This article is excerpted from an essay on Mennonite Identity in “Mennonite World Handbook” 1990 – by permission of the author: Dr. Rod J.Sawatsky – Ph.D. in history, president of Conrad Grebel College, University of Waterloo
Who are the Mennonites? What does it mean to be a Mennonite? These are questions repeatedly asked both inside and outside the Mennonite community.
Mennonites are first and foremost Christians, even “radical” Christians. The Mennonite movement began with the sixteenth-century Anabaptists, who insisted that the main-line reformers such as the Lutherans, Calvinists and Anglicans were not radical enough. Because their radicalism was based on following Jesus challenged both church and state, especially the union of church and state, the Anabaptists experienced extreme persecution.
Although these earliest Mennonites shared common commitments and emphases, they were not united around a common leader. Menno Simons gained considerable authority in northern Europe for some time, but his leadership was not accepted by nearly all, although attempts were made to gain unity around other writings. Neither did the Anabaptists accept any other authority besides the Bible. The tendency to divide into sub-groupings, or at least not to unite – a characteristic of much of Mennonite history – is, accordingly, rooted in its Anabaptist origins.
Differences on detail as to what it means to be faithful have divided the Mennonite community and added complexity to defining Mennonite identity.
“Mennonite” is ambiguous in definition for several other basic reasons. Again dating back to its beginnings, the Mennonite tradition embraces an inherent tension between sectarian separation from the world and missionary responsibility to the world. Some of the many Mennonite subdivisions emphasize one or the other of these two, while other Mennonite groups seek a synthesis of them.
Accordingly, the term Mennonite identifies those strictly separatist groups known for their rejection of modern culture including, for some, modern technology. These are the most visible Mennonites, and hence they influence the understanding of “Mennonite” by the general public out of all proportion of their numbers. In fact, sociologists frequently look to them as archetypical sectarians. By contrast, “Mennonite” also identifies adjectivally a number of denominations identified less by their separatism than by their active involvement worldwide alongside many other Christian denominations in education, publishing, mission, and service. Almost innumerable institutions and organizations labelled Mennonite pursue this denominational agenda. The vast majority of Mennonites are of this less separatist and more activist persuasion, yet the former create the more identifiable public image.
“Mennonite” is also ambiguous because it has both ethnic and religious connotations. The quest to nurture their vision of the true church in peace and quiet and to separate themselves from a hostile and evil world has encouraged Mennonites over the centuries to pursue a strategy of relative ideological and geographical withdrawal. Assisted by the practice of marrying within the group and other mechanisms of boundary maintenance, the Mennonites over time developed a sense of being a unique people – even an ethnic group. The fact that frequent migrations, undertaken either voluntarily or under pressure, had robbed them of a national identity further assisted this process of creating a Mennonite ethnicity. Although the ethnicity was based on religious rather than racial or national distinctives, that Mennonite has had, at least until quite recently, both religious and ethnic meanings, particularly in Russia and in North and South America, cannot be denied.
Mennonite ethnicity is, however, not uniform. In the past Mennonites divided essentially into two ethnic groupings – the Swiss / South German / Pennsylvanian and the Dutch / North German / Russian – each with various sub-groupings. Prior to the twentieth century at least two ethnic traditions of Mennonite language, custom, dress, art, food, etc., are identifiable.
For various historical reasons, however, in North America the Dutch tradition became the more ethnic while the Swiss remained the more sectarian. But the process of acculturation, especially in the twentieth century, is rapidly transforming both traditional Mennonite ethnicity and sectarianism.
Additionally, numerous other ethnicities now share the name Mennonite, with the result that “Mennonite” is increasingly becoming ethnically heterogeneous. If present growth pattern persist, the original two European ethnicities will before long be minorities in the larger Mennonite family.