Mennonites were a Christian group named after Menno Simons (1496–1561), a Dutch priest. During the Protestant REFORMATION, groups in Switzerland and the Netherlands came to reject the practice of infant BAPTISM.
They believed that only persons who were able to attest to their FAITH should be baptized and that people who had been baptized as infants should be baptized again. As a result, they were known as Anabaptists, “re-baptizers.” Some of the earliest Anabaptists used force in trying to order society in accordance with GOD’s commands. But by 1535 their attempts had failed. Ever since then Anabaptists have followed Menno Simons in advocating a strict separation of church and state. They are now known as Mennonites.
From the 17th to the 19th centuries, many Mennonite groups immigrated to the United States and Canada. The earliest immigrants were important in the settlement of Pennsylvania. Perhaps the best known group is an offshoot called the AMISH. They separated from other Mennonites in the 1690s. At issue was how to enforce the community’s discipline or way of life. The Amish believe that those who violate the discipline should be shunned, in other words, totally avoided. Other Mennonites ﬁ nd this penalty too harsh. Today, other subtle differences also separate the Old Order Amish from the “plain” or most traditional Mennonites. For example, even plain Mennonites allow buttons on clothing; the Old Order Amish allow only hookand-eye fasteners.
Although Mennonites have drawn up statements of belief, they recognize the B IBLE as the only authority. Mennonite WORSHIP services tend to be simple, emphasizing reading from the Bible, preaching, and congregational singing. Mennonites sometimes celebrate the E UCHARIST or communion in the context of a “love feast.” This involves not only eating and drinking but also washing one another’s feet in imitation of J ESUS at his last supper.
In accordance with a teaching in the N EW TESTAMENT, Mennonites have deliberately tried not to conform to the ways of the world. For some, but only for some, that has meant a rejection of modern dress and conveniences. For example, “black bumper Mennonites” have black cars with no chrome. Most Mennonites, however, nurture a life-style of simplicity and discipleship while wearing contemporary clothing and using modern conveniences.
From the 1530s on, Mennonites have refused to carry arms, hold public ofﬁ ce, and take oaths. That behavior has caused various governments to question their loyalty. But the tradition of paciﬁ sm and, more broadly, the desire to put the teachings of Jesus into practice have given Mennonites a well-developed social conscience. Unlike some liberal branches of North American PROTESTANTISM, Mennonites have not generally tried to reform society. Instead, they have been extremely active in disaster relief, in promoting world peace, and in fostering economic development, especially among indigenous Americans and people living in the Third World. The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), founded in 1920, coordinates these efforts for the Mennonite and Brethren churches in North America. (The Brethren are similar to the Mennonites but have a different history.) At the beginning of the 21st century the MCC was active in more than 50 countries worldwide as well as in the United States and Canada.