[There is a shift in perspective between the two articles below; read them in the context of their time.]
The Anabaptists strove to reproduce as nearly as possible the life of the early Christian Church and to imitate the life of Christ. The Mennonites, being direct descendants of the Anabaptists, have tried to do the same. In doing this they have insisted on the right of the individual to interpret the Scriptures for himself without the aid of priest, but by the illumination of the Holy Spirit. This emphasis on individual freedom under the guidance of the Holy Spirit manifested itself in daily life in not being bound by law but living by the Spirit. It is this freedom from legalism and a dependence upon individual conscience in the grace of God that enabled them to live out their convictions despite all opposition and persecution. It is these principles that gave them the vision and confidence to try to establish a "Kingdom of Heaven" on earth in their own communities. It was not an attempt to build a kingdom on a universal scale. It was simply a kingdom of voluntary believers, adding others who wished to join their group. It was in such an atmosphere of freedom and Christian brotherliness that mutual aid could flourish. Mutual aid had its roots intertwined with the very roots of Mennonite religious principles.
Another distinctive principle of the Mennonites was the belief in the complete separation of the church from the state and from dependence upon it for any kind of support. In applying this principle they manifested a willingness to provide the necessities of life for all within their group. Positively, they believed in the possibility of a way of life based on mutual love and respect for fellow believers, so that an organization of Christians could be established on a community basis where love and brotherhood could be expressed in daily life, since a true follower of Christ would so conduct himself as to place the welfare of others before his own. This was Jesus' own teaching, although history reveals that not all His professed followers have accomplished His ideal or even aimed at it.
Another Mennonite principle has been an emphasis on the simple life, applied in matters of clothing, food, furnishings, and in all outward appearance. With this simplicity were stressed industry and thrift. Frugality and industry generally produce prosperity, at least in a material sense. It was so with the Mennonites; but they aimed at a reasonable prosperity for the group rather than for only a few within the group. The concept of a brotherhood church leveled all class distinction, and brought condemnation upon anyone who tried to exploit another. Likewise, emphasis on simplicity tended to counteract any feeling of sophistication and superiority. With few outward possessions to display individuality, the tendency to covet was reduced to a minimum. With a minimum of jealousy, selfishness, and sophistication, there is possible a maximum of mutual aid and brotherly helpfulness.
One evidence of the high regard of the Mennonites for each other's welfare was their opposition to claiming interest on loans. They refused to accept interest themselves and paid it unwillingly to others. Money, they believed, should be lent for the benefit of the borrower rather than the lender. Proper fraternal relations forbade the exploitation of the needs of a brother; besides, the practice was contrary to the teachings of Scripture: "You must not exact interest on loan to a fellow-countryman of yours, interest on money, food, or anything else that might be exacted as interest" (Deuteronomy 23:19). Again they read in the sacred Word that the Christian "does not put out his money on interest, nor take a bribe against the innocent" (Psalm 15:5).
These principles of the earlier Mennonites and the Anabaptists were based on the literal interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. An attempt to live out these teachings and imitate the Apostolic community could scarcely help but result in mutual aid, if not semi-communism. Christian brotherhood and mutual aid were inseparable. A second source of mutual aid practices may be found in the cultural patterns of the medieval and Reformation periods, where certain forms of mutual aid were expressed in the village communities. The Mennonites have, throughout their history, lived in rather compact communities and when they migrated they did so in groups rather than by individual families. This in itself is an evidence of the loyalty to, and dependence upon, one another.
The evidence of the practice of mutual aid among Anabaptists was clear and cumulative. From the beginning in Zurich they insisted on the obligation of a brother to help his brethren in need. This emphasis lay behind the repeated and continued charge of their opponents that they advocated and practiced communism, which was, however, not true. Hans Leopold, a Swiss Brethren martyr of 1528, said of the brethren, "If they know of any one who is in need, whether or not he is a member of their church, they believe it their duty out of love to God to render help and aid." Heinrich Seiler, a martyr of 1535, said, "I do not believe that it is wrong that a Christian own property of his own, but yet he is nothing more than a steward." Heinrich Bullinger, the bitter enemy of the Brethren, wrote in 1560, "They teach that every Christian is under duty before God from motives of love to use, if need be, all his possessions to supply the necessities of life to any of the brethren who are in need." A Strasburg Protestant who had visited a Swiss Brethren baptismal service near that city in 1557 reported that a question addressed to all candidates for baptism was "whether, if necessity required it, they would devote all their possessions to the service of the brotherhood and would not fail any member that is in need, if they were able to render aid." (All quotations from the Anabaptist Vision.)
Two examples of mutual aid in an extreme form in Mennonite history are the Hutterites with their practice of Christian communism (from 1528 on) and the short lived Plockhoy cooperative colony on the Delaware in colonial America (1662 ff.). A third, more normal example was the large number of mutual aid practices of the Mennonites in Russia (1788-1917).
The following will present a representative picture of mutual aid in a typical Mennonite community in Russia as it existed in the 19th century. The Mennonites grouped themselves into small farm villages of 20 to 30 families each, each family having 65 desiatinas (175 acres) of land. The land was divided into strips so distributed that all would share the good and the bad land wherever there was difference in its fertility. Each village had a common pasture and each family had several acres for gardening immediately adjoining the house. In the Volga region the title to the land rested in the village; in South Russia it rested in the head of the family. C. Henry Smith gives a good brief description of some mutual aid activities in one village community: "While these colonies were not communistic in their organization, yet the villages frequently undertook municipal enterprises for the common good. Some villages had a common granary stored with grain for the lean years and for the benefit of the poor. Occasionally also they held tracts of land for later distribution as the population grew. In 1820 the communal sheep lock of the Old Colony (Chortitza) consisted of 1,000 merinos, and the annual income from the communal ferry across the Dnieper was two to three thousand rubles. The communal distillery also netted a substantial profit for the common treasury that year" (Coming, 34).
During the early days in Russia the villages had no banks for their money, since in a rural community of the 18th century money played only a very small part in the life of a people. What little cash people had was kept at home. One of the older immigrants who remembers life in those Russian villages remarked that it was much easier to help someone else when the money was kept within constant reach. In later years, banks of mutual credit were established, which accepted deposits from any person and transacted all legal commercial business, lending money not only for agricultural purposes but for promotion of manufacturing and trade. But these banks were based on membership, and money was lent to members only. The Waisenamt, however, established before the mutual credit bank, was most characteristic of the village community and its mutual aid practices. It was in fact a trust organization formed to assist minors who were orphaned, and to administer their inheritance funds. The money could be invested, saved, or distributed according to the best interests of the parties concerned. Evidence that the Waisenamt satisfactorily served a need is the fact that it was still in existence in the 1950s in a number of Mennonite communities of Russian background, especially in Canada and Paraguay.
Another interesting illustration of mutual aid among the Russian Mennonite villages was the practice of assisting a widow at the death of her husband. Immediately after her husband's death the widow would name "two good men" to take charge of her affairs. This was not compulsory, but it was generally done. The widow usually chose the closest friends of her husband, who considered it both an honor and a religious duty to serve in such a capacity. All service was rendered free even if it took many days with teams of horses to perform the necessary work. Problems with regard to children, finances, or even remarriage were all first discussed by the widow and her advisers before action was taken. This was an effective way of helping a member who had sustained misfortune; it offered an opportunity for the friends of the deceased to show their appreciation for his friendship, and at the same time was a way of relieving the widow of undue worry and the fear of exploitation. Moreover, there were no lawyers' fees to be extracted from whatever financial balance the husband may have left. It was an expression of mutual aid of the simplest yet most genuine sort.
To improve their economic condition and the quality of their livestock, the Russian Mennonites practiced mutual ownership of stock to a limited degree. A high-grade stallion, bull, ram, or other male animal might be purchased by the community and thus made available to each farmer to improve his herd. During the winter months, when these animals could not be fed in the common pasture, they were taken from one farmer to another for several weeks at a time, thus distributing the cost of feeding and care. The reputation of the Mennonites for raising high-grade stock spread far and wide and in this way representatives from Jewish, Russian, and other German communities came to the Mennonites for advice on how to improve their own herds as well as to buy stock from them.
A further evidence of the way mutual aid pervaded the spirit of the Russian Mennonites was the community land fund for the purchase of new lands for the oncoming generation. When a new area was opened up for settlement any Mennonite married couple having no other farming land was entitled to one farm and a lot in the new settlement. Parents from both sides usually supplied the young couple with means sufficient to equip the new farm. If they were unable to do so, the couple was given a start at the expense of the community through a common fund, repayable or not repayable, as in each case was considered most advisable. In this way young people were helped to begin life on their own, and at the same time given a sense of status in the community. As the land in the new communities was paid for by the settlers, the money was put into a revolving fund for the future purchase of another settlement. In this way generation after generation could be provided for. Following this method, the Mennonites expanded within the course of a century from a poor immigrant group of 8,000 to a flourishing population of 45,000 (by 1914, 100,000), generally prosperous farmers and landowners.
Another instance of mutual aid among the Russian Mennonites was the fire insurance plan (Brandordnung) which had been brought along from West Prussia in the late 18th century. Each member had his property valued as he saw fit. No premiums were paid. The officers in the associations held their offices without pay as honorary positions. After a loss by fire or storm, each member contributed pro rata according to the value of his own property. The aim of this plan was to levy the assessment in proportion to the ability to pay. The clearing of the debris and the hauling of brick and stone and other building material for reconstruction was then done jointly by the whole village free of charge. Likewise the heavy work, such as setting up the frame of the building, was done free of charge. The insurance money paid out in cash to the loser was actually only for building material. This is an excellent example of mutual sharing of the loss from an unavoidable hardship.
One of the universal practices of the Mennonites was always to provide for their own aged and poor. In Russia this was done in an admirable way, admirable in the sense that it did not tend to degrade the recipients to the point of being outcasts or of losing complete self-respect. The poor were given an opportunity to contribute something of value in return for the charity they received. It was the practice for each village to have a common fireproof storehouse at one end of the village to which each farmer contributed in times of prosperity to provide against lean years, perhaps a sack of wheat, a sack of rye, and a half sack of barley. This not only served as a source of supply for the dependent poor, but also as an emergency source for any member of the community who might suffer a crop failure.
The freedom which Catherine the Great and her successors granted the Mennonites to develop their culture in the way they thought best resulted in the turning of vast treeless steppes in Southern Russia into productive farm lands and prosperous villages. Given this complete independence, the Mennonites developed their thriving economy built entirely around and on the idea of mutual aid. Mutual aid was practiced not only in the economic, social, and political aspects of life, but pervaded, almost every activity. The ideals and principles of working together for the common welfare of all became the accepted way of doing things. To carry on activities on a selfish, extremely individualistic basis without thought of the effect on others would have been considered a gross sin, causing one to be avoided by his fellow men. This would have been the severest punishment for anyone in a small village where fellowship and companionship were the very basis of happiness. It was likewise a significant fact that this extensive practice of mutual aid was not discontinued when prosperity came. The tendency was rather to increase the mutual services. The practices of mutual aid can thus not be said to be desirable or practical only in times of grave necessity or in times of struggle for existence.
Because the Mennonites in America are scattered widely from Pennsylvania to California, and from Ontario to British Columbia, and because of the differences or divisions within the Mennonites themselves, it is impossible to speak of American Mennonites as one group. The illustrations that will be used in this part of the study are, however, as representative of the various groups of Mennonites as possible who in general have common basic beliefs and attitudes regardless of minor differences in policy and practice. But some mutual aid practices seem to be universally characteristic of Mennonites.
One of these is the practice of providing for their own poor and orphans. It was very unusual for Mennonites in the 1950s to send their dependent members to county or state institutions. If the particular local church conference did not have an institution for the purpose of caring for its aged and poor, provision was often made in private homes of friends or of relatives. At least 38 homes for the aged and 7 children's homes were maintained by the American Mennonites in the 1950s. A second mutual aid practice which was common to many Mennonite communities was that of providing hospital care. At least 14 hospitals were owned in whole or in part by Mennonites. Often these hospitals and old people's homes were located in the same locality, thus making it convenient to provide medical care for the aged and also making it easier to manage the two institutions under one head. The fact that Mennonites were concerned with such matters as care for their own sick and for their economically underprivileged revealed the depth of feeling and the sense of mutual responsibility that they had for each other. It was likewise an evidence that the Mennonites assumed the care for and welfare of their own dependents as part of their Christian duty.
A third type of mutual aid among Mennonites was fire and storm insurance societies. It seems significant that the mutual aid organizations were especially strong wherever losses from causes beyond the control of man were suffered, such as sharing responsibility for losses due to fire, storm, accident, sickness, and death. Such a mutual insurance plan was undoubtedly the oldest form of organized mutual aid among the Mennonites. The earliest records available show that mutual insurance was practiced by some Mennonites in Europe in the beginning of the 17th century, and had its origin among the Mennonites in Germany in 1623, when a group then living in West Prussia organized the Tiegenhöfer Privat Brandordnung. This association was still in operation with its office at Tiegenhof up to the time of the Russian invasion in 1945, which wiped out the Mennonite communities there. About 1725 a mutual fire insurance organization was started at Lunau (Gross-Lunau?) near Culm in Poland. Practically every American Mennonite region in the 1950s had its own fire insurance society based on the principle of mutual aid. These societies were very old in America, some dating back to the mid-19th century. Very often they existed for years in unorganized forms without written constitutions whereby to govern themselves, and many of them did not keep records of proceedings of business conducted.
Mutual aid developments of the mid-20th century included the burial aid society, the hospital and medical aid society, the automobile accident insurance plan, and the loan aid plan. A complete list of all known North American Mennonite Mutual Aid organizations operating in 1956 follows, 69 in total.
Mennonite Mutual Aid Organizations in the United States and Canada, 1956
I. Property Insurance Societies-36
|Alberta Mennonite Mutual Aid Society||Coaldale, Alberta||
|Amish Aid Insurance Plan of Ohio Districts||Millersburg, Ohio||1937||
|Amish Aid Plan of Indiana and Michigan||Shipshewana, IN||1934||
|Amish Aid Plan of Kansas, Oklahoma & Oregon||Partridge, KS||1890||
|Amish Aid Society of Eastern Pennsylvania||Ronks, PA||before 1850||
|Amish Mennonite Aid Society of Iowa||Kalona, IA||1885||
|Amish Mennonite Storm and Fire Aid Union||Wellesley, ON||ca. 1858||
|Amish Mutual Fire Ins. Association||Parkesburg, PA||1922||
|Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company||Fort Wayne, IN||1917||
|Brotherly Aid Plan||Lancaster, PA||1950||
|Canada and States Mennonite Insurance Association||Mountain Lake, MN||1874||
|Canadian Mennonite Mutual Insurance||Altona, MB||1923||
|Fire and Storm Aid Plan of the Reformed Mennonite Church||Lancaster, PA||1923||
|Franconia Mennonite Aid Plan for Mutual Fire Insurance||Lansdale, PA||1936||
|Illinois Old Order Amish Mutual Aid Plan||Arthur, IL||
|Manitoba Mennonite Mutual Insurance Company||Steinbach, MB||1874||
|Mennonite Aid Association||Topeka, IN||1911||
|Mennonite Aid Plan||West Liberty, Ohio||1896||
|Mennonite Aid Plan of the Pacific Coast||Reedley, CA||1922||
|Mennonite Aid Plan of South Dakota||Freeman, SD||1882||
|Mennonite Aid Society of South Dakota||Marion, SD||1922||
|Mennonite Aid Union||Baden, ON||1864||
|Mennonite Aid Union of Kansas||North Newton, KS||1906||
|Mennontische Hilfs-Plan||Moundridge, KS||1900||
|Mennonite Mutual Aid Association||Kalona, IA||1913||
|Mennonite Mutual Aid Society||Bluffton, Ohio||1866||
|Mennonite Mutual Fire Aid Plan||Hagerstown, MD||1924||
|Mennonite Mutual Fire Insurance Association||Intercourse, PA||1893||
|Mennonite Mutual Fire Insurance Co. of Saskatchewan, Ltd.||Waldheim, SK||1917||
|Mennonite Mutual Hail Insurance Co. for Western Canada||Hepburn, SK||1916||
|Mennonite Mutual Insurance Association of Ohio||Orrville, Ohio||1897||
|Mennonite Union Aid||Montezuma, KS||1942||
|Prairie Mennonite Mutual Fire Insurance Co.||Herbert, SK||1941||
|Red River Mutual Fire Insurance Co.||Altona, MB||1874||
|Virginia Mennonite Property Aid Plan||Harrisonburg, VA||1911||
|Washington County Mennonite Mutual Association||Wayland, IA||1950||
|Mennonite Indemnity, Inc. (a reinsurance organization)||Goodville, PA||1956||
II. Automobile Aid Insurance - 7
|Brotherly Aid Liability Plan for the Lancaster Mennonite Conference||Leola, PA||1955||
|Goodville Mutual Casualty Co.||Goodville, PA||1926||
|Mennonite Automobile Aid, Inc.||Goshen, IN||1954||
|Michigan Mennonite Mutual Auto Aid||Fairview, MI||1939||
|Mutual Auto Aid of the Mennonites of Washington County, Maryland||Hagerstown, MD||1945||
|Pigeon River Mennonite Mutual Auto Aid||Owendale, MI||1950||
|Virginia Mennonite Automobile Aid Plan||Harrisonburg, VA||1933||
III. Burial Aid Societies - 14
|Alberta Mennonite Relief Society||Coaldale, AB||
|Beerdigungs-Verein zu Leamington, Ontario||Leamington, ON||1935||
|Menno-Friendly Beneficial Association||Philadelphia, PA||1908||
|Mennonite Aid, Inc.||Goshen, IN||1949||
|Mennonite Aid Society||Mountain Lake, MN||1897||
|Mennonite Burial Aid Society||Altona, MB||1910||
|Mennonite Mutual Burial Aid||Halbstadt, MB||1940||
|Pacific Mennonite Aid Society||Reedley, CA||1941||
|Mennonite Mutual Supporting Society of Arnaud-St. Elizabeth||St. Elizabeth, MB||1934||
|Mutual Burial Fund||Montezuma, KS||1940||
|Mutual Support Society||Starbuck, MB||1926||
|Niagara Mutual Funeral Society||Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON||1934||
|Vineland Beerdigungs-Kasse||Vineland, ON||1934||
|West Abbotsford and Clearbrook Mennonite Church Funeral Aid||Abbotsford, BC||1952||
IV. Medical, Surgical, and Hospital Aid Plans - 6
|Bethesda Mennonite Health Society||Yarrow, BC||1935||
|Coaldale Mennonite Health Society||Coaldale, AB||1943||
|Mennonite Aid, Inc.||Goshen, IN||1949||
|Mennonite Health Society||Coaldale, AB||1931||
|Mennonite Hospital Society Concordia||Winnipeg, MB||1928||
|Mennonite Mutual Aid of Ontario||St. Catharines, ON||1944||
V. Loan Aid Organizations - 6
|Christian Service Foundation||Fort Wayne, IN||1949||
|Crosstown Credit Union Society Ltd.||Winnipeg, MB||1944||
|General Conference Mennonite Mutual Service & Aid Association||Newton, KS||1945||
|Mennonite Brotherhood Aid, Inc.||Bluffton, Ohio||1949||
|Mennonite Mutual Aid, Inc.||Goshen, IN||1945||
|Western Canada Mennonite Land Settlement Association||Plum Coulee, MB||1954||
The spirit of mutual aid has also been vigorously expressed in migration and colonization aid, sometimes on a large scale. The Dutch Mennonites made substantial cash contributions to Swiss and Palatinate Mennonites migrating to Pennsylvania in 1710-1750, in addition to direct relief contributions. The attempted (though failing) settlement of Lithuanian Mennonites in Holland, and the successful settlement of some Swiss Mennonites in Holland, both in the early 18th century, were also financed by the Dutch. The migration of the Russian Mennonites to Canada and the United States 1874-1880 was strongly aided by cash and loan contributions raised by the existing American Mennonite groups through regional "aid committees." Similar aid was given to the large group of immigrants from Russia to Canada in 1922-1925 and the smaller groups of 1930-1931 and 1947-1950.
The colonization of the major Russian Mennonite settlements in Paraguay (1930, 1947-1950) and the Danzig Mennonites in Uruguay (1948-1951) was possible only because of the large amounts of financial aid, including loans for land purchase, made by North American Mennonites through the Mennonite Central Committee. The Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA), a group of American businessmen, supplied substantial amounts of finance capital to aid small-scale industrialization in the colonies. Many young conscientious objectors from the Mennonite congregations in the United States (PAX boys) contributed substantially in labor to the building of homes for Mennonite refugees in Germany (1952 ff), to which considerable cash amounts were also furnished by contributed funds from America. During and after World War II the major Mennonite bodies in the United States raised considerable sums of money to aid their men in CPS service by financing their maintenance while at work on government-assigned projects, by supplementing their meager wages in certain cases, by supporting dependent wives and children, and by furnishing rehabilitation loans after discharge.
The cooperative barn-raisings among the Old Order Amish are also worthy of note as examples of mutual aid, along with the practice of cooperative planting and harvesting of crops for sick or disabled farmers, a practice which is found in other Mennonite groups as well.
In the South American Mennonite colonies established in Paraguay and Brazil after 1926 and 1930, the spirit of mutual aid was also expressed in the organized way in the founding of cooperatives.
Thus it is evident that the ancient and original spirit of mutual brotherhood aid has not only survived among the Mennonites of North and South America, but has experienced a substantial revival and more extensive and intensive application.
Among modern European Mennonites there has been and is almost no organized expression of the spirit of mutual aid which was present in the earlier centuries in largely unorganized form, except in the Danzig-West Prussian area as noted above. -- J. Winfield Fretz, Harold S. Bender
Caring and sharing is a practice its old as the human family. When God spoke to his people, as recorded in the Old Testament a major focus was the welfare of others. The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) are concerned with relation to God and relationships to other people. in a list of laws for living we read, ". . . love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord" (Leviticus 19:18). In speaking of the greatest commandment, Jesus said, "Love the Lord your God, . . . Love your neighbor as yourself: All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments (Matthew 22: 34-40).
Immediately after Pentecost the new church drew heavily from the Old Testament background and the teaching of Christ in shaping the life of the faith community. The simple practice of sharing material resources to meet each other's needs was a natural and spontaneous expression of faith (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-37).
When there was discontent among believers because of inequity in "the daily distribution of food," the apostles arranged for simple assignment of responsibilities so everyone's needs could be addressed. This was important so the ". . . attention to prayer and the ministry of the word" could be effective. The result was growth among the disciples in Jerusalem (Acts 6:1-7).
Over the centuries the vitality and fervor of the early church was often diminished. Out of the 16th century Reformation came a rediscovery of practical expression of Jesus' teaching: love of God and love of neighbors. The Anabaptists in particular tried to understand the essence of Jesus' teaching and to recreate the practices of the early church.
The harsh conditions resulting from persecution, famine, and political upheavals motivated the believers to gather into communities where they depended on each other for physical and spiritual survival. Sharing material goods and caring for each other's needs were major elements of the Anabaptist movement. When persecution subsided and when community life became stable, mutual caring was often formalized and was built into ongoing community life.
Anabaptists who settled in Moravia in relative peace developed a community of goods. American Hutterites are their spiritual descendants. Early records show that mutual insurance was practiced by some Mennonites in Europe in the beginning of the 17th century. In 1663 a group living in West Prussia organized the Tiegenhöfer Privat Brandordnung (Tiegenhof Private Fire Insurance Association). This association continued until 1945 when the Russian invasion wiped out these communities.
In the 18th century Dutch Mennonites grew to be among the wealthiest in the country. They were liberal contributors to worthy causes, especially to those in distress. They often assisted Swiss and South German Mennonites who were driven from their homeland, or who were enroute to America. They sent money to their oppressed brothers and sisters in Prussia, Moravia, Switzerland, and Palatinate. They had a reputation of taking care of the needs of their own people, a practice deeply rooted in their historical faith tradition (Smith).
Russian Mennonite communities were stable, successful, and often well organized. Typically they grouped themselves into small farm villages of 15-30 families. Each family had its own farm land and large garden. Common grazing land was sometimes shared by village residents. They undertook various municipal enterprises for the common good.
These communities had a large degree of local autonomy, and established such political institutions as best suited their needs. They provided for their own schools, roads, and poor relief. They made their own fire regulations and had an insurance fund to care for their own delinquents, their sick, and people with mental illness or disability, as well as widows and orphans (Waisenamt). They established their own hospitals, orphan homes, insurance companies, old people's homes, a school for the deaf, and in 1911 a sanitarium for epileptics and those with nervous diseases.
As in Europe, Russia, and in many countries and cultures where Anabaptist communities thrive, there is much variety and local adaptation of mutual aid practice across North America. The prevailing culture and theological pluralism are making strong imprints on today's North American Mennonites and related Anabaptist churches; yet an important expression of faith is the quest to make practical Jesus' and New Testament church's teaching and example. This happens spontaneously in congregational life. But Mutual Aid and sharing are often formalized through elders, boards of deacons, and appointed person or committee, and ordained deacons or deaconesses.
Formal and organized community structures in North America borrowed heavily from European and Russian communities in the early years. While the political environment were different in Canada and the United States, basic community patterns and congregational life developed out of the heritage and faith that immigrants brought. Mutual insurance companies and associations were organized in Steinbach and Altona, MB, and in Mountain Lake, MN, in 1874. A similar organization formed in Freeman, SD, in 1882.
An earlier review of mutual aid published in 1956, had entries for 36 property insurance societies, 7 auto aid insurance companies, 14 burial aid plans, and 6 loan aid organizations. The founding dates for the two oldest are: 1858 (Amish Mennonite Storm and Fire Aid Union, Wellesley, Ontario, Canada) and 1866 (Mennonite Mutual Aid Society, Bluffton, Ohio). The mutual aid/insurance organizations in Canada in 1999 included the Mennonite Mutual Insurance Company (Calgary, Alberta, Canada); Red River Valley Mutual Insurance Co. (Altona, Manitoba, Canada); Mennonite Aid Union (Baden, Ontario, Canada); Amish Mennonite Fire and Storm Aid Union (Wellesley, Ontario, Canada) and Mennonite Mutual Fire Insurance Company (Waldheim, Saskatchewan, Canada)
Since the mid-1950s Mennonite population has shifted increasingly to urban areas. In many places such as eastern Pennsylvania and southeastern Virginia, the metropolitan area moved out to absorb what formerly were small towns and Mennonite farms.
In the late 1980s fewer than 20 percent of Mennonites receive their primary income from farming. Most Mennonites work in professions, business, construction, industry, teaching, social services, or medical services. Some are self-employed or small entrepreneurs. Most work for organizations or corporations that provide a paycheck in return for time, skills, and effort.
Whether Mennonites live in the country, the village, or the city, the financial base of church and community is a money economy, rather than the agricultural economy of earlier decades. It is more difficult to live as a people apart when daily employment requires involvement in the business and economic life of the secular community. Mennonites increasingly use tools of money management and insurance to reduce risk, to carry responsibility against excessive loss of property, or to provide security against crisis or income loss in the event of a wage earner's death.
The Mennonite-owned property aid companies have grown strong during these years. There has been increased cooperation with several consolidating into one organization. In the mid-1950s people active in mutual aid organizations called several meetings for fellowship and exchange of ideas. In 1956 the Association of Mennonite Aid Societies (AMAS) was organized. They have met annually since, with an attendance of 150-200 persons.
As the AMAS companies met they discovered they had in common the need for greater "per-risk" capacity. Some were overextended and unable to meet the needs of their members. By February 1957, a stock company called Mennonite Indemnity, Inc. (MII) was formed. Control was vested in the Mennonite Central Committee. The founders and stockholders were concerned that MII should be under control of the church and serve the risk sharing needs of church-related institutions. Through MII reinsurance, participating companies have the capacity to cover individual risks as high as a million dollars or more. The policyholder deals only with the local mutual aid company. Through commercial reinsurance the practice of mutual aid is greatly strengthened and a high level of professional expertise and security is available to members through their local companies (Raid, Twenty-five years, 23-27).
Goodville Mutual Casualty Company, New Holland, PA (organized in 1924), is unique among Mennonite insurers. The company covers liability and property damage. It provides the liability coverage needed by the property companies, who then reinsure through Mennonite Indemnity, (MII). This is a good example of combining resources and agencies to accomplish more with less.
Old Order Amish; Church of God in Christ, Mennonites; and some of the unaffiliated or non-conference Mennonite groups continue strong patterns of caring for their own people in times of hardship or special need. These are similar to Amish and Mennonite practices in Europe, Russia, and North America over four centuries.
In the United States, since the era of President Roosevelt, in the 1930s, and the Great Society of the Johnson administration, in the 1960s many state and federal welfare programs addressed needs in the American society. The effectiveness of these programs is mixed. The federal welfare system is a collection of more than 100 programs that evolved in a haphazard way over half a century. A large share of people in poverty receive no welfare benefits. While government spending on social programs has grown substantially from 1965 to 1985, much of the growth has benefited the elderly regardless of their economic status. Many government welfare programs are geared to sustain people in poverty rather than teach them to get out of poverty.
As government welfare programs diminish there is new opportunity for the church to provide for the needs of each other in the same spirit of mutual aid that sustained the Anabaptist faith communities for more than 450 years. Congregations engaged in outreach and church planting often find that mutual aid, formal or informal, is a ministry that speaks of love and caring, drawing people into the fellowship of faith. There is again emerging a quest for the meaning of community and caring in the new urban churches and among young professional adults. Topics listed for conferences, retreats, and topics in the church press will verify this observation. In Acts 4:32-37 unity, sharing, and the testimony of Christ's resurrection were elements that empowered the fledgling church to spread to the ends of the earth. -- Laban Peachey
Lists of Mennonite mutual aid and insurance organizations were published in 2001 in Mennonite Directory.
Bender, H. S. The Anabaptist Vision. Goshen, IN, Mennonite Historical Society, 1944, reprint from Mennonite Quarterly Review 18 (1944): 67-88.
"A Directory of Mennonite Insurance and Mutual Aid Organizations." Mennonite Research Foundation, Goshen, 1956.
Epp, Frank H. Mennonites in Canada, 1920-1940: a People's Struggle for Survival. Toronto: Macmillan, 1982: 370-76.
Fretz, J. Winfield. Christian Mutual Aid, A Handbook of Brotherhood Economics. Akron, PA: Mennonite Central Committee, 1947.
Fretz, J. Winfield. Mennonite Colonization, Lessons from the Past for the Future. Akron, 1944.
Fretz, J. Winfield. "Mennonite Mutual Aid, A Contribution to the Development of Christian Community," Ph.D. Thesis, University of Chicago, 1941.
Fretz, J. Winfield. "Mutual Aid Among the Mennonites," Mennonite Quarterly Review 13 (1939): 28-58, 187-209.
Fretz, J. Winfield. Pilgrims in Paraguay, Scottdale, PA, 1953.
Gibble, June A. and Fred W. Swartz, ed., Called to Caregiving. Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1987.
Hernley, H. Ralph, ed. The Compassionate Community. Scottdale: Association of Mennonite Aid Societies, 1970.
Klassen, Peter J. "The Anabaptist-Mennonite Witness Through Mutual Aid" in The Church in Mission, ed. A. J. Klassen. Fresno: MB Board of Christian Literature, 1967: 10-144.
Krahn, Cornelius, J. W. Fretz, and Robert S. Kreider. "Altruism in Mennonite Life." Forms and Techniques of Altruistic and Spiritual Growth. Boston, 1954.
Marketplace (January-February 1986).
Mennonite historical bulletin (July 1978).
Mennonite Church Yearbook (1986-87): 114-15, 137-39.
Raid, Howard. "Living the Mutual Aid Way." Sharing 19 (Fall 1985): 4-7.
Raid, Howard D. Twenty-Five Years: a Brief History. Mennonite Indemnity, Inc., 1982.
Smith, C. Henry.The Coming of the Russian Mennonites. Berne, IN, 1927.
Smith, C. Henry. The Story of the Mennonites. Newton: MPO, 1950: 216-28.
|Author(s)||J. Winfield, Harold S. Bender Fretz|
Cite This Article
Fretz, J. Winfield, Harold S. Bender and Laban Peachey. "Mutual Aid." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 18 Mar 2018. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Mutual_Aid&oldid=102563.
Fretz, J. Winfield, Harold S. Bender and Laban Peachey. (1989). Mutual Aid. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 March 2018, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Mutual_Aid&oldid=102563.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 796-801; vol. 4, p. 1146; vol. 5, pp. 613-614. All rights reserved.
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