What are Mennonites?
What do Mennonites believe?
The Christian denomination called Mennonite (the two largest national bodies in North America today are Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA, with which Bethel College is affiliated) has its roots in the Protestant Reformation in Europe in the 16th century, when groups of Christian believers broke from the state church – Roman Catholic and later Lutheran in some places – in Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands. The separation occurred over a number of key issues. In some cases, the reformers believed baptism should be a rite reserved for adults, resulting from an informed decision, rather than
imposed on infants. Believers in adult baptism, which at that time was re-baptism, were called Anabaptists, meaning
re-baptizers. One of the Dutch Anabaptist leaders was Menno Simons, from whom the Mennonites eventually took their name.
Many hefty volumes have been written about Anabaptism and its characteristics, which makes a brief summary a daunting task. Briefly, Mennonites are a people who read the Bible carefully and take it seriously. Overarching all Mennonite beliefs is the centrality of the life and teaching of Jesus Christ (particularly as seen in the New Testament of the Christian Bible) as an example for Christians to follow – in a word,
discipleship. To get a good idea of the biblical basis of
what Mennonites believe, read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5-7 of the New Testament book of Matthew.
The importance of discipleship is at the root of the Mennonite emphasis on such things as community (or the church); nonresistance (resulting in Mennonites’ historic opposition to war, refusal to serve in the military and, particularly in the last hundred years, active attempts to create a more just and peaceful society and world); and mission and service (Mennonite workers have served all over the world, in disproportionate numbers to the relatively small size of the denomination, with mission agencies and relief and service organizations such as Mennonite Central Committee [MCC]).
How will Bethel’s being Mennonite affect me as a student?
Consider the central Anabaptist tenet of
adult baptism. In other words, Christian commitment must be freely chosen by those old enough to understand the implications of their choice. From the beginning, Bethel College has offered its students a context in which to explore choices and determine life commitments without requiring a particular religious perspective.
Or consider the emphasis on discipleship – on following Jesus in everyday life. Mennonites believe that a life of discipleship should exhibit, among other traits: service to others; concern for those less fortunate; involvement in issues of social justice; and emphasis on peaceful, nonviolent resolution of community, national and international conflicts. That is why you will find at Bethel College a minor in peace, justice and conflict studies and an infusion of those topics into the whole curriculum; why – in addition to Student/Alumni Career Night – there is a day when representatives of Mennonite and other Christian service organizations visit campus to talk to students; why Bethel has an annual all-campus Service Day; why the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution is attached to Bethel College; and why Bethel is known for its high-quality academic and professional programs in service professions such as nursing, pre-medicine, social work and teaching.
Or what about that word
community? Mennonites believe that Christian commitment, while personal, is nurtured and sustained in the context of community (the church). Bethel College places an emphasis on a supportive campus community in which students can explore, learn and act as they grow and develop both intellectually and personally during their college experience, and that is why you will find First-year Seminar, Basic Issues of Faith and Life and convocation to be among the requirements for every student who graduates from Bethel College.
What is the difference between Mennonites and Amish?
More than 150 years after Anabaptism first took hold in central Europe, Mennonite pastor Jakob Amman led a reform movement that eventually took his name. Larger North American society tends to lump
Amish together but in fact, though they come from the same roots in the 16th-century Anabaptist reform movement, they are two different groups. The Amish share with Mennonites the essential beliefs described above but obviously – especially the Old Order Amish who drive horses and buggies, plow with horses or mules, have no electricity or land-line telephones in their homes and dress distinctively – have chosen to live differently than the majority of Mennonites, who in personal appearance and lifestyle would be hard to distinguish from most people in the larger society. The largest groups of Amish in North America today are in Pennsylvania, Ohio and northern Indiana although Amish communities can be found in many other states, including one in Reno County, Kan., near Hutchinson.
How did Mennonites end up in Kansas?
The first century of Anabaptist and Mennonite history is marked by the persecution – which included imprisonment, torture and sometimes execution – of Anabaptist believers by church and state authorities. As a result, Anabaptist groups stayed on the move, constantly seeking religious freedom in other parts of Europe and then in North America. The first permanent settlement of Mennonites in North America developed in eastern Pennsylvania in the late 1600s, but other significant waves of Mennonite migration followed, into the 20th century.
One large community of Mennonites established itself in 1800 in southern Russia in what is now Ukraine at the invitation of the empress, Catherine the Great. By 1870, however, much of the religious and other freedoms that Catherine had granted the Mennonites were eroded away, and a large number of them wanted to emigrate to North America. The 1870s and 1880s saw tens of thousands of
Russian Mennonites arriving in the Great Plains of the United States and western Canada, where the railroads were eager to have these people noted for their excellent farming practices settle the land.
One such influx was into the Harvey-Marion-McPherson County area of south central Kansas. These Mennonites brought with them from Russia their seed wheat, the
hard winter wheat that would transform wheat farming in North America and that would eventually give Bethel College its athletic mascot, the Thresher, and symbol, the threshing stone that separates wheat seeds from straw. Some of these Mennonites established Bethel College, naming it with the Old Testament Hebrew term
beth-El, or house of God.
Where do Mennonites live today?
While the first Mennonites came mostly from Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands, today only a handful (a little over 50,000) of the 1.3 million Mennonites worldwide remain in Europe. Through the centuries, however, descendants of these first Mennonites, especially those in North America, have retained some of the cultural characteristics of their forebears. In the south central Kansas Mennonite communities that gave birth to Bethel College, this can be seen especially in certain special foods and in retention of the German language in some hymns, especially at Christmas. Many North American Mennonite congregations used only German in their worship services well into the 20th century and the Old Order Amish still do. Most Amish, as well as some Mennonites of European descent, also still speak among themselves German dialects such as Low German and Pennsylvania Dutch.
Today there are slightly more members of Mennonite groups in Africa than in North America, with the church in Africa growing much more rapidly than that in North America. Mennonite groups can be found on every continent, in 65 different countries, speaking dozens of languages. Far more Mennonites in North America today speak Spanish than German.
Are there other Mennonite colleges?
Bethel was the first Mennonite college founded in North America but certainly not the last. There are colleges under the Mennonite Church USA umbrella in Hesston, Kan. (Hesston College, the only two-year Mennonite college), Goshen, Ind. (Goshen College), Bluffton, Ohio (Bluffton University), and Harrisonburg, Va. (Eastern Mennonite University). The Mennonite Brethren denomination, a smaller Anabaptist group, has colleges in Hillsboro, Kan. (Tabor College), and Fresno, Calif. (Fresno Pacific University). There are three Mennonite colleges in Canada – in British Columbia, Manitoba and Ontario – and three Mennonite seminaries, in Fresno, Harrisonburg and Elkhart, Ind.
Where can I read more about Mennonites?
On the Web
- www.mcusa-archives.org/library/resolutions/1995/ (Confession of faith)
Quick and easy reads:
- Good, Merle, and Phyllis Pellman Good. 20 Most Asked Questions about the Amish and Mennonites. Intercourse, Pa.: Good Books, 1995.
- Kraybill, Donald B. Who are the Anabaptists? Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2003.
- Kroeker, Wally. An Introduction to the Russian Mennonites. Intercourse, Pa.: Good Books, 2005.
- Loewen, Harry, and Steven Nolt. Through Fire and Water: An Overview of Mennonite History. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1996.
- Roth, John D. Beliefs: Mennonite Faith and Practice. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2005.
- Roth, John D. Stories: How Mennonites Came to Be. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2006.
More in-depth on Mennonites/Anabaptists in general:
- Dyck, Cornelius J. An Introduction to Mennonite History. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1993 (3rd edition).
- Estep, William R. The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1996 (3rd edition).
- Smith, C. Henry, and Cornelius Krahn. Smith’s Story of the Mennonites. Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2005 (5th edition).
- Snyder, C. Arnold. Anabaptist History and Theology: An Introduction. Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press, 1995.
More in-depth about the Mennonites who founded Bethel College:
- Haury, David A. Prairie People: A History of the Western District Conference. Newton, Kan.: Faith & Life Press, 1981.
- Juhnke, James C. Dialogue with a Heritage: Cornelius H. Wedel and the Beginnings of Bethel College. North Newton, Kan.: Mennonite Library and Archives, 1987.
Books about three things for which Mennonites are more widely known:
- Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), the volunteer organization that responds to natural disasters in the United States and Canada: Detweiler, Lowell J. The Hammer Rings Hope: Photos and Stories from 50 Years of Mennonite Disaster Service. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2000.
- Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), the relief and service organization that sends its workers all over the world: Kreider, Robert S., and Rachel Waltner Goossen. Hungry, Thirsty, a Stranger: The MCC Experience. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1988.
- Mennonite simple (or
more-with-less) lifestyle: Longacre, Doris Janzen. The More-with-Less Cookbook. Scottdale, Pa./Akron, Pa.: Herald Press/Mennonite Central Committee, 1976 and 2011, and Living More with Less: 30th Anniversary Edition (Scottdale/Akron: Herald Press/MCC), 2010