What are Mennonites? According to John Oliver of The Daily Show they are Diet Amish. Statistically the risk of your child being born Mennonite is doubling every three years, but it’s not a birth defect, either. Globally, the average Mennonite is a woman, and black. There’s probably no “Denomination” as impossible to define.
They descend from a hodgepodge of “stick it to the man” groups in the 16th Century called Anabaptists. One of the favorite ways to rebel was to stop attending State Sponsored Churches, paying tithes and fees, and best of all, not baptizing your babies which totally screwed up the Government because they relied on the Church to sort out property ownership, inheritance and taxation through the strength of eternal damnation.
Out of this sometimes sordid mess a few organized groups emerged with effective leaders. Among them were Hutterites (communists), Mennonites (socialists) and later Amish (socialist cult) and Dunkers (the donut pietist).
The Hapsburg method of population management ( such as moving Muslims to Europe as a buffer against Invasion – it quit working in Sarajevo just 30 years ago) didn’t have an effect on Mennonites because they would not fight or politic and took being killed as a matter of necessity for conscience.
William Penn invited some persecuted Mennonites from what’s now France and Switzerland to settle Pennsylvania, and later Catherine the Great a clever Woman who learned from her Hapsburg ancestors invited persecuted Polish Mennonites to settle her New Territory to create a buffer between her and the ancient tribes that raised from The Caucuses. This huge distance produced two distinct types of Mennonites both of which mainly survive in North America today. Mennonite Brethren (Russian) and Mennonite (Pennsylvania).
In colonial America Mennonites tended to be fairly liberal compared to other denominations. Few were closely attached to a church, freely moving and settling, forming new little congregations content to meet for Church whenever a Preacher could come visit. Lutherans and Reformed folks tended to form new settlements with the hierarchy of Church in place. This informal approach was the essence of Liberty of Conscience that was central to Mennonite belief. There were a few rules they agreed upon such as a horrified and strict prohibition against slavery not surprising from a group that arose in protest of feudalisms child, guild enforced class inequality.
The Mennonite Church didn’t grow very fast as many members aligned with other, more organized groups and more disciplined denominations. In response to the need to supply preachers and discipline to congregations they formed District alliances that soon became conferences with a group of elders administering to a larger pool of congregations.
These elders became powerful and at the same time the institutions became more effective because of co- operation. Then along came the great revivals and Mennonites left in droves to the new “Spiritual” churches. The Mennonites decided to adjust. Maybe have revival meetings, or Sunday School on the weeks they didn’t have church. (The practice of church twice a month is still around!) Of course some folks loved this, some hated it. So, they went two ways. The ones that hated it are Old Order Mennonites. There are now all kinds of Old Orders but to be simple we will say Old Orders drive horse and buggy, even though many drive cars. Same thing happened with English language church services, cars, etc.
During this wreck, a lawyer called Daniel Kauffman became a Mennonite. He was dumbfounded that although Mennonites knew what they believe, no one was an authority and there was no concise set of doctrine. So lawyers being lawyers, he introduced legalism to Mennonites in the form of a book called Doctrines of the Bible. This legalism, coupled with the fancy new fundamentalism took off in the church. George Brunk was sure that the way to fight modernism was uniformity in every aspect of life. The new doctrines book said it was a sacrament for a woman to cover her head, fundamentalism said it must be covered at all times, Brunk said it must be covered this one way.
In 1921 all the bishops from all the districts wrote a rule book saying how it’s going to be from now on. Men wear a certain suit and hat. Women wear a certain style dress and bonnet. Some said hell naw and the Brethren in Christ denomination snagged them with its No Written Creed and became the big little sister denomination.
The rest of the Mennonite Church plugged along. They sent missionaries to Africa and India, founded schools and hospitals in those countries. They sent young folks to Europe to aid the poor refugees after the war. All these folks came back and said “That Bonnet Rule? Kinda unnecessary and unrealistic.” The Church said Ooookaaay but just save souls.
And the legalists said Hell Naw and became Conservative Mennonites. They said the bishops and institutions were weak, that they’d not have them. Each church on its own- and we are going back to the truth. But they didn’t go to the Bible, or to the Anabaptist theology. They went to the legalist playbook, Kauffmans Doctrines of the Bible. Then they added rules. No TV, No Musical Instruments. No radio (and some said Hell Naw and became unaffiliated and kept their music). They added more rules. And I’m not joking here. Wristwatches shall be worn with black bands. Print on a dress must be under 3/4 inch (and some said Hell Naw and only wore dresses in solid colors and took over the Conservative moniker so the rest called themselves fellowships and brotherhoods) dresses must reach halfway between the knee and ankle, cars must be black, no luxury models, they even specified the maximum collar height for a woman’s dress. 3/8 inch where I grew up.
The Fellowships figured out that the people who couldn’t follow their rules were educated so they quickly produced curriculum for their schools. There was nothing wrong with what they taught, but they skipped a lot of stuff like critical thinking, arts and literature. Within 30 years they successfully became a superstitious and ignorant cult.
They began ordaining leaders who were poorly educated and a product of a paranoid Christianity. Even though I find it incumbent for an adult to inform themselves, I have pity on these fellows. Cowed by domineering old folks they ruled against anything young. They beat their congregations into submission with incessant bullying and threats of ostracism. If a guy’s suit was the wrong shade of grey, he couldn’t ask that girl out on a date until he’d repented and bought another one. Yep. No dating unless your lined up right. There was rampant physical, emotional, spiritual and sexual abuse and the poor young pastors were completely unequipped to deal with it. The old men hated that their grand conservative proof blew up in their faces so they excommunicated mouths instead of sin. They expelled the minds that investigated. They punished parents whose children didn’t conform.
They told my parents that I left because they had let me read books.
I’ll get to the bread recipes and lovely singing later.
I read books, and that’s why I couldn’t be a Conservative Mennonite. Their words.
Actually I left because I was in a dysfunctional family with an abusive father and the Church failed to provide the Pastoral care for us that it should have.
Not all Mennonites try to be close minded cults. There are Conservative Mennonites with denominational checks and balances and conferences to assist with Pastoral care and discipline. Within those groups that are Fellowships are bright shining lights of Christians. Kind and compassionate people abound. I can assure you they are rebels.