A 1526 list of the Swiss Brethren includes a doctor and his wife. Menno Simons is credited with the statement: "True evangelical faith cannot lie dormant. . . . It clothes the naked. It feeds the hungry. It comforts the sorrowful. It shelters the destitute. It serves those that harm it. It binds up that which is wounded. It has become all things to all men." Early Anabaptists believed in a whole gospel for the total person. They assumed that Christian people take care of people with needs. Health services had wide application among them from the start.
Among the Swiss and Dutch Anabaptists and Mennonites, midwifery was practiced (midwives). Dr. Peter Dettweiler (d. 1904) is known for discovering a tuberculosis cure and also as the father of the sanatorium movement.
The Dutch Mennonites became socially and economically accepted sooner than Swiss Mennonites. They strongly emphasized community life that would care for its ill whenever possible; with the community assisting where families could not do it alone.
The Dordrecht Confession (1632), in article 9 refers to Jesus' concern for healing and restoration. This includes care for the poor, the aged, feeble, sick, sorrowing, and needy. Deacons and deaconesses were to provide many of these services.
In the migrations to the Palatinate and to Russia, health services continued to be integral parts of the communities. As late as 1880 only one trained physician is reported among the 60 Molotschna villages. But the bone-setters (Knochenärzte) and home remedies (see Klippenstein, Toews, 240-247) were common.
Chortitza Colony had a district hospital and added a 75-100-bed Red Cross emergency hospital during World War I. The first Molotschna hospital service at Muntau (1880) was soon followed by one in Waldheim, then Ohrloff and in the Neu-Samara (Pleshanov) daughter colony. Bethania, a system consisting of a mental hospital, orphanages, a school for the deaf, and homes for old people were also provided by Russian Mennonites. Occasionally, anointing services according to Joshua 5 were administered.
Anabaptists were pioneers in serving the poor and the orphans. Their opponents said this was proof that they considered good works above faith. In Augsburg it was argued that this undermined the role of the state.
The Waisenamt (Orphans' fund) was set up in Russia to administer estates of orphans. It was later used for services also to widows, elderly or anyone else needing help in financial matters (mutual aid). Feeble-minded, the deaf, and epileptics inherited twice what was left to other siblings.
Early Mennonites in the United States and Canada continued to care for their own. Frank H. Epp, (Mennonites in Canada I) says, "...medical problems were abated by genuine neighborliness and community spirit. Every cluster of neighbors boasted a midwife and a bone-setter ready, willing and able to attend those medical needs which tea could not cure" (p. 87).
From the beginning, some ministers also dispensed counsel for better health practices. As care for the ill became more specialized and health services more complex, mutual aid organizations sprang up to help where individuals, families and communities could not handle the needs. At first acting like a Christian version of insurance agencies, the largest Mennonite mutual aid body (Mennonite Mutual Aid) in 1987 was deeply involved in preventive training and in promoting wellness care.
The 20th century saw a rapid rise in the number of Mennonites choosing the health services as acceptable occupations. At first these people often either did not feel welcome in their home communities after graduation or else the graduates wanted to live in more progressive communities.
To strengthen the health services and to build bridges between them and the more traditional Mennonite communities, organizations were begun. The first were intended to promote homes for the aged (Germany, 1949), then to promote homes for the aged and hospitals (United States). This led to a new understanding of the need for health professionals. To work at this need and to develop greater acceptance, a Mennonite Nurses Association (1942, United States and Canada) and a Mennonite Medical Association (1946) were founded. There were also informal Mennonite Health "Assemblies" which convened annually. Mennonite Chaplains and Mennonite social workers (for a while) also organized.
In the meantime, World War II had put many Mennonites into mental health institutions to do their alternative service (Civilian Public Service) as conscientious objectors. After the war these people wanted to continue providing new and better health services to the mentally ill. This led to rapid growth in Mennonite-related mental health centers in the United States and Canada. These became and continued to be model institutions for mental health services. It is likely also that the World War II experiences and the success in the mental health services contributed to the creative ways that other Mennonite health services began to develop. The Mennonite hospital at Bloomington, IL, for example, became a multi-faceted institution providing a whole range of health services from acute care to self-care, at the central hospital, in various satellite service centers, and in homes.
When the Mennonite organization, the Mennonite Health Association (MHA), was formed in 1980, it began with a relatively fresh philosophy of health services that included agenda which earlier would likely not have been considered health services. Members include hospitals, aged and nursing homes, services to the aging, chaplaincy services, disability programs, administrative services, medical and nursing services, volunteer services, and congregational health concern councils. While curative care is a large part of in its programs, the focus has been shifted from illness care to wellness care. Wellness care refers to the effort to encourage people to take care of their bodies, minds, emotions, and spirits as stewards of what God has given them. It urges people to practice a healthful expression with all of their being.
The wholistic model of health services which the MHA adopted as its goal still has some gaps. It does not yet include the human ecology (dietary and other homemaker services), and the abuse services (child, spouse, and drugs).
The Mennonite model of health services as integral to all community living can also be seen in Mennonite mission and service endeavors. Wherever mission churches and development services are found, health services are also found. This was so from the first Dutch-Mennonite mission work in Java (Indonesia) and remains characteristic of the development work in Bangladesh and elsewhere. Mennonite migration to Mexico, Paraguay, Brazil, Bolivia, Belize, and other places has also included continuing emphasis on health services.
While basic health services among Mennonites began as the work of the church, Mennonites, like other people in the Western world of the 20th century, gave much of the health care responsibility to governments and to health professionals. This served to make such care less a part of the wholistic goal which was envisioned. But it seemed to work when combined with relatively good insurance or government support.
However, in the 1980s health technologies were developed that were able to sustain life artificially and to change life artificially. Scientists and physicians learned to splice genes, abort pregnancies, create life outside of the uterus, replace vital organs with mechanical or donor organs and to sustain "brain dead" people with life support systems. Along with these potential new services came enormous costs and complex bioethical issues. Who decides when an abortion is therapeutic? Should the professionals decide when to end life or should the patient and family decide whether heroic measures are proper? Who are the parents when embryos are started in test tubes and then implanted in surrogate wombs? Where is the money to come from and what is a fair proportion of taxes to go for health services? These questions are never far from the surface in the Western world when health services are discussed in the late 20th and early 21st centuries..
Mennonite health institutions feel the pressure directly. Fifty representatives of 145 Mennonite and Brethren in Christ health service institutions met in Denver, CO on 4 March 1986 to discuss their survival. To make it past the current crises, it was agreed that essential adjustments would have to be made. One would be to work more cooperatively. Mennonite churches, like other churches, have left the resolution of much of this dilemma to health professionals. The latter feel more and more uneasy and keep calling for greater involvement by church leaders, theologians, and all those who receive health services. There was a growing mood in the late 1980s that health services must once again be guided by the total church community. And as much responsibility as possible for each person's healthfulness needs to be taken by each person.
Epp, Frank H. Mennonites in Canada, 1786-1920: The History of a Separate People. Toronto: Macmillan, 1974: 87, 295.
Estes, Steven R. Christian Concern for Health: The Sixtieth Anniversary History of the Mennonite Hospital Association. Bloomington, IL 1979: 1-4.
Hostetler, John A. Amish Society, 3rd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1980: 313-32.
Klippenstein, Lawrence and Julius G. Toews, eds., Mennonite Memories. Winnipeg: Centennial Publications, 1977.
Neufeld, Vernon H. ed., If We Can Love: The Mennonite Mental Health Story. Newton, KS, Faith & Life,1983.
Marty, Martin E. and Kenneth L. Vaux, eds., Health/Medicine and the Faith Traditions. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982.
Horsch, James E., ed. Mennonite Yearbook and Directory. Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House. (1988-89): 124-30.
 Cite This Article
Wiebe, Bernie. "Health Services." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. 13 Jul 2014. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Health_Services&oldid=91993.
Wiebe, Bernie. (1987). Health Services. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 13 July 2014, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Health_Services&oldid=91993.
Herald Press website.
©1996-2014 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.