What’s a Mennonite?

I wrote the following for a congregational webpage.  It’s a handy quick response to the title question.

Mennonites trace their history back to the radical Protestant Christians of the Reformation period who were known as Anabaptists.  The word ‘Anabaptist’ means “re-baptizer.”  The ancestors of the Mennonites argued that baptism should be reserved for persons old enough to make a conscious decision to follow Jesus.  Since they had generally been baptized as infants in the Catholic Church, when they opted to be baptized again it was a re-baptism.  So others called them Anabaptists, and the name stuck.  The first recorded instance of re-baptisms happened in Switzerland in 1525.

The 16th century Anabaptists (some of whom embraced revolutionary violence) were increasingly seen by others as dangerous outlaws as well as heretics, and they were persecuted by both Catholics and other Protestants.  In the later 1500’s, many of these persecuted Anabaptists were unified under the the leadership of Menno Simons (or “Menno, son of Simon”), who emphasized the importance of rejecting the use of violence as followers of Jesus.  They became known as Mennonites because of Menno’s leadership.  The Amish of today are the descendants of a group that emerged from a schism among Mennonites in the late 1600’s.  Other groups that trace their ancestry to the Anabaptists include the Hutterites and some of the denominations that have “Brethren” in their names (such as The Church of the Brethren).  There are several different varieties of Mennonites, varying in terms of how “conservative” (or “plain”) they are.  I am associated with the most “liberal” group in the U.S., which is called “Mennonite Church USA.”

Many people ask what is distinctive about Mennonites, as opposed to other Christians.  Though not all Mennonites agree on details, here are some general emphases that are still strong in our tradition:

For us, reading, understanding, and applying the Bible is something that we do together as a gathered community of believers, seeking together to be faithful.  We are not told what we should believe and do by a teaching authority, but neither do we see the guidance of the Holy Spirit as mainly an individual matter.  We seek God’s leading together.

We tend to agree with other Christians that individuals are saved (born again), but we are wary of separating this from participation in church (which for us primarily means the visible local gathered congregation, as opposed to the invisible group of all Christians or a denomination).

We have traditionally emphasized that following Jesus is following a way of peace.  This has most often meant a rejection of violence, even to the point of refusing to use force in self-defense.  Here especially Mennonites have not always agreed on how this should be lived out in detail.  But a conviction that Jesus commanded us not to resist evil by violent means is still widely held among us.

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