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1953 Article

Bishop is the title used by several groups of Mennonites in America for the highest ministerial office. The corresponding term in Dutch was oudste (although bisschop was also occasionally used) and in German Aeltester, English translation "elder." In the United States those groups which descended from European immigrants who arrived after 1800 from Switzerland, Germany, or Russia, and did not affiliate with the Mennonite Church (MC) whose foundation and organization was laid by immigrants from Germany and Switzerland in the 18th century, used almost exclusively the German term "Aeltester" and later its English form "elder," but those who affiliated with the Mennonite Church adopted the term "bishop." However, in Canada, the older General Conference congregations, the Bergthal, the Kleine Gemeinde, and similar conservative groups used "bishop" freely in their English usage. The Eastern District Conference of the General Conference Mennonite Church, having originated in 1847-1848 in a schism from the Mennonite Church (MC) in Eastern Pennsylvania, wavered, first using "bishop," but later after affiliation with the newer immigrant groups of the General Conference Church, adopted "elder." The following United States groups (and their Canadian congregations) used "bishop" exclusively: Mennonites (MC), Old Order Mennonites, Old Order Amish, Conservative Amish, Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, and smaller related groups. Vos claims "bisschop" was the term first used by Obbe Philips and Menno Simons in the beginning in Holland, later supplanted by "oudste."

The history of the usage of the term "bishop" has not been fully traced. Without doubt the Mennonite Church (MC) in the United States was responsible for its introduction into the English ecclesiastical terminology of Mennonites, but exactly when this occurred is not certain. Christian Herr, a leader of the Lancaster Mennonite Conference, wrote a brief article on the Mennonites for I. D. Rupp's History of all the Religious Denominations in the United States (Harrisburg, 1848), in which he speaks of the threefold ministry of the Mennonites as "bishops, elders or ministers, and deacons." An 1849 remonstrance by the officials of the Deep Run Mennonite (MC) congregation of the Franconia Conference against the organization of an Oberholtzer congregation at that place, addressed to the Bucks County Court, was signed by two "bishops," two "ministers," and two "elders," where the title "elder" meant "deacon" (J. C. Wenger, History of the Mennonites of the Franconia Conference, Telford, 1938, 363). The Ordnung der Mennonitischen Gemeinschaft, adopted and printed by the Oberholtzer group in 1848, said in the section Von den Aemtern, "Die Aemter unserer Gemeinschaft sind dreierlei: Erstens, Das Amt der Bestätigten oder Bischöfe; Zweitens, Das Amt der gemeinen Lehrer oder Prediger; Drittens, Das Amt der Vorsteher oder Diaconen. Niemand kann zum Bestätigten oder Bischof gewählt werden . . . . " John H. Oberholtzer himself, though ordained to the office after he left the old church, assumed the title of "bishop," as was clearly indicated by the title of his 1860 book, Der Wahre Charakter von J. H. Oberholtzer, Prediger und Bischof . . . , and the obituary article about him which appeared in the 1896 Mennonite Year Book and Almanac called him bishop and told of his "ordination to the office of bishop" in 1847. A list of ordained men of the Ontario Mennonite Conference (MC) printed about 1853 listed "bishops, ministers, and deacons," and the printed 1864 German minutes of that conference use the German term "Bischöfe." (This conference had strong connections with the Franconia Conference, many of its families having emigrated from that area to Ontario 1780-1820.)

It is possible that the use of "bishop" was unintentionally promoted by the Dordrecht Confession of 1632 (first German edition 1664, first English edition 1712 in Amsterdam and 1727 in Philadelphia), which used the term "bisschop" (Dutch), "Bischof" (German), as well as "oudste," "Aeltester," and "elder," and which was adopted as the official confession of the Pennsylvania Mennonites in 1725. At any rate, it seems clear that the Pennsylvania Mennonites as early as 1845 were using "bishop" in both English and German, and reserved "Aeltester" as the German word for "deacon." In view of the traditionalism of this group, it is most probable that this usage goes back into the 18th century at least. The Pennsylvania Amish and their descendants must have used "Bischof" (and more recently "Bishop") in the German for almost as long.

There is no evidence that "Aeltester" was regularly used for "bishop" by either the Amish or Mennonite groups of Pennsylvania (and their European Swiss, Alsatian, and South German ancestors). The corresponding German terms which they used were Bestätigter Diener (confirmed minister), Völliger Diener, or Voller Diener (full minister). It is probable that "oudste" or "Aeltester" (elder) was a more characteristic Dutch-North German-Prussian-Russian term and only in the 19th century came to be used in South Germany, France, and Switzerland, where it has apparently been the standard term for over a century. However, the Concept of Cologne (1591), printed in Holland in 1660, the oldest of the Dutch-Northwest German confessions, used the term bishop in the following sentence (p. 110), Een Bisschop of Leeraer sal onstraffelijck sijn.

The Minister's Manual of the Mennonite Church (MC), first published by John F. Funk at Elkhart in 1890, defined the office of bishop in the following paragraph:

The bishop or elder in the Mennonite church is simply the minister who has been ordained to the special charge of caring for, and officiating in the church of a certain prescribed district. This district may contain but one place of worship, or a number of places, which are at considerable distances from each other. He may have a number of fellow-ministers in his charge, to preach at the various places, and aid him in his work generally.

Earlier each congregation (the Amish still have this practice) had a bishop, several preachers, and one or two deacons, the number of preachers and deacons depending somewhat upon the size of the congregation. As the Mennonite settlements in Eastern Pennsylvania and Ontario and elsewhere expanded, the new congregations were considered as daughters of the older, and usually the bishop simply continued to exercise oversight over the daughter congregations as well. In fact the entire settlement was usually thought of as one "congregation." This accounted for the rise of the "bishop district" (or diocese, although this latter term was almost never used), which in its largest extent seldom had more than 5-8 congregations and 1,500-2,000 members, often much less. The daughter Mennonite conferences followed the Lancaster-Franconia pattern of bishop districts. The Amish never permitted this evolution, however, and both the original Pennsylvania communities and the daughter Amish settlements continued to adhere to this practice of each congregation having its own bishop. Among the Old Order Amish a new congregation or "district" was not considered fully organized and independent until it had its own independent bishop chosen from its own membership. The history of the Canadian General Conference Mennonite Church and related groups revealed the same pattern and development as that of the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonites, only more sharply defined, with one bishop having oversight of as many as 15-30 groups, all viewed as one congregation or Gemeinde. For example, the Bergthal Church in Manitoba with almost 3,500 members and over 20 groups, until the mid-20th century had only one bishop (then two), and the Rosenort Church in Saskatchewan with one bishop had almost as many groups and members. The Manitoba, Mexico, and Paraguay Old Colony and Sommerfelder groups (all of Manitoba origin) likewise had only one bishop, no matter how numerous the subgroups or congregations or how large the membership.

A bishop could normally be chosen only from among the already ordained ministers, although some Amish groups admitted deacons to candidacy; thus a bishop ordination was always a second ordination. Usually the administration of ordination, baptism, marriage, the Lord's Supper, and discipline were exclusive functions of the bishop, along with presiding over the congregation in all its worship and business meetings, and pastoral responsibility.

Much prestige has usually attached to the office of bishop in America. This was also the case in Russia and Prussia, and in earlier times in Holland and Germany as well, when the term "elder" meant the same thing as "bishop." However, the multiplication of "elders" in one congregation (Switzerland and South Germany-Badischer Verband) or the practice of ordaining almost all pastors to be elders and doing so almost at the beginning of their ministry, greatly reduced the prestige and significance of the office in those groups where this was done; when all pastors became bishops, then there is no longer a bishop in the older sense. Usually the differentiation between bishop and minister was not one of rank so much as of function; accordingly in conference work and organization ministers usually had equal rights and privileges with bishops. An exception to this rule was the practice which evolved through the years in the Lancaster Conference and to a lesser degree in the Franconia Conference, of treating the group of bishops as a sort of upper house in the conference, like the House of Bishops in the Episcopal Church of the United States. The group was called the Bishop Board, and had the sole right to initiate legislation in the conference sessions. Ministers were allowed to vote but not to "gainsay" the bishops. The Bishop Board met in advance of the full session of conference to prepare the business and recommendations for the full conference.

There were in the Mennonite Church (MC) in 1953 about 570 congregations and 71,500 members, with roughly 180 bishops, 860 ministers, and 380 deacons. The Old Order Amish with 15,000 members in 160 congregations had 161 bishops, 381 ministers, 155 deacons. The Conservative Amish with almost 6,000 members in 42 congregations had 42 bishops, 76 ministers, 18 deacons. The Old Order Mennonites with 5,500 members in 45 congregations had 14 bishops, 50 ministers, and 34 deacons. The Kleine Gemeinde of Manitoba with 2,000 members had 2 bishops, 17 ministers, 6 deacons. The Bergthal Church in Manitoba with 3,500 members had 2 bishops and 21 ministers. The Conference of Mennonites in Canada with 15,500 members in 63 congregations had 32 bishops or elders (only 18 had died in the entire history of the conference) and 240 ministers.

For a treatment of the office of elder as practiced among the Mennonites of Europe and certain groups in America, see Elder. -- Harold S. Bender

1990 Update

The term bishop was not common among the Swiss-South German Anabaptists, who developed a congregational polity, modified by a synodal element that helped bring unity to the larger group-the first major synod being the Schleitheim Conference of 1527. The Hutterites had a Vorsteher, or head elder, from the time of Jakob Hutter (1530s) to 1687; this leader helped coordinate all aspects of faith and life among the various Hutterian communities in Moravia and Slovakia.

From 1530 onward Anabaptism in the Low Countries, as a free church movement, took on a congregational polity. During the time of Menno Simons, however, four leaders -- Dirk Philips, Menno Simons, Gillis van Aken, and Leenaert Bouwens -- each apparently agreed to oversee a definite territory. Each geographic district contained a number of congregations, and one of the four individuals carried ongoing responsibility for that area in pastoral care and oversight, exercising discipline, baptizing, etc. Although elder was the usual term used, the term bishop also came to be used, as can be seen in the Dordrecht Confession of Faith of 1632. The Dutch Mennonites, in later generations, adopted a congregational polity, and the idea of bishop has long since disappeared from the Dutch Mennonite scene.

In North America, the usual German term in use for the senior minister was "voller (volliger) Diene(r)"; such a "full servant (of the Word)" was empowered by the congregation to baptize, to preside at the congregation's communion services, and to handle matters of discipline, etc., in consultation with the congregation.

The full servant, however, was often simply the congregation's leader, and not a "bishop," in the sense of having oversight over a district of congregations. In some area conferences, e.g., Franconia Conference, one "full servant" could, and often did, have oversight over several congregations that had developed out of the various meetingplaces of what earlier had been a single congregation.

In other area conferences, e.g., Franklin, Lancaster, and Virginia, the idea of bishop as having official oversight over a definite district has a more formal and long-standing tradition that probably shows a more direct influence of the Low-Country Mennonite pattern as established in the time of Menno Simons. These same conferences -- Franklin, Lancaster, and Virginia -- still (1999) maintain a formal bishop's office, including bishop districts. A few other independent conferences also fit in here, such as the Cumberland Valley Mennonite Church, the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church, the Mid-Atlantic Mennonite Fellowship, and the Southeastern Mennonite Conference. Most Old Order Mennonite groups in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ontario, Ohio, Indiana, and Missouri also fit this scheme, again probably due to the Low-Country Mennonite influence. This came, most likely, through Jakob Amman's overt interest in Menno Simons and Dirk Philips and their approach to church government. Later, the Old Order Amish generally rejected the bishop district idea, having instead only a volliger Diene(r) (full servant) with authority to serve the interests of one congregation only.

Since the 1960s, almost all other area conferences of the larger Mennonite groups have moved away from the idea of bishop; in the 1980s the term overseer became the term used for the area-conference coordinator for most such conferences -- a term more in line with the traditional (modified) congregationalism of most Anabaptist and Mennonite groups over the centuries.

This represents a return to a traditional Swiss South German and Dutch (before and after the Menno Simons and Dordrecht Confession era) denominational structure for most Mennonite congregations and areas: a congregational pattern, modified by a synodal element (triennial general conferences [GCM] and biennial general assemblies (MC). For the Mennonite Church (MC), an important shift away from the bishop idea came at the time of a major denominational restructuring in 1971. The several regional conferences that still hold on to the bishop district, as noted above, in effect continue to maintain the church government of the Dutch Mennonites as established during Menno Simons' time. -- Leonard Gross


Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. I, 224.

Vos, K. "De keuze tot Doopsgezind Bisschop." Nederlandscharchiefvoor kerkgeschiedenis 16 (1921).

Author(s) Harold S. Bender
Leonard Gross
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Bender, Harold S. and Leonard Gross. "Bishop." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 30 Jul 2021.

APA style

Bender, Harold S. and Leonard Gross. (1989). Bishop. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 30 July 2021, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 347-349; vol. 5, p. 86. All rights reserved.

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