Mennonites: History, Definition & Culture

Instructor: David White
Through this lesson you will learn about some of the characteristics that define the Mennonite religion, how the faith evolved, and what kind of role it plays in the present day.

Understanding the Mennonite Faith

Thanks to the rapid speed of digital technology, information is now able to pass easily from one person to another, thus increasing our understanding of different cultures around the world. But while many cultures and communities are happy to participate in the modern sharing of information, there remain a number of groups who maintain limited interaction with the outside world.

One such group is the Mennonites, a religious denomination of Christianity whose faith strictly follows Jesus Christ's teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, which emphasized 'purity of heart' and service to others. Mennonites are a part of a religious tradition known as Anabaptism, which means that they believe in being re-baptized as an adult to demonstrate a voluntary participation in the faith.

Though each individual religion is classified by a complex and nuanced set of beliefs, there are certain fundamental aspects that differentiate one from another. To an outsider, the most obvious characteristics that set Mennonites apart from other Christian denominations is their strict adherence to pacifism, an emphasis on social justice and civic participation, and a strong commitment to a simple and generally non-materialistic way of life - such as making their own clothes and growing their own food.

Mennonite woman making her own dress, 1942
Mennonite woman making her own dress, 1942

A Brief History of Mennonite Faith

During a period of history known as the Protestant Reformation (1517-1648), many people within Western civilizations grew frustrated with the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church and began to break away to form different churches that better suited their followers' needs. Among these was a Dutch man named Menno Simons, who preached to his followers the peaceful aspects of Christ's teachings. Simons' followers came to be known as Mennonites.

Menno Simons (1496-1561)
Menno Simons (1496-1561)

Though Simons' teachings and writings focused heavily on pacifism and encouraged an ethic of love and community, he was also highly critical of the Roman Catholic Church for what he (and many others) believed to be an abuse of power and dangerous influence on the state. Like other critics of the Roman Catholic Church during this time, the Mennonites were targeted for speaking out against the church and were often jailed or killed for their beliefs. Rather than stay and fight their attackers, Simons and the Mennonites chose to flee the Netherlands and re-establish themselves in neighboring European countries.

By the end of the 17th century, many Mennonite followers felt that the group was no longer living up to the teachings of the faith or living a plain, modest lifestyle. This conflict led to a large number leaving the group to form a separate religion, which we now know as the Amish.

Like all devout followers of a religion, when Mennonites traveled and resettled around Europe and eventually North America, they brought their religion with them. Fast-forward to the present day, and you can find more than 1.5 million Mennonite followers in communities on every continent. Today, Mennonites play an important role in progressive politics, often participating in issues of education, social justice, and humanitarian aid.

Mennonite Culture

Because the Amish religion came from a separation from the Mennonites, and because both fall under the umbrella of Anabaptism, these two groups tend to get lumped together. Of course, it is easy to get the two confused; to an outsider, many aspects of the religions look very similar to each other and can be hard to distinguish.

Mennonite and Amish teachings are both based on Christian traditions, and both believe in a strict adherence to pacifist ways of life. But when it comes to their respective cultures, both show themselves to be distinctly different from one another - particularly around the issue of living a non-materialistic or plain lifestyle.

Present-day Mennonite farm
Present-day Mennonite farm

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