What's a Mennonite? (According to an Ex-Mennonite)
Mennonites are an Anabaptist denomination of Christianity that dates back to the 1500s. They're characterized by their beliefs in pacifism, self-awareness, accountability, forgiveness, and adult-aged baptism (as opposed to baptism at birth).
Mennonites are named for their founder, Menno Simons, who was a Catholic priest by career. Later in life, he broke with the Catholic Church when they killed his brother. Following his brother's death, he joined the Anabaptist movement.
Then, when the Anabaptists still wanted to fight the Catholics, Simons broke with them and gathered his own following, which emphasized peaceful living — even in the face of violence.
In this blog, we'll talk about:
- How Mennonites started
- Menno Simons's legacy
- Modern Mennonite beliefs & subdivisions
- What makes a Mennonite?
To start, let's talk about how the Mennonite faith was founded.
1. How Mennonites Started
In 1496, a Dutch child named Menno Simons was born into the tiny town of Witmarsum in the Holland, though at that time it was part of the Holy Roman Empire.
Menno Simons' childhood was fraught with war, and he grew up in a poor peasant family with his father and brother, Pieter. Somewhere along the line, Menno learned to speak Latin and some Greek before deciding to join the Catholic priesthood.
Around 1515, Menno Simons was ordained as a full Catholic priest. It was during this time that he studied the Bible in microscopic detail and believed that the concept of infant baptism was not present.
Menno Simons was vocal with his superiors about questioning infant baptism, and he even went so far as to read the works of Martin Luther and other Reformation contemporaries.
He then met Anabaptists for the first time, who preached about a "believer's baptism" that required someone to make the choice to be baptized — not to be baptized as an infant.
Menno Simons originally regarded Anabaptists as misled extremists, but they had a profoundly stronger impact on his brother Pieter.
Pieter joined the Anabaptist movement, which had gained significant momentum in Holland, which was being persecuted by the dominant Catholic state.
Anabaptists refused to go quietly, and violence frequently broke out between them and and Catholics. On March 30, 1535, a group of Anabaptists stormed the Catholic monastery called Oldeklooster and killed many of priests living there. Jan van Geelen led the group in an effort to use the monastery as a strategic location from which they could make an earnest fight against the Catholics to gain control of their section of Holland.
Pieter was with them.
When the Roman Catholics responded, the Anabaptists continued to fight. The siege of the monastery lasted for about a week, during which time 300 Anabaptists were killed. Afterward, 37 were beheaded, 132 taken to a nearby town, and 55 more were executed following trial.
Jan van Geelen escaped. Pieter Simons didn't.
Hearing of his brother's death, Menno Simons renounced his priesthood and the Catholic Church on January 12, 1536. He joined the Anabaptists, received his baptism, and began learning from pacifist reformer Melchior Hoffman.
During this time, Menno Simons came to embrace the idea of pacifism as an alternative to the violence that took his brother's life. He also began writing and preaching about the importance of baptism by repentance — the process of earning your baptism by recognizing your past sins and committing to improving yourself — and a separation from the world.
Because of his learned abilities to write and preach, Menno Simons became an influential face in the Reformation. He earned a modest following that continued to grow after his death called the Dutch Anabaptists.
Today, they call themselves Mennonites.
2. Menno Simons's Legacy
Menno Simons differentiated himself from his contemporaries of the Reformation by focusing on a handful of key factors that would come to define the Mennonite belief structure.
These beliefs include:
- Adult baptism
- Church & state separation
- "Marriage" of church and Jesus
We'll go through a quick overview of each of these beliefs, as they're still important today.
Adult baptism is the cornerstone of all Anabaptist belief structures. This is the fundamental way that Anabaptist denominations like Mennonites differ from Catholics and Protestants.
Following the death of his brother Pieter, Menno Simons fully embraced the concepts of non-violence and peace. There was also scriptural support for these ideals in the New Testament, but it's easy to imagine how the death of Menno's only brother could so deeply shape his beliefs.
Asceticism is the idea that enlightenment comes from depriving yourself of sensory input, including all forms of earthly pleasure. This belief is common across many Christian denominations, and you'll also find it in Buddhist teachings as well (among others).
In short, Menno Simons did not support asceticism. Despite the conservative lifestyle that many Mennonites exhibit today, their founder preached about faith through social relations in a community that was removed from the workings of the world at large.
In a nutshell, Menno Simons supported the notion of excommunication. His ideals stressed the importance of the church handling the church's business while the state stayed separate.
Simons didn't support any form of physical punishment in conjunction with excommunication — he simply believed church membership should be revoked from those who have egregiously sinned.
Today, this practice is called "shunning," and it's practiced more commonly by the Amish than the Mennonites.
Church & State Separation
The separation of church and state is an idea that pre-dates America by more than 1,000 years.
Menno Simons supported this separation on the basis of the scripture Matthew 21:12:
Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's; render unto God what is God's.
"Marriage" of Church & Jesus
Menno Simons's ultimate goal was to create a church that acted as the bride of Christ.
Typically, this kind of imagery is reserved for nuns.
In Simons's case, it referred to the church coming to Christ in a supportive, subservient, and loving way that would allow Christ to work through the church.
This interpretation of marriage was based on the social norms of the time, and needless to say, it's now significantly dated to the point of blatant sexism.
3. Modern Mennonite Beliefs & Subdivisions
Today, there's no "governing" body of Mennonites as there is a governing body of Catholics in the Vatican. The closest thing is the Mennonite World Conference, which is an affiliation of different member churches who choose to engage with one another in a multi-denominational capacity.
If that sounds complicated, that's because it is. While there are more than 2 million Mennonites worldwide — which is a lot, all things considered — there have been multiple schisms in the Mennonite faith that have led to more than a dozen sub-sects.
This includes the Amish, who were formed more than a century after Mennonites; Old Order Mennonites, who broke away from the Amish; Conservative Mennonites, who are slightly more modernistic in their views than Old Order; Russian Mennonites; Dutch Mennonites; American Mennonites; Hutterites; and more.
Still, Mennonite churches generally agree on a few basic principles:
- Pacifism (though military service is not explicitly condemned)
- Adult baptism
Generally speaking, these cover the areas of agreement that most Mennonites have.
There are many areas where Mennonite churches do not agree — even with the Mennonite World Conference. These include the acceptance of LGBTQA+ individuals, divorce, and more.
4. What Makes a Mennonite?
On the whole, Mennonites don't make a big "fuss" out of membership requirements in churches or the Mennonite World Conference.
Instead, the concept of being a "Mennonite" can be up to a person's own interpretation of their identity — just like someone choosing to be an ex-Mennonite.
The hallmark of a Mennonite is their baptism. But, again, this can be renounced in an unofficial capacity as someone leaves their associated church or the denomination entirely.
To learn what makes a Mennonite, you'll have to ask each Mennonite.
And they'll each probably have a different story.
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