The Mennonites are a group of Christian Anabaptist denominations named after Menno Simons (1496–1561), though his teachings were a relatively minor influence on the group. As one of the historic peace churches, Mennonites are committed to nonviolence, nonviolent resistance/reconciliation, and pacifism.
There are about 1.5 million Mennonites worldwide as of 2006. Mennonite congregations worldwide embody the full scope of Mennonite practice from old fashioned 'plain' people to those who are indistinguishable in dress and appearance from the general population. The largest populations of Mennonites are in the United States and Democratic Republic of Congo, but Mennonites can also be found in tight-knit communities in at least 51 countries on six continents or scattered amongst the populace of those countries. There are also a significant amount of Mennonites scattered throughout China. There are German Mennonite colonies in Mexico, Paraguay, Bolivia, Belize, Brazil and Argentina.
Mennonites have an international distinction among Christian denominations in disaster relief and place a strong theological emphasis on voluntary service. Mennonite Disaster Service, based in North America, provides both immediate and long-term responses to hurricanes, floods, and other disasters. Mennonite Central Committee provides disaster relief around the world alongside their long-term international development programs. Other programs offer a variety of relief efforts and services throughout the world.
In the last few decades some Mennonite groups have also become more actively involved with peace and social justice issues, helping to found Christian Peacemaker Teams and Mennonite Conciliation Service.
The early history of the Mennonites begins with the Anabaptists in the German and Dutch-speaking parts of central Europe. The German term is "Täufer" (that is, Baptists). These forerunners of modern Mennonites were part of the broad reaction against the practices and theology of the Roman Catholic Church known as the Protestant Reformation. Its most distinguishing feature is the rejection of infant baptism, an act that had both religious and political meaning since almost every infant born in Western Europe was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. Other significant theological views of the Mennonites developed in opposition to Roman Catholic views or to the views of other Protestant reformers like Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli.
Some of the followers of Zwingli's Reformed church felt that requiring church membership beginning at birth was inconsistent with the New Testament example. They felt that the church should be completely removed from government (the proto-free church tradition), and that people should join only once they were willing to publicly acknowledge that they believed in Jesus and wanted to live in accordance with his teachings. At a small meeting on January 21, 1525, Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and George Blaurock, along with twelve others, baptized each other. This meeting marks the beginning of the Anabaptist movement. In the spirit of the times, many radical groups followed, preaching any number of ideas about hierarchy, the state, eschatology, and sexual license, running from utter abandon to extreme chastity. These movements are together referred to as the Radical Reformation.
Many government and religious leaders, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, considered voluntary church membership to be dangerous — the concern of some deepened by reports of the Münster Rebellion, led by a violent sect of Anabaptists. They joined forces to fight the movement, using methods such as persecution, banishment, torture, and sometimes executing them as heretics.
Despite heavy efforts of the state churches, the movement spread slowly around Western Europe, primarily along the Rhine. Many of the earliest Anabaptist leaders were killed in an attempt to purge Europe of the new sect. By 1530, most of the founding leaders had been killed for refusing to renounce their beliefs. Many believed that God did not condone killing or the use of force for any reason and were therefore unwilling to fight for their lives. These pacifist branches often survived by seeking refuge in neutral cities or nations, such as Strasbourg. Their safety, however, was often tenuous, as a shift in alliances or an invasion could mean resumed persecution. Other groups of Anabaptists, such as the Batenburgers, were eventually destroyed by their very willingness to fight. This played a large part in the evolution of Anabaptist theology.
In the early days of the Anabaptist movement, Menno Simons, a Catholic priest in the Netherlands, heard of the movement and started to rethink his Catholic faith. He questioned the doctrine of transubstantiation, but was reluctant to leave the Roman Catholic Church. His thinking was influenced by the death of his brother, who, as a member of an Anabaptist group, was killed when he and his companions were attacked and refused to defend themselves. In 1536, at the age of 40, Simons left the Roman Catholic Church. Soon thereafter he became a leader within the Anabaptist movement. He would become a hunted man with a price on his head for the rest of his life. His name became associated with scattered groups of nonviolent Anabaptists he helped to organize and consolidate.
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 members in the Amish church who 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 because of the practical considerations of distance and, in some cases, language.
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 his/her state because they were honest, hardworking and peaceful. However, inevitably, their presence would upset the powerful state churches, princes would renege on exemptions for military service, 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. Often, another monarch in another state would grant them welcome, at least for a while.
While Mennonites in Colonial America were enjoying a large degree of religious freedom, their counterparts in Europe were in 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 exception to this rule being in The Netherlands, where the Mennonites (nl: Doopsgezinden) enjoyed a relatively high degree of tolerance. 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 begin again. Because the land still needed to be tended, the ruler would not drive out the Mennonites 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, 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. In some cases, the entire congregation would give up their belongings to pay the tax to be allowed to leave. If a member or family could not afford the tax, it was often paid by others in the group.
A strong emphasis on "community" was developed under these circumstances and continues to be typical of Mennonite churches. As a result of frequently being required to give up many possessions in order to retain individual freedoms, these Mennonites learned to live very simply. This was reflected both in the home and at church, where their dress and their buildings were plain. Even the music at church, which was usually simple German chorales, was performed a cappella. This style of music serves as a reminder to many Mennonites of their simple lives, as well as their history as a persecuted people. Some branches of Mennonites have retained this "plain" lifestyle into modern times.
In 1768 Catherine the Great of Russia acquired a great deal of land north of the Black Sea (in the present-day Ukraine) following a war with the Turks. Russian government officials 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. Over the years the Mennonite farmers were very successful. By the beginning of the 20th century they owned large agricultural estates and were even successful as industrial entrepreneurs in the cities. After the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Russian Civil War (1917-1921) all of these farms (whose owners were called Kulaks) and enterprises were expropriated. Beyond expropriation, Mennonites suffered severe persecution during the course of the Civil War, at the hands of both the Bolsheviks and, particularly, the anarchists of Nestor Makhno who saw Mennonites as privileged foreigners of the upper class and targeted them. Hundreds of Mennonite men, women and children were murdered in these attacks. After the war people who openly followed religion were in many cases imprisoned. This led to a wave of Russian Mennonite emigration to the Americas (U.S., Canada and Paraguay).
When the German army invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, many in the Mennonite community saw them as liberators from the communist regime under which they had suffered. When the tide of war turned, many of the Mennonites fled with the German army back to Germany where they were accepted as "Volksdeutsche". After the war the remainder of the Mennonite community emigrated or, (because, as the Soviets saw it, they had "collectively collaborated" with the Germans) was forcefully relocated to Siberia and Kazakhstan, and many were sent to the Gulag. Many German-Russian Mennonites who lived further to the East (not Western Russia) were deported to Siberia before the German army's invasion, and were also often placed in labor camps. In the 1990s the Russian government gave these people the opportunity to emigrate. The Russian Mennonite immigrants in Germany outnumber the pre-1989 community of Mennonites in Germany by 3 to 1.
In the eighteenth century, 100,000 Germans from the Palatinate, collectively known as the Pennsylvania Dutch, immigrated to Pennsylvania. Of these, around 2,500 were Mennonites and 500 Amish. This group settled farther west than the first group, choosing less expensive land in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, area. A member of this second group, Christopher Dock, authored Pedagogy, the first American monograph on education. Today, Mennonites also reside in Kishacoquillas Valley (also known as Big Valley), a valley in Huntingdon and Mifflin counties, also in Pennsylvania.
During the Colonial period, Mennonites were distinguished from other Pennsylvania Germans in three ways: their opposition to the American Revolutionary War, resistance to public education and disapproval of religious revivalism. Contributions of Mennonites during this period include the idea of separation of church and state and opposition to slavery.
From 1812 to 1860, another wave of immigrants settled farther west in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri. These Swiss-German speaking Mennonites, along with Amish, came from Switzerland and the Alsace-Lorraine area.
The Swiss-German Mennonites that migrated to North America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries settled first in Pennsylvania, then across the Midwestern states (initially Ohio, Indiana, and Kansas) are the root to the former Mennonite Church denomination (MC), colloquially called the "Old Mennonite Church". This denomination had offices in Elkhart, Indiana, and was the most populous Mennonite denomination before merging with the General Conference Mennonite Church (GCMC) in 2002.
The General Conference Mennonite Church was an association of Mennonite congregations based in North America beginning in 1860. The conference was formed in 1860 when congregations in Iowa invited North American Mennonites to join together in order to pursue common goals such as education and mission work. The conference was especially attractive to recent Mennonite and Amish immigrants to North America and expanded considerably when thousands of Russian Mennonites arrived in North America starting in the 1870s. Conference offices were located in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and North Newton, Kansas. The conference supported a seminary and several colleges. It became the second largest Mennonite denomination with 64,431 members in 410 congregations in Canada, the United States and South America in the 1990s. After decades of increasingly closer cooperation with the Mennonite Church, the two groups voted to merge in 1995 and completed reorganization into Mennonite Church Canada in 2000 and Mennonite Church USA in 2002.
Mennonites in Canada were automatically exempt from any type of service during World War I by provisions of the Order in Council of 1873. During World War II, Mennonite conscientious objectors were given the options of noncombatant military service, serving in the medical or dental corps under military control or working in parks and on roads under civilian supervision. Over 95% chose the latter and were placed in Alternative Service camps. Initially the men worked on road building, forestry and firefighting projects. After May 1943, as a labour shortage developed within the nation, men were shifted into agriculture, education and industry. The 10,700 Canadian objectors were mostly Mennonites (63%) and Doukhobors (20%).
In the United States, Civilian Public Service (CPS) provided an alternative to military service during World War II. From 1941 to 1947, 4,665 Mennonites, Amish and Brethren in Christ were among nearly 12,000 conscientious objectors who performed work of national importance in 152 CPS camps throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. The draftees worked in areas such as soil conservation, forestry, fire fighting, agriculture, social services and mental health.
The CPS men served without wages and minimal support from the federal government. The cost of maintaining the CPS camps and providing for the needs of the men was the responsibility of their congregations and families. Mennonite Central Committee coordinated the operation of the Mennonite camps. CPS men served longer than regular draftees, not being released until well past the end of the war. Initially skeptical of the program, government agencies learned to appreciate the men's service and requested more workers from the program. CPS made significant contributions to forest fire prevention, erosion and flood control, medical science and reform of the mental health system.
After immigration to America, many of the early Mennonites split from the main body of North American Mennonites and formed their own separate and distinct churches, a process that began in 1785 with the formation of the orthodox Reformed Mennonite Church and is ongoing today. Many of these churches were formed as a response to deep disagreements about theology, doctrine, and church discipline as evolution both inside and outside the Mennonite faith occurred. Many of the 'modern' churches descended from those groups that abandoned traditional Mennonite practices. Today, the groups that have held to the traditional interpretations of Mennonite doctrine are increasing at a more rapid rate than those groups that have rejected these standards. However, the moderate denominations are still by far the largest and continue to grow at a steady rate.
These historical schisms have had an influence on creating the distinct Mennonite denominations that exist today. Such divisions continue to go on today as one group claims its version of the Mennonite faith and splits from the parent denomination or church, sometimes using mild or severe shunning to show its disapproval of other Mennonite groups. One recent and widely reported example of this is the expulsion of the Germantown Mennonite Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from the Franconia Conference and later the Mennonite Church USA denomination for welcoming LGBT people as church members.
Several Mennonites groups have their own private or parochial schools. Conservative groups, like the Holdeman, have not only their own schools, but their own curriculum and teaching staff (usually, but not exclusively, young unmarried women). Quebec does not allow these parochial schools as the Quebec government imposes its curriculum on all schools (public and private), while private schools may only add optional material to the compulsory curriculum but may not replace it. The Quebec curriculum is unacceptable to the parents of the only Mennonite school in the province. They have said they will leave Quebec after the Education Ministry has threatened legal actions would be taken and the Youth Protection services might become involved if the children were not to register with the Education Ministry and either home school, using the Government approved material, or attend a "sanctioned" school. The local population and its mayor support the local Mennonites. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada has also written to the Quebec government to express its concerns about this situation. This story has received quite a large echo in circles defending religious freedom, so much so that the Becket Fund placed Quebec on its weekly report of threatened religious traditions . Latest reports indicate that several Mennonites families have already left Quebec to protect their children.
Traditionally, very modest dress was expected (apparent mostly in women's apparel), particularly in conservative Mennonite circles, but again, as the Mennonite population became urbanized and more integrated into the wider culture, this visible difference has disappeared outside of conservative Mennonite groups.
Some of these expelled congregations were dually affiliated with the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church, the latter of which did not act to expel the same congregations. When these two Mennonite denominations formally completed their merger in 2002 to become the new Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada denominations, it was still not clear, in all cases, whether or not the congregations that were expelled from one denomination, yet included in the other, are considered to be "inside" or "outside" of the new merged denomination. Also, some Mennonite conferences have chosen to maintain such "disciplined" congregations as "associate" or "affiliate" congregations in the conferences, rather than to expel such congregations. In virtually every case, a dialogue continues between the disciplined congregations and the denomination, as well as their current or former conferences.
The Mennonite church in the Netherlands (Doopsgezinde Kerk) was the first Dutch church to have a female pastor — Anna Zernike, authorized in 1911.
The Dordrecht Confession of Faith was adopted on April 21, 1632, by Dutch Mennonites, by Alsatian Mennonites in 1660, and by North American Mennonites in 1725. There is no official creed or catechism of which acceptance is required by congregations or members. However, there are structures and traditions taught as in the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective of Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA.
Moderate Mennonites include the largest denominations, the Mennonite Brethren and the Mennonite Church. In most forms of worship and practice they differ very little from other Protestant congregations. There is no special form of dress and no restrictions on use of technology. Worship styles vary greatly between different congregations. There is no formal liturgy; services typically consist of singing, scripture reading, prayer and a sermon. Some churches prefer hymns and choirs; others make use of contemporary Christian music with electronic instruments. Mennonite congregations are self-supporting and appoint their own ministers. There is no requirement for ministers to be approved by the denomination, and sometimes ministers from other denominations will be appointed. A small sum, based on membership numbers, is paid to the denomination, which is used to support central functions such as publication of newsletters and interactions with other denominations and other countries. The distinguishing characteristics of moderate Mennonite churches tend to be ones of emphasis rather than rule. There is an emphasis on peace, on community and service. However, members do not live in community — they participate in the general community as 'salt and light' to the world (Matt 5:13,14). The main elements of Menno Simons doctrine are retained, but in a moderated form. Banning is rarely practiced and would in any event have much less effect than those denominations where community is more tight-knit. Excommunication can occur, and was notably applied by the Mennonite Brethren to members who joined the military during the Second World War. Service in the military is generally not permitted, but service in the legal profession or law enforcement is acceptable. Outreach and help to the wider community at home and abroad is encouraged. Mennonite Central Committee is a leader in foreign aid provision.
The Reformed Mennonite Church, with members in the United States and Canada, represents the first division in the original North American Mennonite body. Called the First Keepers of the Old Way by author Stephen Scott, the Reformed Mennonite Church formed in the very early 19th century. Reformed Mennonites see themselves as true followers of Menno Simon's teachings and of the teachings of the New Testament. They have no church rules, but they rely solely on the Bible as their guide. They insist on strict separation from all other forms of worship and dress in conservative plain garb that preserves eighteenth century Mennonite details. However, they refrain from forcing their Mennonite faith on their children, allow their children to attend public schools, and have permitted the use of automobiles. They are notable for being the church of Milton S. Hershey's mother and famous for the long and bitter ban of Robert Bear, a Pennsylvania farmer who rebelled against what he saw as dishonesty and disunity in the leadership.
Holdeman Mennonites were founded from a schism in 1859, the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite church has about 19,000 members worldwide. They are known as Holdeman Mennonites after their founder. They emphasize evangelical conversion, strict church discipline and shunning of the excommunicated. They stay separate from other Mennonite groups because of their emphasis on the one-true church doctrine and their use of strict shunning against their own excommunicated members.
Old Order Mennonites cover many distinct groups. Some groups use horse and buggies for transportation and speak German while others drive cars and speak English. What most Old Orders share in common is conservative doctrine, dress, and traditions, common roots in nineteenth and early twentieth century schisms, and a refusal to participate in politics and other so-called 'sins of the world'. Most Old Order groups also school their children in Mennonite-operated schools.
Stauffer Mennonites or Pike Mennonites represent the first and most conservative form of Horse and Buggy Mennonites. They were founded in 1845, following conflicts about how to discipline child and spousal abuse by a few Mennonite church members. They almost immediately began to split into separate churches themselves. Today these groups are among the most conservative of all Swiss Mennonites outside the Amish. They stress strict separation from "the world", adhere to "strict withdrawal from and shunning of apostate and separated members", forbid and limit cars and technology, and wear plain clothing. They are now considered to be part of the larger less-conservative Horse and Buggy Old Order Mennonite group which formed from later schisms.
Conservative Mennonites are generally considered those Mennonites who maintain somewhat conservative dress and do not engage in television and radio, although carefully accepting other technology. They are not a unified group and are divided into various independent conferences and fellowships such as the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church conference. Despite the rapid changes that precipitated the Old Order schisms in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, most Mennonites in the United States and Canada retained a core of traditional beliefs based on literal interpretation of the New Testament Scriptures as well as more external 'Plain' practices into the beginning of the twentieth century. However, disagreements in the United States and Canada between conservative and progressive (i.e. less emphasis on literal interpretation of scriptures) leaders began in the first half of the twentieth century and continue to some extent today. Following WWII, a conservative movement emerged from scattered separatist groups as a reaction to the Mennonite Churches drifting away from the churches historical traditions. 'Plain' became passe as open criticisms of traditional beliefs and practices broke out in the 1950s and 1960s. The first conservative withdrawals from the progressive group began in the 1950s. These withdrawals continue to the present day in what is now the growing Conservative Movement formed from Mennonite schisms and/or from combinations with progressive Amish groups. Other Conservative Mennonite groups descend from the former Amish-Mennonite churches, who split from the Old Order Amish in the latter part of the nineteenth century like the Wisler Mennonites. There are also other Conservative Mennonite churches that descend from more recent groups that have left the Amish.
Progressive Mennonite churches allow homosexual members to worship as church members and have been banned from membership in the moderate groups as result. The Germantown Mennonite Church in Germantown, Pennsylvania is one example of such a progressive Mennonite church.
In 2006, there were 1,478,540 Mennonites in 65 countries. The United States had the highest number of Mennonites with 368,280 members, followed by Democratic Republic of Congo with 216,268 members. The third largest concentration of Mennonites was in India with 146,095 members, while the fourth largest population was in Canada with 131,384 members. Europe, the birthplace of Mennonites, had 52,222 members.
Africa has the highest membership growth rate by far with 10%-12% rise every year, particularly in Ethiopia. Growth in Mennonite membership is slow but steady in North America, the Asia/Pacific region, and the South/Central America and Caribbean region. Europe has seen a slow and accelerating decline in Mennonite membership since about 1980.
Some churches in North America have begun profiling potential members and with some success have targeted inner city minorities in their recruitment efforts. Growth in the traditional churches is outpacing growth in the moderate churches.
Instead, there is a host of separate churches along with a myriad of separate conferences with no particular responsibility to any other group. Independent churches can contain as few as 50 members or as many as 20,000 members. Similar size differences occur among separate conferences. Worship, church discipline and lifestyles vary widely between progressive, moderate, conservative, Old Order and orthodox Mennonites in a vast panoply of distinct, independent, and widely dispersed classifications. For these reasons, no single group of Mennonites anywhere can credibly claim to represent, speak for, or lead all Mennonites worldwide.
The twelve largest Mennonite groups are:
The Mennonite World Conference is a global community of 95 Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Mennonite national Churches from 51 countries on six continents. It exists to "facilitate community between Anabaptist-related churches worldwide, and relate to other Christian world communions and organizations", but it is not a 'governing body' of any kind. It is a voluntary community of faith whose decisions are not binding on member churches. The member churches of Mennonite World Conference include the Mennonite Brethren, the Mennonite Church USA, and the Mennonite Church Canada, with a combined total membership of at least 400,000, or about 30% of Mennonites worldwide.
In 2003, there were about 323,000 Mennonites in the United States. About 110,000 were members of Mennonite Church USA churches, about 26,000 were members of Mennonite Brethren churches, and about 40,000 (2008 CLP church directory) were members of conservative churches. It is not known how many old order Mennonites there are. (That leaves about 147,000 Mennonites unaccounted for in other United States' churches). Other sources list 236,084 total United States Mennonites.
Total membership in Mennonite Church USA denominations decreased from about 133,000, before the merger in 1998, to about 114,000 after the merger in 2003. The Mennonite Church USA has begun profiling potential members and has been successful at recruiting inner-city minorities into the church in several large cities in the United States. Significant growth in the conservative churches seems to be occurring by itself in the already existing communities.
In Canada, in 2003 there were around 130,000 Mennonites. About 37,000 of those were members of Mennonite Church Canada churches and about another 35,000 of those were members of Mennonite Brethren churches. About 5,000 belonged to conservative Old Order Mennonite churches, or other ultra-conservative and orthodox churches. (That leaves about 55,000 Mennonites unaccounted for in other Canadian churches).
As of 2003, there were an estimated 80,000 Old Colony Mennonites in Mexico. These Mennonites descend from a mass migration in the 1920s of roughly 6,000 Old Colony Mennonites from the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. In 1921, a Canadian Mennonite delegation arriving in Mexico received a privilegium, a promise of non-interference, from the Mexican government. This guarantee of many freedoms was the impetus that created the two original Old Colony settlements near Patos(Nuevo Ideal), Durango, and Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua.