Mennonite history is a story of persecution and resettlement, rifts and rethinking. What started as a tiny band of radicals in the wake of the Protestant Reformation has grown to over one million members today, scattered all over the globe.
The roots of this faith were in the Anabaptist movement, a group of people around Zurich, Switzerland, so-called because they baptized adult believers (baptized again). Right from their beginning, they were attacked by state-sanctioned churches.
Mennonite History in Europe
One of the great reformers of the church in Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli, did not go far enough for a small group called the Swiss Brethren. They wanted to do away with the Catholic mass, baptize adults only, start a free church of voluntary believers, and promote pacifism. Zwingli debated with these Brethren before the Zurich city council in 1525. When the 15 Brethren could get no concessions, they formed their own church.
The Swiss Brethren, led by Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and Wilhelm Reublin was one of the first Anabaptist groups. Persecution of the Anabaptists drove them from one European province to another. In the Netherlands they encountered a Catholic priest and natural leader named Menno Simons.
Menno appreciated the Anabaptist doctrine of adult baptism but was reluctant to join the movement. When the religious persecution resulted in the death of his brother and another man whose only "crime" was to be rebaptized, Menno left the Catholic church and joined the Anabaptists, about 1536.
He became a leader in this church, which eventually came to be called Mennonites, after him. Until his death 25 years later, Menno traveled throughout the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Germany as a hunted man, preaching nonviolence, adult baptism, and faithfulness to the Bible.
In 1693, a split from the Mennonite church resulted in the formation of the Amish church. Often confused with Mennonites, the Amish felt the movement should be separate from the world and that shunning should be used more as a disciplinary tool. They took their name from their leader, Jakob Ammann, a Swiss Anabaptist.
Both the Mennonites and Amish suffered constant persecution in Europe. To escape it, they fled to America.
Mennonite History in America
At the invitation of William Penn, many Mennonite families left Europe and resettled in his American colony of Pennsylvania. There, finally free from religious persecution, they thrived. Eventually they migrated to the midwestern states, where large Mennonite populations can be found today.
In this new land, some Mennonites found the old ways too restrictive. John H. Oberholtzer, a Mennonite minister, broke with the established church and started a new eastern district conference in 1847 and a new general conference in 1860. Other schisms followed, from 1872 to 1901.
Most notably, four groups split off because they wanted to keep plain dress, live separately from the world, and observe stricter rules. They were in Indiana and Ohio; Ontario, Canada; Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; and Rockingham County, Virginia. They became known as Old Order Mennonites. Today, these four groups combined number about 20,000 members in 150 congregations.
Mennonites who immigrated to Kansas from Russia formed yet another group, called the Mennonite Brethren. Their introduction of a hardy strain of winter wheat, which was planted in the fall, revolutionized farming in Kansas, turning that state into a major grain producer.
An odd unifying factor for American Mennonites was their belief in nonviolence and aversion to serving in the military. By banding together with Quakers and Brethren, they got conscientious objector laws passed during World War II which allowed them to serve in Civilian Public Service camps instead of the military.
Mennonites were brought back together when the General Conference and Old Order Mennonites voted to unite their seminaries. In 2002 the two denominations formally merged to become the Mennonite Church USA. The Canadian merger is called Mennonite Church Canada.