{men' - uhn - yts}

General Information

The Mennonites, a Protestant religious group descended from the 16th century Anabaptists, take their name from Menno Simons, a Dutch Roman Catholic priest converted to the Anabaptist faith, whose moderate leadership, after the militant excesses of the fanatical Anabaptist Kingdom of Munster (1534 - 35), restored balance to the movement. He was active in the Netherlands and also developed a following in Holstein and along the lower Rhine and the Baltic.

The Mennonites rejected infant baptism, the swearing of oaths, military service, and worldliness. They practiced strong church discipline in their congregations and lived simple, honest, loving lives in emulation of the earliest Christians. As summarized by the Dordrecht Confession of 1632, Mennonite theological principles stress the direct influence of the Holy Spirit on the heart of the believer and the importance of the Bible, with its message of salvation through the mystical experience of Christ's presence in the heart.

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Because Mennonites refused to assume state offices, to serve as police or soldiers, or to take oaths of loyalty, they were considered subversive and as such severely persecuted. These persecutions led at various times to the emigration of Mennonite groups: to the American colonies (1683), where they settled in Pennsylvania; to Russia (1788); and, in the 20th century, from Russia and North America to Latin America. In Europe they gradually gained a measure of toleration in Holland, Switzerland, the Palatinate, and northern Germany.

In the New World the Mennonites branched into several factions, of which the (Old) Mennonite Church - still the largest - is the parent group. Other groups include the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Brethren Church. The Amish Church, named for Jacob Ammann, a 17th century Swiss Mennonite bishop, remains insular and conservative. Old Order Amish avoid modern technology in farming and manufacturing, wear old fashioned clothing fastened by hooks and eyes instead of buttons, worship in private homes, and continue to speak a German English amalgam (Pennsylvania Dutch). The Conservative Amish differ only in their adoption of English and Sunday schools. The churches meet together once every 6 years at the Mennonite World Conference. American Mennonites reside principally in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Kansas. Significant numbers also live in Canada.

Lewis W Spitz

H S Bender and H C Smith, Mennonites and Their Heritage (1964) and, as eds., Mennonite Encyclopedia (1954 - 59); B Davies, String of Amber: The Heritage of the Mennonites (1973); C J Dyck, ed., Introduction to Mennonite History (1981); J W Fretz, The Waterloo Mennonites (1989); R Friedmann, Mennonite Piety Through the Centuries (1949); J A Hostetler, Mennonite Life (1983); C W Redekop, Mennonite Society (1989); C H Smith, The Story of the Mennonites (1950); G H Williams, The Radical Reformation (1962).


General Information


Mennonites are a Protestant evangelical religious group, which originated in Switzerland and the Netherlands at the time of the Protestant Reformation.


Mennonites are divided into a number of separate bodies, some of them more conservative and withdrawn from modern society than others; but they hold in common the ideal of a religious community based on New Testament models and imbued with the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount. Most of the principal tenets of the Mennonites are found in a confession of faith promulgated at Dordrecht, the Netherlands, in 1632. The Bible as interpreted by the individual conscience is regarded as the sole authority on doctrinal matters, and no powers of mediation between an individual and God are conceded to the ministry. Baptism is administered only on the profession of faith; infant baptism is rejected. The Lord's Supper (see Eucharist) is celebrated, although not as a sacrament, and the rite of foot washing is sometimes observed in connection with it.

Mennonites were among the first to espouse the principle of separation of church and state and to condemn slavery. They have traditionally obeyed the civil laws, but many refuse to bear arms or to support violence in any form (see Pacifism), to take judicial oaths, and to hold public office. The more conservative Mennonite groups are distinguished by plain living and simplicity of dress.


The Mennonites emerged in Switzerland in the 1520s as radical Protestants who went beyond the positions held by the Swiss reformer Huldreich Zwingli. They broke with him over the issue of infant baptism, and so were called Anabaptists, or "rebaptizers." Because these Swiss Brethren rejected the concept of a state church and refused to sanction war or to accept military service, they were regarded as subversive and were persecuted.

A parallel movement emerged at about the same time in the Netherlands, led by Menno Simons, from whom the name Mennonite is derived. Educated for the priesthood and ordained in 1524, Menno Simons gradually moved to a radical position, until by 1537 he was preaching believer's baptism and nonresistance. As they did in Switzerland, Anabaptists in the Netherlands experienced years of persecution. Similar groups sprang up in southern Germany and also in Austria, where they were led by Jakob Hutter and called Hutterites or Hutterian Brethren.

The Swiss Brethren continued to suffer harassment and persecution into the 18th century, and many fled to the Rhineland and the Netherlands, others to America (Pennsylvania), and still others to eastern Europe. In the Netherlands outright persecution ceased by the end of the 16th century, although some coercion and discrimination in favor of the state church persisted. Like the Swiss Brethren, many Dutch Mennonites immigrated, some to Pennsylvania, others eastward to Prussia and Poland, reaching, by the early 19th century, the Ukraine and other parts of Russia.

In Pennsylvania Mennonites were among those who settled Germantown in 1683. Both Swiss and Dutch Mennonites went to the colony in the following years. Distinctive among them, although not numerically the most important, were followers of a 17th-century Swiss Mennonite bishop, Jakob Amman, who were called Amish or Amish Mennonites. Their very conservative dress and other customs - especially their use of shunning as a method of discipline - set them apart from the surrounding society.

Later waves of emigration from Europe introduced variant strands of the Mennonite tradition into the United States. In each case the tendency was to take up land on what was at the time the western frontier. In the first half of the 19th century Mennonites from Switzerland and southern Germany settled in Ohio and other states westward to Missouri. After the American Civil War Mennonites from Russia, primarily of Dutch stock, settled in Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota. Following World War I Russian Mennonites migrated to Canada, especially Saskatchewan. More came after World War II, but the destinations of the most recent Mennonite emigrants have been Mexico, Paraguay, and Brazil.

In North America the largest Mennonite bodies are the Mennonite Church ("Old Mennonites"), with roots in colonial Pennsylvania, and the General Conference Mennonite Church, organized in Iowa in 1860. In 1980 the Mennonite Church had about 109,000 members in the U.S. and Canada and 33,000 in related overseas churches; the General Conference Mennonite Church had about 60,000 members in the U.S. and Canada. Local churches are organized into district conferences, which send delegates to a general conference, or assembly. Many of the clergy serve their churches part time while engaged in secular employment.

Throughout much of their history, Mennonites have been a rural people, traditionally farmers. In the 20th century the largest Mennonite bodies in the U.S. have begun to play a significant role in society at large. The traditional use of the German language in worship survives only in the most conservative groups. Both the Mennonite Church and the General Mennonite Church sponsor institutions of higher education. The Mennonite Central Committee, with representatives from 17 Mennonite bodies, is a cooperative relief and service agency dedicated to advancing the cause of peace and alleviating human suffering throughout the world.


Advanced Information

Mennonites are a large body of Anabaptist groups today, descendants of the Dutch and Swiss Anabaptists (the Swiss Brethren, as they came to be known) of the sixteenth century. The basic doctrines of the original Swiss Anabaptists, as well as the Peace Wing of the Dutch Anabaptists, are reflected in the 1524 Programmatic Letters of Conrad Grebel; in the Seven Articles of Schleitheim, 1527; in the voluminous writings of Pilgram Marpeck (d. 1556); in the writings of Menno Simons and of Dirk Philips (Enchiridion or Handbook of the Christian Doctrine); in the Swiss Brethren hymn book, the Ausbund (1564); and in the huge Martyrs Mirror of 1660.

The Swiss Brethren were the Free Church wing of the Zwinglian Reformation. Initially the pioneer leaders such as Conrad Grebel and Felix Mantz had nothing but praise for Zwingli. But by the fall of 1523 they became increasingly uneasy about the tempo of the Reformation in Zurich, and particularly about Zwingli's practice of allowing the Great Council of the 200 to decide what Catholic forms of doctrine, piety, and practice were to be dropped. These young radicals felt that Zwingli was too lukewarm and slow in carrying out his strongly biblical vision for an evangelical Reformed Church in Zurich. But they did nothing until they were ordered to have their infants baptized and forbidden to conduct any more Bible study sessions. It was then that they met, and after earnest prayer ventured to inaugurate believer's baptism and to commission each other to go out as preachers and evangelists. The date of organization of this Swiss Free Church was January 21, 1525.

At this organization meeting the three strongest leaders were Conrad Grebel, who died in 1526; Felix Mantz, who died as a martyr early in 1527; and George Blaurock, who was severely beaten and banished from Zurich in 1527, only to be burned to death in the Tirol in 1529. After the original leaders were off the scene, the mantle of leadership fell upon a former Benedictine monk of South Germany named Michael Sattler. It was Sattler who helped the scattered and sometimes differing Swiss Brethren to settle upon what was a biblical faith and way of life. This was realized at a village in Schaffhausen called Schleitheim in 1527. Seven articles were worked over and finally adopted unanimously by the "brethren and sisters" who were present. These seven articles may be summarized thus:

(1) Baptism is to be given to people who have repented and believed on Christ, who manifest a new way of life, who "walk in the resurrection," and who actually request baptism. (Infants and children are considered saved without ceremony, but infants are often "dedicated.")

(2) Before the breaking of bread (the Lord's Supper), special effort shall be made to reclaim from any form of sin any brothers or sisters who may have strayed from Christ's way of love, holiness, and obedience. Those who are overtaken by sin should be twice warned privately, then publicly admonished before the congregation. The rite of exclusion of impenitent sinners the Swiss Brethren called the ban.

(3) The Lord's Supper is to be celebrated by those who have been united into the body of Christ by baptism. The congregation of believers must keep themselves from the sinful ways of the world in order to be united in the "loaf" of Christ.

(4) Disciples of Christ must carefully avoid the sins of a Christ - rejecting world. They cannot have spiritual fellowship with those who reject the obedience of faith. Accordingly there are two classes of people: those who belong to the devil and live in sin, and those who have been delivered by Christ from this evil way of life. We must break with every form of sin, and then he will be our God and we will be his sons and daughters.

(5) Every congregation of true Christians needs a shepherd. The shepherd (or pastor) shall meet NT qualifications, "the rule of Paul." He is to read God's Word, exhort, teach, warn, admonish, discipline or ban in the congregation, properly preside in the congregational meetings and in the breaking of bread. If he has financial needs the congregation shall give him support. Should he be led away to martyrdom, another pastor shall be ordained in "the same hour."

(6) The section on being nonresistant suffers is entitled "The Sword." The sword is ordained of God "outside the perfection of Christ" (the church). The only method the church has to deal with transgressors is the ban (exclusion). Disciples of Christ must be utterly nonresistant. They cannot use the sword to cope with the wicked or to defend the good. Nonresistant Christians cannot serve as magistrates; rather, they must react as Christ did: he refused when they wished to make him king. Under no circumstances can Christians be other than Christlike.

(7) Finally, by the word of Christ, Christians cannot swear any kind of oath. Christian disciples are finite creatures; they cannot make one hair grow white or black. They may solemnly testify to the truth, but they shall not swear.

In the covering letter accompanying the Seven Articles, Sattler acknowledges that some of the brothers had not fully understood God's will aright, but now they do. All past mistakes are truly forgiven when believers offer prayer concerning their shortcomings and guilt; they have perfect standing "through the gracious forgiveness of God and through the blood of Jesus Christ."

In 1693 Jakob Ammann, a Swiss elder in Alsace, founded the most conservative wing of the Mennonites, the Amish.

Down through the centuries the Mennonites have produced numerous confessions of faith, catechisms, printed sermons, and hymn books.

Mennonites hold to the major doctrines of the Christian faith and feel free to confess the Apostles' Creed. They are dissatisfied, however, with the creed's moving directly from the birth of Christ to his atoning death. They feel that it is also important to study Christ's way of life, his beautiful example of love, obedience, and service. They cannot believe that seeking to be faithful to both the letter and the spirit of the NT is legalism, if such obedience is based on love for God and love for man. Indeed, Michael Sattler wrote a moving essay in 1527: Two Kinds of Obedience. They are (1) slavish obedience, which is legalism; it involves a low level of performance and produces proud "Pharisees." (2) Filial obedience, which is based on love for God and can never do enough, for the love of Christ is so intense Mennonites see the will of God revealed in a preparatory but nonfinal way in the OT but fully and definitively in Christ and the NT.

Violent suppression of the Mennonites practically led to their extermination in Germany. In Switzerland they survived chiefly in two areas, the Emme valley of Berne and the mountainous areas of the Jura. William I of the House of Orange brought toleration of a sort to the "Mennists" (the name coined by Countess Anna in Friesland in 1545 to designate the Peace Wing of the Dutch Anabaptists) of the Netherlands about 1575. The severe persecution of the Swiss Taufgesinnten, the Dutch Doopsgezinden, and the Frisian Mennists effectively silenced their evangelistic and mission concerns for several centuries, but these were revived slowly in the nineteenth century, first in Europe and then in North America. Mennonite missions have been most successful in Africa, Indonesia, and in India, and have started in Latin America.

J C Wenger

(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

Mennonite Encyclopedia; T J van Braght, Martyrs Mirror; C J Dyck, ed., Introduction to Mennonite History; J Horsch, Mennonites in Europe; G F Hershberger, War, Peace, and Nonresistance; M Jeschke, Discipling the Brother; J A Hostetler, Amish Society; S F Pannabecker, Open Doors; J A Toews, Mennonite Brethren Church; J C Wenger, Introduction to Theology and Mennonite Church in America.


Catholic Information

A Protestant denomination of Europe and America which arose in Switzerland in the sixteenth century and derived its name from Menno Simons, its leader in Holland. Menno Simons was born in 1492 at Witmarsum in Friesland. In 1515 or 1516 he was ordained to the Catholic priesthood and appointed assistant at Pingjum not far from Witmarsum. aater (1532) he was named pastor of his native place, but 12 January, 1536, resigned his charge and became an Anabaptist elder. The rest of his life was devoted to the interests of the new sect which he had joined. Though not an imposing personality he exercised no small influence as a speaker and more particularly as a writer among the more moderate holders of Anabaptist views. His death occurred 13 January, 1559, at Wustenfelde in Holstein. The opinions held by Menno Simons and the Mennonites originated in Switzerland. In 1525 Grebel and Manz founded an Anabaptist community at Zurich. Persecution followed upon the very foundation of the new sect, and was exercised against its members until 1710 in various parts of Switzerland. It was powerless to effect suppression and a few communities exist even at present. About 1620 the Swiss Mennonites split into Amish or Upland Mennonites and Lowland Mennonites. The former differ from the latter in the belief that excommunication dissolves marriage, in their rejection of buttons and of the practice of shaving. During Menno's lifetime his followers in Holland divided (1554) into "Flemings" and "Waterlanders", on account of their divergent views on excommunication. The former subsequently split up into different parties and dwindled into insignificance, not more than three congregations remaining at present in Holland. Division also weakened the "Waterlanders" until in 1811 they united, dropped the name of Mennonites and called themselves "Doopsgezinde" (Baptist persuasion), their present official designation in Holland. Menno founded congregations exclusively in Holland and Northwestern Germany. Mennonite communities existed at an early date, however in South Germany where they were historically connected with the Swiss movement, and are found at present in other parts of the empire, chiefly in eastern Prussia. The offer of extensive land and the assurance of religious liberty caused a few thousand German Mennonites to emigrate to Southern Russia (1788). This emigration movement continued until 1824, and resulted in the foundation of comparatively important Mennonite colonies. In America the first congregation was founded in 1683 at Germantown, Pennsylvania. Subsequently immigration from Germany, Holland, Switzerland, and since 1870 from Russia, considerably increased the number of the sect in North America. There are twelve different branches in the United States in some of which the membership does not reach 1000. Among the peculiar views of the Mennonites are the following: repudiation of infant baptism, oaths, law-suits, civil office-holding and the bearing of arms. Baptism of adults and the Lord's Supper, in which Jesus Christ is not really present, are retained, but not as sacraments properly so-called. Non-resistance to violence is an important tenet and an extensive use is made of excommunication. All these views, however, are no longer universally held, some Mennonites now accepting secular offices. The polity is congregational, with bishops, elders, and deacons. The aggregate membership of the Mennonites is now usually given as about 250,000; of these there are some 60,000 in Holland; 18,000 in Germany; 70,000 in Russia; 1500 in Switzerland; 20,000 in Canada, and according to Dr. Carroll (Christian Advocate, New York, 27 January, 1910), 55,007 in the United States.

Publication information Written by N.A. Weber. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume X. Published 1911. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York


CRAMER, Bibliotheca Reformatoria Neerlandica, II and V (The Hague, 1903, sqq.); CARROLL, Religious Forces of the United States (New York, 1896), 206-220; WEDEL, Geschichte der Mennoniten (Newton, Kansas, 1900-1904); SMITH, The Mennonites of America (Goshen, Indiana, 1909); CRAMER and HORSCH in New Schaff-Herzog Encycl. s.v. (New York, 1910).

Also, see:
Menno Simons

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