There is not time or space for me to recount in any detail the long story of the Mennonites, Hutterites, and Amish from the 16th century to the present day. For those who are interested in pursuing it, I highly recommend Cornelius J. Dyck’s highly readable book An Introduction to Mennonite History. All I can do in the context of this article is to sum up some trends, and I will do so using the following words: Migration, Isolation, Fragmentation, Assimilation, and Engagement.
First, migration. To read the continuing history of the descendants of the 16th century Anabaptists is to read a story of migrations. How does it happen that in Canada today you can still meet older people who live in an Anglophone society, but who describe themselves as Russian Mennonites, even though the ancestral language they speak is not Russian but Low German? The answer to that question is in the one word: migration.
Simply put, the Anabaptists were hard pressed to find a society that would allow them to practice the way of life they had chosen for themselves. The freedom to opt out of the Christendom system, and especially to opt out of military service, was a rare thing in 16th century Europe, and continued to be a rarity in the centuries to come. Most of the early Anabaptist leaders died young. I have heard it said that throughout the Reformation period in Europe and England approximately ten thousand people were executed for their religious beliefs. Even in the places where their movement was the strongest, the Anabaptists never made up more than ten percent of the population, but they make up more than fifty percent of the martyrs! Persecuted by Catholic and Protestant alike, they eventually migrated to places where they could find sympathetic princes or governments who would let them live in peace. In the early years Strasbourg was one such place, and the territory of lords of Lichtenstein was another. In the 17th century many Mennonites moved to Poland, where their skill as engineers who knew how to drain waterlogged land made them very useful in the draining of the Vistula delta. In the 19th century large numbers of Mennonites moved to Russia, where they were able to negotiate an exemption from military service and the freedom to educate their own children as they chose. They lived there for a century, preserving their distinction from the society around them by means of their ancestral language, low German. But in the 20th century with the communist takeover in Russia, persecution began again, and many fled for refuge to Canada, the United States, and South America.
In many cases the negotiations for safe places to live involved the Mennonites in some compromises. The most telling one, in light of early Anabaptist history, was the willingness not to try to convert others to their beliefs. And so the greatest evangelists in Europe gradually became ‘the quiet in the land’, content to live by themselves and bring up their children in their ancestral beliefs. This leads to the second word,isolation.
Separation from the world had been part of the Anabaptist theological understanding from the beginning of the movement. They understood that their primary loyalty was not to an earthly ruler or to a nation state, but to Jesus Christ and his coming kingdom. They understood that being followers of Jesus meant that they were committed to a different way of life.
As Mennonite history progressed, however, this separation from the world began to take on a geographical and cultural dimension which has become so strong that in the twentieth century there has even been a serious discussion in Mennonite circles about whether the term ‘Mennonite’ is primarily a religious or cultural/ethnic term. In order to preserve their distinctive way of life Mennonites grouped themselves in their own villages and settlements (in the case of the Hutterites, in their own colonies, where they had all things in common); they ran their own schools, married only amongst themselves, spoke Low German in ordinary life and High German in worship. They did not attempt to influence the political or social life of the world around them, and of course took no part in its wars. They tended to look for isolated places to live – the Russian steppes, or the Canadian prairies – where they could exist as ‘the quiet in the land’. And because they were frugal and hard working, their farms often prospered and became the envy of the people around them.
Something rather interesting was happening here. Anabaptism had begun as a protest movement against the idea of Christendom – the idea that church and society were one, and that every member of a given society was also a Christian and a church member. Early Anabaptists protested that the decision to become a Christian should be a free adult decision, made with no compulsion from the society around. However, as John Howard Yoder has pointed out, over time the Mennonite farming communities became little Christendoms of their own, with community decisions made at church meetings, with social institutions such as schooling under effective church control, and so on. And once again, as in the days of the Christian empire, the heathen were seen as living ‘out there’ on the edges of the new Constantinian communities.
A third characteristic of Mennonite history is fragmentation. To an Anglican, brought up with a story of a church which values visible unity and has a long history of hanging together – sometimes very uncomfortably – despite disagreements, the proliferation of Mennonite denominations can be bewildering. The Mennonite Church, the General Conference Mennonite Church, the North West Conference, the Evangelical Mennonite Church, the Mennonite Brethren – and so it goes on; there are literally hundreds of Mennonite denominations around the world today. How did this happen? My observation as an outsider would be that two things were involved: perfectionism and renewal.
First, perfectionism. One of the strengths of Anabaptism has been its high ideals for individual and church life, but paradoxically, this has also been one of its weaknesses. Anabaptism has not dealt well with imperfection and failure.
In Matthew 18:15-20 Jesus gives instructions to his followers that if they see someone in sin, they are to go and talk to them about it; if this fails they are to go again with one or two witnesses, and if the sinner still does not listen, they are to tell it to the church. If the sinner refuses to listen to the church, then they should be treated ‘as a Gentile or a tax collector’. The purpose of this process is reconciliation and restoration of relationships, and in the early years of the Anabaptist movement this was so. However, this process very quickly came to be described as ‘the ban’, with the emphasis on the last stage, the exclusion or ‘banning’ of the unrepentant sinner. And within the lifetime of the first and second generations of Anabaptists, the ban was being used by leaders such as Menno Simons and David Joris against other leaders with whose views they disagreed. This continued throughout Mennonite history: over and over again, different groups excommunicated each other while seeing themselves as the true heirs of the authentic Anabaptist tradition.
But the other factor in the fragmentation of Anabaptism has been renewal. As in the history of monasticism, when Christian institutions become lukewarm and comfortable, God often seems to raise up new movements to fan the flame of the Spirit into life again. This has happened in Mennonite history, and often the new movements became new Mennonite denominations. In some cases in the 18th and 19th century the new movements attempted to import elements of other traditions into Anabaptism: for instance, the Mennonite Brethren began as a revivalistic movement which brought elements of evangelical pietism into the Anabaptist tradition. Of course, traditional Anabaptists often looked askance at this, and the new groups themselves responded by looking down on what they saw as the compromised and worldly churches they had left.
Migration, isolation, fragmentation – a fourth word is assimilation. Isolation was not the whole story amongst Mennonites. In some societies they were welcomed, and they prospered as integrated members of the community. One example of this would be the Netherlands in the 17th century where Mennonites lived in relative freedom and were respected members of their communities. As I said in my review of the bookThe Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision, these Mennonites gradually opted to conform to the society around them, to dull the edge of simple living, nonviolence, and the refusal of the oath, and to become simply another pietistic form of Christianity like many others, giving no challenge to the structures of the world around them except by pointing toward a faith in Jesus which had very little bite to it. This story has a contemporary ring to it, and I suspect that Mennonites are far from being the only ones who have been tempted by it.
In recent years this has definitely been the temptation of Mennonites in North America as the isolation of the past has ended and as young people have moved to cities where they live at close quarters with everyone else. It has recently been observed in Canadian Mennonite magazine that the incidence of SUVs in the parking lots of Mennonite churches does not seem to be appreciably lower than in other churches. And it is a well known fact that during the Second World War many young Mennonite men – on both Allied and German sides – chose to ignore the convictions of their ancestors and enlist in the armed forces to fight for their country.
And this leads me to the fifth word: engagement. It is undeniable that in the past fifty years a huge change has taken place in the Mennonite world; the quiet in the land have begun to get noisy! A tradition which for centuries had lived in isolation has begun to think seriously and creatively about engaging with the world around it. Undoubtedly, this has partly to do with the fact that many Mennonites no longer live in isolated farm communities where they only rub shoulders with their own kind. But it has also to do with the subject of Harold Bender’s essay, with the recovery of the Anabaptist vision and the sense of having something worthwhile to say and show to the world.
Partly this engagement has taken the form of service and social action. And so the middle of the twentieth century saw the formation of the Mennonite Central Committee, which has evolved into a huge international organization engaging in relief and development work; it is also one of the bodies in which most Mennonite denominations are involved. Increasingly, at least in North America, Mennonites are turning away from their earlier refusal to be involved in civil government; they are engaging in political action, and some of them are running for elected office.
Another part of this engagement has been at the level of ideas and books, and in particular the influence of two American Mennonites, John Howard Yoder and Ronald J. Sider, must be acknowledged. John Howard Yoder, who died in 1997, was a Mennonite theologian who taught for many years at the University of Notre Dame; his 1972 book The Politics of Jesus (see my review here) had a huge influence, far beyond the Anabaptist tradition, and served as the first introduction to Anabaptist ideas for many people in other Christian traditions. His influence over non-Mennonite scholars and writers such as Stanley Hauerwas, Michael Cartwright, Richard Hays and James McClendon has been enormous. On a more popular level, Ron Sider’s book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger first came out in the 1970s and was highly influential in pointing many Christians to their responsibility to care for the poor. In the early 1980s Sider gave a highly influential speech to an international Mennonite gathering, calling for Anabaptists to be prepared to lay down their lives for peace just as soldiers were willing to lay down their lives in war. Out of that speech came the beginnings of the Christian Peacemaker Teams movement.
Migration, Isolation, Fragmentation, Assimilation, and Engagement; I hope that Mennonites would recognize their story in the five words I have used here, and that they will forgive me for some of the unavoidable generalizations I have made! But having (I hope) described the Anabaptist tradition in some detail, in the next section I want to begin to address the title of this series: What does Anabaptism have to do with Anglicanism? And I want to begin to address this question by going back to the 16th century and telling the story of the first contact between the Anglican tradition and the Anabaptist movement…