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Mennonite
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Mennonite

   

The Mennonites are a group of Christian Anabaptist denominations based on the teachings and tradition of Menno Simons. They are one of the peace churches, which hold to a doctrine of non-violence and pacifism. They are the modern denominations which present many Anabaptist views.

Their core beliefs, deriving from Anabaptist traditions are:

  1. Baptism of believers understood as threefold: Baptism by the spirit (internal change of heart), Baptism by water (public demonstration of witness), and baptism by blood (martyrdom and asceticism).
  2. Church discipline understood as threefold : Confession of Sins, Absolution of Sin, and Re-admission of Sinner in the church.
  3. The Lord's Supper as Memorial, shared by baptised believers within the discipline of the church.

One of the earliest expressions of their faith was the Schleitheim Confession, adopted in February 24, 1527. Its seven articles covered:

During the sixteenth century, the Mennonites and other Anabaptists were relentlessly persecuted. By the seventeenth century, some of them joined the state church in the Netherlands, and persuaded the authorities to relent in their attacks. The Mennonites outside the state church were divided on whether to remain in communion with their brothers within the state church, and this led to a split. Those against remaining in communion with them became known as the Amish, after their founder Jacob Amman. Those who remained in communion with them retained the name Mennonite. This period of persecution has had a significant impact on Mennonite identity. Martyrs Mirror, published in 1660, documents much of the persecution of Anabaptists and their predecessors. Today, the book is still the most important book besides the bible for many Mennonites and Amish.

Other disagreements over the years have led to other splits; sometimes the reasons were theological, sometimes practical, sometimes geographical. For instance, near the beginning of the twentieth century, there were some in the Amish church that wanted to begin having Sunday Schools and evangelize. Unable to persuade the rest of the Amish, they separated and formed the Conservative Mennonite Conference. Mennonites in Canada and other countries typically have independent denominations due to the practical considerations of distance and, in some cases, language.

Some Mennonite communities conscientiously reject the use of modern technology, such as electricity or motor transport. Such Mennonites are often referred to as Old Order Mennonites (although the term strictly refers to a particular church within that group) in order to distinguish them from Mennonite denominations that fully accept modern inventions.

Mennonites are prominent among denominations in disaster relief, often being the first to arrive with aid after hurricanes, floods and other disasters. In the last few decades they have also become more actively involved with peace and social justice issues, helping to found Christian Peacemaker Teams and Mennonite Conciliation Service

A brief history regarding the evolution of the Mennonite Church:

Throughout most of the middle ages to the early 15th century, the religion of central Europe was a state church known alternately as the Universal, or Catholic Church. The church was strictly regulated by the Pope, as were the residents who lived in the countries controlled by the Catholic Church. One of the most important rules laid out by the church was that every child born in a Catholic nation automatically became a member of the Catholic Church, and was baptized accordingly. Because it was the state religion, the laws of the church were enforced by the government, just as civil laws would be today. In that way, the church ensured that its membership would continue to grow.

Even the design of the church itself was a way to ensure that the residents understood its power over the area and the residents. It was designed to physically raise the church leader on a dominating alter at the head of the church to symbolize his closeness to God relative to the members, who sat at floor level. The local church leader, in theory, would pass prayers up through several layers of hierarchy to get them to the Pope, who was the only person who could communicate directly with God. Since people believed that, only by going through these layers, could they be forgiven of their sins, the Catholic church was of paramount importance to their daily lives. The services were delivered in Latin, which the largely uneducated and illiterate attendees of the church could neither read nor understand, so the services were always conducted in the same rote manner. The church members participated only by reciting certain things at certain times during the service, without understanding why, or often even what they were saying. Children learned this from their parents, so the arrangement continued. Anything that the church leaders wanted their parishioners to know was illustrated with the use of statues, pictures, etc. around the building. These symbols as a whole were known as icons, and the use of them in worship became known as “iconoclasty” or icon worship.

Church leaders made their congregation to understand that after a person died, their soul went to a place called “Purgatory”, where their soul was cleaned of its sins by fire. The length of time their souls burned was directly related to how many sins the person had committed during its years on Earth. In rural areas of central and northern Europe where the Pope’s reach was weakest, some monks took advantage of their position as church leaders. They would sell bits of cloth or animal bone and tell their parishioners that it was part of the clothing or a bit of bone from a Catholic saint. Saints were people who had been so good in life that they didn’t need to spend any time in Purgatory. Even the Pope joined in this deception by selling simple-minded citizens pieces of paper called “Indulgences”. The people were told that in exchange for this money, they would be forgiven a certain number of years in Purgatory. The money went back to Rome to build great Cathedrals. This worked for a while, but when the printing press was finally brought to Europe around 1455, the Bible became the first book printed with movable type, and therefore able to be mass-produced. People could now learn to read the Bible, and became able to intelligently disagree with what the church leaders had been telling them. This upset many people, and was a key factor leading to the “Reformation” in Europe. One of the leaders of the Reformation was a monk named Martin Luther. Although forced to go into hiding because of his beliefs against many of the policies of the Catholic Church, his translation of the Bible from Latin into German made it much more accessible to the masses. Today, members of the church founded upon his beliefs are known as Lutherans. Along with Luther, Ulrich Zwingli – the leader of the Protestant movement in Switzerland - and John Calvin - whose future Calvinist church believed in Predestination - also left the Catholic church, and founded what are today known as the Reformed and the Presbyterian churches, respectively. In the beginning, all three of these churches were also state churches, which had mandatory membership for all babies in the region, and baptized at birth to ensure continued church membership. The Lutheran, Reformed and Presbyterian churches, along with the Episcopal Church founded in 1534 by King Henry VIII, came to be the first of the Protestant churches. The Protestants got their name because they were backed by a powerful group of European princes who protested the Pope and his party. One of these Princes, the Prince of Waldeck, would severely diminish the early Anabaptist movement in 1535 by forcibly crushing a meeting in Munster.

Some of the followers of Zwingli’s Reformed church felt that requiring church membership beginning at birth went against God’s law, which people now had access to read, thanks to Luther’s translation of Gutenberg’s Bible. They felt that the church should be completely removed from government, and that people should join only once they were willing to publicly acknowledge that they believed in Jesus and wanted to live as he commanded. At this time, the two main groups who believed this were the Hutterites, and another group that would come to be known as Mennonites. Although the now four predominate state churches continued to disagree with one another bitterly and even violently about often miniscule aspects of theology, they all agreed that this “radical” idea of voluntary church membership was dangerous. They joined forces to fight the movement. Laws were passed, and many people were persecuted, robbed of everything they had, driven from their homes and countries, and even killed. However, some survived, and at a small meeting of believers, the Schleitheim Confession, on January 21, 1525, Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and Georg Blaurock, along with twelve other believers, all baptized each other. This meeting became the birthplace of the Anabaptists, or “re-baptizers”.

As the movement spread slowly around Europe despite the best efforts of the state churches, many of the earliest Anabaptist leaders – those whose beliefs were strongest, and who were the most educated – were killed in an effort to purge Europe of this dangerous idea. By 1530, most of the leaders had been “martyred”, or killed for refusing to renounce their beliefs. Their unwillingness to fight for their lives was a direct reflection of their belief that God did not condone killing or use of force for any reason, and played a large part in the evolution of the Anabaptist theology. When the most educated leaders of the movement were killed, people who did not fully understand God’s law, and felt that they had to fight to protect their lives and beliefs, sometimes replaced them. These branches were all eventually destroyed by their very willingness to fight. At the same time, the branches that refused to engage the stronger enemy of the state churches still continued to be persecuted robbed of their possessions and forcefully moved. But at least they survived, and some became the forerunners of today’s Mennonite church.

In the early days of the Anabaptist movement, there was a Catholic priest in Holland named Menno Simons. He heard about the movement, and started to rethink his Catholic faith. Despite what he, as a priest, was supposed to tell his parishioners, Menno knew in his heart that no miraculous change occurred at mass to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus. Still, he was reluctant to leave the church. That changed one day in 1536 at the age of 40 when his own brother, a member of the Anabaptist movement, was killed when they were attacked and refused to defend themselves against state-church sponsored soldiers. Simons finally left the church and agreed to lead a branch of the Anabaptist movement, despite it meaning that he would be a hunted man with a price on his head for the rest of his life. The branch of non-violent Anabaptists whose leadership he took over would come to bear his name to this day.

The first recorded account of this group is in a written order by Countess Anne, who ruled a small province in central Europe. The presence of some small groups of violent Anabaptists was causing political and religious turmoil in her state, so she decreed that all Anabaptists were to be driven from her state. The order made an exception though, for the non-violent branch known at that time as the “Menists”. This order set the precedent that was to be repeated many times throughout history, where a political ruler would allow the Menists or Mennonites into their state because they were honest, hardworking and peaceful. However, inevitably, their presence would ruffle the feathers of the powerful state churches, or a new monarch would take power, and the Mennonites would once again be forced to flee for their lives, usually leaving everything but their families behind. Usually, another monarch in another state would grant them welcome, at least for a while. One such example was Catherine the Great of Russia, who acquired a great deal of land in Prussia in 1768 following a war with the Turks. She invited the peace-loving Mennonites to come farm the cold, tough soil of the Russian “steppes” in exchange for religious freedom and military exemption. The arrangement remained in place for many years during her rule, until she died and the next monarch came to power. The Mennonites that had settled in Russia during that time have come to be known to history as the Russo-German Mennonites. Another example was the ruling Queen of England, Elizabeth I. There, in a small village in Britain, a group of Dutch Anabaptists made the acquaintance of a congregation led by John Smythe, who would later lead his Pilgrims to America. The Pilgrims exposure to the Dutch Mennonite congregation probably influenced some of their teachings, including the freedom of each branch to regulate itself; although the Pilgrims, known today as the Congregational Church, kept their practice of infant baptism despite the Mennonite’s belief that baptism should take place only once the person had the capacity and willingness to accept Jesus as their Lord and savior. In addition to the Mennonite’s impact on the first Pilgrims, religious historians have traced their impact to other religious teachings. This included the Baptist’s emphasis of adult baptism upon confession of faith, and the Friends (Quakers) strong stance against war. The dissemination of Anabaptist beliefs became the backbone of the religious freedom that is enjoyed in America today.

While Mennonites in colonial America were enjoying a large degree of religious freedom, their counterparts in Europe were in largely the same boat they always had been. Their well-being still depended on a ruling monarch, who would often extend an invitation only when there was poor soil that no one else could farm. The Mennonites would reclaim this land through hard work and good sense, in exchange for exemption from mandatory military service. However, once the land was arable again, this arrangement would often change and the persecution would again set in. Because the land still needed to be tended, the ruler would not drive the Mennonites out, but would actually pass laws to force them to stay, while at the same time severely limiting their freedom. Mennonites had to build their churches facing onto back streets or alleys (which began the habit of meeting in someone’s home rather than a formal church), and they were forbade from announcing the beginning of services with the sound of a bell. In addition, high taxes were enacted in exchange for both continuing the military service exemption, and to keep the states best farmers from leaving. Usually however, in the tradition established by the earliest martyrs, the Mennonites were willing to pay any price rather than give up their freedom of conscience. The entire congregation would give up their belongings to pay the tax to be allowed to leave. If one member of the group or one family couldn’t afford the tax, the other members of the group happily paid that burden. This strong sense of community remains to this day one of the strongest ties that binds Mennonites together as a faith. In addition, by having to often give up every Earthly possession in order to retain individual freedoms, the Mennonites learned to live very simply. This was reflected both in the home and at church, where not only dress, but the buildings themselves were very plain. Even the music at church, which was usually simple German chorales, were performed with no more elaborate instrument than the human voice. Avoiding the “worldliness” of the outside remains another important keystone in the foundation of the Mennonite faith. Eventually, many European and Russo-German Mennonites had exhausted their options for religious freedom in Europe, and immigrated to America.

The Mennonites themselves had suffered the first church split while still in an area between France and Germany known as Alsace in 1693. Some of the most conservative leaders, led by Jacob Amman, founded the Amish branch of the Mennonite church at that time in an effort to stem the worldliness that they felt was pervading the faith. This branch of the Mennonite faith, actually composed of eight groups, tends to progress much more slowly then other Mennonites but, contrary to popular belief, they do accept technology to a certain extent. Today, Amish are part of a branch of the church called Pennsylvania Dutch, or, more accurately, Pennsylvania Deutsch since they are predominately composed of German Mennonites who emigrated to Pennsylvania in the 1720’s and 30’s; although the first permanent Mennonite settlement in America was actually formed in 1683 and called Germantown, PA. However, some are of Swiss, Welch, French, English and Scottish ancestry. The remainder of the church around this time is known today simply as the Old Mennonites, and is the group responsible for spawning most other contemporary branches of the Mennonite church. The splits have usually occurred due to either worldliness, or “coldness” which is going to church on Sunday, but not doing much else. One of the more recent branches was initiated involuntary by John H. Oberholtzer in the early 1900’s. He felt strongly in the right of each congregation to regulate themselves, and felt that many of the church leaders were trying to gain too much control over the churches. They were mandating issues as small as style of dress, and splitting when such trivial issues couldn’t be agreed upon. In his effort to reunite the church under a “General Conference”, he gained support of numerous congregations and pastors, but not the entire church. The result was that the congregations who supported Oberholtzer’s idea came to be known as the General Conference Mennonite Church. One of the general conferences greatest contributions was the idea that if a person didn’t agree with the leadership of their particular congregation, they were allowed simply to change membership to another without embarrassment or scandal of any kind. This idea, along with many others unique to the General Conference Mennonites made membership more attractive to recent European and Russian Mennonites, who have tended to join the general conference rather than the Old Mennonites. The other major outgrowth of the General Conference Mennonites was to fulfill John Oberholtzer’s passion of working together in outreach and mission. He knew that will all the Mennonite churches working together, they could accomplish great things in mission. Even though he failed to unite all churches under this cause, the General Conference to this day supports more service, and sends more missionaries per capita than any other religion in the world. In the years since the formation of the General Conference, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and Voluntary Service (VS) programs sponsored by the Mennonite Board of Missions have continued Oberholtzer’s vision around the world.

One of the earliest examples of Mennonite service was brought about by World War II. By the time that the draft began, Mennonites had joined together to lobby the American government to officially recognize their non-violent beliefs. In lieu of military service, all non-resistant church groups (Anabaptist and otherwise) were allowed to set up camps for young men who refused to take another human life for any reason. The camps were known as Civilian Public Service (CPS) camps. Through their use, the church quickly discovered that there are many things that a conscientious objector (CO) can do to serve their country in time of war. One of their greatest contributions came in the field of mental health, since this was an area often neglected when workers were hard to find. It was quickly discovered that in hospitals staffed by CO's, the cure rate for mental patients increased dramatically compared to those whose staff didn't use God's “Law of Love”. This lead to significantly increased research and treatment for those with mental disabilities in America and the world after World War II.

Besides this contemporary example of the ways that they Mennonite church has contributed to modern American, there are also many older examples. Along with the idea of separation of church and state, colonial Mennonite immigrants also lent to American beliefs their thoughts on slavery. When William Penn was settling Pennsylvania, he visited many Mennonite settlements in Europe and agreed to grant them full religious freedom and exemption from military service if they would come help farm the soil. Many that did were appalled at the practice of American Quakers, who at the time were very accustomed to keeping slaves. The first written protest against slavery in America, though often credited to the Friends, was actually signed mostly by German Mennonites who had become Quakers, but retained their anti-slavery believes. The treatise was addressed to the American Quakers in an effort to make them change their ways. Other early Mennonite contributors included one of the early Pennsylvania Mennonites whose book Pedagogy is still acknowledged as one of the best books ever written for school teachers, despite the fact that is was published in the mid-18th century. The first American papermill was established by William Rittenhause who was the first Mennonite pastor in America. His great-grandson was a famous astronomer in revolutionary America, as well as being a good friend of both Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, and appointed by the latter to be the first director for the United States mint. Also, the state of Kansas owes its reputation as a wheat-producing state to its early Mennonite settlers. As a result of their time on the Russian steppes under Catherine the Great, they were familiar with a strain of wheat known as winter wheat that was resistant to the cold of the American plains. It was planted in the fall and harvested in the spring, and was therefore ideally suited to hot, dry Kansas summers. They brought it with them when the railroads were seeking farmers for the land owned on either side of the tracks, and today Kansas is a top producer of wheat in America. Upon the Mennonites arriving in Kansas, often directly from Russia, many did not choose to join already established Mennonite congregations due to difficulties with other European Christian missionaries. The result was a group more firmly rooted in religious discipline who introduced the concepts of baptism by immersion, and foot washing. This group, which has come to be known as Mennonite Brethren, or just Brethren, maintain their own denomination to this day, and are the third major arm of the Anabaptist faith, along with Mennonites and Quakers.

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