groups. Still in the twentieth century, many insist on providing their own educational institutions, and some withdraw their children from school beginning in the eighth grade. Among most groups, however, parents encourage their offspring to remain in school and continue with postsecondary education. Throughout North America, there are numerous four-year colleges affiliated with the various denominations.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Two social institutions, church and education, have played dominant roles in Mennonite life. This is as true for the present as for the past. But between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries, these institutions were far more influential and had not, as is more recently evident, incorporated mainstream values and ideas. In fact, not until the twentieth century were women, in some denominations and congregations, permitted or encouraged to assume the roles of church elder (Aeltester ) or bishop, minister, or teacher. This effectively removed women from major decision-making bodies and relegated them to ancillary roles within the Community. The church or congregation was the most powerful institutionit sanctioned marriage, negotiated with secular authorities, and established codes of conduct (Ordnung ) governing all aspects of life. Church elders were the ultimate authority, and no secular agency could rule on matters pertaining to community life. This, however, was impossible to maintain, as economic and political changes associated with the transition from feudal to capitalist-dominated governments often undermined church authority and led members to capitulate to local and state authorities. In the present, some conservative Mennonites continue to resist participation in government.

Similarly, Mennonites have always recognized the need to provide their own schooling. In Prussia, Russia, and the United States, they held tenaciously to the right to educate their own; yet state bureaucracies pressured them to concede partial control. As was true for most Anabaptist groups, Mennonites did not believe that children should receive education beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic. Life in agrarian communities was, according to their teaching, potentially jeopardized by knowledge of "worldly" affairs. Although many of the more conservative Mennonite groups retain control of their educational institutions, the majority use the public schools. In fact, at the level of postsecondary education, some have distinguished themselvesthere are several major Mennonite colleges and Bible institutes throughout the world, and their historical archives are among the finest.

Political Organization. Their ideological insistence on the strict separation of church and state meant that members did not participate in political organizations outside of the community. Within the Gemeinde a hierarchical distribution of power was highly suspect, but nevertheless a three-tiered ministry emerged. The highest and most revered was that of elder (Aeltester) who was elected by Gemeinde members and who, among other things, had exclusive authority to ordain new elders. Among the Swiss and German Mennonites the elder position was occupied by a bishop who held the same authority. In addition to elders, there were preachers and ministers (Dienaren ) who were also chosen by the congregation. The former were allowed only to preach, whereas the minister could not only preach but also baptize new members. Deacons were likewise appointed by the congregation to serve the poor and care for widows, elderly, and orphans. Most important, Mennonites strongly believed that Gemeinde authorities should serve; therefore, they were not to be differentiated from other members. For this reason, they were not compensated for their service, and a professional clergy is, for the most part, a recent phenomenon, although some continue to insist upon a lay clergy.

Among Mennonites in Prussia and Russia, the Bruderschaft (brotherhood meetings) were occasionally convened by the elders. In these meetings, the men from the congregation discussed and resolved matters related to congregational life. It was often the case that the Bruderschaft assisted in the resolution of private household matters and conflicts Between households. In particular, the Bruderschaft decided if a member was to be disciplined by temporary banishment or expulsion. Imposed on the Mennonites in Russia, and to a lesser extent in Prussia, was a particular form of village Political organization.

Among the early Pennsylvania Mennonites a conference was started (1711) to provide leadership and continuity Between various Gemeinde. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, other Mennonite communities and congregations began to form umbrella organizations or conferences. The General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches and the General Conference Mennonite Church are among the largest today. In 1920, an inter-Mennonite organization, the Mennonite Central Committee, was formed to serve as a Cooperative agency for a larger Mennonite constituency. This organization is best known for its disaster relief programs.

Social Control. In the past, social control was accomplished through application of the ban and avoidance. If members were not sufficiently repentant, they were banned (excommunicated) or shunned and denied access to the Gemeinde. Still today, some of the more conservative groups strictly apply these mechanisms of social control.

Conflict. Throughout their history there have been Numerous churchwide schisms. The most notable of the Historical schisms have been the sixteenth-century Netherlands Frisian-Flemish; the Amish division from the Swiss Brethren; the Mennonite Brethren schism in Russia; and the Holdeman Mennonite division.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. One of the most important points of difference between Anabaptism and the state churches in the sixteenth century was over the proper role of the church. The church was to be a voluntary association of believers who chose to freely but obediently submit to the community (Gemeinde). The church, they argued, must remain separate from the state and secular or worldly affairs. Special emphasis has been given to the ethical teachings in the New Testament and, in particular, the Sermon on the Mount. Christians were to gather in communities, reject the outside world, war, violence, and refuse to take oaths. Life in the community was to be simple and individual differences in wealth and status deemphasized. Mennonites, however, rejected the radical Anabaptist teachings on the "community of goods," a practice among the Hutterites. Instead, they believed that followers should voluntarily limit their private property insofar as it undermined the common aims, faith, and practices of the Gemeinde; individual self-interest was to remain subordinate to the interests of the community. Mennonites interpret the Bible to mean that Christians may possess property, but it must be recognized that all things come from God; he is the one and only proprietor of goodsall that one can do is practice effective stewardship.

Religious Practitioners. Historically no particular consideration or training has been given to religious leaders. In Recent times, however, seminaries have been founded and clergy have received specialized training. The more Conservative groups retain a lay ministry.

Ceremonies. In addition to the ceremonies found in most Protestant religions, the Mennonites give special consideration to the rituals of baptism and footwashing at Communion. The rite of entrance into the community was symbolized by baptism, and footwashing (often the cause of some Controversy) was a way of symbolizing that no one person was better than another.

Arts. Music, among the Mennonites, has often been controversial. Some denominations exclude musical instruments and allow only singing (often without harmony), whereas others lay a strong emphasis on classical church music. Only among the more conservative groups is singing done in the German language.

Medicine. Late in the nineteenth century, some Mennonites adhered to what could be described as Galenic humoral medicine and extensively utilized midwives. Soon, however, most accepted the allopathic medical tradition, and today Mennonites are well known for their hospitals (medical and mental).

Death and Afterlife. Access to heaven was not predetermined. One is assured an afterlife only after having been a disciplined member of the community. Historically, some have given emphasis to the Gemeinde in their mortuary tradition by burying their members in the order of their dyingdeemphasizing family membership.


Dyck, Cornelius J. (1981) An Introduction to Mennonite History. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press.

Kraybill, Paul N., ed. (1984) Mennonite World Handbook. Lombard, Ill.: Mennonite World Conference.

The Mennonite Encyclopedia: A Comprehensive Reference Work on the Anabaptist-Mennonite Movement (1955-59). 4 vols. Hillsboro, Kans.: Mennonite Brethren Publishing House.

Redekop, Calvin (1989). Mennonite Society. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Smith, Henry C. (1981) Story of the Mennonites. Newton, Kans.: Faith and Life Press.

Urry, James (1989). None but Saints: The Transformation of Mennonite Life in Russia, 1789-1889. Winnipeg: Hyperion Press.



views updated May 18 2018


MENNONITES . The Mennonites, a Christian denomination, were first called Menists, or Mennonites, in 1541 by Countess Anna of Friesland after the group's primary leader, Menno Simons (14961561). She used this name in order to distinguish the Mennonites, as peaceful settlers whom she welcomed in her lands, from other, revolutionary, groups. Historically and theologically, Mennonites are the direct descendants of sixteenth-century Anabaptists, a radical reform group in Europe.

Early History and Doctrine

One of the most significant influences upon Mennonite history and identity has been the experience of decades of persecution during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Numerous martyrologies, including the classic Martyrs' Mirror (1660), testify to this experience. The Mennonites lived in an age that was not ready for religious or social pluralism. In their insistence upon a church constituted of believers only, and in their embodiment of the principles of voluntary church membership and the separation of church and state, they represented a counterculture that society could not tolerate. In their reading of the Bible, however, they found these principles to be self-evident, particularly in the teaching and example of Jesus Christ. In keeping with the vision of their Anabaptist forebears, the Mennonites also shared the vision of a New Testament church restored both in essence and in form.

A church-world dualism was implicit in the Mennonites' theology and social view. It had been given early expression in the "Brotherly Union" of 1527, sometimes called the Schleitheim Confession of Faith, article four of which states:

Now there is nothing else in the world and all creation than good or evil, believing and unbelieving, darkness and light, the world and those who are [come] out of the world, God's temple and idols, Christ and Belial, and none will have part with the other.

Toleration came to the Mennonites first in the Netherlands in the 1570s and somewhat later in other parts of Europe, except in Switzerland, where severe restrictions against them remained until the eighteenth century. Increasing freedom in the north led to rapid growth in membership, until by 1700 the Dutch congregations included 160,000 members. The sectarian virtues of frugality and hard work led to considerable affluence and to urbanization. Soon Mennonites became prominent patrons of the arts in the Netherlands. Numerous artists, poets, and writers from among their ranks achieved lasting fame. But the Enlightenment spirit of rationalism and secularism was also a part of these developments, and by 1837 there were only 15,300 members left in the Netherlands. Late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century developments resulted in another increase in membership.

The early pattern of survival through withdrawal from society led to numerous migrations. Records indicate that emigration from the Netherlands eastward to Hamburg and along the coast to Danzig (present-day Gdańsk) began as early as 1534. Eventually large settlements developed in the Vistula delta. In 1788, migrations began from there to the Ukraine. By 1835 some 1,600 families had settled on Russian lands. By 1920 this population had grown to 120,000. But migration began again, this time from Russia beginning in the 1870s, primarily to North America.

A similar pattern prevailed among the Swiss and South German Mennonites. Many escaped Swiss persecution by migrating to the Palatinate or to central Germany. Others immigrated to the United States and Canada, beginning in 1663. The first permanent Mennonite settlement in the United States was established at Germantown, six miles north of Philadelphia, in 1683. Yet the total number of western European Mennonites coming to North America did not exceed 8,000, which, along with the approximately 55,000 immigrants from Prussian, Polish, and Russian lands, contributed to a core immigration to North America of no more than 70,000 up to the mid-1980s. There have also been migrations from North America, primarily from Canada to Mexico, Paraguay, Bolivia, and other Latin American locations. Thus pilgrimage has been central to Mennonite identity.

While Mennonites are non-creedal and affirm the Bible as their final authority for faith and life, they have written numerous confessions throughout their history. Chief among these are the Brotherly Union (1527) and the Dordrecht Confession of Faith (1632). In these the nature of the church as a believing, covenanting, caring, and obedient fellowship is central, as would be in keeping with the vision of restoring the New Testament church. The importance of the new birth and the authority of the Bible are stressed. Peace, including absolute pacifism, is considered an integral part of the gospel and, therefore, part of the discipleship of the believer. This discipleship is possible within the context of an Arminian theology, which acknowledges free will rather than Augustinian determinism. The second Adam, Christ, has undone the damage of the first Adam, making possible a gradual transformation of the disciple's life into the image of Christ himself. Ethics is a part of the Good News. Grace is necessary for discipleship rather than being antithetical to it. The believer who has experienced this grace is ready to receive baptism as a covenanting member of the "Believers' Church," a term commonly used since the 1950s to refer to those who are baptized as adults.

Later Developments

Partly through migration and natural increase, but particularly through twentieth-century missionary activities, Mennonites were scattered across the globe by the late twentieth century. In the early 1990s their total membership worldwide was approximately 800,000. The Mennonite World Conference, begun in 1925, meets every five or six years for fellowship and the sharing of ideas, as well as for worship and celebration. It is not a delegate conference, and no decisions binding upon world membership are made.

The extent to which contemporary Mennonites hold to the doctrines of early Anabaptism varies from nation to nation, from group to group, and even from congregation to congregation. Mennonites do form regional and national conferences, but they are basically congregational in polity. The Amish, who split off from Swiss and Alsatian Mennonites in 16931697, as well as the Hutterites and some conservative Mennonites, do not form conferences. Historically, Pietism, more than other socioreligious movements, has influenced Mennonite theology; fundamentalism has also had an impact in North America. Both movements strengthen the inner, personal, and experiential aspect of faith but weaken social concern, pacifism, and the inherent church-world dualism of the sixteenth century. An enthusiastic recovery of the Anabaptist vision, led by Harold S. Bender (18971962), has modified these influences since the 1940s.

Anabaptists Four Centuries Later (Kauffman and Harder, 1975) provides a profile of late-twentieth-century North American Mennonite religious attitudes and practices. In relation to two doctrinal orthodoxy scales established in the study, 90 percent of the respondents chose the most orthodox response on a liberal-orthodox continuum. About 80 percent of the members could identify a specific conversion experience. The practice of daily personal prayer ranged from a low of 73 percent in one conference to a high of 82 percent in another. More than 80 percent reported regular Sunday school participation, with teenagers having the highest rating. Fewer than 2 percent of the membership had experienced divorce or separation. Some 85 percent considered sexual intercourse before marriage as always wrong. The early emphasis on church-world dualism, pacifism, not taking oaths, and church discipline was affirmed by a range of from 60 to 80 percent, depending upon the conference.

This religious stance is nurtured through worship, attendance at denominational schools, devotional practices, small-group Bible study, and involvement in mission and service projects. Church buildings are generally functional and relatively austere. Worship services are usually sermon-centered. Most congregations enjoy singing, often a cappella. The Lord's Supper is celebrated two to four times annually. Some congregations practice the rite of foot washing.

Numerous liberal arts colleges are maintained in North America; they were established originally to train workers for church vocations. Seminaries, Bible schools, secondary schools, and other church institutions are maintained by Mennonites around the world as political and economic conditions permit. Retirement centers, community mental health centers, and medical and disaster aid services are maintained particularly in North America and Europe. The concern for united help for needy people around the world led to organization of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in North America in 1920. A Dutch Mennonite relief agency had been organized two hundred years earlier. In 2003, the MCC had a cash and material aid budget in excess of $62 million, spent on projects both abroad and in North America. In the same year, about 1400 long-term and over 800 short-term workers were involved in projects in over sixty countries.

These activities are a direct extension of the Mennonite conviction that word and deed must be one and that love must be visible. It may, however, also be that these and related activities serve the less altruistic function of legitimizing the social significance and usefulness of a traditionally pacifist and persecuted people. Nevertheless, most Mennonites are deeply concerned about the futility of war and nuclear weapons, as well as about global poverty and the need for peaceful steps toward economic and social justice. These concerns are part of the total global mission to which Mennonites continue to feel committed.


The standard reference work in English is The Mennonite Encyclopedia, 4 vols. plus index, edited by Harold S. Bender and C. Henry Smith (Scottdale, Pa., 19551959). Nelson P. Springer and A. J. Klassen have compiled a helpful bibliography, the Mennonite Bibliography, 16311961, 2 vols. (Scottdale, Pa., 1977). A revised edition of An Introduction to Mennonite History, edited by Cornelius J. Dyck (Scottdale, Pa., 1981), provides a basic account of the entire Anabaptist and Mennonite movement worldwide from the sixteenth century to the present. J. Howard Kauffman and Leland Harder's Anabaptists Four Centuries Later (Scottdale, Pa., 1975) is a statistically rich and well-interpreted study of Mennonite religious attitudes and practices at the time of its publication. A particularly useful volume for a country-by-country study of world Mennonitism is the Mennonite World Handbook, edited by Paul N. Kraybill (Lombard, Ill., 1978).

New Sources

Driedger, Leo. Mennonites in the Global Village. Toronto, 2000.

Driedger, Leo, and Donald B. Kraybill. Mennonite Peacemaking: From Quietism to Activism. Scottdale, Pa., 1994.

Jost, Lynn, and Connie Faber. Family Matters: Discovering the Mennonite Brethren. Hillsboro, Kans., 2002.

Cornelius J. Dyck (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated Jun 08 2018


MENNONITES. A worldwide religious movement with some 1.2 million adult members in the year 2000, Mennonites are the direct descendants of the Anabaptists (re-baptizers), a radical wing of the Protestant Reformation of the early sixteenth century. Although sharing basic doctrines of the Lutheran and Reformed faiths, Anabaptists held that these Protestants were too closely aligned with coercive governments. Contending for full religious liberty, Anabaptists were the first of what were called the Free Churches. They rejected the ancient practice of infant baptism as nonscriptural, and hence baptized only adults who could freely confess their conversion faith. These converts joined in covenants with fellow believers,

pledging to support each other both spiritually and materially. Because they refused to swear oaths or take up arms, Anabaptists were cruelly persecuted as societal rebels. Emerging first in the Swiss cantons and southern Germany, they were soon widely scattered throughout Europe, where at twentieth century's end they still lived in small numbers.

Anabaptists were first called Mennonites in the Low Countries after Menno Simons, a Catholic priest before his dramatic conversion in 1536 to the cause of these hunted heretics. His persistent pastoral visits and extensive writings served to gather, maintain, and unite the dissenters, who were badly dispersed and distressed by governmental and state church pressure, both Catholic and Protestant. Some Anabaptist bodies, however, long continued to use names other than Mennonite, such as Taufgesinnten or Doopsgezinden (that is, those who are baptism-minded).

Mennonites came early to North America, and are mentioned as being in the colony of New Amsterdam in 1653. The beginnings of mass migration to the New World came in 1683 with the arrival in Philadelphia of some forty persons of Mennonite background. Later waves of migration took place throughout the eighteenth century, with most migrants settling in Pennsylvania before a dispersal southward and westward. In the nineteenth century large numbers of Mennonites came from northern Europe, some by way of Russia. Most Mennonite immigrants located in rural enclaves, where they lived in close-knit clusters to perpetuate their faith. The first Mennonites to migrate to Canada did so shortly after the beginning of the Revolutionary War, seeking relief as conscientious objectors to military pressures. Many Mennonites arrived in Canada after World War I and II after harrowing experiences as refugees.

Although Mennonites in Canada and the United States over the years have separated into a confusing number of small denominations, there are four major groupings: the (Old) Mennonites, largely of Swiss and German extraction; the General Conference Mennonites, largely of Dutch and Russian extraction; the Mennonite Brethren, the result of a schism in Russia in 1860 and heavily influenced by German Pietism; and the Amish, a conservative branch of Swiss and south German Mennonites who separated in 1693. In 2001, the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church united to form the new Mennonite Church USA, although some congregations departed in protest.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, Mennonites in North America largely spurned higher education and other institutions and agencies, but by the beginning of the twentieth century their life was marked by a surge of institution-building and creation of church programs. Among these institutions are Goshen College of Goshen, Indiana, and Eastern Mennonite University (Harrison-burg, Virginia), both sponsored by the Mennonite Church, and Bethel College of North Newton, Kansas, and Bluff-ton College of Bluffton, Ohio, sponsored by the General Conference Mennonite Church. Mennonites began missionary activity in Africa and Asia at that time and in South America and the Pacific region later on. That explains why in 2000 there were fewer active Mennonites in Europe and North America than in areas outside of those continents. Mennonites and associated groups form about ten thousand congregations in sixty-four nations, using eighty languages.

Mennonites are organized internationally in the Mennonite World Conference, which holds delegate conferences about every five years. Its office is in Strasbourg, France. The world gatherings cannot legislate for member bodies but work to further united witness and service.

A highly respected agency of social amelioration and development is the Mennonite Central Committee (with MCC USA offices in Akron, Pennsylvania, and MCC Canada offices in Winnipeg, Manitoba). The agency was founded in 1920 to coordinate the shipment of relief goods from North America to starving Mennonites in revolution-torn Ukraine. Following World War II, MCC efforts burgeoned until in 2000 it had a combined budget of over $63 million, with 1,511 salaried and volunteer workers in many nations.

Traditionally, Mennonites were known as Plain People, farm families marked by uniformly severe garb and nonconformist ways. Today, most Mennonites are thoroughly integrated into North American society, with many working as teachers, physicians, social workers, and other professionals. Their Anabaptist heritage is most noticeable in their peace stance and vigorous response to human need, as in their Mennonite Disaster Service, which sends volunteer teams to areas of natural catastrophe to clean and rebuild. Once hated heretics, Mennonites have come to be widely known as compassionate and concerned fellow citizens.


Bender, Harold S., et al., eds. The Mennonite Encyclopedia. 5 vols. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1955–1990.

Dyck, Cornelius J. An Introduction to Mennonite History: A Popular History of the Anabaptists and the Mennonites. 3d ed. Scott-dale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1993.

Hostetler, John A. Amish Society. 4th ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 1993.

Kraybill, Donald B., and C. Nelson Hostetter. Anabaptist World USA. Scottdale, Pa: Herald Press, 2001.

Kreider, Robert S., gen. ed. The Mennonite Experience in America.4 vols. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1985–1996.

Donald F.Durnbaugh

See alsoMissions, Foreign ; Pacifism ; Religion and Religious Affiliation ; andvol. 9:Earliest American Protest against Slavery .


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Mennonites in America, currently numbering 416,000, derive from three main streams of European immigration, augmented by significant numbers of African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, and other Americans who have become Mennonites in response to mission endeavors. Vietnamese and Cambodian immigrants have also formed Mennonite congregations in recent decades. The largest concentrations of Mennonites are in eastern Pennsylvania, central Kansas, southern Manitoba, Ontario, Ohio, northern Indiana, and the Mennonite Brethren in California.

Mennonites, from their beginnings in about 1525, stressed that church membership must be a voluntary choice. This is symbolized by baptism of believers (i.e., infants may not be baptized). Baptism may be by sprinkling, pouring, or immersion, depending on the group. Congregational singing, often a cappella (without instrumental accompaniment), has a high priority in group worship.

From their beginnings Mennonites stood apart from the state, largely eschewing political office and extolling humility and service rather than power and empire. This set them apart from dominant religious and cultural emphases. Changes since 1960, both among Mennonites and in the larger culture, have brought segments of each much closer together.

The first stream of Mennonite immigration to America, in about 1700, was from Switzerland and southern Germany. The second wave, from 1830 to 1870, was made up of Amish Mennonites from Alsace and the Palatinate. The third major immigration was of Mennonites of Dutch origin who, fleeing persecution, had immigrated to Prussia and then to Russia, coming to America in 1870. The fourth group was the Mennonite Brethren Church, formed in Russia in response to German Pietism and immigrated after 1920. Already in Russia they had subdivided into several groups, some of which have recently dropped the name "Mennonite," ostensibly in the interest of advancing evangelism. The Mennonite Brethren Church is the third largest Mennonite group in the United States today.

The Amish Mennonites and Mennonites of Swiss origin amalgamated in about 1900 to form the Mennonite Church. The Mennonites from Russia, several congregations from northern Germany, a more liberal group from eastern Pennsylvania, and some Illinois Mennonites formed the General Conference of the Mennonites of North America. These two bodies are now merging. This process has been complicated by contrasting church polities, with the General Conference Mennonites emphasizing autonomy for both individuals and congregations, while the Mennonite Church is more group-minded in relation to congregations. The two groups share a common confession of faith. Top denominational leadership for both groups is by election.

Mennonites, like most religious groups immigrating to America, have fragmented into numerous subgroups, reflecting their time of immigration and acculturation. A major schism involved the formation of the Old Order Mennonites following 1872. They rejected institutionalization, including Sunday schools, and continue to be locally organized. Some still drive horses and buggies. Other subgroups include Conservative Mennonites, Fellowship Churches, and others too numerous to mention. Issues for these Mennonites have included the rejection of acculturation as well as increasing institutionalization and bureaucratization in the main bodies and sometimes retention of traditional symbols such as the prayer veiling for women together with variations in biblical interpretation. Frequently these subgroups have objected to the prominence given to war resistance and witness to the state by the main groups as well as to women in ministry and to liberal theology.

Mennonites officially reject participation in warfare, and since the 1960s Mennonites have increasingly emphasized peacemaking, relief, and service. The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a relief and service agency that is supported by all branches of the Mennonite Church, was begun in response to famine in Russia, particularly in the Mennonite communities, in 1920. Its volunteers currently serve in programs worldwide. Two of its projects, which have elicited widespread support across lay groups, are relief sales, designed to raise funds to support MCC programs, and the Mennonite Disaster Service, which coordinates volunteer efforts in response to national disasters.

See alsoBaptism; Music; Practice; Religious Communities; Religious Persecution.


Hostetler, Beulah S. American Mennonites and ProtestantMovements: A Community Paradigm. 1987.

Mennonite Encyclopedia. 5 vols. 1956–1959, 1990.

The Mennonite Experience in America, 4 vols. 1985–1998.

Mennonite Yearbook. Published biannually.

Beulah S. Hostetler


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Mennonites, a pacifist, Anabaptist sect that originated in the Low Countries in the early 1540s. Throughout their history, the Mennonites have often been victims of religious persecution because of their beliefs, including their insistence upon separation of church and state, refusal to bear arms, renunciation of participation in secular affairs, refusal to take oaths, and their insistence that their children be educated in religious schools taught in Plattdeutsch, the German spoken by members of the sect.

The Mennonites' desire to remain apart from society at large resulted in frequent mass migrations (Auswanderungen) to new lands. A large-scale Auswanderung of Mennonites to Latin America took place after World War I and a smaller one after World War II, when the Mennonites' refusal to bear arms and their Germanic ways seemed to call their loyalty into question. In 1922, over two thousand Mennonites migrated from Manitoba, Canada, to Chihuahua, Mexico, where they were joined by Mennonites from Russia fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution. By 1930, the Chihuahua colony had a population of more than six thousand and had acquired land in Durango. In the mid-1950s, a faction of the Mexican Mennonites, fearful of the government's plans to integrate the sect into the social security system, migrated to British Honduras (Belize), where they established a new colony at Santa Elena, near the Guatemalan border.

Substantial numbers of Mennonites also migrated to other parts of Latin America, most often seeking regions with sizable German populations and land policies that were amenable to the establishment of large agricultural holdings that could be privately owned by the sect. Large numbers of Mennonites emigrated to Paraná, Brazil, and to Paraguay, where, in 1926 and 1927, Canadian and Sommerfelder (South Russian) Mennonites founded the Menno colony in the Chaco Region, south of Puerto Casado. In the 1930s, German-Russians and Polish Mennonites escaped Nazi persecution and Stalinist purges by immigrating to the Chaco, where they established a colony near Menno, called Colonia Ferheim. During the 1940s, a third wave of German-Russian and Russian Mennonites escaped political turmoil in Europe by moving to the Chaco, where they founded yet another large Mennonite settlement, known as Colonia Neuland. The Paraguayan Chaco is now home to one of the largest Mennonite populations in the world.

See alsoGerman-Latin American Relations; Protestantism.


Joseph Winfield Fretz, Mennonite Colonization in Mexico (1952).

Karl Ilg, Pioniere in Brasilien: Durch Bergwelt, Urwald und Steppe erwanderte Volkskunde der deutschsprachigen Siedler in Brasilien und Peru (1972).

Annemarie Elizabeth Krause, Mennonite Settlement in the Paraguayan Chaco (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1952).

Moisés Gonzáles Navarro, La colonización en México, 1877–1910 (1960); The Mennonite Encyclopedia, 4 vols. (1955–1959).

Harry Leonard Sawatzky, They Sought a Country: Mennonite Colonization in Mexico (1971).

Additional Bibliography

Bennion, Janet. Desert Patriarchy: Mormon and Mennonite Communities in the Chihuahua Valley. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2004.

Epp, Marlene. Women Without Men: Mennonite Refugees of the Second World War. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.

Hinkley, Katherine, and Thomas H. Guderjan. A Mennonite Landscape: The Blue Creek Community. San Antonio: St. Mary's University, 1997.

Romero Lévera, Mario Aníbal. Las tres grandes colonias mennonitas del Chaco y su influencia sobre el desarrollo económico del Paraguay. Paraguay: s.n., 2003.

Stoesz, Edgar, and Muriel Thiessen Stackley. Garden in the Wilderness: Mennonite Communities in the Paraguayan Chaco, 1927–1997. Winnipeg: CMBC Publications, 1999.

Thiesen, John D., Theron F. Schlabach, and John J. Friesen. Mennonite and Nazi? Attitudes among Mennonite Colonists in Latin America, 1933–1945. Kitchener: Pandora Press, 1999.

                             Virginia Garrard-Burnett


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ETHNONYMS: Anabaptists, Mennists, Plain People

Mennonites are a German-speaking people distinguished by their life-style and religious beliefs, which derive from the Anabaptist movement of the 1520s and 1530s. There are about 80,000 Mennonites in Latin America, with the largest numbers in South America in Paraguay (15,000), Bolivia (8,000), and Brazil (6,000) and smaller numbers in Uruguay and Argentina. The largest, most visible, and best-described Mennonite community is that located in the Chaco region of Paraguay. The region was first settled by about 2,000 Mennonites fleeing repression in Canada who founded the Menno colony in 1926. In 1930 and 1947 the Fernheim and Neuland colonies were settled by Mennonites fleeing persecution in the Soviet Union. Mennonites also established the town of Filadelfia, which has become a major agricultural center in the Chaco. The Mennonites were drawn to Paraguay by offers of free or inexpensive land, exemption from military service, and religious and other freedoms.

Whereas the semiarid Chaco has proved unproductive for others, Mennonites since the second generation of their arrival have been notably successful agriculturists and dairy farmers. They are now not only self-sufficient but also provide 50 percent of the milk, butter, cheese, and yogurt for the entire nation. The Mennonites have always existed as a separate community within Paraguay and collect their own taxes, maintain their own schools and hospitals, erect German-village-style housing, dress conservatively, and eschew certain worldly pleasures such as dancing. Relations with neighboring Indian groups have been generally friendly, and the Mennonites have routinely employed Indians as wage laborers on their farms. The Mennonites have also resettled Indians on Mennonite land, converted many to Christianity, and provided other services through the Association of Indian-Mennonite Cooperative Services. Since the 1970s, however, the Mennonites have been criticized by some for taking a paternalistic stand toward the Indians and for attracting a large number of landless people to the region, who come in hope of finding work on Mennonite farms. To remedy the situation, the Mennonites have organized an administrative council composed of Mennonites and Indian representatives.

Improved means of communication, such as the paved Trans-Chaco Highway to Ascunción, have also drawn the Mennonites into Paraguayan society and led them to seek political office in order to protect their interests in the region.

See alsoMennonites in Volume 1, North America


Hack, Hendrik (1977). Indianer und Mennoniten im Paraguayischen Chaco. Filadelfia: Asociación de los Servicios de Cooperación Indígena-Mennonita.


Menno Simons

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Menno Simons

The Dutch reformer Menno Simons (ca. 1496-1561) was one of the prominent leaders of Anabaptism in the Netherlands and northern Germany during one of the movement's most difficult periods.

Menno Simons was born in the village of Witmarsum in Dutch Friesland. Nothing is known of his early background, except that he decided to become a Catholic priest and was consequently ordained in March 1524. In his new capacity, he served from 1524 to 1536 near and in his native village. His work as a priest, however, was troubled by doubts, beginning as early as 1525, about the validity of Catholic teachings. Influenced by the writings of the Protestant reformers, especially Martin Luther, and by his own reading of the Bible, he finally decided in 1536 to renounce the Catholic Church and to be baptized as an Anabaptist. In the following year, he was ordained to the office of a bishop, or overseer, of the Anabaptists.

Since the Anabaptists were considered radical revolutionaries and were being persecuted (especially after the events in Münster, Westphalia, under John of Leiden) by the other religious groups, the office was not particularly desirable. In this position, Menno preached his nonviolent type of Anabaptism in the Netherlands until 1544, by which time he had become a much pursued heretic. After 1544 he spent most of his time in Germany, first along the Rhine and then later in the north. All the while he continued to serve on behalf of his faith until his death on Jan. 31, 1561. His constant activity made possible the survival and spread of the original, peaceful Anabaptist movement when it was most threatened by persecution.

During all of his missionary activity, Menno also wrote numerous pamphlets and books explaining the Anabaptist doctrines. The most important one was Foundation of theChristian Doctrine, or Foundation Book (1539). Although Menno was not a great theologian or philosopher, his writings were buttressed with quotations from Scripture and provided his followers, called Mennonites, with a good understanding of basic Anabaptist concepts. He believed that baptism and the Lord's Supper did not confer grace but reflected the inward state of the believer. The true church was composed of those who had experienced regeneration and a "new birth," thus rejecting infant baptism. Although oaths and military and government service were forbidden as contrary to Scripture, magistrates were to be obeyed in everything not prohibited by Scripture.

Further Reading

An English-language edition of Menno's works is Complete Writings, translated by Leonard Verduin and edited by John Christian Wenger (1956). One of the earliest biographies of Menno and still the most complete work in English is John Horsch, Menno Simons: His Life, Labors, and Teachings (1916). Later works on him include Harold S. Bender and John Horsch, Menno Simons' Life and Writings (1936), and Franklin H. Littell, A Tribute to Menno Simons (1961). □


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Mennonites. Christian denomination. It derives from followers of the 16th-cent. radical Reformer Menno Simons (1496–1561), a Dutch Roman Catholic priest who joined the Anabaptists in 1536. Simons's leadership was an inspiration to them. His teaching about believers' baptism, Church discipline, pacificism, and the non-participation of Christians in the magistracy gained wide support in many congregations, amongst whom he exercised an itinerant leadership ministry for twenty-five years. Today there are about 700,000 Mennonites in various parts of the world, mostly in America where their ranks have been occasionally fragmented by division.


views updated May 29 2018

Mennonites Christian sect founded by the Dutch reformer Menno Simons (1496–1561) and influenced by Anabaptist doctrines. They believe in the baptism of adult believers, and reject infant baptism as well as the doctrine of the real presence in the Eucharist.

Simons, Menno

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Simons, Menno (Dutch priest and radical reformer): see MENNONITES.