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.


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.

Mennonite History, Part Two: The Old Colony Mennonites

This is a continuation of my series, What is a Mennonite? which began here. In my last post I discussed the origins of the Mennonite faith and culture, starting with the Protestant Reformation and ending with a mass exodus of Mennonites from Russia to North America.

So, as I mentioned in my last post, in 1874, thousands of Mennonites from Russia emigrated to North America — the more liberal groups to the USA and the more conservative groups to Canada. My forebears were amongst the conservative group in Manitoba. These different settings dramatically influenced the ways these two groups evolved.

Most of the Mennonites who settled in the USA didn’t settle into villages, or if they did, the communities didn’t last long. So it wasn’t long before the Mennonites in the United States began to assimilate into the dominant American culture, in terms of dress, language, and lifestyle. Soon, many American Mennonites were involved in higher education, obtaining college degrees, and even enrolling in religious education at places like the Moody Bible Institute. Naturally, this profoundly influenced their religious lives. These Mennonites re-enter my story in a bit.

The Canadian or Reinlander Mennonites, by contrast, were bent on maintaining their traditional, communal way of life, believing it was essential to their Christian faith. In fact, the two major reasons they chose Manitoba were to be exempt from military service and to have control over their own schools. (The American states had not been willing to grant these privileges). By controlling their children’s education, the Canadian Mennonites could ensure their values and way of life were passed on to subsequent generations.

So the Canadian Mennonites continued to live as they had in Russia: in isolated villages where they educated their own children and governed themselves. They remained separate from the dominant culture, maintaining their distinctive dress, language, and farming practices. Any influence from the outside world was seen as a threat to their spiritual integrity. They actively spurned the seductions of the modern world as corrupting forces.

As John J. Friesen explains, “Salvation was perceived as a corporate reality by the villagers. . . . This commitment meant subjecting individual desires and wishes to the good of the whole group” (12). Salvation of the group depended on the obedience of every member. Individualism in dress, lifestyle, consumption, and land use was suppressed in order to maintain harmony in the community (Friesen, 12). Their main objectives with these lifestyle constraints were unity, equality, and a setting in which church members could admonish one another. Reinlander Mennonites rejected modernization primarily on the grounds that it could undermine community interdependence.

Many factors worked together to eat away at the fabric of the Mennonite communities, however. There were already tensions between the two main churches – Bergthaler and Reinlander (the second being more conservative) – when Mennonites from the United States sent missionaries to the Manitoba communities to convert them to their newly-acquired version of Christianity.

In contrast to the traditional, communal notions of salvation as understood by the Manitoba Mennonites, these Americanized Mennonites emphasized personal salvation. They called for a religious conversion of the soul, but allowed individuals to live out their civic and economic lives however they wanted, according to personal preferences, assuming these elements were largely irrelevant to one’s salvation. This stood in stark contrast to the old way of living out the faith communally.

The Manitoba Mennonites were confused by these mission attempts from their Mennonite brothers, since they had all been members of the same faith just a decade ago. As far as they could see, the Americanized Mennonites had fallen under the corrupting influence of the sinful, dominant culture. Moreover, these missionaries “were better educated, spoke a better English, and maybe even spoke a better High German, [which] gave them an advantage and put the Reinlander members and leaders on the defensive” (Friesen, 13). But the missionaries also won many converts, further accentuating conflict and divides within the churches.

As a result of these religious “attacks” from their Mennonite brothers, the Reinlander church became defensive, fearful of change, and even more suspicious of outsiders than ever before . . . attitudes which persist among Old Colony Mennonites today.

Things got worse for the Reinlander Mennonites in 1916 – two years after Canada declared war on Germany – when the Manitoba government started to push a mandatory public school system with English as the sole language of instruction, and where nationalism would be emphasized. When the Mennonites refused to comply, the government threatened them with fines and imprisonment.

That was the final straw. The Mennonites sent out a delegation to look for a new place to settle.

By 1922, the more conservative Reinlander Mennonites of Manitoba migrated to Cuauhtémoc, Mexico, in an isolated region near Chihuahua. This group of people was also known as the Old Colony.

They chose Mexico for two reasons: first, because the Mexican government was willing to allow continued private education; and second, because the location was extremely isolated and the surrounding culture was poor. This meant that the temptation to leave and assimilate would be much weaker.

Once again, as they had done in Russia, the Mennonites transformed the barren land into productive farmland.

However, the historic pattern of mass migration began to fall apart after a few decades in Mexico: economic hardships due to drought and land scarcity forced many Mexican Mennonites to undertake independent, seasonal migrations to work in Canadian agriculture. Many families made yearly trips to Southern Ontario to work (including my and my husband’s grandparents). Some ended up settling in Ontario for good.

The church leaders back in Mexico discouraged these independent migrations, and efforts were made to suppress these moves, but economic difficulties left many families no choice.

That’s where my family of origin enters into the story.

* * *

So that’s the basic history of the Old Colony Mennonites up until the most recent generation. Because this post is getting long long long, I’ll end there once again.

In my next post, I just want to briefly go over the story of the Old Colony Mennonites here in Ontario, and my place within that context. I also want to explore the other groups of Mennonites throughout North and South America and the differences between them.

(But not without a break in between, in case you folks are getting tired of history and ethnography. I’ll be interrupting with a post on another subject I hold dear: radical non-violence). Stay tuned!

* * *

Note: much of the information for this post came from the article “Reinlander Mennoniten Gemeinde” by John J. Friesen, in Old Colony Mennonites in Canada, 1875-2000. Edited by Delbert F Plett. Crossway, 2001.

Photos are from my parents’ photo albums.

Mennonite History, Part One: From Reformation Europe to Russia

(Note: In my last post, I gave an introduction to the Mennonite culture and briefly touched upon my experience as an Old Colony Mennonite growing up in Leamington, Ontario. Here’s my introduction to Mennonite history.)

The story of the Mennonites begins in the sixteenth century with the Protestant Reformation, in the German- and Dutch-speaking parts of Europe. At a time when people all over Europe were reacting against corruption in the Catholic Church, a group of reformers called Anabaptists started a movement.

The name “Anabaptist” (meaning “re-baptizer”) refers to the practice of baptizing adults: one of their main tenets was that a Christian ought to freely choose to be baptized and become a member of the body of Christ (as a fully-consenting adult), rather than be baptized as an infant. (The first people to practice this would already have been baptized as infants, though — hence the name; but they didn’t actually advocate more than one baptism. They considered the one they received at birth to be null and void). In addition to voluntary church membership, the early Anabaptists adhered to a literal interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount which prohibited taking oaths, bearing arms, and participating in civil government. They also believed that the church and state should be separate entities, that church leaders should be elected from within their own ranks, and that Christians should be willing to suffer for their faith. They saw their primary loyalty as being to the church, not the state.

The Anabaptists suffered severe persecution from the beginning, from Catholics and Protestants alike. Voluntary church membership was seen as a threat by many government and church officials, who tried to stamp out the movement using torture and execution. Since Anabaptists refused to use violence to defend themselves, many were killed. By 1530, most of the founding leaders had been martyred. Despite this fact, the movement spread around western Europe.

Around this time, Menno Simons, a Catholic priest, heard of the Anabaptist movement and started to reconsider many Catholic teachings. When his Anabaptist brother Pieter was attacked and killed — refusing to violently defend himself — Menno Simons officially left the Catholic Church and became a leader within the Anabaptist movement in 1536.  His followers called themselves Mennonites.

Because of their commitment to nonviolence, Mennonites have a long history of international migration. Fleeing for their lives has always been central to their survival. For this reason, Mennonites have no homeland: they go wherever they can live peacefully and without too much government interference.  That’s why you can find Mennonites throughout Europe, Russia, Canada, the United States, Mexico, and South America.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

If you’re wondering where the Amish fit into all this, their story begins in 1693 with Jakob Ammann. He was a Swiss Mennonite leader who felt Mennonites were straying from the teachings of Menno Simons. Those who agreed with his more conservative views and stricter church discipline practices withdrew and became a distinct subgroup of Mennonites known as the Amish. I’ll come back to them in a later post.

The Amish, along with other Swiss-South German Mennonites, began emigrating to North America (especially Pennsylvania) in the early eighteenth century. The Dutch-North German Mennonites, however, mostly moved eastward into the areas of Prussia and Poland. The latter are the ones who concern me most, as they are my ancestors.*

In 1763, Catherine the Great issued an invitation to Europeans to come and settle various pieces of land within Russia. Mennonites from Prussia responded to this invitation and agreed to settle as long as they were exempted from military service and permitted to self-govern. Being excellent farmers, they soon converted the barren steppes into flourishing farmlands. (This is a pattern that the Mennonites have since repeated countless times in every conceivable type of landscape, from the Canadian plains to the Mexican deserts to the South American jungle).

In 1870, however, the Russian government announced that they could no longer extend special privileges to the Mennonites. Worried that they would lose their exemption from military service and their right to educate their children in their own schools, the Mennonites sent a delegation to explore North America as a possible place to relocate.

(Upon hearing that 40,000 of their best farmers were about to peace out, the Russian government hurried to offer an alternative to military service [forestry]; but by then most of the Mennonites were already prepared to leave. Some of the more liberal and poorer Mennonites who couldn’t afford to leave remained. Those who stayed are referred to as Russian Mennonites, though most don’t live there anymore).

So in 1873, the Mennonites began a mass exodus to North America. The more conservative groups (including my ancestors) emigrated to Manitoba (Canada), while the more liberal groups chose the United States. These two groups later evolved into two very distinct subgroups of Mennonites.

The more conservative Mennonites in Manitoba continued to live out their traditional way of life, separate from the rest of the world. They governed themselves, educated their own children, and refrained from participating in Canadian politics. And they farmed, of course. They continued to wear distinctive clothing, speak their own distinctive language, and marry within their own community.

As it always happens, however, with time the Manitoba Mennonites began to feel various pressures from the larger culture to give up their traditional way of life. The Manitoba government began to talk about mandatory public education for all of its citizens, as well as (surprise, surprise) mandatory military service. So once again, the Mennonites began to look for a new place to settle.

That’s where I’ll end for now. Next, I’ll go into greater detail about these Old Colony Mennonites, the fascinating people from whom I am descended.

*(This paragraph was added later)

Note: I have to admit that I got a lot of the details for this post from Wikipedia.

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