An Overview of (a few) Mennonite Groups

Note: this post is part of a series entitled What is a Mennonite? It began with me exploring my place in the Mennonite culture, and went on to look at the history of the Mennonites.

You guys: I was totally going to create an outline of all of the major groups of Mennonites in North America. I thought I had a rough idea of all the general divisions and distribution of Mennonites out there. But the more I researched, the more different groups I came across, each with its own distinct characteristics and history.

I didn’t even know there had already been Mennonites in North America for several decades (including the Amish) before my ancestors from Russia showed up. I didn’t know there were so many subgroups of Amish, either, or that there were so many Mennonites in Ethiopia and the Congo. Who knew?

I realized that I can’t possibly do a full overview of the Mennonites without getting really academic and boring.

But I can begin by telling you what most Mennonites have in common:

All of the various Mennonite groups have their origins in Europe — particularly Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands — and were the Anabaptist followers of Menno Simons.  So most Mennonites have some kind of German/Swiss/Dutch background. Some moved to North America directly from Germany and Switzerland in the early 18th-century, while others arrived later from Russia and Poland. More Russian Mennonites migrated a few decades later. In other words, Mennonites arrived in North America in waves, at different times and from different places, bringing with them their own distinct dialects, cultures, and religious traditions. They have many similarities, though.

Before that, in 1527, the Swiss-South German and the Dutch-North German movements found they had many things in common, and decided to write up a statement of faith known as the Schletheim Confession. It focused on the following things:

1. Voluntary, adult baptism

2. Excommunication for unrepentant church members

3. Communion shared by all believers

4. Separation from the world

5. Rejection of violence, choosing to suffer rather than cause others to suffer

6. Forbidding the swearing of oaths*

Today, most Mennonite groups continue to adhere to these pillars of their faith to varying degrees. For example, some remain physically separated from the world in isolated communities, while others practice less extreme forms of nonconformity.

Why So Many Kinds of Mennonites?

I’ve been pondering the reasons there are so many subgroups of Mennonites, and I’ve come to the following theory:

Because Mennonites have traditionally lived separately from the world (see #4, above), generally in small, isolated communities all over the globe, they have always had to deal with the question of acculturation: how much should they allow the surrounding culture to influence and shape them? The reason there are so many subgroups of Mennonites is largely because different members have come to different conclusions on this matter. Divisions always seem to center around how important it is to preserve the old way of life and to remain distinct from the surrounding culture.

There are always some Mennonites who feel it is essential to preserve their traditional ways, while others are more accepting of certain cultural changes (including modernization). Then there are always Mennonites within the group who think they have already come too far, and feel the need to go back to their more conservative ways. And because Mennonites tend to adhere to notions of collective salvation, where the salvation of the group depends on the obedience of every member, they have constantly had to reorganize and form new groups wherein every member agrees about how to live life together.

So here are just a few of the major subgroups of the more conservative Mennonites.

Amish

The Amish are a subgroup of the Mennonite faith. The founder was Jakob Ammann, a Swiss Mennonite leader, who felt Mennonites were drifting from Menno Simons’ original teachings. He felt the faith community had become too lax with church discipline practices, particularly that of excommunication. In 1693 his followers withdrew from the larger Mennonite community and started their own church.

Amish Mennonites began migrating from Switzerland and southwestern Germany to Pennsylvania in the early eighteenth century. They remain mostly concentrated in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, though they have also spread to neighbouring states and even into Ontario.

Within the Amish, there are two major subgroups – those who identify themselves and Amish Mennonites, and those who identify themselves as Old Order Amish. Within these subgroups are many different orders, and within these orders are many different communities, all varying slightly in their faith practices (including dress, transportation, and use of technologies). For this reason, no summary of Amish lifestyle and culture can be totally sufficient, because there are few generalities that are true for all Amish, though they remain recognizable by their simple dress and rejection of modern technologies to varying degrees.

Old Colony/Reinland Mennonites (i.e. Kathleen’s people)

The Old Colony is a subgroup of the most conservative Mennonites who emigrated from Russia to Manitoba in 1874, and later from Manitoba to Mexico in 1922 (I wrote extensively about them here). Unlike Old Order Mennonites (below), the Old Colony Mennonites are made up of those Mennonites who were always the most conservative. They have also always tended to be less educated and the least acculturated.

They are recognizable by their distinct type of dress and their continued use of the Low German language in their homes.

Conservative Mennonites

I just learned that there is an official conference of churches known as the Conservative Mennonites (to which the Old Colony does not belong). They are made up of conservative minorities scattered throughout Mennonite communities across North America who joined together between 1958 and 1960. They felt the mainstream Mennonites were drifting from their original traditions and launched an independent conference.

Old Older Mennonites

This is another subgroup made up of conservative minorities across North America – like the Conservative Mennonites above – who felt Mennonites were straying from the original path. They joined together as one brotherhood between 1872-1901, though there is no formal organization. They, too, tend to be recognizable by their distinctive dress (which is different still from that of the Amish and the Old Colony Mennonites).

Evangelical Mennonites

Where I live in southern Ontario, there are huge – and growing – numbers of Evangelical Mennonites, which is an oxy-moron if I ever heard one. (Evangelicals and Mennonites have historically approached the gospel in dramatically different ways). These Mennonites generally come from an Old Colony or Russian Mennonite background, but have been intensely influenced by Evangelical faith and culture. They are basically indistinguishable from other Evangelical Christian groups, dressing and speaking and living just like other church-going Canadians, except for the lingering vestiges of Mennonite self-loathing and a tendency not to pursue higher education (though this is changing in recent years, too).

(I also have to note that I currently attend an Evangelical Mennonite church.)

* * *

Apart from these more recognizable groups, there is a huge range of different kinds of Mennonites all across North America. They tend to be recognizable by their commitment to non-violence and passion for social justice, but are different from each other in almost every other way.

Before I leave the subject of Mennonites, I feel the need to highlight the Mennonite Central Committee, mostly because this organization makes me so dang proud to be a Mennonite. (Oops . . . there’s that pride again). I had never even heard of MCC until I reached high school, but now, my husband and I are passionate supporters.

MCC a worldwide ministry of Anabaptist churches committed to alleviating human suffering. They place an emphasis on disaster relief, sustainable community development, justice, and peacebuilding. According to their mission statement, their purpose is to “share God’s love and compassion for all in the name of Christ by responding to basic human needs and working for peace and justice.” MCC does so much awesome stuff, carrying out the longstanding Mennonite commitments to nonviolence, community, and peacemaking. Some of the more conservative Mennonite groups don’t support MCC because of their openness to people of other religions, but that just makes me love them more.

So I hope that was helpful!

Do you have any remaining questions about Mennonites? I’d be happy to answer them as best as I can!

* * *

P.S. I haven’t forgotten (though you probably have) that I promised to talk a little more about the Old Colony Mennonites and where I fit in to all of it. It’s just such a huge proejct, I haven’t completed it yet. A post is in the works!

____

 *The information about the Schletheim Confession comes from Victor D. Kliewer’s The Mennonites in Essex and Kent Counties, Ontario. The Essex-Kent Mennonite Historical Association, 1997.
Photo credits: The first (black-and-white) photo comes from my mom’s photo album, circa 1976.
The Amish buggy photo is courtesy of Cindy47452.
The Old Colony Mennonite couple is my husband’s aunt and uncle — Mexico, 1970’s.
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Comments

  1. Sandra says:

    Love this series! So interesting.

  2. Emily W says:

    Yet another great post in this fascinating series! I’d love to hear more about how all of this has shaped the person that you are today. Seeing pictures of your relatives a generation or two ago – so obviously different from the pictures of my (non-Mennonite) relatives a generation or two ago – piques my interest. I feel like so much of who we are is rooted in what we’ve learned from the generations before us. And, I feel like I can relate to you really easily. But it seems like my grandparents might not have been able to relate to yours so easily – am I right? If so, why the difference? (Does that even make sense? Sorry – super sleep deprived here.)

  3. Kathleen,

    I’m also enjoying this topic and last several posts. Having grown up in a Mennonite community but attending non-Mennonite churches all my life, it is interesting to catch up some of the religious history that I missed, even though I was somewhat aware of the cultural history. (Not that you can ever separate those two in the Mennonite tradition).

    I am curious though to find out to what extent one of your statements is still true: “They tend to be recognizable by their commitment to non-violence”. While I am certain that this non-violence maxim applies to the Amish (I speak with them regularly), I am also fairly certain that especially evangelical Mennonites have long abandoned this maxim, being just as vocal in their support for wars and all things military as the rest of the Christian world is. Am I wrong?

    In my journey from being strongly supportive of war to my now pacifist position (thank you Bruxy Cavey and Greg Boyd), it pleases me to no end to know that my ancestors were radically non-violent, and jumped through amazingly difficult hoops to remain so (as you described in an earlier post). It would please me even more to know that a plurality of Mennonites still hold to those pacifist roots.

    • Terry: you’re probably right that most Evangelical Mennonites no longer hold to this maxim, but as I pointed out, there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly Mennonite about most of them (us?) any more. I know that pacifism is never discussed at the church I attend, and casual conversations with my Evangelical Mennonite friends suggests that they either don’t think about it much, or they lean towards the more militaristic side of the issue.

      But the Mennonites I come across on the internet (who are few, of course) do seem passionate about non-violent peacemaking, like folks from Mennonite Central Committee and Missio Dei.

  4. Erika Dueck says:

    Hello,

    I noticed your comment that Mennonites usually do not pursue higher education.

    I am a Mennonite, from Manitoba, and there are actually differences among Mennonites on this as well. I’m not sure if you have covered the differences between “Canadisch” Mennonites from Russia, and the “Russlander” Mennonites from Russia. The Canadisch Mennonites moved away from Russia earlier, and are not traditionally very pro-education, which is why some of them moved to Mexico and Paraguay, and other areas in South America when the Canadian government wanted them to learn English.

    However, the Russlander Mennonites moved to Canada later, during the war in the Soviet Union when they began to experience persecution. These Mennonites were very pro-education, including university, and also embraced new technology and were quite aggressive as a result in their farming practices. As a result, there were tensions between the Canadisch and Russlander Mennonites, as the Canadisch helped the Russlander Mennonites to flee to Canada, only to have the Russlander Mennonites surpass the earlier Mennonites in their farming businesses.

    Just figured I’d add that info, because maybe you have not found any information on those subgroups of Russian Canadian Mennonites. Also, Manitoba is home to Canadian Mennonite University, which is worth a look up online if you are interested in higher levels of education in a Mennonite faith atmosphere…although all are welcome, not just Mennonites! :)

  5. Thanks for that additional info, Erika! I did know most of that, although you make it a lot clearer in my mind. I want to clarify, though, that I made that claim about tending not to pursue higher education in regards to Evangelical Mennonites in particular (i.e. members of the EMC and EMMC). Of course, I’m only familiar with the Evangelical Mennonites here in Ontario — things might be different in other congregations across Canada and the United States.

    CMU actually visited our high school when I was a teenager and it sounded like an excellent and very interesting institution! I loved the emphasis on music that seemed to characterize the school. Thanks again, Erika!

  6. I’m catching up on your blog and appreciating the brief history lesson. I read though The Naked Anabaptist with a small group at my church in which we got a lot of the early history, but your overview is a good refresher.

    I was especially interested in this statement you made:
    “They are basically indistinguishable from other Evangelical Christian groups, dressing and speaking and living just like other church-going Canadians, except for the lingering vestiges of Mennonite self-loathing and a tendency not to pursue higher education (though this is changing in recent years, too).”

    Although I had some basic introduction to the Anabaptist traditions growing up, I was raised in a mainstream evangelical church (funnily enough, a Friends church, which claims roots in Anabaptism but is, as you said, now totally indistinguishable from other evangelical Christians.) So I came to the Mennonite faith as an adult. My husband (who was raised Catholic) and I were introduced to and started regularly attending our church less than two years ago. One of the huge draws for me was that it was so *unlike* the mainstream evangelical churches I knew. The church members do not live separate (although some live in intentional Christian community), and the dress is not set apart, but they do seem to me to be radically different. The underlying theology, the commitments to nonviolence, human and earth justice, and community building might be subtle but to me they stood out at revolutionary. It may be a quirk of my particular church, but it is one of the most well-educated, thoughtful groups of people with whom I have had the pleasure of seeking Jesus.

    I feel like I’m rambling a bit, but I just wanted to share that, coming from an mainstream evangelical background, even an acculturated Mennonite church is a refreshingly radical departure from what I knew as a child and young adult. I finally found my people!
    Lily recently posted..Independence Day Challenge and Homestead Updates for MayMy Profile

  7. I live in a small Texas town where Mennonites live here and surrounding areas. This information is great! I have always been so interested in Mennonites, but it is hard to find accurate information. Thanks so much for sharing! Hopefully, you will discuss the inner workings of a Mennonite family. For example, child rearing, hubsand/wife relationship, etc. Thanks so much!

  8. ah ok, maybe this is the ‘creed’ i was looking for? thanks!
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  9. Hi Kathleen,
    I enjoy reading your blog. It’s so interesting hearing your perspective on Mennonites, especially coming from the Old Colony Mennonites. I’ve only heard of the Old Colony Mennonites in the last few years. It seems that there’s a growing awareness among them that they have gone to an extreme in their response to education. They are now bringing in teachers from United States to try to boost their educational standards. I have some friends who have just gone to teach there. It’s a very small start but at least it’s a start. (Everyone should at least be able to read and write! How else do you know what the Bible says?) Personally I fall in the category of Conservative Mennonites which you describe as organizing in the mid-1900s. That is true for most, but our conference here in Maryland was organized in the 1700s by folks who moved from Lancaster for cheaper farmland. The majority of our conference has always chose to be more conservative. We still have very traditional dress but do not shun technology. We dress traditionally not for mere tradition’s sake, but because of the biblical principles of modesty. Also we wear head coverings because of I Cor. 11. We believe it is our faith in Jesus Christ that saves us, and our traditions simply have a stabilizing influence. We are very slow to discard our traditions because we observe that those who do eventually disregard the biblical principles they were founded upon… Historically our community also has a high appreciation for education. Some in the past were college-educated, but it’s not as encouraged now as it used to be, mainly because of the influence of the environment. I also find it interesting to read that Mennonites believe in collective salvation. While that may be the belief of the Old Colony Mennonites, I have never heard of this idea before. I do definitely want all those around me to experience salvation and get to heaven, but in the end of time I believe I will be personally accountable–not prevented from heaven by anyone else’ sin nor will I be able to blame anyone else for my own actions. Maybe I misunderstood what you mean by collective salvation…. At any rate I greatly enjoyed reading your posts.

  10. I am moving to a prodomonatily mennonite community. I love the people and would like to learn to speak mennonite. The town is in missouri. Do u have any suggestions on cds that might help me.

    Thank u

    Kat

    • Hi Kat! Every Mennonite group speaks a slightly different dialect of Low German. I’m not sure what group it is you’re going to live near — I know there are Old Colony Mennonites in Missouri, but there are probably other groups, too. Regardless, unfortunately, there are probably not too many resources available for learning ANY Mennonite dialect of German. That’s why *I* can’t even speak it! The only way to learn, that I know of, is to spend a lot of time around them with the intent to learn . . .

  11. Dear Kathleen,
    Even though I am a different religion, I have always had a sincere interest in the ways of the amish and Mennonite. As I was watching the show breaking amish, they mentioned something called liberal Mennonites. I am not sure if it means they are conservative, but if you could tell me what they do differently and what their rules are that would be amazing

  12. my mothers parents were both born in Manitoba and raised in the ‘Old Colony Mennonite’ Church. A lot of these old colony people migrated to Saskatchewan in the early 1900’s. Settling in Swift Currant area as well as north of Saskatoon area the Valley region. After some time, and government involvement with their schools, made some people decide to moved away yet again. This time they moved to northern Alberta and British Columbia. Probably in the late 50’s, early 60’s. There is still one church here in the valley region and one in the Swift Currant region, but those are all that still remains here.

  13. Micaela says:

    Why do Mennonites live in colonies? I’m writing an essay and one of points is on Mennonism!

    • Hi Micaela! I’m sure the answer is a complex one. But part of it has to do with Mennonites’ attempts to be “in the world but not of the world” as the Bible commands. Mennonites feel that the best way to do this is to live in small communities, insulated from the influence of the outside world.

  14. cricket says:

    Kathleen, My husband and I have 110 acres of farmland in Hamilton County, Texas. We lived there years ago when our son was young, but now want to sell, and are thinking it might be appealing to a Mennonite family. I understand you live in communities, but there is other land around there for sale too, I believe.
    Can you possibly tell me how to get the word out?
    The land used to be in crop agriculture, but now has cattle on it. There is an old house, grain barn, a few out buildings, and working well. Thanks

  15. Thank you so much for writing this helpful article! I love the amish and Mennonite people a lot. I enjoy reading (fiction) books about them. There is one question I have that I’ve been wondering for quite some time, now. Why do Anabaptists choose not to fight. Such as war (defending yourself). If the U.S.A. hadnt defended herself from Britain, the country would not be as we know it now. If the Israelites hadn’t fought for the Promised Land, Israel wouldn’t exist today. I know the Bible says to be a peacemaker and not to go eye for eye. But I see that as not getting even. America wasn’t getting even, they were defending themselves. I’m not saying Anabaptists shouldn’t believe that; I realize everyone has different opinions. I’m just wondering why do they believe that and what made them think that. Thanks in advance!

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