A Brief History of the Mennonite Church
Luther, Zwingli, and others led their movements away from Catholicism, many practices were changed; but infant baptism, the accepted mode for most of Christian history, was not. Baptizing only adults — that is, people who chose to be baptized — was a radical idea that cut at the heart of both church and state. Yet it was just one of many revolutionary ideas typical of a diverse group called Anabaptists. Their movement is also known as the Radical Reformation, and from this movement several denominations grew – Baptists, Mennonite, Brethren, etc.
Under Ulrich Zwingli and the city council in Zurich, the Reformation was proceeding. But other associates of Zwingli didn’t feel the Reformation was going far enough, they wanted to do away with the tithe, usury, and military service. Further, some of these radicals wanted a totally self-governing church, free of government interference.
Zwingli, who wanted gradual, orderly change, parted ways with them. On January 21, 1525, the Zurich council forbade the radicals from disseminating their views. That wintry evening, in a nearby village, the radicals met—and baptized each other. The name Anabaptist, meaning “rebaptizer,” was later given them by detractors.
Except for Holland, the European countries hadn’t learn tolerance for any other faith than Catholicism, nor the tolerance needed that would one day give the Anabaptists freedom of conscience.
Prior to, and during Menno Simons time, there were Swiss Brothers and Sisters who felt and believed the same way. The earliest Swiss Reformation was led by such men as Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and George Blaurock. These men had read the New Testament and like Menno Simons, had learned that it applied directly to everyday life.
At the same time the Swiss Anabaptists were having issues with the State Church, Menno Simons (ca 1496-1561) rose to become the leader of the Anabaptist movement of the Low Countries (the Netherlands), but he was not the founder of the movement. He became the leader after the movement had been in existence for a number of years and at a crucial moment when the movement was in danger of losing its original identity from chiliastic and revolutionary leaders who were succeeding in winning followers in large numbers.
In 1524 at the age of 28, Menno was ordained priest at Utrecht. His first parish was Pingjum near Witmarsum, where he served as a vicar, with two colleagues. In his writings it appeared that that he was not overly convinced of the sacredness of his duties. He stated that that he joined his fellow priests in “playing cards, drinking. . . .”. During his first year he suddenly became frightened. While administering the Mass, he began to doubt whether the bread and wine were actually being changed into the flesh and blood of Christ. For two years he was tormented by his doubts and fervently searched the Bible for help. Reading the scriptures, he found that the Sacraments were symbolic, now he was torn between the Bible and the church. Influenced by Luther’s writings that taught the Scriptures should have first place, the Bible became the authority and source of his sermons. He became known as the “evangelical preacher”, and he place the Scriptures above the authority of the church. [i]
He, like the others, taught that only adults who voluntarily committed their lives to following Christ should be baptized, so they baptized again those who had received baptism as infants in the state church. Since the Church and State were one, rebaptism was looked upon as treason. Thus they earned a second name: “Anabaptists” (“ana” meaning “re” in Greek, as in “re-baptizers”). They taught that followers of Christ should live simply and follow the commands of Jesus in the New Testament—even the hard stuff, like turning the other cheek and loving enemies, thus they refused to participate in warfare. Nor did they believe that the State should get involved with the affairs of the Church.
It didn’t matter whether the Government was Catholic or Protestant, either one could be just as intolerant. The Swiss Reformed clergy and officials were the very fiercest of their tormentors going as far as public beheading the main leader of the Zurich Anabaptist and putting his son in prison where in died. In spite of persecution, Mennonites sought to help others. Menno taught that “true evangelical faith cannot lie dormant. It clothes the naked, it feeds the hungry, it comforts the sorrowful, it shelters the destitute, it serves those that harm it, it binds up that which is wounded, it has become all things to all people.”
Because of the persecution in Switzerland, reluctantly and quietly, the Bernese Anabaptists left their homes, their farms, in the foothills of the Alps, vanishing to reappear by 1650 on the records as renters of the war wasted Palatine in Germany all around the Rhine river, Here the Anabaptist, the “rebaptisers”, took on the name “Menists” Besides Adult Baptisms, the Mennonites also felt that life can be lived simply, following the Jesus-way in lifestyle and in service and that the way of reconciling love in human conflicts and warfare in a non-defensive and non-resistant way.
These Dutch and Swiss-German Mennonites, as the term “Menists” would evolve into, after hearing William Penn’s agents telling them of a New Land across the sea, a land where they could own their own property, and worship the Lord as they saw fit, began emigrating to the New World – the American colonies. The Dutch arriving as early as 1683, the Swiss German, about 1707, entered the American Colonies at the Port of Philadelphia.
They moved out to Germantown, which then was a part of Philadelphia County, but not part of the city proper, which Germantown is currently. Eventually they moved to Van Bebber’s township, now in the general area of Skippack, PA, while others moved west and settled in an area that became Lancaster County. Following the American Revolution, some would move to Canada, because they had taken an oath of loyalty to the King of England and felt it wrong to break that oath for, and to, the new Government.
They would continue to come to America, from Europe, from Russia , settling in rural communities across the continent – In Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, from Kansas to Oregon and Washington State, into Canada and several Provinces there.
Today you will not find a listing for “Churches-Anabaptist” in your local phone books. You would probably find listings for their descendants — Mennonite and Brethren churches, for example. There are hundreds of such churches in the U.S. and in the world. Though small in numbers compared with, say, Baptists or Methodists, their influence has been great, particularly in the areas of pacifism, community, and service.
Currently there are over one million members world-wide in over 60 countries covering a wide variety of people, professions, and practices. The greatest concentrations of Mennonites can be found in Congo and Ethiopia. Both countries have larger Mennonite populations than the US, which has around 240,000 members spread across a number of denominations. The essence of Mennonite belief is that we all need to follow Jesus in our daily lives and that it is a “relationship” with the Savior and not a “religion”.
[i] MLA style: Krahn, Cornelius and Cornelius J. Dyck. “Menno Simons (1496-1561).” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 27 September 2012. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/M4636ME.html.