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).
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.
Encyclopedia of American Studies, ed. Simon J. Bronner (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), s.v. "Mennonites " (by Mark Metzler Sawin), http://eas-ref.press.jhu.edu/view?aid=836 (accessed May 19, 2015).