Mennonites Don’t Match Their Old-Fashioned Image : Congregations: Close-knit denomination retains pacifist tradition while grappling with modern issues.
Today’s Mennonites, members of a historic, relatively large denomination working in America since colonial days, don’t match the image some people have of them. They don’t wear antique-style clothes and drive buggies.
The thousands of Mennonites gathered for their biennial convention in Philadelphia this week appear like most assemblages of U.S. Christians, and their meetings ponder many of the same issues confronting churches at large.
“Overall, the things that distinguish Mennonites are living a genuinely simple life, trying to be faithful to God, contributing to moral values and showing love in regard to other people,” said James M. Lapp of Elkhart, Ind., general secretary of the Mennonite Church’s general board.
The mistaken identification of Mennonites with old-fashioned dress, buggies and customs stems from distant links to the Amish, who broke away from the Mennonites about 300 years ago. American Mennonites originally were a largely agricultural people, but Lapp said that element is rapidly diminishing. Only about 20% now are farmers, with most Mennonites in a variety of urban trades and professions.
A survey has found that most people are unfamiliar with Mennonites. Only a fourth of respondents knew anything about them, and most linked them to old-fashioned garb and customs.
But in many ways Mennonites share contemporary modes, conveniences and facilities, and like other churches, their denomination grapples with modern problems of homelessness and poverty and debates such issues as women’s ordination. Despite this, they still are distinctive.
They are one of three major pacifist denominations in the country, along with the Church of the Brethren and the Quakers. They take literally Christ’s admonition to love enemies and not to use violence in resisting violence.
They are also especially close-knit in their congregations, stressing family ties and neighborly cooperation. They avoid sworn oaths, insisting simply on affirming the truth. And they have had a traditional aversion to involvement with government.
“We’re divided on that issue,” Lapp said in an interview. “Some feel we should witness to government when human welfare is at stake. Others say we should stay quieter and separate and not attempt to influence government. We’ve agreed at this point to disagree on that issue.”
That and other separatist tendencies may stem from the early history of Mennonites in the 16th-Century Protestant Reformation, when they were brutally persecuted by both Protestants and Roman Catholics for insisting on adult baptism.
Called Anabaptists for rebaptizing those who had been baptized as infants, about 5,000 Mennonites were slaughtered over a 10-year period in Germany and Switzerland. The denomination withdrew from relations with government, and many of its members fled to other countries.
They first came to America in the colonial period at Germantown, Pa., in 1683, and soon spread to Ohio, Virginia, Indiana, Illinois and farther west. There are now congregations in 42 states. They affirm central Protestant beliefs.
The Mennonite Church, largest of several branches in this country, has about 110,000 members, up 10% in eight years. Other branches bring the total to 380,000 American Mennonites, and there are 900,000 worldwide. California has about 9,500 Mennonites, most of whom belong to the denomination known as the Mennonite Brethren.
Lapp said American Mennonites now include many ethnic groups, with worship in 30 languages and dialects.