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The explication of acculturation among Mennonites and related groups is a conceptual part of the "Christ and Culture" problem as analyzed in the book with that title by H. Richard Niebuhr. Mennonites, according to Niebuhr, represent a radical "Christ against culture" solution, as distinguished from four other types of solution: the Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ in paradox with culture, and Christ the transformer of culture. Although the fourth and sixth Schleitheim articles of faith (1527) and numerous articles by H. S. Bender in the Mennonite Encyclopedia (nonconformity, worldliness, language problem) would seem to verify Niebuhr's characterization, all five types of solution have been espoused within Mennonitism in its pluralism. In the limited space for this article, the main focus will be the sociology of Mennonite acculturation, followed by a few concluding theological reflections in view of Niebuhr's typology.

From a purely sociological perspective, the terms "culture" and "acculturation" do not carry the negative connotations they often have in sectarian theological discourse. Culture refers to the total way of life of a human group or society, including its material products (tools, dwellings, clothing, etc.) and its nonmaterial products (language, ceremonies, beliefs, etc.). Every group, including the original group of Christ's disciples, has a culture, or subculture, e.g., the way the disciple group rooted its kingdom lifestyle in its Jewish heritage.

The most basic element and spearhead of human culture is learned speech and the group's vehicle of language. Culture is shared by the group's members because it is useful. It is transmitted to its younger members as they mature (the process called "socialization") and to members of other groups who can use it (the process called "acculturation"). Acculturation is simply the acceptance of culture traits by one group from another. Acculturation should be distinguished from assimilation, which refers to the fusion of two or more cultures, usually a one-sided process by which the members of a minority group are integrated into the host society with some permanent loss to the group accepting the majority culture. Acculturation should also be distinguished from secularization, which refers to the church's assimilation of the "world," defined theologically as a fallen profane social and structural way of life (Galatians 1:4, James 1:27, 1 John 5:19, etc.). The acculturation of Mennonites leads to assimilation and secularization only if the ways and values adopted require a fundamental compromise with the world and result in detrimental changes in Mennonite ethics and lifestyle.

Certain studies of Mennonite culture-borrowing have concluded that acculturation in some aspects of its adaptation to a host society does not lead to assimilation and secularization, while in other aspects it does. Calvin Redekop refers to adoption of farm machinery by Mennonites as an instance of acculturation that need not lead to assimilation, while attendance at public schools will more likely lead to assimilation as alien ideas and values are accepted. Whether or not these types of acculturation lead to secularization depends on whether the techniques or values adopted are compatible with historic Mennonite norms. For instance, the adoption of a concept of an organized voluntary service program may well require some degree of assimilation because it involves identification and a sense of interdependence with persons and groups served; but, inasmuch as this program has led to a revitalization of the normative Anabaptist vision by providing a valid expression of it, members who have served in Mennonite voluntary service may have found new ways to resist conformity to the world.

In his study of the Mennonites of Manitoba, E.K. Francis observed many indications of acculturation which had not had detrimental effects, and he explains this by reference to "a core of religious principles and practices which differentiates all branches of the Mennonite church from non-Mennonite religious bodies and thus necessarily draws them together, once the chips are down."

These finer concepts can be further illustrated from Mennonite history by reference to two indices of Mennonite social change. The first has to do with changes in the languages used. It was the prevalent view of the newly arrived immigrants that their language of origin was a necessity for the perpetuation of their socio-religious way of life insofar as it reinforced their sense of separation from the pervading culture and strengthened their nonconformity to the pagan world. Learning and using the language of the host society opened countless channels for assimilation and secularization, but to the extent that the Mennonite norms of an aggressive missionary witness and prophetic ministry require communication with those outside of the ethnic community, opposition to a language change on the basis of value preservation is undermined. For a group like the Mennonites, who define themselves as a church of voluntarily committed believers, there must come a point in their acculturation when they can be said to have acquired enough proficiency in the language of their adopted society to be able to bear effective witness to their faith, not only to outgroup persons, but also to their own acculturated children.

In the 450 years of their history, the Anabaptists and Mennonites have faced the language-change problem with almost every new migration: (1) Dutch to German for the emigrants from the Netherlands who resettled in N.W. Germany and Prussia, beginning in 1535; (2) German to French for the Swiss Mennonite settlers in the Jura mountains and valleys and in Alsace-Lorraine, beginning in 1700; (3) German to Russian for the emigrants from Prussia to Russia beginning in 1788; (4) Dutch or German to English for the immigrants to North America, beginning in 1690; (5) German to Spanish or Portuguese for the Russian Mennonite immigrants to Paraguay, Bolivia, and Brazil, beginning in 1926 and 1930; and other lesser-scale resettlements.

Cases 1 and 3, above, represent contrasting characteristics and consequences of acculturation. In northern Germany and Prussia, the use of the Dutch language persisted longest in the conservative Flemish congregations of Emden and Danzig, but everywhere else the language shift was fairly rapid, accompanied by a rather thoroughgoing adaptation to the dominant intellectual, political, and socio-religious norms of the surrounding rural-urban, nationalistic culture. The acculturation process was not entirely one-sided insofar as the Mennonites contributed flood control and water drainage methods in the marshlands, a new water and sewage system in the city of Danzig, and many other skills and resources; but in order to resolve the conflicts caused by their alleged heretical faith and ethics, the Prussian Mennonites largely rescinded their historic principle of nonresistance by the middle of the 19th century.

In case 3, on the other hand, the Russification of the Mennonite immigrants was resisted much longer because of their explicit entrance privileges; and here the result was their separation into isolated colonies with a marked degree of religious and cultural impoverishment from within, i.e., the near loss of their missionary motive. Thus, in the sequence of resettlement, Mennonites have faced the choice of adjusting their language and socio-religious norms to the dominant secularized culture or living in semi-isolation from that culture. Case 1 illustrates the first horn of the dilemma, i.e., adaptation at the risk of secularization; and case 3 illustrates the other, i.e., the risk of an unconcerned, aloof irrelevance.

The other index of change that illustrates both of these risks is the degree of Mennonite adherence to their historic peace ethic. The classic illustration of acculturation in sociology textbooks is the adoption of firearms by the American Indians; and in the Mennonite sociology classroom we could refer to the acceptance of the duties of military service in Prussia or the adoption of firearms by certain Russian Mennonites (the Selbstschutz or self-defence units) when their communities were being ravaged by marauding revolutionists following the Russian Revolution. As was often true in Mennonite history, the greatest interaction with the Russian people occurred in wartime when the Mennonites contributed to the war effort in ways both consistent (hospital and medical corps) and inconsistent (implements actually used for warfare) with their traditional pacifist norms.

North American Mennonites have had a severe sequence of tests in this regard: the American Revolution, the American Civil War, World War I, World War II, and the period after World War II with the first "peacetime" conscription in United States history. While their formal position during all of these periods was that of nonparticipation in military service, it is a known fact that in the 20th century, for all the Mennonite groups, more than half of the younger members who were conscripted were willing to serve in combatant or noncombatant roles within the military system.

Following World War II, however, there was vigorous group introspection concerning this discrepancy between principle and practice. The self-study had two facets. The first concerned the conscription data that was collected. Howard Charles observed a curvilinear correlation between strict adherence to the norm of nonresistance and the amount of education of the draftee, i.e., the proportion of drafted men willing to enter military service increased with the amount of education through grade 12 in school; but with additional education beyond high school, the proportion steadily decreased. In his interpretation, Charles wrote: "We may safely say that the majority of draftees having only a grade school education are of rural extraction, and consequently have been sheltered somewhat from the secularizing influence which would predispose them to military service. Furthermore, the grade school psychologically and sociologically plays a less dominant role in the forging of a favorable attitude toward military service than does the high school. The high percentage of college men in CPS [[[Civilian Public Service|Civilian Public Service]]] may be due partially to the influence of our church colleges." Charles concluded that "social influence is the most important single factor which was responsible for men going into military service... a sobering comment on the influence of environment on Christian ideals and conduct."

As convincing as the acculturation explanation appears, one still needs to account for the fact that societal pressures failed to conscript nearly 5,000 men from all Mennonite bodies for military service during World War II. While a person's behavior is influenced by the total cultural environment in which one lives, it is also influenced by one's primary group and its subculture. Reflecting on such intervening influences, Robert Kreider wrote: "Implied in our faith is the belief that man is [indeed] molded by his environment. Mennonites of all ages have been deeply concerned about the type of home, community, church, and economy within which the young generation is nurtured." Kreider analyzed the principal forms of "internal" environment which support the adherence to the norm of pacifism. Congregations which are known to have cultivated and cherished the norm of pacifism have a high percentage of conscientious objectors (COs). Congregations which are known to have become imitative of modern Protestantism in theology and ethics have produced relatively few COs. The presence or absence of a viable discipline in the local congregation is directly related to the presence or absence of overt conscientious objection. Kreider concluded that "the hour of decision for young men of these traditional, disciplinary groups is not the time of the [conscription] questionnaire's arrival, but the day of union with the church."

The other facet of the self-study after World War II concerned the dysfunctions of the alternative service program, i.e., the legal arrangement with the government at those periodic occasions of national military preparedness when Mennonites seek exemption. Many Civilian Public Service men felt that the government had deliberately isolated them in order to restrict their influence on public opinion, that this was the reason Congress had denied them the right to serve in foreign relief work. They would have preferred to do something that seemed more relevant to the world's crises. The traditional Mennonite strategy of refusing any involvement in the conflict seemed to be too complacent and legalistic, if not irresponsible.

Since the publication of Niebuhr's book in 1951, it is doubtful that Mennonites as a whole still represent the "Christ against culture" position. While continuing to affirm those teachings of Jesus and the apostles that confront societal culture with the hard challenges of an alternative kingdom (Matthew 5-7, Romans 12, Galatians 1, 1 Peter 2, 1 John 5, etc.), they also often recite the prayer of the Johannine Christ that his disciples will be in the world, while not of the world (John 17:11-16). The implication of this prayer is that, while they still maintain a clear distinction between Christ and culture, they believe it is possible, under the lordship of Christ, to hold them together in some type of unity. In Niebuhr's typology, Mennonites would find some truth to all of the options he described. Separation from the world in the geographic sense is no longer possible, and it is now being affirmed that the New Testament call to separation (2 Corinthians 6:17) is an ethical, rather than a geographical, injunction and that the Christian's place is in the world. Knowing that society and its culture is fallen, Mennonites, nevertheless, should covenant in local congregations to fulfil Christ's commission to evangelize and prophesy, using the cultural resources of the world to that end, insofar as they are compatible with evangelical goals. In this perspective, acculturation is not only inevitable, it is mandated (1 Corinthians 9:20-24).

See also Dialect Literature and Speech, Low German; Dialect Literature and Speech, Pennsylvania German; Mennonite Studies; Nonconformity; Professions; Urbanization


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Author(s) Leland D Harder
Date Published 1990

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Harder, Leland D. "Acculturation." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 18 Sep 2021.

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Harder, Leland D. (1990). Acculturation. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 September 2021, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, p. 1-4. All rights reserved.

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