From Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism to Mennonite Church U.S.A.
A slightly different version of this essay was published in, Embodying the Way of Jesus: Anabaptist Convictions for the Twenty-First Century (Wipf and Stock Publications, 2007), 91-107.
The Anabaptist movement included diverse expressions in its first decades. However, by the end of the sixteenth century the movement had settled into small communities scattered across Europe, most numerous in Holland, parts of Germany, Moravia, and Switzerland. Except for the Hutterites, who maintained a distinct identity from the 1530s to the present, just about all the Anabaptist groups in Europe in 1600 were (or eventually became) known as Mennonites. The other modern group that directly traces it lineage to the sixteenth century, the Amish, split off from Mennonites in Switzerland in the late 1600s.
Other groups have arisen that have been deeply influenced by the Anabaptist tradition but never affiliated with Mennonites, most notably the movement that became known as the Church of the Brethren. In recent years, numerous theologians and church members from a variety of traditions identify themselves as, in some sense, being Anabaptist (or at least express strong affinities with Anabaptism). So, “Anabaptist” is a broader category than “Mennonite.”
Mennonites, though, do understand themselves as direct spiritual descendants of sixteenth century Anabaptists and generally affirm “Anabaptist” as a rubric that characterizes their values and aspirations. For all present-day Anabaptists, considering the history of Mennonites is instructive; here we have the thickest real-life embodiment of Anabaptist ideals and convictions.
In this chapter, I will trace the story from sixteenth century Anabaptists to the largest contemporary North American body, Mennonite Church U.S.A. (which shares a history and retains a formal connection with Mennonite Church Canada).
I will consider the Anabaptist/Mennonite story in four parts. First, I will look at the origins of the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century. Second, I will consider the first couple of hundred years in Europe and the evolution from being the core of the Radical Reformation to being the “Quiet in the Land.” Third, I will focus on the time of Mennonite migrations—to North America, and to Russia, then again to North America—down through World War II. Fourth, I will focus on the recent past, the present, and the future.
Origins of Anabaptist Convictions (1525-1555)
The Anabaptist movement emerged in the 1520s as a part of the Protestant Reformation, especially in Switzerland, Germany, and Holland. The first Anabaptists were several young men who were supporters of Ulrich Zwingli, a church leader in Zurich, Switzerland, who in 1522 led the church at Zurich to separate from the Catholic Church.
These young supporters challenged Zwingli to make his reforms more radical, urging him to baptize only adult believers and to separate the church from the dominance of the Zurich city council. Zwingli said no, and the young “radicals” broke with him. In 1525, they instituted the practice of believers baptism, separating themselves from Zwingli’s church. They thus began what turned out to be the Reformation’s first free church (i.e., church free from state control).
These “radicals” early on, called “Anabaptists” for re-baptizers, preferred to call each other “Brethren.” They did not believe they were re-baptizers, since they did not recognize the validity of infant baptism. This movement, in several discrete expressions, early on spread rapidly across Western Europe.
Anabaptist theology emerged out of a great deal of ferment during these eventful years of the 1520s and 1530s. I will mention three distinct movements that all contributed to the formation of key Anabaptist values.
(1) The Protestant Reformation—In 1517, Martin Luther, a German Catholic priest of the Augustinian order and a popular theology professor, posted his Ninety-five Theses in Wittenberg door, leading to his break with Catholicism. Luther’s movement gained allies among many of the local political leaders. The Magisterial Reformation (so called because of alliances with their nation’s government leaders, the magistrates) grew quickly, fueled in large part by strong disillusionment with the Catholic Church.
A few years after Luther’s movement emerged, a Catholic priest in Zurich, Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli, also broke with Catholicism and established, with the city’s political leadership, another Protestant Church. Though influenced by Luther, Zwingli never became a Lutheran. His significant theological differences with Luther kept them apart. So, Zwingli founded the Swiss Reformed Church, independent both from Catholicism and Lutheranism.
Typically at that time, few church members could read; even fewer could read Latin, the language in which the Bible was available. To counter this problem, Luther translated the Bible into popular German. Luther’s translation spread widely in all German-speaking areas. Now the Bible could be read in the language of the people. Zwingli shared Luther’s commitment to giving all Christians direct access to the Bible. In fact, Zwingli accused Luther of not following the Bible closely enough.
The Anabaptists who broke with Zwingli shared his biblicism (basing belief and practice directly on the Bible). They strove to get the Bible into the hands of common church-goers. The early Anabaptists emphasized literacy more than most other Protestants. Christians need to read the Bible and apply its teaching to all of life for themselves. The Protestant Reformation contributed especially to Anabaptist biblicism. Out of this biblicism came the Anabaptist focus on the life and teaching of Jesus, especially the Sermon on the Mount. A key dynamic of church life for the Anabaptists was the exercise of communal discernment in studying the Bible.
(2) Peasants Revolt—In the 1520s, general unrest among the poor peasants of Western Europe erupted in violence, the “Peasants War.” This conflict emerged out of horrendous living and working conditions for the masses of Western Europe. Resentment over these conditions led to hostility toward church and political leaders who enforced and benefited from the exploitative conditions. The leaders smashed this revolt, with much bloodshed. In one major “battle,” approximately six thousand peasants lost their lives—compared to six of the government soldiers.
These events shaped Anabaptists’ tendency to reject control by hierarchies, their recognition of the futility of revolutionary violence to correct injustice, and their concern for the lives of common people. The Anabaptist movement, in general, emerged as a grassroots movement that appealed to many disillusioned Peasant Revolt supporters. This contributed to an attitude of suspicion toward the powers-that-be and openness to new expressions of faith.
(3) Monasticism—An influential early Anabaptist leader, Michael Sattler, Sattler drafted the Schleitheim Confession of 1527 that cemented pacifism and discipleship as core Anabaptist beliefs. Sattler had been a monk in the Benedictine order before becoming an Anabaptist. This background significantly shaped his theology, and through him the theology of Anabaptism.
Monasticism began when a few devout Christians separated themselves from the wider culture, moving into small, isolated monasteries. One of the early monastic leaders, Benedict of Nursia (480–543), formed an order in 529 that eventually took his name, the Benedictines. In 1209, Francis of Assisi (1182–1226) founded the Franciscans. Benedict and Francis shared similar values (simplicity, peaceableness), values the monasteries kept alive.
In 1525, Michael Sattler left the Benedictines because he did not want to be so separate from the world. He found kindred spirits among the Anabaptists, and contributed to the movement strong values about community, service, and the love ethic.
These various currents came together to produce the Anabaptist movement. The movement, chaotic and decentralized, tended to attract at least a few people prone toward over-enthusiasm. It also, from the beginning in Zurich, met with extraordinarily harsh persecution from the powers-that-be. Many Anabaptists met with martyrs’ deaths.
Nonetheless, the movement spread rapidly. It never had complete unity, suffering from the very start from internal conflicts and splits. We can’t look back to a “Golden Age” when all Mennonites or Anabaptists were unified under one roof. Our present-day diversity is not new.
The extreme persecution surely contributed the most to the fragmentation of the Anabaptist movement. The Anabaptists found precious little breathing space. A tragic number of early leaders faced imprisonment, exile, and death. This extreme persecution left an indelible stamp on movement, especially in the withdrawal attitude that we will look at in the next section.
Even given the diversity that characterized the movement from the beginning, despite the persecution that decimated the ranks and kept the survivors constantly on the move, the Anabaptist movement by the 1550s did have common features. Six key values may be mentioned as broadly characteristic of all the Anabaptist groups.
(1) All who believe in Christ are priests. All Christians have direct and equal access to the Bible and to God. This includes a much lower view of the priesthood and sacraments than the Catholic Church of the sixteenth century.
(2) Discipleship is central to faith. Faith without works is dead. The only way to know Christ is by following him in life.
(3) Bible is supreme authority. The teachings of the Bible, especially the words and deeds of Jesus, are the basic material for understanding Christian theology and ethics. The Bible carries a much higher authority than church tradition.
(4) Only believers are to be baptized. Baptism is for Christians who themselves have made a conscious decision to follow Christ. To be baptized, a person must be able to understand what the Christian life is about and to be willing to participate in the life of the church, giving and receiving counsel with fellow church members.
(5) Violence is rejected. Christians are expected to follow Jesus’ way of peace, refusing to fight in wars. The church is free of state control, offenders within the church receive church discipline and not the state’s sword, and God is seen to transcend national boundaries.
(6) Christians are not to conform to the wider world. Separate from the ways of the world, such as materialism, frivolity, seeking power and prestige, competition, coercive way of relating. Such separation leads to living simply.
The Quiet in the Land (1555-1700)
For the development of the Anabaptist tradition, the significance of the persecution that the first generation faced cannot be overstated. From very early on, the expression of those values met with harsh resistance. That resistance determined the direction this radical movement would go for generations afterwards, down to the present.
The state and state churches persecuted the Anabaptists as a threat to very fabric of western European society. The Anabaptists denied the ages-long assumption that church and state must be tied inextricably together. In a day when European civilization lived in terror of invasions from the Turks, the Anabaptists rejected any responsibility to join in military resistance. The Anabaptists also rejected hierarchical structures in church and society.
In response to the persecution, Anabaptists sought to remain faithful to their central values. Often they faced two choices—repudiate their faith (which doubtlessly many did) or flee to new locations.
The Anabaptist movement evolved after the first generation into a migrating people, seeking tolerance and the possibility of practicing their faith with a minimum of resistance from the outside. By the mid-sixteenth century, when many of the Brethren came to be called Mennonites (after an important and relatively long-lived Dutch Anabaptist leader named Menno Simons), they had given up the confrontive, evangelistic style of the early Anabaptists, evolving toward becoming the “Quiet in the Land.”
This era of harsh persecution and the resultant evolution of the group into a migrating people, primarily seeking tolerance and security, served as a crucial defining time. Out of the experience of persecution came dynamics that reshaped the Anabaptist movement and determined how the original creative values would be expressed.
What are some changes wrought by this era of persecution on the Anabaptist movement?
(1) A change from voluntary membership to membership by birth. Theologically, one of the largest innovations for the Anabaptist movement was the rejection of infant baptism for believers baptism. They believed that membership in the church is not for everyone in the society, but only for genuine Christians who voluntarily join the church.
However, in practice, their focus on voluntary membership did not last long. The effect of living as a migrating people, separate from the wider culture, meant that they became somewhat self-contained societies. In general, all in these mini-societies became church members, being born into it. Few people from outside these mini-societies joined their churches. In numerous situations, governments gave Anabaptists tolerance with the understanding that they would not try to convert outsiders.
(2) From urban to rural. The first Anabaptists often lived in cities. Before long, though, the focus turned to the countryside, as the more likely environment conducive to tolerance. Before long, Anabaptists’ skill as farmers and their willingness to cultivate unsettled countryside became their main attraction to potentially tolerant princes.
(3) From adult baptism to baptizing children of the church. The practice of baptizing adults who made a clear and conscious choice to move from the world of darkness to the world of light changed after the first generation. This change came in conjunction with the rapid evolution of the Anabaptist movement toward self-contained, ghetto-like communities. After the first generation, the practice of baptism centered much more on the integration of children of the church into the adults’ church. Baptism become more of an initiation rite set at a somewhat arbitrary age to mark the full membership of children whose faith generally evolved gradually.
(4) From evangelism to seeking toleration. The first Anabaptists zealous evangelized outsiders with the claims of Christ. In face of extraordinarily hostile reactions from their societies’ powers-that-be, the later Anabaptists soon became much more concerned with finding tolerant locales quietly to practice their faith within their isolated communities. Often, part of the agreements they made with estate owners included the promise not to evangelize.
(5) From open membership to ethnicity. The first Anabaptists came from the wider society in which the movement arose. They shared their neighbors’ language and cultural practices. However, in time the Anabaptist religious community and the Anabaptist cultural community (which were basically identical) became distinct from the surrounding culture. This led to the emergence of Anabapt ethnicism.
An ethnic enclave is a group of people distinct from surrounding groups not only in terms of theology but also distinct in terms of various other characteristics, most notably language, but also dietary practices, dress, and other folkways.
Anabaptists became an ethnic enclave largely as a response to the intense persecution they faced. This persecution caused them to turn inward, to band together in migrations where they took along their native language and folkways to a new environment. Their different language and folkways marked them off as different from the surrounding culture. Over several generations, these differences became ingrained and they evolved into a distinct ethnic group.
(6) From a more personal orientation to a more communal orientation. The first Anabaptists, though certainly community-oriented, generally had a strong sense of individuality that allowed them to differentiate themselves from their wider culture and consciously choose to join a different church. Over time though, this individuality became increasingly diminished as children were socialized to identify first of all with their separated, self-contained community.
(7) The emergence of the powerful dynamic of Gelassenheit. The word Gelassenheit refers to a spiritual attitude of yieldedness, submission, humility, openness to martyrdom. The value placed on this attitude increased significantly over time in the Anabaptist communities in response to persecution and marginalization. Anabaptists had little external power and hence the ideal of transforming the wider world diminished. The focus of their faithfulness became more oriented around something they could do—live submissively and with their wills yielded to God’s will, even when that meant suffering and martyrdom. The Hutterites used the notion of Gelassenheit in a very concrete way—the ideal of community of goods.
These developments shaped the history of Anabaptists down to the present, especially those who continued to face persecution and the need to maintain a separated identity.
Holland provided an exception. After the last Dutch martyrdom in 1574, Anabaptists increasingly found toleration in Dutch society. The high tolerance led Dutch Anabaptists to increased acculturation that in some ways modified many of the dynamics that marked Anabaptism’s evolution. Unlike the Anabaptist populations elsewhere in Western Europe, Anabaptists in Holland in the seventeenth century and later rarely migrated. They lost membership not through people leaving with the hope of finding increased tolerance elsewhere so much as through the processes of assimilation, inter-marriage, secularism, and joining other churches.
Thinking in terms of Anabaptist groups that eventually ended up in North America, the changes from sixteenth century Anabaptism significantly effected their expression of the key Anabaptist values noted above.
(1) Priesthood of believers—The sense of community strengthened with the increased sense of separation from the wider culture. Also, though, the communities tended toward stronger internal leadership, and many conflicts resulted. The Anabaptist movement as a whole remained decentralized, with no unified leadership that encompassed all groups.
(2) Discipleship—The focus of energy turned away from transforming the world. The focus turned inward toward seeking for community purity and a personal sense of submission to God and the community. Instead of evangelism, the focus became more works of service, especially mutual aid (i.e., service of others inside the community).
(3) Bible-centered—The Bible remained central, but the focus became more one of repeating first generation interpretations and insights into biblical teaching than of continuing to seek new applications of biblical teaching to new settings.
(4) Believers baptism—The survival of the church came to depend on retaining children of the church instead of gaining new converts. Hence, baptism served more as an initiation rite for bringing in children of the church into the community than as a sign of conversion.
(5) Rejection of violence—The commitment to pacifism became perhaps Anabaptism’s most distinctive characteristic, accompanied by solidifying a two-kingdom orientation holding that governmental activities are not appropriate for Anabaptists. They assumed a clear distinction between church and world, and their responsibilities lay exclusively in the former.
(6) Non-conformity—The sense of separation from the wider world was strengthened (in part due to the development of Anabaptist ethnicism). Anabaptists grew in self-consciousness as people who did not conform to the wider world. Along with non-conformity, the strengthening of community-consciousness led to a decrease in the internal non-conformity that was allowed. Anabaptists were becoming more different from the outside world but more like each other.
The Migrations (1683-1945)
The first known Anabaptists to move to North America came from Holland and from all appearances crossed the ocean in search of economic opportunity more than religious toleration. Scattered references may be found to Anabaptist settlers, the first being in 1644 in the Dutch settlements in New York. Dutch Mennonites established the first permanent congregation of Anabaptists in North America in the Germantown area near Philadelphia in 1683.
The first larger influx of Anabaptists migrating to North America came in the first half of the eighteenth century. They mostly originated in Switzerland and South Germany, and migrated to escape the persecution they still faced in Europe. Dutch Anabaptists assisted their brethren on the way, but few desired to leave Holland at that time.
These migrating Swiss at first settled in Pennsylvania, finding welcome from the Quakers who promised them religious freedom and respect for their pacifist practices. Between 1700 and 1756, approximately four thousand Swiss and South German Mennonites came to the United States, until immigration was halted during the French and Indian War. After 1815 and the conclusion of the Napoleonic wars, another influx of immigrants came to North America.
Approximately three thousand Swiss and South German Anabaptists immigrated. Many of these also settled in Pennsylvania, but some moved further west to Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, and north to Ontario.
For generations these Anabaptists lived an isolated existence in the United States, maintaining many of the ethnic practices of their European forebears, including the use of the German language (or “Pennsylvania Dutch”). This isolation lasted throughout the nineteenth century and beyond in some communities, though gradually they did become more acculturated—a process that has greatly accelerated in the twentieth century.
The various wars of the US, especially the Revolutionary War and the Civil War tested Anabaptist pacifism, though in many ways Anabaptist convictions were strengthened.
In the late 1800s, many Anabaptists began a process of assimilating with the broader American culture that has continued to gain momentum down to the present-day. Probably the main factor contributing to this process has been the religious toleration they have found in the United States. North American toleration contrasts with the harsh persecution Anabaptists earlier faced in Western Europe.
The first steps in this acculturation process began when many Anabaptist congregations adopted church practices used by more mainstream churches such as revival meetings, foreign missions, beginning of Sunday school programs, and the publication of religious literature.
A more recent influx of Anabaptist to North America came from Russia. In the years of strong persecution before Holland granted toleration to Anabaptists (ca. 1580), many Dutch Anabaptists migrated to the Danzig area on the Baltic Sea. Though they originally spoke Dutch, over the years they spent in the Danzig area they began speaking the local German dialect known as Low German. Low German became the language for their descendants.
The Low Germans found a measure of tolerance in the Danzig area in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Anabaptists from throughout Europe continued settling there through much of the eighteenth century. In 1772 sovereignty over this area was transferred from Poland to Prussia and the toleration lessened. The new overseers exerted pressure on the Anabaptists to participate in the military and placed increasing restrictions on their land ownership. As military demands increased and the Anabaptist population also increased, the difficulty in maintaining a viable way of life and holding to their convictions as the same time increased significantly.
These dynamics led many to consider another migration. Beginning in 1762, Catherine II of Russia had invited Germans and other western Europeans to move to Russia and occupy land vacated by Turks in southern Russia. In the 1780s, Danzig-area Anabaptists showed interest in Catherine’s offer. They had farming skills to offer Russia. Russia offered them assurances of autonomy, freedom of religion, and no military involvement. Besides their farming success, all the government asked of the Anabaptists was that they not recruit local Orthodox Christians.
The Mennonites established two main colonies in Russia, first Chortitza followed by Molotschna. These colonies thrived throughout the nineteenth century, growing increasingly prosperous until the transformation of Russian society that came with World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the establishment of Stalinism.
Along with the growth and prosperity of the two main colonies in Russia came some tensions. Over time, the colonies grew more and more stratified between wealthy landowners and landless laborers who struggled to make a living. Also, the Russian government began to pressure the colonies in the second half of the nineteenth century to integrate more with the Russian society, especially by participating in the military and integrating with the Russian educational system (including the use of the Russian language). Throughout Anabaptist history, language has been a central factor in the maintenance of a distinct identity in relation to the wider culture. These Mennonites resisted these pressures, but they caused significant stress within the colonies.
A third tension stemmed from controversy within the churches following the emergence of a reform movement that eventually separated to form the Mennonite Brethren church.
The pressures from the Russian government on Mennonites to assimilate more with the wider culture echoed similar earlier pressures from the Prussian government, the main factor in migration to Russia. So, many began to consider the migration option once more, understanding the issue as a choice between staying in Russia and facing the trials of increasing governmental pressure to accommodate or facing the trials of uprooting and seeking new life in a foreign land.
In response to these threats of Mennonites to leave, the Russian government relented somewhat and lessened their pressures. They established the world’s first thoroughgoing alternative service program that allowed Mennonites to stay out of the military. They also allowed the Mennonite schools to continue to teach German and Anabaptist religion.
These changes were not enough for many. About one-third of the Russian Mennonites (ca. eighteen thousand) migrated to North American, settling mostly in the Midwest, from Manitoba in the north down to Oklahoma in the south, with the largest settlements established in Kansas.
As it turned out, neither the Mennonites who stayed in Russia nor the Mennonites who migrated to North America sustained the Russian Mennonite way of life for long. Those who stayed faced incredible trauma with World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the establishment of Stalinism. By the end of the 1930s, the Mennonite churches in Russia had pretty much ceased to exist as openly-meeting congregations, thousands of Mennonites had lost their lives, hundreds more had been exiled to Siberia, and the Soviet government forbade those who remained to practice their faith. Recent research indicates that even in face of such violence, the Anabaptist faith did survive in Russia—but at great cost and in great secrecy. A group of about twenty thousand Russian Mennonites did migrate, mostly to Canada, in the 1920s.
The Mennonites who migrated to North America did prosper. They accommodated rapidly to the wider culture, largely due to the religious toleration that they found. In some ways, their experience in North America paralleled the experience of Anabaptists in Holland after they gained toleration—the loss of much that was distinctive about the Anabaptist faith tradition.
These series of migrations shaped the expression of key Anabaptist values. Up until the twentieth century, the migrations solidified Anabaptist ethnicity. As Anabaptist groups migrated to new areas, they tended to take their language (e.g., Pennsylvania Dutch and Low German) and folkways with them, remaining distinct from their new surroundings, often for generations.
Did this ethnically based separation from the world reflect the same concerns as the sixteenth century Anabaptists commitment to non-conformity? Certainly separation from the outside world was much easier when the outside world was so clearly different in various ways (most obviously language) from the church-community.
The migrants often selected themselves by the strength of their convictions. This dynamic surely had the effect of helping those convictions to remain viable. The people who stayed behind tended to be the people more comfortable with their environment and more open to accommodation with the wider culture.
An example of this can be seen with regard to the commitment to pacifism. Mennonites who remained in Holland, Switzerland, Prussia, and Germany had mostly given up on pacifism by the nineteenth century. The pacifist ideal in Europe essentially remained limited to the Russian Mennonites—descendants of those who had left Prussia in large part in order to maintain their freedom from military involvement. Quite likely, the migration of one-third of the Russian Mennonites in the 1870s repeated this process. Those who left probably felt more commitment to the peace position than did those who stayed.
The migrations stimulated much mutual aid among Anabaptists—including Anabaptists of different nationalities. Dutch Mennonites provided significant assistance to the Swiss and South Germans who migrated to North America. In the 1870s, North Americans helped Russians in their move to North America. The prime twentieth century case of Anabaptist mutual aid was the establishment of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in the 1920s. MCC offered life-saving assistance to Russian Mennonites facing starvation in the aftermath of the Russian Civil War. As it turned out, MCC also was the channel for invaluable assistance for the twenty thousand Russian Mennonites who migrated to North America during this time.
The Twentieth-Century and Beyond
In the 1870s, Anabaptists in North America began to open up to the wider culture through the influence of revival meetings, missions, Sunday Schools, and the publication of religious literature. Around this same time, about eighteen thousand Russian Mennonites moved to North America and found the most hospitable environment their people had ever known.
The two World Wars brought out some tensions between Anabaptists and surrounding culture. However, the dynamics changed a great deal between the two wars. Anabaptists experienced World War I as a much more difficult and alienating experience. By the time of World War II several factors reduced the tensions.
North American society was not nearly as militant in its pro-war fervor. Anti-German sentiment had fueled resentment toward German-speaking Anabaptists during World War I (many not realizing that the vast majority of German-speaking Anabaptists were hundreds of years removed from residence in Germany). By the time of World War II, many fewer Anabaptists spoke German as their first language. Also, peace church leadership saw World War II on the horizon and did a great deal of effective work with the US government to establish more acceptable provisions for conscientious objectors. As result, a generally mutually acceptable program (Civilian Public Service) was set up.
Consequently, even the evolution of Anabaptist relations with military actions in North America shows that basically Anabaptists have found a safe haven in the North American cultural melting pot. Anabaptists have settled in and found a home here over the past one hundred thirty years, more than any other situation they have faced (except for Mennonites in Holland).
Anabaptists have become increasingly acculturated in North America, most clearly seen in the adoption of the language of the surrounding culture. After speaking their various forms of German for hundreds of years in several different locations, North American Anabaptists have now become mainly English speaking (with the exception of churches established among recent immigrants). This removal of the language barrier has opened Anabaptists to outside influences, both from secular society and other Christian traditions, more than any other development.
Another indication of acculturation has been Anabaptist commitment to higher education, both in terms of the establishment of Anabaptist colleges and seminaries and in Anabaptists’ widespread attendance at non-Anabaptist colleges, universities, and graduate schools.
Somewhat connected with the commitment to higher education, Anabaptists have increasingly chosen to enter the professional (e.g., medicine, law, education) and business worlds, leaving the farms behind. This has led to a reversal of the sixteenth century ruralization of Anabaptist culture. Anabaptists are becoming increasingly urbanized. One important effect of this movement to the city has been the growing scarcity of distinct Anabaptist communities. Without the distinct language and distinct communities, Anabaptist ethnicity is dying out.
Another factor leading to acculturation and loss of ethnicity has been increased inter-marriage between Anabaptists and non-Anabaptists. While often these marriages result in the Anabaptist spouse leaving the home church, such marriages also contribute to an increase of non-ethnic Anabaptists joining Anabaptist churches. As well, greater acculturation also has resulted in greater visibility of Anabaptists in American culture, leading to many non-ethnic Anabaptists joining Anabaptist churches by choice.
The process begun in the late nineteenth century of borrowing religious techniques such as revival meetings, Sunday school, and publications from non-Anabaptists has continued apace. Along with the increased stability and security Anabaptists have found in North America has come increased prosperity. Anabaptists have generally joined with their North American neighbors in accumulating possessions.
Another indication of the accommodation of Anabaptists can be seen in their response to World War II. Even with the generally attractive provisions for COs and strong support from church leadership for conscientious objection, approximately fifty per cent of American Mennonite young men who were drafted during the War joined the military. This certainly served to reflect the loyalty that Anabaptists had come to feel for their adopted nation.
The Anabaptist group I am focusing on, the Mennonite Church USA has evolved into a full-fledged denomination, also reflecting cultural accommodation.
Among the Anabaptists who came to North America in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century and formed the Mennonite Church, another sign has been the loss of distinctive dress. Until well into the twentieth century, these Mennonites adhered to the practice of “plain dress,” characterized, in part, by head coverings for the women and plain coats for the men. Starting in the 1950s and accelerating in the 1960s and 1970s, fewer and fewer Mennonites have been dressing plain.
A final example of Anabaptist acculturation is the increase of Anabaptist participation in politics. For years many Anabaptists did not vote, nor try to influence policy makers or run for office. Again, this was more true for the earlier immigrants. However, this withdrawal stance has been fading away. Mennonite Central Committee has an office in Washington, DC, and Anabaptists are much more likely than before to vote, to write letters, even to run for office.
How has this acculturation of affected key Anabaptist values?
Anabaptists remain committed to the Bible; however, their interpretations are shaped much more by outside influences. These influences include TV and radio ministries and non- Anabaptist Bible colleges on the one hand, and universities and critical Bible scholarship on the other hand. These influences have fostered a growing gap between the views of Anabaptist professors and their students on the one hand, and the “people in the pews” on other hand.
With the loss of ethnicity, the sense of community has become more voluntary. The priesthood of believers more than ever relies on choice, and as a result is much more fragile, especially in areas with little social pressure to be involved in church.
The practice of believers baptism has evolved. Many Anabaptists accept membership transfers from churches that baptize infants without re-baptism. The age for baptizing children of the church has tended to get younger. In some cases, under the influence of evangelical churches, congregations have connected baptism to conversion more closely. All of these tendencies have contributed to baptism being separated more from mutual accountability within the church and from the call to discipleship.
The peace tradition has evolved in several ways. Possibly as a result of the wider cross-fertilization with other Christian traditions, Anabaptists less strictly adhere to the peace position. It is hard to gauge commitment to pacifism as long as it is mostly an abstract belief in the absence of a military draft. Certainly Anabaptist churches still teach and profess pacifism. The outside world more highly respects Anabaptist pacifism. Probably the clearest development has been the increase in Anabaptist nonviolent political activism. This style of involvement has not been widespread, but it has gotten wide exposure and reflects a sense of responsibility for the affairs of the wider world that was not characteristic on earlier generations of Anabaptists.
As would be expected, the ideal of non-conformity has been less central the more Anabaptists have assimilated with North American culture.
In light of this general acculturation, what might the future hold for the Anabaptist faith?
It seems clear that the Anabaptist church will increasingly become multi-cultural. The significance of stable, generations-long, rural Anabaptist communities will continue to shrink in the midst of increasingly mobile North American culture. As a result, the perpetuation of the key Anabaptist ideals will no longer depend on a sustained, concrete “community of memory.”
Certainly these values have always been evolving and being shaped by historical events. This process will surely only accelerate as Anabaptist communities become more and more changeable, fluid, and oriented around centers other than ethnicity. Due to the influence of the media and the education of Anabaptists in non-Anabaptist colleges and graduate schools, the influence of non-Anabaptist theological orientations will continue to grow. This factor also will serve to make the adherence to traditional Anabaptist ideals more tenuous.
At the same time, these ideals continue to be widely held in Anabaptist churches and are gaining increasing respect outside of Anabaptist circles. The ideals will not die, just as they have not died since the time of Jesus. The big question facing Anabaptist churches is not whether we can keep these values alive—God will see to that. The big question is whether we will continue to be used by God as a carrier of these values.
1. This chapter is based on lectures presented at Salem Mennonite Church, Freeman, SD, in 1995.
2. John D. Roth, ed., Engaging Anabaptism: Conversations with a Radical Tradition (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001), collects essays from various theologians discussing their attraction to the Anabaptist tradition.
3. Basic treatments of early Anabaptist movement include: C. J. Dyck, Introduction to Mennonite History, 3rd edition (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1993); George H. Williams, The Radical Reformation, 3rd edition (Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal, 1992); J. Denny Weaver, Becoming Anabaptist, 2nd edition (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2005); and C. Arnold Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology: An Introduction (Kitchener, Ont: Pandora Press, 1995).
4. See especially James Stayer, The German Peasants’ War and Anabaptists Community of Goods (Buffalo, NY: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991).
5. Williams, Radical, 24.
6. See C. Arnold Snyder, The Life and Thought of Michael Sattler (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press,
7. My summary here is my own synthesis, influenced by, among other writings, John Howard Yoder, “A Summary of the Anabaptist Vision,” in C.J. Dyck, ed., An Introduction to Anabaptist History, 2nd edition (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981);” Weaver, Becoming, 113–41; and Snyder, Anabaptist, 379–96.
8. See Richard K. MacMaster, Land, Piety and Peoplehood: The Establishment of Mennonite Communities in America, 1683-1790 (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1985).
9. See Peter Brock, Pacifism in the United States: From the Colonial Era to the First World War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968); Richard K. MacMaster, et al, Conscience and Crisis: Mennonites and Other Peace Churches in America, 1739-1789 (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1979); MacMaster, Land; Theron F. Schlabach, Peace, Faith, Nation: Mennonites and Amish in Nineteenth-Century America (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1988); and Samuel L. Horst, Mennonites in the Confederacy: A Study of Civil War Pacifism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1967).
10. For Mennonites in Russia, see John Friesen, ed., Mennonites in Russia, 1788-1988 (Winnipeg, Man: CMBC, 1989); James Urry, None But Saints: The Transformation of Mennonite Life in Russia, 1789-1889 (Winnipeg, Man: Hyperion, 1988); and John B. Toews, Czars, Soviets, and Mennonites (Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1982).
11. Schlabach, Peace. 231–94.
12. Walter Sawatsky, “Historical Roots of a Post-Gulag Theology for Russian Mennonites,”
Mennonite Quarterly Review 76 (2002), 149-80.
13. See James C. Juhnke, Vision, Doctrine, War: Mennonite Identity and Organization in America, 1890-1930 (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), and Paul B. Toews, Mennonites in American Society, 1930-1970: Modernity and the Persistence of Religious Community (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1996.
14. See Ted Grimsrud, “The Significance of Civilian Public Service for Anabaptist Pacifism,” in Embodying the Way of Jesus: Anabaptist Convictions for the Twenty-First Century (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007), 127-40.
15. See Leo Driedger and Donald Kraybill, Mennonite Peacemaking: From Quietism to Activism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1994), and Cynthia Sampson and John Paul Lederach, eds., From the Ground Up: Mennonite Contributions to International Peacebuilding (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), especially Kathleen Kern, “From Haiti to Hebron with a Brief Stop in Washington