Mennonites

A body of conservative and evangelical Christians descended from the Anabaptists* of the sixteenth century. The founder was a disciple of Zwingli* named Conrad Grebel.* A free-lance reformer, Melchior Hofmann, carried the basic ideas of Anabaptism to the Low Countries* where Melchiorites were for a time the dominant reformation body. Melchior was imprisoned in 1533, after which his followers broke into a revolutionary movement led by Jan Matthijs (Münster, 1534- 35), and a peaceful wing led by Obbe and Dirk Philips.* Menno Simons* united with the Obbenites in 1536 and his name came to be applied to the movement, first as Mennists, now as Mennonites. Dutch Mennonites began settling in the Danzig area in the 1540s and from there went to Russia beginning in 1788. There were 5,000 martyrs by 1600 (see T. J. van Braght, Martyrs Mirror [Dutch, 1660], now available in English and German).

Mennonites began to settle in the New World as early as the 1640s, but the first permanent settlement was Germantown near Philadelphia, 1683. About 1700, Mennonites, largely of Swiss ethnic origin, began to locate in Pennsylvania, from which they later migrated to Virginia, to Ontario, and to Ohio and states farther west. In the 1870s, the 1920s, and after World War II, three waves of Mennonites from Russia migrated to the Americas, the three groups settling respectively in Manitoba, Kansas, and other prairie states; in Canada; and in Canada and South America, mostly Paraguay and Brazil. The Mennonites of North America are in three major conferences: (1) the Mennonite Church representing those who came to the USA before the Civil War of the 1860s; (2) the General Conference Mennonites comprising many of the three waves of immigration from Russia; and (3) the Mennonite Brethren who originated as a revivalist movement in Russia in 1860. Mennonites operate a number of colleges and seminaries.

From the beginning, Mennonites have stressed the Free Church principle as well as believer's baptism and biblical nonresistance (pacifism). Discipleship to Christ is stressed, as is church discipline. They emphasize a life of prayer and of holiness and are concerned not to allow the “world” to weaken their strict New Testament values. Infants are regarded as saved, although often a dedicatory service is held to invoke the blessings of heaven on parents and infants. Children are generally baptized (by pouring) in their teen years, but the Mennonite Brethren baptize by immersion. The Lord's Supper is solemnly yet joyfully observed, often semiannually. The more conservative groups practice footwashing. A vigorous program of missions is carried on, as well as the humanitarian service of the Mennonite Central Committee (1920), ministering to the needy in many lands, including the care of the emotionally ill, helping racial minorities, and the like. The Mennonite World Conference (1925) meets every five years. Around the globe Mennonites number 560,000, of which 300,000 are in North America.

C.J. Dyck (ed.), Introduction to Mennonite History (1968); H.S. Bender (ed.), The Mennonite Encyclopedia (4 vols., 1955- 59); Complete Writings of Menno Simons (tr. L. Verduin, ed. J.C. Wenger, 1956).