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All the Mennonite immigrants to North America, except a very few from France in the late 19th century, were German-speaking when they came, and accordingly established their worship in the German language. The English edition of the Dordrecht Confession, published in 1712 in Amsterdam and in 1727 at Philadelphia by the Pennsylvania Mennonites, is no exception to this, for it was published for the sake of the English-speaking public of the region in which they settled. German hymnbooks, prayer books, catechisms, and devotional books were used exclusively until well into the 19th century. In the Mennonite congregations and groups established before the 1874-1880 immigration from Russia the definite changeover from German to English did not begin until the last quarter of the 19th century. The change came first in Virginia, where the Dordrecht Confession in English was published in 1810, and the first English Mennonite hymnbook in 1847, the latter antedating the next one, published at Elkhart in 1880, by 33 years. The small Reformed Mennonite group also issued an English hymnbook in 1847 at Lancaster and apparently shifted early into English; Herr’s first book appeared in an English translation as early as 1816. The first English church paper was the Herald of Truth (Mennonite Church) at Chicago (1864), later Elkhart, but the German counterpart, Herold der Wahrheit, continued publication until 1902. The next English church organ was the Gospel Banner (Mennonite Brethren in Christ) 1878, followed by the Mennonite (General Conference Mennonite) 1885. The Words of Cheer (Mennonite Church), a children’s Sunday-school paper, appeared only in English, beginning in 1876.

The first English catechism edition was that of 1849, published by the Oberholtzer (General Conference Mennonite Church) group, but not reprinted until 1874 (Elkhart, MC). The popular Gemüthsgespräch did not come out in English until 1857 at Lancaster. Both of these catechisms are still being printed in German. The prayer book Ernsthafte Christenpflicht has never been translated into English. English editions of other European Mennonite works appeared as follows: Martyrs' Mirror 1837 at Lancaster, 1886 at Elkhart; Dordrecht Confession 1811 at Niagara, Ontario, 1814 at Doylestown, Pennsylvania; Schabalie’s Wandering Soul 1834 at Carlisle, Pennsylvania; Menno SimonsFoundation Book (John Herr edition) 1835 at Lancaster; Menno’s Complete Works 1881 at Elkhart. All of these had prior German editions in America. The first original book or pamphlet publication in English was A. Gottschall’s Description of the New Creature of 1838, which appeared simultaneously in both languages at Doylestown. The next such work was an English edition of Heinrich Funk’s Spiegel der Taufe in Virginia in 1851, reprinted in 1853 at Skippack, Pennsylvania The Lancaster meeting calendar appeared in English as early as 1854. Only scattered English pamphlets appeared before 1880. In that year John F. Funk began the publication of Sunday-school helps in English (also German); the Sunday school no doubt contributed greatly to the use of English. The real change to English came with authors who wrote only in that language, the first of these being Daniel Kauffman (Mennonite Church), with his first book in 1898, A Manual of Bible Doctrines. J. S. Coffman, then president of the Elkhart Institute board, stated in his dedication address for the Institute building at Elkhart in 1896: “Here we are at an epoch that marks a transition period in our beloved brotherhood. It is really a final crossing over a large body of our people, the way having been gradually prepared, from the German language into the language of the country.” The turn of the century was the pivot of the language change, although the use of German tapered off gradually. In many congregations some German preaching continued until World War I (1914-1918). In the transition period 1875-1900 preachers were often ordained specifically to preach English alongside of the regular German preaching of the older ministers. German Sunday-school classes have persisted longer particularly in those congregations with an Amish background. The Church and Sunday School Hymnal (Mennonite Church) of 1902 had a German appendix, and a special edition of the Church Hymnal, Mennonite, of 1927, with a German appendix, was prepared for the Franconia Conference, where the use of German has persisted longer than in any other section of the Mennonite Church (Mennonite Church). The priority of German in the General Conference Mennonite Church in the third quarter of the 19th century is evidenced by the fact that the Wadsworth School for the training of ministers (1868-78), in existence six years before the Russian immigration, imported its chief teacher from Germany and conducted all its work in German.

In the communities established by the immigrants from Russia 1874-1880 the change to the English language came a generation later. World War I forced the change in many places because of the severe stigma placed upon the German language; even the label “pro-German” and “traitors” was tagged on its users. In some communities the use of German in public was even forbidden. Some congregations hastily shifted to English for their main worship services. By 1920-1925 the change was relatively complete in the United States except for the Old Order Amish and Hutterites. The Mennonite Brethren in Christ used English primarily from the beginning in 1874, although some German was also used, as is evident from the fact that their organ, the Gospel Banner, had a German edition 1880-1895, and a few disciplines were printed in German in the early days.

In Canada the matter was quite different. In the 1950s all the Russian immigrant communities maintain German as the primary language in church life, both in worship and in official conference proceedings. The arrival of 20,000 immigrants from Russia in 1922-1925, and 7,000 again in 1948-52, further fastened the German and delayed the change to English. The only exception to the above during the 1950s was the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite (CGC), which has moved far into English. There is scarcely a congregation in any other group of Russian background, except the Bethel Mission (General Conference Mennonite) in Winnipeg, and certain of the Kleine Gemeinde (EM), which used English in its main worship service in 1954. The two Bible Colleges in Winnipeg still used German as the major language of instruction. The fear, however, of the loss of German led to the organization of a special intergroup Mennonite organization in Manitoba for the retention of the German language, a sign that the forces working for the change to English were more powerful than appeared on the surface. The Mennonite Church (Mennonite Church) in Canada followed the pattern of that group in the U.S.A.

The difficulties for a religious group in a language transition are many and complicated. The older generation has real difficulty in providing religious literature with its own emphasis in the new language. It is difficult to man schools in what is a foreign language. For a time the use of the former or mother language is almost inevitable. Deep feeling of reality and loyalty attach to old vocabularies, and the prestige of the older generation is at stake, so that there is danger of real loss of religious values.

On the other hand the German-English problem has been the cause of serious damage to the Mennonite brotherhood in North America. Many young people have been alienated from the church because of the delay in the change, while others who have remained in the church have often been denied adequate spiritual resources in their own working language, whether in worship and preaching or in available literature. Also the retention of the German language in an English-speaking culture without any real attachment to a German culture has at times led to group and personal impoverishment both culturally and spiritually. The worst forms of this impoverishment have occurred in those groups which have not had adequate German schools of their own, such as the Old Order Amish and other Pennsylvania-Dutch-speaking groups, but also the Old Colony Mennonites with their inadequate elementary German schools and no literary production. The continued exclusive use of dialect in the home, whether Pennsylvania-Dutch or Low German, has been a further handicap. Finally the barrier of a different language has seriously inhibited evangelism and outreach, has at times alienated the group from the national culture, and has intensified the phenomena of ingrowth and inferiority feeling. The struggle over the introduction of English has also contributed to schismatic tendencies at times, particularly in the mid-19th century in such cases as the Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonite divisions. For a further discussion of the general question of language matters see Language Problems.


Author(s) Harold S Bender
Date Published 1956


[edit] Cite This Article

MLA style

Bender, Harold S. "English Language." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. 18 Apr 2014. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=English_Language&oldid=119709.

APA style

Bender, Harold S. (1956). English Language. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 April 2014, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=English_Language&oldid=119709.




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Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 221-222. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.


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