Monday, October 3, 2011

Mennonites and Amish—Ten Myths and Misbeliefs

1. Aren't Mennonites just a more progressive group of Amish?  No, “Anabaptists,” not Amish, are the ancestors of today’s Mennonites. Anabaptists emerged in western Europe in 1525, nearly 150 years before Jacob Amman and his Amish branch of the movement. Anabaptists advocated a “free church” based on voluntary baptism and church membership. While supporting many of the reforms of Martin Luther in Germany and Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin in Switzerland, they promoted what was then the radical belief in complete freedom of religion, and were against requiring membership in any established state church, either Protestant or Catholic. They saw mandatory infant baptism, which in those days registered children as both members of the church and citizens of the state, as violating the freedom of individuals to choose faith for themselves.

2. Does the term “Anabaptist” mean “anti-baptist”? No, Anabaptist was the nickname given to all “free church” dissenters, and means “re-baptizer.”  Early Mennonites tended to reject the term, as it identified them with a despised and diverse movement which included a small minority that did advocate violent revolution.

3. Was the name “Mennonite” chosen to honor Menno Simons as its founder? 
No, the peaceful Anabaptists preferred simply being called “Brethren” (well before  the beginning of the “Church of the Brethren,” founded in 1704). Mennonite” was first a nickname but one that eventually gained acceptance some years after ex-Catholic priest Menno Simons of Friesland joined the movement in 1535, ten years after it had begun in Switzerland. So Menno was not its “founder,” but the group became identified with him as one of its most influential and long-lived leaders.

4. Have Mennonites always been quiet and withdrawn? Anabaptists were at first very outspoken in their attempts to bring about more radical reform in the church, but after being rejected and severely persecuted over the first 150 years of their existence (by Protestant as well as Roman Catholic authorities) later generations did become known as “the quiet in the land.” The deaths and suffering of thousands of early free church proponents led many Mennonites and Amish to seek asylum in the new world.

5. Why have the “plain” Mennonites and Amish maintained such a distinctive culture? While they have always stressed living simply and modestly, early members of the movement dressed no differently from any other 16th and 17th century European peasants. What makes their way of life distinctive today is how and to what extent they have successfully preserved and adapted certain existing patterns of attire from their European past.

6. Could Old Order and conservative Mennonites and Amish be considered cults? No, in that their confessions of faith are very much in line with traditional Christian creeds. Where they differ is in how they apply their faith to everyday life. For example, most of them (plain and otherwise) have maintained their nearly 500-year conviction that Christian should not take part in harming or killing others, even in war, and that the church should use no stronger form of coercion or discipline than excommunication. They have also traditionally been committed to living a simple, self-disciplined life, attempting to follow the example and teachings of Christ and his early followers. Thus they resemble monastic communities more than cults, and some early Anabaptists were in fact influenced by monasticism. Unfortunately, groups that are serious about not being “conformed to the world” are also often prone to dissent and division within their ranks, hence the unfortunate number of divisions.

7. Doesn’t it take dictator-style leaders to keep members of more conservative (“plain”) Amish and Mennonites in line? Contra-cultural patterns of appearance and behavior are preserved primarily by the influence of strong, nurturing families and through close ties to caring faith communities. Amish and “plain” Mennonites actually have less hierarchical forms of church government than do most denominations, and their ministers are typically unpaid persons chosen by “lot” from their own congregations.

8. Don’t most young people in more conservative churches grow up wanting to rebel and leave their faith? Some do, of course, but larger numbers are staying than ever, resulting in “plain” churches being among the fastest growing Mennonite groups in the US, soon to outnumber their more progressive Mennonite cousins.

9. Are most Mennonites in the Shenandoah Valley members of the more conservative groups? No. While Old Order Mennonites are the fastest growing and most visible group, their total numbers in this area are under 1500, while there are some 4000 Valley members of the more “liberal” Virginia Mennonite Conference, a part of the Mennonite Church USA (as is Eastern Mennonite University).

10. Are most of the world’s Mennonites found in North America and Europe? No longer. As a result of mission efforts by more progressive evangelical Mennonite groups, there are now far more Mennonites in Africa, Central and South America, and Asia than in the US and Canada. This is not true of Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonites, however, since they do not actively evangelize or proselytize others, but they will accept outsiders as members if they are willing to commit to their way of life.
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