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Author: Clare Kinberg
Editor: Thomas Riggs
Date: 2014
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 7,946 words
Lexile Measure: 1370L

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Clare Kinberg


The Mennonites in the United States are a religious and cultural group who trace their roots to the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent development of a religious movement called Anabaptism in the early sixteenth century. Anabaptism began in Switzerland and spread quickly to Austria, the Netherlands, Alsace in eastern France, and the southwest area of Germany called the Palatinate. The term Mennonite derives from name of Menno Simons, a Dutch Catholic priest who became a leader in the reformist Anabaptist movement after disagreements arose among the Anabaptists over issues of polygamy and the use of violence against nonbelievers. The region of northern Holland where Menno Simons was born and eventually became an Anabaptist leader is the Fryslân (or Friesland), a coastal region that includes four islands in the North Sea. It is one of Holland's larger provinces, about 1,293 square miles (3,350 square kilometers), about the size of Rhode Island.

The population of Fryslân in 2010 was 646,000, according to Statistics Netherlands. Friesians have always maintained a level of independence, and Fryslân is the only Dutch province to have its own language, recognized by the government since 1956. In the twenty-first century, 85 percent of Friesians were Protestant, most either Dutch Reformed or Reformed Church; 5 percent were Mennonites. Fryslân is primarily an agricultural region, known for cattle and horses, but tourism is also an important part of the economy. This includes Mennonite pilgrimages to monuments at Menno Simon's birthplace and old Mennonite churches.

Mennonite immigration to the United States came in four major waves. In each case they were spurred by economic motives as well as the desire to practice their religion free from persecution. The first group of Mennonites to successfully establish a community in the United States came in the 1680s, with early immigration continuing through the mid-1700s. They settled on land north of Philadelphia, in what would become Germantown, and in other areas of eastern Pennsylvania. The second wave, which included Amish Mennonites, was in the mid-1800s. The third wave consisted of Mennonites who had first settled in Russia but found it inhospitable there after 1870 and came to the United States. A fourth smaller wave came after 1920 from Russia, which had become the Soviet Union. Due to Mennonite missionary activity in many regions of the world, there are also significant numbers of African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, and Asians who have formed Mennonite congregations in the United States.

In his Concise Encyclopedia of Amish, Brethren, Hutterites, and Mennonites (2010), Donald Kraybill estimated the number of Mennonites in the United States to be 305,000, and the number of Amish to be close to 280,000. Pennsylvania remains the state with the highest concentration of Mennonites, with more than 300 congregations and more than 40,000 members. There are also large numbers of members in Ohio, Indiana, Kansas, Illinois, and California. Other states with significant populations of Mennonites include Florida, Michigan, Texas, Colorado, and Washington. The U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches has a membership of 35,400 in 196 congregations, the Brethren in Christ Conference has 22,120 members, and there are many smaller conferences.


Early History A history of Mennonites in the United States needs to begin with the rise of Anabaptism, meaning “re-baptism,” in the early 1500s during the Protestant Reformation (1517–1648). Anabaptists objected to the baptism of children, believing that only adults who understood and were committed to their faith could become baptized. Since the beginning of Christianity, the rite of baptism, a ceremony of washing with water, has indicated membership in the church and been a prerequisite for salvation. Until the 1500s Christians practiced universal infant baptism. When required by civil law, as was often the case, baptism became an effective means for unifying church and state and creating social cohesion in a nation. Thus the Anabaptist view of baptism as the voluntary act of an adult challenged the reigning authorities of the European world.

The founding of the Anabaptists arose out of a dispute between Swiss reform leader Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531) and his disciple Conrad Grebel (ca. 1498–1596), who was frustrated by Zwingli's Page 172  |  Top of Articleunwillingness to hasten reform in the Catholic Church. In 1525, shortly after a council of reform-minded though moderate church leaders voted to support the Catholic Church's position on infant baptism, Grebel and fellow radical reformer George Blaurock (ca. 1491–1529) held a secret meeting at which Grebel baptized Blaurock, which was the first recorded adult baptism in the Anabaptist movement. Anabaptists soon began gathering elsewhere in Switzerland as well as the Netherlands, Austria, and the Palatinate region of southwest Germany, whose authorities exhibited relative, and intermittent, tolerance for religious dissidents.

The Anabaptists viewed the church as a voluntary fellowship, free from coercion and necessarily independent of the state. At first, Anabaptists did not have an organized movement or set of dictates, but as the persecution against them increased, and people within the movement were increasingly drawn to violence, other Anabaptists searched for more solid, sober-minded leadership. Amid the atmosphere of the Protestant Reformation, as various reform movements were springing up in many different places, Menno Simons (1496–1561), a Dutch Catholic priest, emerged as a cerebral, even-handed reform leader. In the late 1520s Simons began to question a tenet of Roman Catholic doctrine called transubstantiation, the claim that God, working through the Catholic priest, transforms the bread and wine to be offered to churchgoers at the end of a Catholic Mass, into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. According to Catholic doctrine, this transformation is actual and not symbolic. While conducting an in-depth analysis of the Bible in the hope of resolving his questions about transubstantiation, Simons instead found nothing in the text that justified the church's position on this issue. He also discovered numerous other points on which Roman Catholic doctrine conflicted with his reading of the Bible.

Simons did not begin to consider the issue of adult baptism until 1530, when the church executed some men who were baptized in Leeuwarden, Friesland, near his home. When he consulted the Bible, Simons found nothing that justified the Roman Catholic Church's position on infant baptism. He also found nothing that justified the gruesome murders, which repulsed him. Despite his misgivings, Simons remained loyal to the church until 1535, when his brother Pieter, who had joined the Anabaptists, was killed for his beliefs. Simons joined the Anabaptists the following year; however, he did so with considerable reservations, as he was aware that many Anabaptists were not averse to violence.

In the mid-1530s, just prior to Simons's conversion, factions within the Anabaptist movement had become attracted by radicals who were actively trying to bring about the Second Coming. This slide toward extremism culminated with the Münster Rebellion of 1534–1535, in which a group of militant Anabaptists invaded a German city, expelled the presiding bishop, Franz von Waldeck, proclaimed the town a “New Jerusalem,” and instituted the practices of adult baptism and polygamy. The movement's leaders were executed the following year when von Waldeck reclaimed the city, and thereafter the Anabaptists had great difficulty winning converts because the population at large regarded them as fanatics.

Upon his conversion in 1536, Simons followed the teachings of brothers Obbe and Dirk Philips, fellow Anabaptists who advocated nonviolence. In a climate that was unwelcoming of Anabaptists, Simons lived as an underground fugitive for the rest of his life, writing pamphlets and preaching nonviolence while moving quickly from one location to another throughout the Netherlands, coastal Poland, and Germany. By 1540 Simons was recognized as a leader among the Anabaptists, and by 1544 the term Mennonite was used to describe Dutch Anabaptists. Simons died in 1561, a quarter-century after his conversion.

Over the next 100 years, Anabaptists, including Mennonites, went through cycles of persecution, migration, tolerance, and acceptance. Although many had been city dwellers and craftspeople, some, particularly those people outside of the Netherlands, Northern Germany, and Poland, became rural farmers when it was necessary to escape persecution. Their beliefs kept them from serving in any military, and often the threat of conscription would prompt them to move. The period of the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648) between Catholic and Protestant forces greatly affected the Mennonites even though they were not directly involved. The treaty that ended the Thirty Years' War established legal status for Catholics and Protestants, but Mennonites were not recognized, which left them vulnerable to the policies of individual rulers. For example, the Mennonites were expelled from Switzerland but were welcomed in the Palatinate in southwestern Germany, which became a center of settlement.

Modern Era As the Mennonite movement grew, it experienced many schisms, or divisions based on different understandings of practice or belief. Mennonite communities were especially prone to schism primarily because membership in the church was voluntary and there was no coherent, centralized doctrine. Furthermore, there was no connection between the movement and major government leaders. With neither the authority of the state, nor of a leader such as the pope to answer to, each local Mennonite was responsible for insuring adherence to communal practice. However, communal practice varied from community to community, as did methods of disciplining those who did not adhere to accepted communal practice. Mennonites most frequently disputed the required strictness of practice and how to deal with members who deviated from the accepted level of observance. While some leading Anabaptists argued Page 173  |  Top of Articlethat dissenters should be coerced back into the group, others said they should be avoided or shunned.

The most pronounced of these schisms occurred in 1693, when followers of the Swiss Mennonite Jakob Ammann (ca. 1644–ca. 1730) adopted different practices regarding communion and stricter doctrinal purity and spiritual discipline. His followers became the Amish. Another subgroup of the Mennonites developed in the mid-1700s, when the rulers of Russia began encouraging immigration by western Europeans into its vast underpopulated areas. In 1786 a specific invitation to German Mennonites was issued, and over the next few years, at least 750 Mennonite families formed communities in the Ukraine.

In the early and mid-1800s more streams of Mennonites immigrated to Russia, and by 1870, when the immigration stopped, there were some sixty Mennonite villages with approximately 2,300 families, according to the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. In the 1860s and 1870s, some of the Mennonites living in Russia developed an offshoot religious practice that became the Mennonite Brethren Church.

Another schism occurred in North America in the mid-1800s. Differences among Mennonites in North America regarding missions, education, and publications led to a separation between what would be called “Old Mennonites” and what would become the General Conference Mennonite Church. In 1847 John H. Oberholtzer and other Mennonite ministers in Pennsylvania introduced the ideas of a written constitution, Sunday schools, and missionary work. The new movement was less concerned with details of dress and separation from the developments of mainstream America. In the 1860s Mennonites of the new General Conference began training missionaries and sending them to work among Native Americans. The new conferences established schools and colleges and also became more involved in relief work and peace education.

Large numbers of the Mennonites who had settled in Russia started immigrating to the United States in 1874; they felt that their protection from conscription was threatened when Russia began demanding universal military service. Even though Emperor Alexander II granted the Mennonites an “alternate service” provision, immigration to North America had become more appealing. Mennonites continued emigrating from Russia in steady numbers throughout the twentieth century due to a series of massive upheavals, including World War I, the Russian Revolution, World War II. Furthermore, the pervasive oppression of the Soviet regime during the Cold War made the Mennonites' position in the communist society precarious. Some who immigrated to the United States joined the General Conference, and others, members of the Mennonite Brethren Church, formed a third stream of Mennonites in the United States, the Mennonite Brethren.

By the end of the twentieth century, the Mennonite Brethren was the largest group of Mennonites in North America. In 2001, however, the Old Mennonites and the General Conference merged into the Mennonite Church USA, making it the largest Mennonite denomination and the Mennonite Brethren the second largest. By 2012 there were 1.7 million Mennonites worldwide, with only 3.6 percent of these in Europe. About one-third of Mennonites live in North America, 38 percent in Africa, 10.5 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean, and 18 percent in India and Southeast Asia.


Before significant waves of Mennonites arrived in the United States, a small group of Mennonite traders came to New Amsterdam (now New York) in 1663 and tried to establish a communal settlement on the Delaware River under the leadership of Dutch utopian Pieter Corneliszoon Plockhoy. Within a year, however, the English destroyed the colony.

The four major waves of Mennonite settlement in the United States can be divided into two ethnic-cultural groups, the Swiss-German group and the Russian group. The first wave, which spanned from 1683 to 1756, consisted of Swiss and German immigrants and included a small subset of Amish people. The second wave, which spanned from 1815 to 1860, was primarily Amish. Both of these groups settled in Pennsylvania. The first of the two waves of Russian Mennonites came in 1874, and the second arrived after 1930. Russian Mennonites settled mostly in the prairie and Pacific states.

The earliest permanent U.S. settlement that included Mennonites was established in Germantown, Pennsylvania, and started with a mix of thirteen Quaker and Mennonite families that arrived aboard the Concord on October 6, 1683. Led by Francis D. Pastorius, who had purchased the land they would settle in Pennsylvania, these Dutch-speaking families were mostly poor weavers from the city of Krefeld in Germany. Between 1683 and 1708, approximately forty more Mennonite families settled in Germantown, making up about 15 percent of this early settlement. The next group of Mennonite immigrants during this period consisted mostly of German-speaking farmers from the Palatinate region of southwest Germany, who settled in the rural areas of Franconia and Lancaster, Pennsylvania. This first wave included the beginning of the Amish immigration. By 1756 about 4,000 Mennonite and 200 Amish families had immigrated to eastern Pennsylvania.

The second wave, 1815–1860, included many Amish who settled further west in Pennsylvania, and even further west into Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa. Mennonites from these first two waves also spread west, as well as southward into Virginia and Maryland. Only a small percentage went west of the Mississippi.

The largest numbers of Mennonite immigrants, over 10,000, came in the third wave (1874–1880)

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CENGAGE LEARNING, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED CENGAGE LEARNING, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies 2012 Report

from the Ukraine in Russia and settled in the prairie states, primarily in Nebraska and Kansas, but also in South Dakota and Minnesota. These Mennonite families had settled in Russia less than eighty years prior and had flourished there, growing to number over 100,000. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, however, the Russian government introduced a universal military conscription law and other laws that threatened the Mennonite way of life. At the time, Russia had lost the Crimean War (1853–1856) and was preparing for what would become the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878). During this period, a third of all Russian Mennonites left for North America even though the Russian government allowed them to fulfill their military service by serving in the forestry. By 1879 Mennonites from Kansas, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Nebraska had met and formed the first Mennonite Brethren Conference in the United States.

After 1930 another small wave of Russian Mennonites immigrated from what had become the Soviet Union and settled primarily in Reedley, California. The Mennonites have converted a substantial number of Americans since arriving in the United States. In 2006, 26 percent of Mennonites in the United States had become Mennonite even though neither of their parents were Mennonite. According to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies estimates for 2012, many members of the Mennonite Church USA reside in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, and California. Other states with significant numbers include Florida, Michigan, Colorado, and Washington.


The first Mennonite immigrants were Dutch speakers, but the vast majority of Mennonite immigrants to the United States spoke German, including the immigrants from Russia. While it can be said that German is the mother tongue of the Mennonites, immigrants spoke different dialects, depending on the time they migrated and the place they came from. For example, the Russian Mennonites brought with them their everyday language, the Low German dialect, Plattdeutsch or Plautdietsch, in addition to the more formal High German. Mennonite texts were written in German, and for the first generation of Mennonites, sermons and religious discussions were carried on in German. Prayer books, catechisms, and devotional books were also written in German, with only a few in English throughout the nineteenth century. One of the most important Mennonite books, Martyrs Mirror (1660) by Tieleman Jansz van Braght, was first translated into German from the original Dutch by American Mennonites in Pennsylvania in 1749. The book details the sixteenth-century persecution of the group and celebrates their courage through stories of steadfastness even when faced with imprisonment and execution.

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Although the American Mennonites' transition to English was well on its way by World War I, the anti-German sentiment in the United States during the war hastened the process so that by 1925, almost all Mennonite services (except among the Amish) were conducted in English. The German dialect spoken by Amish, referred to as Pennsylvania Dutch, is still spoken in Amish communities. For other Mennonites in the United States, by the late twentieth century spoken German was not common but was preserved in folklore, art, and the use of German hymnals and sermons by some Old Order Mennonites (principally the Groffdale Conference).


Mennonites are a Christian denomination that emphasizes the separation of church and state and regards the Bible as the ultimate authority on matters of faith and theology. For Mennonites, if there is a conflict between the kingdom of the “world” (the state) and the kingdom of God (the church), their loyalty must be to God. Although they support governing authorities for instituting order among humans, they believe that, as violence is not the will of God, they witness against all violence, including war among nations. Mennonite doctrine requires members to offer a voluntary confession of faith, practice pacifism, and serve the church. According to the “Shared Convictions” from the Mennonite World Conference of 2006, it is incumbent upon all Mennonites to “become peacemakers who renounce violence, love our enemies, seek justice, and share our possessions with those in need.”

Mennonites practice their faith and foster virtue through daily prayer, Bible study, sermon-centered worship in plain church buildings, and singing hymns in four-part harmony, with or without musical instruments. Mennonite religious rituals are referred to as “ordinances,” practices or symbols that demonstrate faith, rather than “sacraments,” or sacred mysteries in which God is directly involved. For instance, among Mennonites the Lord's Supper (practiced two to four times a year) is an ordinance in which the sharing of bread and wine is a symbol or a sign to remind believers of Christ's sacrifice. It takes on the additional meaning of perfect togetherness, in which the individual fuses with the group as a whole, foregoing self-will of any kind. Among some groups foot-washing is another ordinance that may be part of the Lord's Supper.

The Mennonites have an impressive record of helping those afflicted by poverty and natural disasters. For them, such assistance is a manifestation of their conviction that word and deed must be one and that love must be visible. The large and active Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), whose byline is “relief, development and peace in the name of Christ,” was founded in 1920 to coordinate Mennonite relief activities in response to famine in the Ukraine. In 2012 the MCC employed over a thousand people in dozens of countries in Africa, Asia, and Europe, providing disaster relief, sustainable community development, and justice and peace-building services. Another Mennonite organization, Ten Thousand Villages, was founded shortly after World War II by Mennonite Edna Ruth Byler, who purchased needlework from poor women in Puerto Rico that she marketed directly to people in Central Pennsylvania. Her work grew into one of the leading fair-trade organizations; in 2012 Ten Thousand Villages worked in nearly forty countries and sold over 20 million dollars of crafts. Mennonite Disaster Service is another organization that serves people in need, primarily the victims of natural disasters in the United States and Canada.

Over time Mennonites have developed a highly nuanced relationship with mainstream America that involves both a noticeable separation from popular culture and a willingness to incorporate aspects of American life into their daily routines.


Over time Mennonites have developed a highly nuanced relationship with mainstream America that involves both a noticeable separation from popular culture and a willingness to incorporate aspects of American life into their daily routines. In order to maintain this complex relationship with the culture at large, Mennonites must acculturate (adopt aspects of the host culture such as dress, tools, and housing) without assimilating (being absorbed and fully integrated into the majority group). The adoption of English is an example of something Mennonites have accepted as necessary and proper acculturation. Because the early Mennonites did not speak English when they arrived and lived almost exclusively in communities with other German speakers, they did not need to learn English. However, the acquisition of English became necessary when the group decided that they wanted to be able to speak about their faith to others (they are evangelical). In addition, the older generation wanted to communicate with their children and grandchildren who were learning English and abandoning German. Thus, Mennonites consciously decided that the adoption of English was not a threat to their faith but a necessary component to the cohesion and growth of the group. Similar reasoning went into decisions regarding the use of electricity, farm equipment, cars, and other technology. Since the latter part of the twentieth century, many Mennonites have used technology that was available to them. However, Old Order Mennonites and some others have been very cautious about adopting technology because they find it a threat to their way of life.

The Mennonite doctrine of nonconformity holds that obedience to the teachings and example of Jesus Christ includes separation from mainstream society in everyday areas such as dress, social activities, and Page 176  |  Top of Articleschooling. Thus, for Mennonites, the adoption of any aspect of mainstream culture is potentially controversial and could be considered wrongful assimilation. This includes not only secular culture such as radio, television, and movies but also many of the practices of other Christian denominations, such as Sunday schools and religious revivals. Even missionary activity was at first, in the mid-nineteenth century, seen as borrowing from the mainstream. By the late twentieth century the outward characteristics of “plain” people, simple dress and non-technological lifestyle, were primarily practiced by Amish and Old Order Mennonites and a few other groups. Among other Mennonites there was increasing conformity with mainstream America in dress, use of new technology, and other external expressions of mainstream lifestyles. It is notable that into the twenty-first century those groups that have maintained the higher levels of nonconformity continued to grow fairly rapidly, with high retention and high birthrates, while the number of Mennonites who are less distinguishable by outward appearances had lower birth rates and declining numbers or grew slowly, mostly through gaining new members.

Traditional Dress Traditional Mennonite dress has been influenced by several Mennonite values, including simplicity, humility, and separation from the mainstream. Although dress requirements and prohibitions have been common throughout Mennonite history and have varied by region, they are often adhered to by custom and tradition rather than written rule. In keeping with the ideal of simplicity, there have been Mennonite traditions or regulations concerning, for example, head coverings for men and women (wide-brimmed hats for men, white bonnets for women), dresses (the “cape dress” with an extra layer of fabric to cover the bosom), pants (knee-breaches), coats (no lapels), fasteners (no buttons, only hooks and eyes or pins), shoes and stockings (silk stockings forbidden), color and type of fabric (sometimes bright colors forbidden), and wedding dresses (not floor length) and shrouds (white required). There was traditionally a general prohibition against wearing jewelry or other outward signs of wealth.

However, since the mid-twentieth century, regulation among different Mennonite groups has been highly diverse. While Old Order Mennonites and several other smaller conservative groups adhere to plain dress (and became more uniformly strict in the early twentieth century), the clothing of General Conference Mennonites is indistinguishable from that of the general U.S. population.

Cuisine Mennonite food traditions are an expression of the values of hospitality and simplicity. Traditional Mennonite cooking in the United States consists of German/Dutch and Ukrainian/Russian recipes. Two favorites in the German/Dutch tradition are Paska (Easter Bread)—a sweet, yeasted bread made with flour, cream, sugar, eggs, and butter—and cabbage borscht (soup). Other foods in the German/Dutch Mennonite heritage include kartoffelpuffer (potato pancakes), farmer's sausage, kotletten (meatballs), and spaetzle (German dumplings). The most recognizable foods from the Russian Mennonite heritage include verenyky (cheese-filled dumplings), zwieback (distinctive yeast rolls with two unequally sized parts), and peppernuts (tiny spiced cookies). In Mennonite communities where women are responsible for the cooking, sharing recipes is a cherished tradition. Many widely distributed cookbooks emerged from the Mennonite tradition, such as Doris Janzen Longacre's The More with Less Cookbook (1976), an early expression of concern with world hunger and overconsumption of the world's resources. More with Less not only introduced Mennonite families to different ways of cooking and eating but also helped bring new people into the Mennonite church.

Music and Song Throughout their history Mennonites have adapted contemporary musical forms when composing hymns for their church. At times, American culture at large has, in turn, borrowed from those hymns and incorporated aspects of Mennonite song into popular music. The earliest Mennonites in America brought with them a sixteenth-century German/Swiss hymnal, the Ausbund, written partially by martyrs in prison using tunes of then-well-known folk songs. The Ausbund was still in use in the twenty-first century by the Amish in the United States. Throughout the nineteenth century, numerous Mennonite hymnbooks, in German and without notation, were edited and published in the United States, beginning in 1803 in eastern Pennsylvania. The Harmonia Sacra, originally published in 1832 by Joseph Funk in Mountain Valley, Virginia, as A Compilation of Genuine Church Music, is a shape-note hymnbook in the Mennonite tradition that is still used; its twenty-sixth edition was published in 2008. Mennonites began publishing English-language hymnals in the mid-nineteenth century. Mennonite singing of hymns was known for being a cappella, four-part harmony. In fact, in 1913 the institution that would become Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, wrote into its constitution a rule that vocal music could be taught, but musical instruments were not permitted. This restriction had given way to a full music-education program by the 1960s, however.

The American folk music revival and protest-song movement of the 1960s were influenced by Mennonite musical traditions, and they were reflected in hymnbook supplements such as Sing and Rejoice! (1979). Since that time, guitar and other folk instruments have become more acceptable in the Mennonite church, especially in less formal contexts such as school or community events. Mennonite hymnals published in 1992, 2005, and 2007 increasingly included contemporary music and songs from around the world.

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Traditional Arts and Crafts Folk arts, including quilting, glass painting, paper cutting, weaving, and woodworking, are widely associated in the United States with Amish and Mennonite communities. Mennonites have commonly used the popularity of their crafts to raise money for their large relief programs. In 2012 the Mennonite Central Committee raised over $5 million for victims of natural disasters around the world from the sale of quilts, homemade food, woodwork, and other items. At the Mennonite Quilt Center in Reedley, California, volunteer quilters and weavers gather to make quilts and weave rugs; their motto is “friends quilting for global relief.”

Health Care Issues and Practices Care for the needy is a central tenet of Mennonite practice, and Mennonites have a long tradition of providing health care both within their own community and to the population at large. Early Mennonite communities in the United States made efforts to care for their own with local midwives, bone-setters, good deeds among neighbors, and even mutual aid (insurance) groups. In the early twentieth century Mennonites began building hospitals for the general public in Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Colorado. It also became common for Mennonites to enter health care professions. A Mennonite Nurses Association was founded in 1942, and a Mennonite Medical Association was founded in 1946.

Mennonites have made significant contributions to other areas of the medical field, including psychiatric and geriatric care. For example, in the 1940s many young Mennonite conscientious objectors in Civilian Public Service, an alternative to service in World War II, were assigned to work in mental hospitals. The appalling conditions in those facilities motivated them to develop a more compassionate system for treating mental illness. Many consider this to be the Mennonites' most meaningful contribution to society, and through early part of the twenty-first century, Mennonites have continued to operate a number of psychiatric facilities. Mennonites also run a number of reputable nursing homes and retirement communities. However, since the latter part of the twentieth century, as health care became more expensive and technological and the profession has been complicated by ethical issues such as abortion, end-of-life decisions, and government regulation of procedures, Mennonites have reduced their direct involvement in hospitals, while still supporting their peers who enter into the healing professions.

As is the case throughout the United States, for Mennonites, access to health care depends on socioeconomic factors, and the poorest members of the church are less likely to get proper medical attention than those of better means. A 2003 study revealed that 43 percent of the migrant farmworkers in Kansas were German-speaking Mexican Mennonites who had migrated from Russia, through Canada and

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In 1974 a Mennonite, Connie Wiebe Isaac, recorded the folk album Sing Alleluia, a celebration of the centennial of the Russian Mennonite migration to Central Kansas. The album's folk style, ballads, and translations of German Mennonite hymns both interpreted the Mennonite story for the wider public and served as a bridge to mainstream culture for Mennonites. Another American who grew up in the Mennonite community and had a significant impact on American music was Gordon Friesen, longtime editor of the protest music magazine Broadside, which he and his wife, Sis Cunningham, began publishing in 1962 in New York. Broadside promoted the use of folk music to challenge traditional values and express compassion for the oppressed. Over its twenty-six-year history, the magazine published some of the most popular songs of socially conscious folk singers such as Bob Dylan, Rev. Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick, Malvina Reynolds, and Pete Seeger.

Mexico, before coming to Kansas. As a linguistically and culturally isolated group, their access to health care was limited and targeted for improvement. In 2007 Mennonite Church USA issued a statement of “Healthcare Policy Principles” that both reflected their community values and shaped their involvement in public policy. The principles emphasized shared responsibility and access to health care by all, with special concern for the weakest and most vulnerable members of society.


Human relationships expressed through family and community life are extremely important to Mennonites, who understand “family” to include not only relationships of blood, marriage, or adoption, but also the family of the church, where all members are brothers and sisters. More liberal Mennonites' family structure may not be distinguishable from other mainstream American families. The more conservative Mennonites, such as Old Order Mennonites, have a distinct family life, however; they live on farms, with the father working the fields and the mother taking care of the home and the children.

Gender Roles Typical of conservative rural Mennonite community and family life in the early twenty-first century were the thirteen families who lived near Plainview in the Texas Panhandle area and attend the Plainview Bible Fellowship church. The families in this area came from Pennsylvania, Canada, Mexico, Iowa, and Ohio; they had settled in Texas because of inexpensive land, low population, and unregulated private schools. In these families, the women and girls sew their clothes and do the

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A Mennonite woman works at a produce stand in Sarasota, Florida. A Mennonite woman works at a produce stand in Sarasota, Florida. WAYNE EASTEP / STONE / GETTY IMAGES

shopping and gardening, while the father—the head of the home—and sons do the farming.

In the early Anabaptist movement women had a significant role, as the Anabaptist belief in voluntary church membership demanded individual responses from men and women. Both women and men were taught scripture and were respected leaders, and about one-third of the Anabaptist martyrs were women. The first record of a woman ordained in a Mennonite church in North America was in 1911, when Ann Jemima Allebach (1874–1918) was ordained a minister in the First Mennonite Church of Philadelphia. The Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church began ordaining women as pastors in 1973 and 1975, respectively, though in 2013 some churches still rejected the idea of women in pastoral ministry.

Education The first Mennonites in the United States established a system of private schools, often on church property. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, however, Mennonites increasingly used the public school system. The more conservative Mennonite Church (Old Order Mennonites) and Amish Mennonites each built a system of private schools beginning in the early twentieth century, even as the more liberal General Conference Mennonites abandoned their system of private schools. However, secular public schools and the Mennonite value of nonconformity to worldly society continued to be matters of concern in all Mennonite communities. In 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a Wisconsin case (Wisconsin v. Yoder et al.) that Old Order Amish could not be compelled to send their children to school beyond eighth grade. This led to a resurgence of private, parochial Amish and Mennonite schools in which each sect could teach their children their own traditions and ways of relating to the world.

In 2001, when the General Conference Mennonites and the Mennonite Church (Old Order Mennonites) merged into the Mennonite Church USA, the Mennonite Education Agency was formed. By 2012 this education arm of the Mennonite Church USA ran a system of over twenty-five schools (kindergarten through twelfth grade), more than half of which were in Pennsylvania. Several colleges and universities were also part of this network, including Bethel College (North Newton, Kansas; founded 1887), Bluffton University (Bluffton, Ohio; founded 1900), Eastern Mennonite University (Harrisonburg, Virginia; founded 1916), Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (merger of Goshen Biblical Seminary and Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana), Goshen College (Goshen, Indiana; founded 1903), and Hesston College (Hesston, Kansas; founded 1909). Other universities founded by Mennonites include Fresno Pacific University, founded in 1944 by the Mennonite Brethren Churches; Rosedale Bible College (1952), owned by the Conservative Mennonite Conference; and Tabor College (1908) in Hillsboro, Kansas, owned by the Mennonite Brethren Church.

Early Anabaptists had a suspicion of elite scholarship, believing it weakened the simplicity of faith, and led to pride and unprincipled compromise for the sake of financial gain. Over time, Mennonites have seen the Page 179  |  Top of Articlebenefits of professional training in science, medicine, teaching, engineering, and business, and decided that these did not lead to a loss of faith. In 1972, 19 percent of Mennonites held college degrees, and by 2006 the figure had doubled to 38 percent.

Courtship and Weddings Like the other areas of life, traditions regarding courtship and weddings vary across Mennonite denominations and congregations. Mennonites do not arrange marriages, but parental approval and sometimes permission from the local bishop are sought. In the twenty-first century, many Mennonite weddings do not differ from other Protestant church weddings. However, in keeping with Mennonite value of simplicity, the bride may have made her own dress, which is often white and sometimes blue or purple. The ceremony, often like a regular church service, will likely be in the bride's home church; it may have no flowers or other decorations but is likely to have a considerable amount of singing. A long sermon or a short meditation given by the pastor before the standing wedding party may be part of the service, followed by a celebration with home-cooked foods.


During the latter half of the twentieth century, Mennonites became less likely to live on a farm and were much more likely to live in small towns of under 50,000 people. In 1972, 36 percent of Mennonites lived on a farm; by 2006 this had declined to 12 percent. Still, in 2006 the vast majority of Mennonites in the United States (80 percent) lived in small towns, only 10 percent living in urban cities of 250,000 or more people.

Before World War II, most Mennonites were discouraged from participating in industry and commerce, particularly outside of their own community, but Mennonites did establish colleges and seminaries, hospitals, and mutual aid societies. As the post–World War II economy of the United States expanded, Mennonites began exploring opportunities in the business world, and by 2006, 41 percent of Mennonites in the United States held business or professional jobs.


Mennonite political activity runs the gamut from total noninvolvement in partisan politics to active participation at the party level. Of the early immigrants, those of Swiss background and those who became Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonites remained much more separate from worldly politics, while the Dutch-Russian immigrants became somewhat more active in local and national politics. A study in 1972 indicated that 76 percent of Mennonites believed that church members should vote in public elections; at that time, 37 percent of respondents did not have a party preference, and around 75 percent of the respondents who did have a party preference were Republican. By 2006 only 11 percent of Mennonites did not have a party preference, with 50 percent identifying as Republicans and 22 percent identifying as Democrats. Data from the 2012 U.S. presidential election indicates that Mennonites may have moved further to the right. For example, Holmes County, Pennsylvania, voted 73 percent for the losing Republican (Romney/Ryan) ticket.

Many historical factors led to the strong Republican leaning of the Mennonite electorate. Leading up to the Civil War and World War II, Democrats were more associated with war, leading Mennonites to vote Republican. In addition, Mennonites have long favored Republican land policies in the frontier states because they benefited Mennonite farmers. Mennonites in rural Pennsylvania and in Kansas and Nebraska vote much like their non-Mennonite neighbors. However, one of the only Mennonites to be elected to public office, South Dakota governor Harvey L. Wollman, was a Democrat. Wollman was elected lieutenant governor in 1975 and became governor for six months in 1978 to complete the term of Richard Kneip, who had resigned. Governor Wollman and his brother, U.S. Eighth Court of Appeals judge Roger Wollman (who was nominated for the court by President Ronald Reagan in 1985), were educated in Mennonite Brethren Church schools, and had both served in the U.S. Army.


Academia Shirley Hershey Showalter, president of Goshen College from 1997 to 2004, is a writer and teacher who graduated from Eastern Mennonite University in 1970.

John D. Roth is the editor of the Mennonite Quarterly Review, director of the Mennonite Historical Library, and director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism at Goshen College. He is the author of a number of books, including

Teaching That Transforms: Why Anabaptist-Mennonite Education Matters (2011); Practices: Mennonite Worship and Witness (2009); Stories: How Mennonites Came to Be (2006); and Beliefs: Mennonite Faith and Practice (2005). He is a member of the Berkey Avenue Mennonite Fellowship in Goshen.

Harold Stauffer Bender (1897–1962), a professor at Goshen College, was born in Elkhart, Indiana. He helped found the Mennonite Historical Library in 1906 and founded the Mennonite Quarterly Review in 1927.

Activism Edna Ruth Byler (1904–1976) was born in Hesston, Kansas, where she attended Mennonite church. She founded the nonprofit Ten Thousand Villages, a forerunner of the global fair-trade movement.

Author and activist Doris Janzen Longacre (1940–1979) was born in Newton, Kansas. She was the author of two books, More with Less Cookbook (1976) and Living More with Less (published Page 180  |  Top of Articleposthumously in 1980). With her husband, Paul Longacre, and two daughters, Cara Sue and Marta Joy, she worked with the Mennonite Central Committee in Vietnam (1964–1967) and Indonesia (1971–1972). She served as chairperson of the Akron Mennonite Church, as a member of the Board of Overseers of Goshen Biblical Seminary, and as a frequent speaker on world hunger.

Business Erie J. Sauder (1904–1997) was a furniture maker from Archbold, Ohio, whose woodworking was the foundation for the ready-to-assemble furniture business in the United States. By 1999 the family company he founded had $545 million in sales and employed 3,400 people. His company's success, which was supported in crucial ways by his Mennonite community, was an early example of successful Mennonite involvement in commerce.

Literature Julia Spicher Kasdorf is a writer born in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, in 1962. Her poetry collections include Sleeping Preacher (1992), which won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize and the Great Lakes Colleges Association Award for New Writing; Eve's Striptease (1998); and Poetry in America (2011). She is also the author of the essay collection The Body and the Book: Writing from a Mennonite Life (2001) and the biography Fixing Tradition: Joseph W. Yoder, Amish American (2002).

Jeff Gundy, professor of English at Goshen College, was born in 1952 on a farm in Illinois. His numerous books of poetry and essays include Rhapsody with Dark Matter (2000), Scattering Point: The World in a Mennonite Eye (2003), Deerflies (2004), Walker in the Fog: On Mennonite Writing (2005), and Spoken among the Trees (2007).

Ann Hostetler is a poet who teaches English and creative writing at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana, and is the editor for their online site Center for Mennonite Writing. She was born in Mt. Pleasant, Pennsylvania, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. Her first book of poems, Empty Room with Light, was published in 2002. Her poems have appeared in the American Scholar, Cream City Review, Mid-America Poetry Review, and other journals.

Music Professor and musician Mary Oyer (1923–) began her career teaching cello in 1940 at Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana. She was a major contributor to Mennonite hymnals, and through her study of African musical traditions in twenty-two countries on a series of Fulbright grants, she greatly expanded the musical idiom of Mennonite music. She taught music in Africa as well in Taiwan.


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Christian Leader Magazine

Christian Leader was founded in 1937 as an English-language youth publication and became the official publication of the Mennonite Brethren in 1951. Connie Faber became editor in 2004.

Box 155
Hillsboro, Kansas 67063
Phone: (620) 947-5543

Shortly after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, a group of Mennonites visit Ground Zero at the former site of the World Trade Center. Shortly after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, a group of Mennonites visit Ground Zero at the former site of the World Trade Center. ANDY LEVIN / ALAMY

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MennoMedia is the multimedia arm of the Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada. It includes the book-publishing imprint Herald Press; the Third Way, a Café; a website for Mennonite information; periodicals; and other church resources.

1251 Virginia Avenue
Harrisonburg, Virginia 22802-2434
Phone: (800) 245-7894

The Mennonite

A monthly magazine published by the Mennonite Church USA, the Mennonite began publication in 1998 as a merger of Gospel Herald (1908–1998) of the Mennonite Church and the former publication the Mennonite (1885–1998) of the General Conference Mennonite Church.

3145 Benham Avenue
Suite 4
Elkhart, Indiana 46517
Phone: (800) 790-2498
Fax: (316) 283-0454

The Mennonite Quarterly Review

A quarterly journal devoted to Anabaptist-Mennonite history, thought, life, and affairs, published at Goshen College since 1927.

1700 South Main Street
Goshen, Indiana 46526
Phone: (574) 535-7433
Fax: (574) 535-7438

Mennonite World Review

This publication, formerly called the Mennonite Weekly Review, is an independent journalistic ministry that has published a newspaper since 1923.

129 West Sixth Street
P.O. Box 568
Newton, Kansas 67114
Phone: (316) 283-3670
Fax: (316) 283-6502


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Mennonite Central Committee

A relief and development worldwide ministry of Anabaptist churches.

21 South 12th Street
P.O. Box 500
Akron, Pennsylvania 17501-0500
Phone: (717) 859-1151

Mennonite Church USA

Mennonite Church USA was formed in 2002 by the merger of the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church. It has more than 100,000 adult members in about 900 congregations and 21 area conferences. It is the largest of numerous Mennonite groups in the United States.

1251 Virginia Avenue
Harrisonburg, Virginia 22802
Phone: (540) 434-6701
Fax: (316) 283-0454

U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (USMB)

The USMB is the umbrella association of the U.S. Mennonite Brethren family of churches, which consists of five districts.

11000 River Run Boulevard
Suite 215
Bakersfield, California 93311
Phone: (661) 412-4939
Fax: (661) 412-4938


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Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society

Established in 1958, this is a research facility specializing in Mennonite as well as Amish history. There are over 60,000 volumes of material covering theology, history, and genealogy.

2215 Millstream Road
Lancaster, Pennsylvania 17602
Phone: (717) 393-9745
Fax: (717) 393-8751

Menno Simons Historical Library

The Menno Simons Historical Library (MSHL), located at Eastern Mennonite University, collects, preserves, and provides access to the recorded history, life, and arts of Anabaptists, and especially Mennonites in eastern North America. The library also actively maintains a large collection of materials on Shenandoah Valley history, culture, and genealogy.

1200 Park Road
Harrisonburg, Virginia
Phone: (540) 432-4177

Mennonite Church USA Archives

This collection is the official repository of the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church. It has two locations, in Goshen, Indiana, and North Newton, Kansas. Page 182  |  Top of Article1700 South Main Street
Goshen, Indiana 46526
Phone: (574) 523-3080 (Goshen location)
Phone: (316) 284-5304 (North Newton location)
300 East 27th Street
North Newton, Kansas 67117

Mennonite Heritage Museum

This museum, opened in 1974, has a complex of eight buildings that visitors can see on a self-guided tour.

P.O. Box 231
200 North Poplar
Goessel, Kansas 67053
Phone: (620) 367-8200

Mennonite Historical Library

A special collection within Goshen College's main library, this is one of the most comprehensive Anabaptist collections in the world.

Harold and Wilma Good Library
Goshen College
1700 South Main Street
Goshen, Indiana 46526
Phone: (574) 535-7418
Fax: (574) 535-7438


Epp, Maureen. Sound in the Lands: Mennonite Music Across Borders. Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2011.

Janzen, Rhoda. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home. New York: Henry Holt, 2009.

Kanagy, Conrad L. “A Landscape of Change: A Look at Members of Mennonite Church USA.” Mennonite, February 6, 2007.

Kraybill, D. B. Concise Encyclopedia of Amish, Brethren, Hutterites, and Mennonites. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

Loewen, Royden; Steven M. Nolt; John A. Lapp; and C A. Snyder. Seeking Places of Peace. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2012.

Roth, John D. Stories: How Mennonites Came to Be. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2006.

Roth, John D., and James M. Stayer. A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism, 1521–1700. Leiden: Brill, 2007.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3273300121