Menno Simons. Leipzig 1854. Mennonite teacher holding class in one-room eighth grade school house, Hinkletown, Pennsylvania, March 1942. John Collier, photographer. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Old Mennonite Church, Germantown, Pennsylvania, between 1900 and 1906. Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress. Portland Mennonite Church, Portland, Oregon. 2012. Another Believer, photographer. Wikimedia Commons. Mennonite volunteers from International Falls, Minnesota, help fill sandbags in Moorhead, Minn., following the Red River flooding, March 30, 2009. Andrea Booher, photographer. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Photo Library.

Originating as part of the Swiss Anabaptist movement of 1525, Mennonites are a Christian denomination that emphasizes adult baptism, a nonhierarchical "priesthood of all believers," a strict adherence to nonresistance, and a clear division between church and state. Mennonites take their name from the Dutch priest Menno Simons, who converted to Anabaptism in 1536. They are often associated with the Amish, and the two groups share similar roots, having divided in the 1690s over issues relating to church discipline and the extent to which members should interact with the outside world. Due to religious oppression and a lack of economic opportunity, both groups began emigrating to Pennsylvania in the period 1690 to 1720, and the two communities followed similar settlement patterns, spreading into Ohio and Virginia and then farther west, in pursuit of land for agriculture. A second group of Mennonites that had initially fled to Russia in the seventeenth century began emigrating to the United States during the 1870s, settling primarily in the Midwest and Canada. Though Mennonites have historically descended from Northern European peoples, and in Canada are recognized as a distinct ethnic group, mission efforts by North American Mennonites have resulted in a global Mennonite presence; currently there are groups of Mennonites in several African, Asian, and South American nations as well as among Hispanic, Native American, and African American populations in the United States.

Social Characteristics

American Mennonites have several organizational structures, but congregations remain largely independent and their beliefs and social practices of groups vary widely, ranging from those who maintain distinctive dress, Low German language, the use of horse and buggies, and an avoidance of "worldly" society, to those who largely embrace mainstream culture, technology, and educational and political practices. Despite these differences, Mennonites continue to share core values, including a tight sense of community, a firm belief in pacifism and nonresistance, a commitment to mutual aid, and an emphasis on simplicity and service. These shared values result in Mennonite groups working together in service-oriented organizations including the Mennonite Disaster Service, which provides disaster cleanup and recovery, and the Mennonite Central Committee, which focuses on basic human welfare and working for peace and justice causes.

The largest group of Mennonites in the United States consists of nearly one thousand congregations and over 110,000 members who joined together in 2002 to form the Mennonite Church USA (MCUSA) around a "Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective." This agency merged the culturally distinctive "Mennonite Church," made up of groups originating from the eighteenth-century Swiss-German emigration, and the "General Conference Mennonite Church," consisting primarily of groups that emigrated to the United States from Russia in the late nineteenth century. MCUSA represents the majority of mainstream Mennonite congregations. Those groups that maintain more distinctive, countercultural practices and those that follow fundamentalist and Pentecostal currents have formed separate institutions. MCUSA has four subagencies that oversee missions, publishing, mutual aid (insurance), and education (MCUSA also oversees five denominational colleges/universities and two seminaries).

Cultural Influences

Mennonites have influenced American culture in a variety of ways. In 1832 the Mennonite singing instructor and publisher, Joseph Funk, published A Compilation of Genuine Church Music, that significantly influenced American hymnody, and Mennonites are still celebrated for their four-part a cappella singing tradition. Until the late twentieth century, Mennonites were primarily agrarian, and in the 1870s Ukrainian Mennonites revolutionized Midwestern agriculture by introducing drought-resistant turkey red wheat, which quickly became the region’s major cash crop. Mennonites remain closely associated with food-related businesses, ranging from the ubiquitous farmer's market stands to large-scale food corporations such as Hershey’s, Smucker’s, and Auntie Anne’s Pretzels, and best-selling cookbooks including the sustainability-focused More with Less Cookbook (1976) and the crock-pot-based Fix It and Forget It Cookbook (2001).

After many of their young men were imprisoned for refusing to serve in the armed forces during World War I, Mennonites, along with other historic peace churches, worked to establish conscientious objector status within the U.S. draft code. This resulted in Civilian Public Work camps during World War II and, since 1951, 1-W draft status for conscientious objectors, allowing alternative service assignments. The Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder published The Politics of Jesus in 1972, which heavily influenced theological understandings of Christian pacifism across many denominations; and since the 1970s several Mennonite scholars have pioneered the disciplines of restorative justice (alternative approaches to punishment-based penal systems) and conflict mediation/transformation (nonviolent methods of dealing with conflict). The Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University has been at the forefront of these efforts. Mennonites have also capitalized on their distinctive cultural practices to promote tourism in regions of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana.

Mark Metzler Sawin


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Encyclopedia of American Studies, ed. Simon J. Bronner (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), s.v. "Mennonites " (by Mark Metzler Sawin), (accessed May 2, 2016).

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