Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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The word Mennonite is one of several general terms describing various groups around the world that trace their origins to the Anabaptist religio-social movement in sixteenth-century western Europe. Mennonite is an elaboration of Menist , which evolved into Mennonist and finally Mennonite , designating followers of Menno Simons, a leading writer and scholar in the Anabaptist movement.

Anabaptists, so called derisively from the beginning by church and state officials alike, were typically peasants, and there are indicators the Anabaptist movement was as much a political rebellion with utopian ideals as a religious protest against the established religions of the day. It is not surprising that major social upheaval and the Peasants' Revolt occurred in Germany simultaneously with the strengthening of the Anabaptist movement. Indeed, Redekop (1989) suggests there is a complex link between the Anabaptist movement and the peasants' sociopolitical revolt. Mennonites, he claims, are just as much a social movement as a religious group.

Mennonite groups, including Amish, Brethren, Hutterites, and others found in North and South America, emigrated to the Americas during the seventeenth and into the eighteenth centuries. Given the strength of Mennonite world missions in the past century or so, non-Germanic origin Mennonites now outnumber Mennonites of Germanic origins or ethnicity and are present in all populated parts of the world. This does create some tensions for a religious tradition bound by ethnic as well as religious and utopian ideals. Mennonite theology is part of the mainstream, clearly a product of Western civilization and the winds of reformation sweeping Europe at that time in history.

Today, Mennonites approach 900,000 baptized adults in world membership. Approximately one-third of these are found in North America. Mennonite faith is characterized by four basic tenets: an emphasis on baptism of the believer (baptism of adults), opposition to war (with a concomitant emphasis on nonviolence and peacemaking), the lordship of Jesus Christ, and the importance of church discipline (Kauffman and Driedger 1991). Mennonites were found among the conscientious objectors to wars and the draft in this century, although some did serve in humanitarian capacities. Mennonites worldwide are today known for providing dispute processing and negotiation services. Mennonites score significantly high on some measures of fundamentalism and general Protestant orthodoxy. Nevertheless, these are the four basic historical areas distinguishing Mennonite groups from other Protestant movements.

Tensions exist in contemporary Mennonite groups, as Mennonites move from their strictly agrarian roots, still dominant as late as the mid-twentieth century, into more urban and suburban settings. Trends of modernization, and, some would say, secularization, have taken their toll on a group originally dedicated to separation from the worldly powers around them. Various Mennonite groups, such as the Amish and Hutterites, have attempted to remain separate from the world; others have accommodated so as to carry out better a mission of evangelization and social justice. Mainstream Mennonite groups collaborate to provide schools, colleges, missions, and relief activities, the latter notably through the Mennonite Central Committee. Other groups in the Mennonite family maintain a separateness from the world and do not participate in these efforts. Both reform and reactionary trends are visible in Mennonite society as its approaches its sixth century.

See also Amish, Anabaptists

Barbara J. Denison


J. H. Kauffman and L. Driedger, The Mennonite Mosaic (Scottsdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1991)

C. Redekop, Mennonite Society (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989).

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