Mennonites: Probably not what you think

I’ll just say this up front: my boss is pretty awesome. So when she entered my office today with a cinnamon roll, it was entirely welcomed, but not at all surprising. She’s often doing great things like that.

As I inhaled bites of cinnamony sweetness, she mentioned that she bought the rolls from a local Mennonite baker. I mentioned to her that the Mennonites have an interesting history. While I’m not affiliated with their church and far from an expert, I’ve learned a few things about their early history while doing research on the Dutch Golden Age.

As usual, I welcome corrections or additions from people who know more than I do — and I assume many people out there know far more than I do. But this history is fascinating, and it seems to me that people generally misunderstand more than they understand about Mennonites, so I’ll do my best to get it right.

Baptism by choice

Mennonites, like the Amish, are known as Anabaptists. There is some debate over the origin of the Anabaptist movement, but it’s generally accepted that by 1522, a church reformer named Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) in Zürich, Switzerland. Zwingli and his followers disagreed with the practice of infant baptism, as it gave the individual no choice. Baptism, they said, should be a choice made by adults, or at least by youths old enough to understand right from wrong. Children too young to distinguish between the two weren’t culpable for their own sin.

Ulrich Zwingli 1531
Huldrych Zwingli, the father of the Anabaptist movement,1531

Etymologically, it might look like the Greek translation of Anabaptist would mean “no baptism,” or “against baptism,” but that’s a misnomer. Correctly translated, it means “to re-baptize.” And re-baptism, to other Christians, was a heresy.

And heresies in those days was a very big deal.

There were other Anabaptist teachings that caused alarm. Just as controversial was the new Anabaptist teaching of pacifism and nonviolence. In Switzerland, a confederation of independent cantons at that time, maintaining a military force was a big deal, and civilians were expected to contribute. When Anabaptists declared they wouldn’t join the militia — moreover, they didn’t want to support it financially — they soon found themselves on the outs. 

They also disbelieved in swearing oaths or resolving disputes between believers in legal courts. In fact, civil government was viewed as worldly, and therefore, followers were discouraged from participating in it as much as possible. Some early Anabaptists sought to separate themselves from the secular world entirely.

When a believer ran afoul of the faith, the Anabaptist church encouraged the practice of excommunication and shunning to encourage them to return to the fold.

Mennoites executed by Catholics in Ghent 1554
Mennonites executed by Catholics in Ghent, 1554

All of this strangeness brought consequences. Dire consequences. The Anabaptists were persecuted, often at the end of a bayonet or tied to the stake above a flame. Jews weren’t the only ones to suffer from Inquisatorial zeal in the 1500s.

Menno: the man, the movement

Time and again, authoritarian figures have tried to quash ideas they don’t like with blood and fire. Time and again, they have failed. The ideas of the Anabaptists spread despite their persecution — or possibly, because of it.

Menno Simons 1610. Christoffel van Sichem
Menno Simons, the founder of the Mennonites, from an engraving of Christoffel van Sichem, 1610

The Netherlands was already a hotbed of Reformist activity when the Anabaptist movement got underway in the mid-1500s, so it’s not surprising that Zwingli’s ideas found a receptive audience there. However, by some accounts, those ideas were already arising independently in the Netherlands at that time.

Menno Simons (1496-1561) was born in the small Dutch village of Witmarsum, which is near the shores of the North Sea in the province of Friesland. He was ordained as a Catholic priest, though he later said he never read the Bible. He first learned of the Anabaptists because of their persecution. Then, his own brother was killed with other Anabaptists who attempted to take over a Catholic abbey. Though, to be honest, I’m a bit confused as to why a nonviolent sect was trying to take over a building and then engaged in a conflict with the state over it. Nevertheless, this changed everything for Simons. 

Menno, for his part, rejected the militant strain of his brother’s brand of Anabaptist leanings. Soon, he had become so influential in the movement that a whole branch of Anabaptist belief in the Netherlands was named for him: the Mennonites.

In 1539, he summed up his theology as this:

Behold, most beloved reader, thus true faith or true knowledge begets love, and love begets obedience to the commandments of God. Therefore Christ Jesus says, “He that believeth on him is not condemned.” Again at another place, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death into life,” Jn. S:24. For true evangelical faith is of such a nature that it cannot lay dormant; but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love; it dies unto flesh and blood; destroys all forbidden lusts and desires; cordially seeks, serves and fears God; clothes the naked; feeds the hungry; consoles the afflicted; shelters the miserable; aids and consoles all the oppressed; returns good for evil; serves those that injure it; prays for those that persecute it; teaches, admonishes and reproves with the Word of the Lord; seeks that which is lost; binds up that which is wounded; heals that which is diseased and saves that which is sound. The persecution, suffering and anxiety which befalls it for the sake of the truth of the Lord, is to it a glorious joy and consolation.

Mennonite dutch burning annaken hendriks
Dutch Mennonite follower Annaken Hendriks being burnt at the stake.

The Mennonites arose first in Emden, but they quickly spread to other Dutch cities. Generally, they fared no better here than their Anabaptist brethren did in Switzerland. Many of them fled to the delta of the Vistula near the shores of the Baltic Sea, in what would become a part of Russia. They would later immigrate to the New World, ever seeking a place to worship freely.

But some Dutch cities, like Amsterdam, were willing to tolerate Mennonites among them.

The worldless in the worldliest city

As the Anabaptists sought to separate themselves from the world, it almost seems like a paradox that they should find a home in Amsterdam of the 1600s, which was then the center of the world as far as the accumulation of wealth and the trade of luxury goods was concerned.

But there are reasons for this.

First, the Mennonites are just a branch of the Anabaptists and not synonymous with the movement. Menno Simons himself was not as strict about separating from the world as other Anabaptist leaders were. Consequently, his followers didn’t display the ascetic zeal associated with other Anabaptist denominations.

Second, Amsterdam had made a name for itself as a tolerant community. The first Portuguese Jews arrived in Amsterdam seeking refuge in 1593. They worshipped in secret for a decade, but were officially sanctioned and permitted to worship openly by 1603, so long as they didn’t proselytize or openly criticize Christianity. 

The Dutch had fought a entire war to escape Catholic Spain, and officially, Catholicism was banned from Amsterdam. But the city fathers were willing to look the other way if Catholics in the city wanted to turn a few house fronts into secret churches.

With that already in the city, what were a few Mennonites?

In Amsterdam, the Mennonites faced no wholesale persecution like they did in other places. But like the Jews living there, they found themselves excluded from the guild system and the many careers that entailed. So Mennonites frequently worked in trade and banking. In fact, some Mennonites in the silk trade did so well they built mansions along the Vecht River between Amsterdam and Utrecht. The area was called “De Mennistenhemel,” or “The Mennonite’s Heaven.” So much for separating from the world!

(If you’re interested in learning more about the wealth of Amsterdam’s Mennonites – or conversely, why Amsterdam’s wealthy class turned Mennonite, I highly recommend this paper, which explores the connection thoroughly.)

Not only that, but the Amsterdam Mennonites were known to be quite liberal. Several were known to pal around with Remonstrants and other liberal thinkers in groups called “Colleges.” These collegiants met in spiritual fellowship and to discuss big ideas such as philosophy and freedom. Over time, the collegiant movement grew more liberal, to the pont it approached a rationalist, not really religious, movement.

The thing about Mennonites is …

By now, you might be confused about Mennonites. And I get it. There are quite a few contradictions here. Partly, that’s because what we, the general non-Mennonite public, think we know about Mennonites is wrong. And partly, it’s because — well — they’re just a complex bunch.

Are they the people who wear quaint clothes and hair bonnets and bake amazing cinnamon rolls, or are they silk traders who live in mansions?

Are they liberal in their thinking or a throwback to the time of horse-and-buggies?

And where do the Amish fit in? Don’t they come in somewhere?

Mennonite Jakob Ammonn
An artist’s rendering of Jakob Ammonn

The Amish are a split-away group from the Mennonites. Jakob Ammann (1644-bet.1712-30) was a Swiss Mennonite who felt the Mennonites around him weren’t applying the doctrine of excommunication strictly enough. He wanted people to be booted for lying as well as fornicating or other grave sins. And he didn’t want the faithful having meals with those who were shunned. He wanted them really, truly shunned.

He also had some strict ideas about appearance. Men were to have long beards and short hair. Clothes were not to be prideful. 

He split with the Mennonite church in 1693 after a failed attempt to have his concerns addressed. The authorities liked his flavor of faith even less than the standard Anabaptist one, and his followers were persecuted to near extinction. It was William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, who saved them by offering them refuge.

As to the other seemingly contradictory points about Mennonites? That’s actually easy to explain.

The thing about Mennonites is there is no such thing as THE Mennonite church. It’s really the Mennonite churches, with no central authority. Some of the churches are much more liberal and some more traditional. And some of it depends on where in the world they are located.

The Mennonite church in the Netherlands, or instance, was the first church there to perform same-sex marriages. But here in the U.S., the willingness, or unwillingness, to perform same-sex marriages recently led to a schism that made the Lancaster group the largest Mennonite affiliation in the country. 

As far as appearances go, some stricter Mennonite groups have rules about clothing. Many others do not. 

So it’s entirely possible that you’ve passed by a Mennonite on the sidewalk and not known it. Or that you’ve talked to someone with very liberal views who happened to be a Mennonite and not been aware of it. Conversely, the Mennonite you know may be someone wearing traditional dress with traditional views. Both are entirely possible. They are not a monolith.

Mennonites counter klan
Mennonites protest the KKK in Dayton, Ohio. May 2019.

Mennonites have a rich history that I’ve really just touched on here. They have been leaders in the abolition movement and the Underground Railroad, voices for peace and the prevention of war and for caring for the sick and poor among us. A group of them recently showed up to demonstrate against a KKK rally in Dayton, Ohio.

I find a lot to admire in the Mennonites.  They’re very misunderstood, and though they probably wouldn’t want to make a big deal about it, their contributions to history deserve some notice.

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