'Near Zurich' - by Matthaus Merian (1593-1650)

VIII.   The Mennonites

The Mennonites are a Christian group based around the church communities of Anabaptist denominations named after Menno Simons.  Through his writings, Simons articulated and formalized the teachings of earlier Swiss founders.  The teachings of the Mennonites were founded on their belief in both the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ, which they held to with great conviction despite persecution by the various Roman Catholic and Protestant states.  Rather than fight, the majority survived by fleeing to neighboring states where ruling families were tolerant of their radical belief in believer’s baptism.  Over the years, Mennonites have become known as one of the historic peace churches because of their commitment to pacifism.

The Anabaptists themselves did not use a common name.  Typically, the name ‘anabaptist’ originally was used as a term of derision by detractors and critics of the time.  They were not a unified organized movement, although the Swiss-South German, Dutch-North German, and Hutterite wings were soon separately organized and disciplined. Their most common self-designation was Brüder, or “Brethren.”  Because of the strong leadership of Jakob Hutter (d. 1535) among the Moravian Anabaptists, who adopted a community of goods, this group was soon called “Hutterisch” or the “Hutterian Brethren,” while the non-communist group being originally of Swiss origin was called “Swiss Brethren,” even though they lived in many places outside of Switzerland such as the lower Rhine region.  In Holland after 1545 the group came to be called “Mennists” after Menno Simons, a name which gradually developed into “Mennonist” and then “Mennonit,” although early in the 17th century “Doopsgezind” (German, “Taufgesinnt”) came into use in Holland and ultimately superseded “Mennonit.”

Mennonite theology emphasizes the primacy of the teachings of Jesus as recorded in New Testament scripture. They hold in common the ideal of a religious community based on New Testament models and imbued with the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount. Their core beliefs deriving from Anabaptist traditions are:

  • Salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.
  • The authority of scripture and the Holy Spirit.
  • Believer’s baptism understood as threefold: Baptism by the spirit (internal change of heart), baptism by water (public demonstration of witness), and baptism by blood (martyrdom and asceticism or the practice of strict self-denial as a measure of personal and especially spiritual discipline).
  • Discipleship understood as an outward sign of an inward change.
  • Discipline in the church, informed by New Testament teachings, particularly of Jesus (for example Matthew 18:15–18). Some Mennonite churches practice the Meidung (shunning or excommunication).  This was intended to insure that the Brethren or Mennonite church remained a voluntary religion or true believers.
  • The Lord’s Supper understood as a memorial rather than as a sacrament or Christian rite, ideally shared by baptized believers within the unity and discipline of the church.

One of the earliest expressions of Mennonite faith was the Schleitheim Confession, adopted on February 24, 1527. Its seven articles covered:

  • The Ban (excommunication)
  • Breaking of bread (Communion)
  • Separation from and shunning of the abomination (the Roman Catholic Church and other “worldly” groups and practices)
  • Believer’s baptism
  • Pastors in the church
  • Renunciation of the sword (Christian pacifism)
  • Renunciation of the oath (swearing as proof of truth)

The Dordrecht Confession of Faith was adopted on April 21, 1632, by Dutch Mennonites, by Alsatian Mennonites in 1660, and by North American Mennonites in 1725.  There is no official creed or catechism of which acceptance is required by congregations or members.  However, there are structures and traditions taught as in the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective of Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA.

Next:  IX. The Earliest Brubakers and Anabaptist Persecution

1.In connection with the Lord’s Supper, some Mennonites practice feet washing as a continuing outer sign of humility within the church. Feet washing was not originally an Anabaptist practice. Pilgram Marpeck before 1556 included it, and it became widespread in the late 1500s and the 1600s. Today it is practiced by some as a memorial sacrament, in memory of Christ washing the feet of his disciples as recorded in the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of John.

1. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online Anabaptism
2. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online Historic Peace Churches
3. Swiss Mennonite.org Swiss Mennonite History