A photograph of a famiy of Mennonites.

Anthropology: The History, Culture, and Beliefs of the Mennonites

After facing persecution and exile, the Mennonites continue their traditional way of life, in lifestyle and religious belief. They’re members of a Protestant group, a branch of Christianity, and formed from the Protestant Reformation.

The Protestant Reformation

An artistic interpretation of Martin Luther hanging up his doctorate.
Martin Luther. image source: smudgyguide.net

The Mennonites formed during the Protestant Reformation. This was a religious reform movement that swept through Europe in the 1500s, starting in Germany.

From this movement came the creation of Protestantism.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther, a monk and teacher, published a document called Disputation on the Power of Indulgences or 95 Theses. The document contained controversial ideas that contradicted Catholic Church teachings.

These controversial ideas challenged the Church’s role as an intermediary between people and God.

The ideas paid particular attention to the Church’s indulgence system, which granted full or partial repeal of the punishment for committing a sin. In Germany, the Catholic Church allowed people to purchase a certificate of pardon for punishment for their sins.

95 Theses argued against the practice of buying or earning forgiveness. Instead, it believes that salvation is a gift that God gives to those who have faith. As a result, the document led the way when others came forward and challenged the Catholic doctrine throughout Europe.

Moreover, the majority of challenges revolved around the concept that individual believers should be less independent of the Catholic Church, its pope and its priest for spiritual guidance and salvation.

Protestants believe people need to be independent in their relationship with God. In their lives, they should take personal responsibility for their faith and only refer to the Bible for spiritual wisdom.

Protestants Reform in England

The Protestant Reform managed to make its way to England in 1534.

It started when King Henry VIII wanted to end his union with Catherine of Aragon, his first wife, to marry Anne Boleyn, his second wife, but the pope would not allow it.

Henry VIII was determined to marry Anne Boleyn and, to do so, created his own church, the Church of England, which combined Catholic beliefs and Protestant ideas.

After his reign, 20 years later, there was religious turbulence in England.

During the reign of Queen Mary I (1553 – 1558), the first daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragorn, she reinstated Catholicism in England and persecuted and exiled Protestants. Even helping one was considered a crime.

Those who tried to recant and return to the Catholic Church were often not pardoned.

According to a primary source, Protestants were hunted and killed on the spot without a trial or sentence.

The second daughter of King Henry VIII and the first and only child of Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth I, took the throne in 1558. During her reign (1558 – 1603), she and her Parliament attempted to lead the country towards Protestantism.

However, some of the English citizens felt her efforts weren’t enough. They then fell into two groups, separatists and non-separatists, who both labelled one another as Puritans.

Separatists VS Non-Separatists

The group, the separatists, believed the Church of England was corrupt and couldn’t be trusted. Their only choice was to leave England, separate themselves from the Church and create a new one: the English Separatist Church. From the Netherlands and Germany, they soon found themselves in North America as “pilgrims”.

The second group, non-separatists, were commonly associated with the term “ puritans”.  They didn’t want to leave the Church of England and wanted to reform it, eliminating the remnants of Catholicism that remained.

Both groups disagreed about whether to sever ties with the Church of England. However, they shared dissatisfaction with it and the view that they could freely establish a church that agreed with their spiritual vision.

Origin of the Mennonites

An artist's interpretation of the Anabaptists' adult baptisms.
Anabaptist Adult Baptism. image source: christianity.com

The Mennonites originated in the Netherlands and Switzerland during their prosecution. Before they were “Mennonites”, they were known as Anabaptists.

Anabaptists rejected the idea of infants being baptized. Instead, they followed the notion that baptisms should be reserved for adult Christians. Adults fully understand the path they need to follow, which they follow at their own will.

Their name is a denomination after Menno Simmons. He was a Catholic priest who had doubts about some Catholic teachings and started relying on Scripture for answers.

Eventually, he left the Catholic Church to become an Anabaptist or “rebaptizer”. Another reason for his leaving was when his brother was killed while fleeing persecution.

Additionally, they didn’t believe infant baptism was in the Bible and studied the works of Martin Luther and Heinrich Bullinger.

Menno was an influential man among the Anabaptists in the Netherlands and Northwestern Germany. He was seen as a heretic and constantly persecuted to the Catholic Church. Anyone who helped him would face the same fate.

By 1544, the term “Mennonite” described Dutch Anabaptists. As a result, the Mennonites became a new movement known for adult baptisms.

Mennonite VS Amish

The Mennonites and the Amish came from the same Anabaptist roots in the 16th century. Years later, the Amish became a separate group from the Mennonites.

They follow the same beliefs, such as pacifism and adult baptism. The Amish, however, follow a stricter doctrine.

In 1963, Swiss Anabaptist leader  Jacob Ammann believed that the church was not strict enough and that they did not shun or ban enough elements of the outside world.

The Amish created their own communities that isolated them from the world, while the Mennonites don’t.  They also have stricter rules than the Mennonites, such as no electricity, the use of horse and buggy transportation and a very plain dress code.

The Life of a Mennonite

A photograph of male and female Mennonites in their appropriate dress.
image source: sandiegouniontribune.com

Mennonites don’t consider themselves Catholic or Protestant. They are a separate faith group with roots in both traditions with emphasis on peace-making, service to others and living a holy Christ-centered life.

In addition, they believe that “organised religion” is to help individuals understand their purpose and influence society.

Mennonite Pacifism

They are active in service to the community. A large number of them participate in missionary work.

As part of their long belief in pacifism, members act as conscientious objectors of war. Conscientious objectors oppose serving in the armed forces and bearing arms on moral or religious grounds.

Mennonites also act as negotiators in resolving conflicts between warring factions. Peace, justice and non-resistance are values Mennonites hold strongly.

One of the sayings is that violence is “not the will of God”.

Violence includes war, hostility among races and classes, child abuse, woman abuse, any violence between man and woman, abortion and capital punishment.

Moreover, Mennonites never enlist as soldiers. In World War II, those who served worked in Civilian Public Service instead of the fighting forces.

Today, some don’t even pay the portion of their taxes designated for the military.

Governing Body

The largest Mennonites governing body is the Mennonite Church USA Assembly, which meets in odd years. They aren’t, however, governed by a hierarchal structure.

Local churches and the 22 regional conferences compromise with each other.

Each church has a minister. Some have deacons who supervise finances and the well-being of church members. An overseer guides and advises local pastors.

Their community “governments” vary among Mennonites. There are hardly any in conservative groups and more frequent in modern communities.

Scripture warns against taking oaths and judging others, but some do welcome jury duty.

They avoid lawsuits and seek negotiations or other forms of reconciliation. If it isn’t within their community, they won’t persist.

In terms of employment, many find opportunities in government and public office. They do ask if the position will allow them to further Christ’s work in the world.

Mennonite Education

Conservative Mennonite communities have schools that are just for their members.

For modern Mennonite communities in the US, students attend regular public school with their non-Mennonite neighbours.

Students in both communities can even attend college or university if that’s what they choose.

However, for conservative young Mennonite women, traditional views on faith and family are more of a priority than higher education.

Mennonite Dressing

In conservative Mennonite communities, men, women and children wear very plain clothing. They encourage humility, modesty and separation from mainstream society.

The type of leadership in these communities determines the extent of plain dressing.

In most groups, women wear modest clothing and head coverings, which is essential headwear, since they pray at any time. Men wear a pair of plain pants and shirts. Shoes are practice.

Some communities do allow clothing of different fabrics with small prints and clothing with zippers.

In less conservative groups, clothing can vary.

Younger women wear denim skirts and more petite, lacier head coverings. Older women wear cape dresses and large bonnet-type coverings.

Men and boys fairly wear the same clothing as the most conservative communities but do wear denim jeans.

In modern Mennonite communities, clothing resembles that of the “English”, a term used to refer to non-Mennonites. Although people in these communities are encouraged to dress modestly, it can be interpreted differently, depending on the community.

Some wear slacks and jeans. Others take it a step further and wear shorts.

Flashy and bright clothing is prohibited when in the community.

Mennonite Beliefs

Mennonites are Trinitarians, who believe in the Holy Trinity, affirm the Scriptures as the final words for faith and live and view the early church as their congregational model.

Baptisms are a sin of cleansing from sin, a pledge to follow Christ through the Holy Spirit. This is also a public act to show the individual’s commitment to becoming a member of the community and serving it.

As Anabaptists, they practice adult baptisms for believers who are able to confess their faith in Christ. It’s either the immersion, sprinkling or pouring of water from a pitcher.

Regarding the Bible, Scripture is inspired by God through the Holy Spirit. They’re a reliable and trustworthy guide to salvation and training in righteousness.

Mennonites don’t believe in eternal security. Everyone has free will. Those who choose to live a sinful life may do so but forfeit their salvation.

As for Heaven and Hell, Heaven is for those who have Christ in their life as their Lord and Saviour. There is no detailed position on Hell, only its eternal separation from God.

In every Mennonite community, Sunday Services resemble those of the Anglican Churches.

The ministers or pastors lead prayers, solicit testimony and give sermons. Many services feature the traditional four-part acapella. In some communities, it’s common to use organs, pianos and other musical instruments.

Mennonites see communion as a sign for them to remember the new covenant Jesus Christ established with his death on the cross. It consists of the distribution of bread and wine and, in some communities, foot-washing.

Depending on the community, Mennonites practice communion bi-annually or quarterly.

Mennonites in Modern Society

A photograph of Congolese Mennonites.
Congolese Mennonites. image source: mwc-cmm.org

Mennonites believe in a separation between religion and the world, a view that started during their prosecution.

In the 16th century, persecution forced them to withdraw from society. There were many they couldn’t trust and anyone who helped them faced the same persecuted faith.

As a result, withdrawing from society was their only way to survive and keep others safe, which displayed their belief in helping others.

Most remain bound to their communities and encourage views of frugality, hard work, piety (devotion to religion) and mental help.

Although this remains the way of many in today’s conservative Mennonite societies.

For the less conservative and modern societies, their ways changed in the late 20th century. They discovered their history in a new light, which brought new meaning to social urban relationships, and managed to find ways to interact with people.

Modern Mennonites, such as The Simpsons creator, Matt Groening, do follow tradition while accepting modern life for what it is.

From the 1950s to the current day, Mennonite cultural distinctiveness slowly disappears. Nevertheless, there is still a large concentration of Mennonites in the United States and Canada.

There are also great numbers in Africa, Central and South America, India, Indonesia, Germany, the Netherlands and the rest of Europe.


A photograph of modern-day Mennonites at Bluffton University.
Modern-day Mennonites. image source: bluffton.edu

Many cultures keep to their roots, no matter the modern advances that come their way. The very conservative and less conservative Mennonite communities are an example. They follow the teachings of the past and use the Bible as a guide to lead a Christ-filled life.

 We who were formerly no people at all, and who knew of no peace, are now called to be a church of peace. True Christians do not know vengeance. They are the children of peace. Their hearts overflow with peace. Their mouths speak peace, and they walk in the way of peace.

-Menno Simmons.

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