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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, non-resistance and pacifism. They are the modern denominations which present many Anabaptist views.
Their core beliefs, deriving from Anabaptist traditions are:
- 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).
- Church discipline understood as threefold : Confession of Sins, Absolution of Sin, and Re-admission of Sinner in the church.
- The Lord's Supper as Memorial, shared by baptised believers within the discipline of the church.
- The Ban (Excommunication)
- Breaking of Bread (Communion)
- Separation from the Abomination (The Roman Catholic Church)
- Pastors in the Church
- The Sword (Non Violence)
- The Oath (Swearing as Proof of Truth)
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 Switzerland, 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, in particular for the Swiss-South German branch of Mennonitism.
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.
Sociologists who have studied Mennonites have discovered one important factor in church splits. Almost all splits happen for the sake of maintaining the community. Leadership makes a decision based on what it feels is best to keep the community together and reduce friction; others who disagree leave. In this way, we get some Old-Order Mennonites who have wooden wheels, and some with rubber, some with electricity in the barn, and some with none, some with black cars and some with black cars but chrome bumpers. Although the reasons for the splits may seem harsh and simplistic to outsiders, church leaders in general are attempting to maintain their group, their churches, within a society they often see as corrupting.
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, Mennonite Conciliation Service , and the Mennonite Central Committee.
Old Order Mennonites
Some Mennonite communities conscientiously reject the use of modern technology, such as electricity or motor transport, much the same as the Amish denominations, to whom they are related. 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. They also reject modern notions of insurance, preferring to rely on their neighbors when disaster strikes.
From before the Middle Ages to the early 15th century, most Christianity in Western Europe was known alternately as the Universal or Catholic Church, headed by the Pope. Every child born in Europe was baptized. The Catholic Church was of paramount importance to the daily life of the average person. Church services were conducted in Latin, which was the universal language of the time. Because many common people were illiterate, the Church endeavored to instruct its members in the Christian faith by means of artwork in Church buildings: statues, paintings, and stained glass windows.
When the printing press was invented around 1455, the Bible was one of the first books printed with movable type, and therefore was able to be mass-produced. Although illiteracy was still widespread, more people could now read the Bible and interpret it for themselves. This was one factor leading to the Protestant Reformation in Europe. One of the leaders of the Reformation was a monk named Martin Luther. 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 German-speaking Switzerland — and John Calvin — whose then-future Calvinist churches believe in strict Predestination — also left the Catholic church, and founded what are today known as the Reformed and the Presbyterian churches. In the beginning, all three of these churches were 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, 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 against the Catholic Church. 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. 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, two groups who believed this were the Hutterites, and another group that would come to be known as Mennonites. However, in the spirit of the times, many other more radical groups followed, preaching any number of ideas about hierarchy, the state, and various ideas on sexual license running from utter abandon to extreme chastity. These movements have been called by historians the radical reformation .
The state churches 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 killed. However, some survived, and at a small meeting of believers 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 Anabaptist theology. When the most educated leaders of the movement were killed, they were sometimes replaced by people who did not fully understand their predecessors' philosophy, and who felt that they had to fight to protect their lives and beliefs. 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 they survived, and some became the forerunners of the modern 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 believe, he no longer believed in the doctrine of transubstantiation. 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 he and his companions were attacked and refused to defend themselves against soldiers. Simons 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 north of the Black Sea (in the present-day Ukraine) in 1768 following a war with the Turks. She invited those Mennonites living in Prussia 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 Russian 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 Mennonites' 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 Mennonites' 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 situation 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 forbidden 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. However, as with all groups, worldliness is virtually impossible to keep out. In the Mennonite Colonies of Russia, the Mennonites grew financially prosperous, in sharp contrast to the ex-serfs around them. Industrial operations were started and grew. Farms grew large and successful. With prosperity, came a certain amount of licentiousness, including drunkeness and greed. Although by no means accepted by all, these habits created strife within communities, especially when leadership was unwilling to ask for changes in behaviour. Occasionally, Pietist movements, often influenced by German speaking missionaries, formed groups opposed to the accepted community ways; one particular group formed was the Mennonite Brethren , who left to form their own colonies. Eventually, after many years of prosperity, the colonies of Russian Mennonites were torn apart by war, famine, disease and finally mass expulsions under the Soviet Union.
Mennonites 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 than other Mennonites but, contrary to popular belief, they do accept technology to a certain extent. Today, the Amish are part of the ethnic group called Pennsylvania Dutch, or, more accurately, Pennsylvania Deutsch since they are predominantly composed of German Mennonites who emigrated to Pennsylvania in the 1720s and 30s although the first permanent Mennonite settlement in America was actually formed in 1683 and called Germantown. However, some are of Swiss, Welsh, French, English and Scottish ancestry. The remainder of the church around this time came to be known simply as the Old Mennonites, and is the group responsible for spawning most other contemporary branches of the Mennonite church.
One of the more recent branches was initiated involuntarily by John H. Oberholtzer in the mid 1800s. He felt strongly in the right of each congregation to regulate itself, 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 , organized in 1860. One of the General Conference's greatest contributions was the idea that if a person didn't agree with the leadership of his particular congregation, he was 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 felt that with 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 supported 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, several service organizations were created which drew on support from several Mennonite denominations. These included the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), founded in 1920, and Voluntary Service (VS) programs sponsored by the Mennonite Board of Missions .
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 his 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 COs, the cure rate for mental patients increased dramatically compared to those whose staff didn't use the belief of "God's Law of Love". This led to significantly increased research and treatment for those with mental disabilities after World War II.
Besides this contemporary example of the ways that the Mennonite church has contributed to modern America, 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 beliefs. The treatise was addressed to the American Quakers in an effort to make them change their ways. Other early Mennonite contributions included one of the early Pennsylvania Mennonites, Christopher Dock, whose book Pedagogy is still acknowledged as one of the best books ever written for school teachers, despite being 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 David Rittenhouse, 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.
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. Swiss Volhynian Mennonites settled in the Moundridge, Kansas and Pretty Prairie, Kansas areas. The Swiss Mennonite Cultural and Historical Association tells their story. Mennonites of Dutch-Prussian (Low German) descent settled much of South Central Kansas. One of the largest churches with Low German roots is the Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church in Goessel, Kansas.
After 1870, many Russian Mennonites, fearing state influence on their education systems, emigrated to the Plain States of the US and the western provinces of Canada. They brought with them many of their institutions and practices, including separate denominations heretofore unseen in North America, like the Mennonite Brethren . The largest group of Russian Mennonites came out of Russia after the bloody strife following WWI. These people, having lost everything they had known, found their way to settlements in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, British Columbia and Ontario and in many regions of the United States. Some joined with previous Mennonite groups, while others formed their own. From there many groups, fearing state persecution and searching for a way to "live quiet on the land", have left to form groups in Paraguay, Belize and Mexico.
In 2002, most congregations of the (Old) Mennonite Church (not to be confused with Old Order Mennonites) and the General Conference Mennonite Church in the United States joined a new merged demoninational organization, the Mennonite Church USA.
- Archives of the Mennonite Church
- Brethren/Mennonite Council for Lesbian and Gay Concerns
- Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches
- Global Mennonite Connections
- Mennonite Church USA
- Swiss Mennonite Cultural and Historical Association
- Menno Simons Biography
- Menno on the Net: A directory of web pages about Menno Simons
- Neu Samara - A Mennonite settlement in Russia
- The Martyrs Mirror
- The Schleitheim Confession
- Third Way Cafe
- US Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches
- Yoder, John Howard - Mennonite Theologian
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