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The Mennonites

Now to tell a little more background information about the Mennonites in my family tree.

Menno Simons (1496 - 1561)

The name is derived from the founder of the movement, Menno Simons of Friesland, a province in the Netherlands. He was a Dutch priest who converted to the Anabaptist faith and helped lead it to prominence in Holland by the mid-16th century.

The Anabaptists and other groups originated in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. Martin Luther, a Roman Catholic priest, initiated a series of events beginning on 31 October 1517, which shook, divided, and in some instances, revitalized Christianity in Western Europe and which are collectively known as the Reformation.

Through his writings about Reformed Christianity during the Radical Reformation, Menno Simons articulated and formalized the teachings of earlier Swiss founders, with the early teachings of the Mennonites founded on the belief in both the mission and ministry of Jesus, which the original Anabaptist followers held with great conviction, despite persecution by various Roman Catholic and Mainline Protestant states. Formal Mennonite beliefs were codified in the Dordrecht Confession of Faith in 1632, which affirmed "the baptism of believers only, the washing of the feet as a symbol of servanthood, church discipline, the shunning of the excommunicated, the non-swearing of oaths, marriage within the same church", strict pacifistic physical nonresistance, anti-Catholicism and in general, more emphasis on "true Christianity" involving "being Christian and obeying Christ" however they interpret it from the Holy Bible.

The severe persecution inflicted on the Swiss Mennonites during the latter part of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth, with many of the important martyrs of the early church coming from the area around Zurich. The majority of the early Mennonite followers, rather than fighting, survived by fleeing to neighboring states where ruling families were tolerant of their belief in believer's baptism. This led to the migration of several hundred Mennonites to the Palatinate. There had been large movements of Swiss Mennonites to the Palatinate prior to this time, especially in the first years of Anabaptism, but such settlements were largely destroyed by persecution and the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). On 9 September 1712 local hostility to the Anabaptists led authorities to expel the Swiss Brethren.

To escape continued persecution, many Mennonites fled western Europe for the more accommodating religious climate of the Americas or Catherine the Great's Russia, giving these two groups distinctly different cultural heritages. In 1788 many Mennonites emigrated from the Vistula delta to the southern regions of the Russian Empire (Ukraine), where they acquired land and escaped military conscription. By 1835 about 1,600 families had settled in 72 villages and acquired landholdings amounting to about 500,000 acres. When the Russian Mennonites were eventually forced out of Russia in the last half of the 19th century and the early 20th century, many migrated to the western states and provinces, where today there is a large Mennonite population. Many people in the older generation of this group continue to speak a low German dialect called "Plattdeutsch" and eat traditional foods.

Swiss German Mennonites migrated to North America in the 18th and 19th centuries, settling first in Pennsylvania, then eventually across the Midwestern states. They too brought with them their own traditions, including hearty foods and the German language. Today large Mennonite populations can be found in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Kansas, although Mennonites live in all parts of the United States and the world.

In 1775, Mennonites addressed a statement to the Pennsylvania Assembly that read:

It is our principle to feed the hungry and give the thirsty drink; we have dedicated ourselves to serve all men in everything that can be helpful to the preservation of men’s lives, but we find no freedom in giving, or doing, or assisting in anything by which men’s lives are destroyed or hurt.

In 1783 Mennonites in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, were accused of treason for feeding destitute British soldiers during the American Revolution. During the Civil War, rather than fight, some hired substitutes or paid an exemption fee of $300 in the North and $500 in the South. Those who fought in the war were usually excommunicated for doing so.

While Mennonites and the Amish come from the same Anabaptist roots that began in the 16th Century, the Amish became a separate group from Mennonites. In 1693, Swiss Anabaptist leader Jacob Ammann did not believe that banning and shunning was being practiced well enough. He felt the current church was not strict enough and he separated from the Swiss Brethren segment of the Anabaptists over this issue and his followers were nicknamed "Amish."

The groups agree on many beliefs (such as pacifism and adult baptism), but the Amish follow a stricter doctrine. Unlike the Mennonites, they form an exclusive and tight-knit community, and the church dictates much of what may or may not be done. For example, each local church district dictates rules regarding the use of telephones, if indeed they are permitted at all. Amish also hold to stricter rules: no electricity, horse and buggy transportation and plain dress.

While certain conservative branches of the Mennonite church still dress simply and require women to wear head coverings, Mennonites generally are not culturally separatist. Instead, most have chosen to embrace the larger communities outside of their church rather than forming a separate community around the church. Where the Amish believe in keeping themselves spiritually focused by limiting their interaction with modern society, Mennonites believe in practicing Jesus’ teaching of service to others in a broader context.

Next to the Bible, the Martyrs Mirror (or The Bloody Theater) has historically held the most significant and prominent place in Mennonite and Amish homes. First published in Holland in 1660 in Dutch, the book documents the stories and testimonies of Christian martyrs, especially Anabaptists.

In 1745, Jacob Gottschalk arranged with the Ephrata Cloister to have them translate the Martyrs Mirror from Dutch into German and to print it. The work took 15 men three years to finish and in 1749, at 1,512 pages, it was the largest book printed in America before the Revolutionary War.

The Martyrs Mirror is still a beloved book among Mennonites and Amish. While less common now than in the 20th century, in Mennonite homes Martyr's Mirror is a common wedding gift.

Most contemporary Mennonites are not outwardly that different from any person you meet on the street, and in fact live in countries around the world with a wide variety of racial/ethnic backgrounds. Mennonites believe in simple living but express that simplicity in a spirit of stewardship and awareness of the needs of others rather than completely separating from society as the Amish continue to do.


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