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1955 Article

Business is the general term applied to the activity of making a living, but it is usually used specifically to refer to the activity of buying and selling or rendering service for profit. It may also be used to describe the manufacturing of commodities for sale at a profit. The term "business" is distinguished from the term "profession," which is a form of service in exchange for a fee or a salary, and business is activity distinguished from manual labor for a wage. It is also usually distinguished from farming.

It is well known that business as a buying and selling activity for profit was long frowned upon by Christians as an unethical way of making a living and not worthy of a Christian calling. Charging of interest for the use of money, and buying and selling for a profit was considered contrary to the high standards of Christian ethics. Before the Reformation, no respectable Christians engaged in "business." John Calvin is generally credited with having been among the earliest Christians to justify business as a calling through which pious individuals could glorify God as well as through any other enterprise.

However, long after the Reformation various religious groups still hesitated to approve business as an acceptable Christian enterprise. Mennonites, longer than any other religious group, forbade their members to engage in profit-making businesses. In the early history of the Mennonite Church, the vocations represented were chiefly those of farming, skilled crafts, such as weaving, and unskilled or common labor. One did not find Mennonites engaged in business enterprises for profit. Among the Old Order Amish in the United States, and the Old Colony Mennonites in Canada, Mexico, and Paraguay this ancient antipathy to business as a way of making a living was still maintained in the 1950s. Members of these groups were forbidden to engage in business enterprises. Only agriculture, or activity very closely related to it, was tolerated. There was corresponding opposition to living in cities , and towns.

In Europe, especially in Holland and North Germany, already in the 17th century Mennonites engaged in profit-making enterprises. They had found refuge in the more tolerant cities and industrial centers, such as Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Emden, Hamburg, Danzig, and Königsberg, and with thrift and industriousness, soon began to accumulate fortunes from such commercial ventures as shipping, banking, and merchandising. Very few of those so engaged, however, immigrated to America. Mennonites coming to North and South America through the mid-20th century were farmers almost exclusively. Even those whose forefathers were in America for two centuries only in the first half of the 20th century began to forsake the rural for the urban areas and the agricultural pursuits for the industrial and commercial occupations.

Where Mennonites entered business, it was usually in areas closely allied to agriculture, such as buying and selling feed and grain, milling, hatcheries, small factories and repair shops, garages, and general merchandising stores. By mid-20th century there was an increase in the number of Mennonites establishing manufacturing plants. On the whole, however, by the 1950s there were few large and well-established American Mennonite manufacturing plants or merchandising establishments in comparison to those of the Mennonites in the industrial sections of North Germany and Holland. The number of Mennonites gainfully employed in business in 1950s, either in their own or as employees of business establishments operated by others, was probably between 15 and 25 per cent of all gainfully employed Mennonites, but the percentage of Mennonites so engaged was gradually increasing. The excess of migration from rural to urban areas since 1920 for the United States as a whole made itself felt among Mennonites as well. Mennonites who moved to cities often gave up their affiliation with the Mennonite Church, and thus when they become established in business they were no longer considered Mennonites.

In the South American colonies the same pattern of development seemed to be common. In the beginning everybody was engaged in agriculture. Gradually small service centers, stores, and the like were developed to provide for the needs of the agriculturalists. As these grew, a larger percentage of individuals become engaged in non-agricultural enterprises. In one significant area the development in South America differed from that in North America, viz., in their attitude toward cooperatives.

Among the South American Mennonites business was conducted on a cooperative basis, whereas in North America the tradition was highly individualistic, and Mennonites did organize or promote many cooperative business enterprises. In South America cooperative businesses were frequently a necessity for survival, whereas in North America cooperatives were by the 1950s looked upon as a desirable way of doing business and were most popular among Mennonite farmers, though some Mennonites were opposed to accepting membership in cooperative associations for fear of becoming "unequally yoked." In North America cooperatives and mutual aid seemed to be growing in the mid-20th century, while in South America individual business enterprises were increasing in number. The Mennonites in North America have fully and uncritically accepted the theory of capitalism and the profit motive in business. -- J. Winfield Fretz

1990 Update

Business has been one of the most underrated, ignored, and misunderstood topics in Mennonite life. Although Mennonites have always been deeply involved in business, there is little explicit discussion of business in writings by or about Mennonites. In fact, Mennonites have been described as antipathetic toward business. Business is an aspect of economics which has been defined as the procedures by which "Men and society choose, with or without the use of money, to employ scarce productive resources to produce various commodities over time and distribute them for consumption, now and in the future, among various people and groups in society (Samuelson, p. 6). Business is not easily defined; it usually includes activity for profit which is dependent on production of goods and services but may consist solely of transactions. Business usually involves dealing with people to achieve goals and is circumscribed by its own language and normative system of duties and obligations (Solomon and Hanson). Business also normally assumes an entrepreneurial dimension, i.e., someone must initiate or manage the business, and this is distinguished from employment, vocation, profession, occupation, and job. It is thus apparent that Mennonites, from earliest times to the present, have been involved in economic activity, and many of them, in business activities as well.

Business activity on the part of Christians has created some of the greatest concern for the church. Early Christian leaders such as Augustine (354-430) and Tertullian (ca. 160-220), were quite restrictive; later theologians such as Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), approved of business, but insisted on a just price, just profit, and generous charity to the poor. Protestant leaders such as Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-64), "sanctified" business activities and suggested that they could be a calling by which God's kingdom might be enhanced. There is clearly discernable an emphasis on poverty and the responsible use of wealth in the Catholic tradition, and an emphasis on Christian stewardship to exercise the God-given talents to acquire wealth in Protestantism (Mullin, 1984). The Anabaptist tradition has espoused yet another approach (the communal ethic).

Social theorists have proposed that Catholicism has promoted a "traditional" economic and business ethic, where individual gain was regulated by the church; Protestantism, being more concerned about individual salvation, has tended to encourage individual effort and has been more amenable to capitalism, as propounded in a well-known book, The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism (1904-5) by Max Weber (1864-1920). Much literature is now appearing from both Catholic and Protestant circles, promoting Christian faithfulness in the world of economics, especially business.

Mennonite Experience in Business

The early Anabaptists in Switzerland, North Holland, and Germany came from various occupations, professions, and social classes (Clasen, Peachey, Klassen, Stayer, Goertz, and others) but they were not wealthy land owners or business owners. They were part of the revolution of the "common man" (Packull, Goertz) and were concerned about social, religious, and economic oppression. This does not mean that they were uninvolved in business, for many were, as can be inferred from their professional and occupational titles. The early period is difficult to describe further because of the massive dislocation, disruptions, and oppression which Mennonites faced from the church and the municipal and territorial rulers. it is probably safe to say that some Anabaptists were active in business in this early period but that their activities were frequently disrupted.

Since Mennonite activity on farms (most of them rented) in the Swiss and Alsatian Jura Mountains, as well as Germany, Austria, and elsewhere, can be defined as business, then Mennonites were clearly active in business by 1550. Their survival as a religious group depended upon shrewd and competent management of farming and related activities. These skills they developed remarkably well. Examples are shown in Jean Séguy's account of the French Mennonites; and in the Hutterite management of noble lands, including clockmaking and pottery (Hostetler).

The Dutch Mennonites are the best example of business involvement after 1588. This ran the gamut from lumber trading, fishing and whaling, shipping, and shipbuilding to banking and distilleries. No business activity was foreign to the Dutch Mennonites. They numbered among their membership some of the foremost business people in Holland, one of Europe's leading commercial centers during the 17th century. In Germany Alsace, Austria, Switzerland, and subsequently in Prussia, the more limited business involvements of Mennonites were a function of their lack of freedom to establish themselves in business and their relative lack of opportunity to work the land. Later, especially in Prussia and Russia, the manufacturing and industrial growth of Mennonite business was a consequence of the increasing paucity of land for farming, which had become a major form of economic activity among Mennonites.

By 1850, however, Mennonites were engaged in business to a degree verging on industrialism. In Russia, the development of the Agricultural Association in 1831 initiated a modernizing of agriculture and related activities which finally resulted in several "commerce schools" (Kommerzschule). In North America, the predominant economic activity was farming, which represented both a way of life and making a living. No statistics are available before the turn of the present century regarding the proportion of Mennonites involved in business and professional activities in Europe, Russia, or North America.

The year 1850, although arbitrary, can be taken as the beginning of a shift in Mennonite involvement in business. Unoccupied lands became much scarcer, and urbanization was accelerating. The Industrial Revolution, beginning in England in the 18th century, spread to western Europe and North America between 1800 and 1850. The Dutch Mennonites were already well advanced in both urbanization and industrialization by 1850. Although the German Mennonites and Swiss remained largely rural and agricultural, the Russian Mennonites made great strides, including the development of flour milling, foundries, implement manufacturing and a host of commercial and merchant activities, all well developed by the end of the 19th century. (D. G. Rempel, David H. Epp).

By 1940, a half-century after the American frontier was "closed," the "agricultural phase" of Mennonites in North America had begun its decline. The Russian Mennonites have been forcibly dispersed, so it is no longer possible to include them in the general characterization. Of course the more conservative or "communal" groups of Mennonites have retained their rural and agricultural patterns. This category includes a significant percentage of Mennonites in the 1980s (Hutterites, Amish of all branches, Old Order Mennonites and related smaller groups, Old Colony, Sommerfelder and related groups), but they have fought an increasingly difficult battle.

Mennonites, including now the recent non-Germanic additions through missionary activity, can be defined as being basically urban, well-educated, and tending toward middle class status. Many are conducting their own businesses, including barbershops; saw sharpening shops; implement sales and services; woodworking shops; and factories; massive furniture manufacturing; wood processing (North and South America, especially Brazil); machinery, food, and housing production; and the building of railroads in Canada. The description of Mennonite businesses in Mennonite Encyclopedia, vol. 1 is fairly adequate until the 1950s, but, if anything, it understates the case.

In that earlier article H. S. Bender said that after the Civil War in the United States Mennonites of the Franconia Conference began supplying butter, eggs, and fresh meats and fowl to the residents of Philadelphia as commission merchants. At the turn of the 19th century Miller, Hess and Co. was established in Akron, Pennsylvania as a substantial shoe manufacturing business with up to five subsidiary companies. Near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania the C.H. Musselman Company became a leader in processing apple products and other fruits. The J.M. Smucker Company at Orrville, Ohio about the same time became a leading apple butter factory. Archbold, Ohio became a center of Mennonite woodworking industries. Several Mennonite farm implement specialty factories developed, including Hesston Manufacturing Co. at Hesston, Kansas. Some Mennonite farmers had capacity for over 100,000 broilers.

In Altona, Manitoba several large processing mills developed, especially for sunflower-seed oil. Edward Snyder built a large potato chip industry in Preston, Ontario and Abraham Schellenberg developed a chain of grocery stores in all major cities in Saskatchewan.

Certainly since 1956, Mennonite business activity has grown explosively in all parts of the world. In fact, according to the Kauffman and Harder profile published in 1975 (the only adequate source so far), Mennonites are above the United States average by 29 percent in three areas: professional and technical, business owners and managers, and farm owners and managers (Smucker; Nafziger).

Although adequate specific and concrete data and information is not available, the general evidence is overwhelming that the Mennonites never eschewed business; in fact, they seemed to have gone into it with zest (Epp-Tiessen). Mennonites have entered all manner of economic activity and have been generally known as very good farmers. They have, in fact, succeeded better than many artisans and shrewd and aggressive business people, according to Kauffman and Harder income statistics. Whether this factor has been consistent with Mennonite theology and practice, and whether Mennonite activity in business has affected their theology and practice in return, is another matter, to which we now turn.

The Mennonite People in Business


Mennonite thinking about the role of the Christian in business has been weak. In the 1980s one looked in vain for any reference to business, commerce, trade, or economic activity in the writings of the early Anabaptist leaders. Similarly, Mennonite confessions from the Schleitheim Confession (1527) statements to the most recent have no reference to economic behaviour and its role in the Christian life. Discussions of stewardship come the closest by referring to resources and wealth. Judging from Anabaptist writings, Anabaptist theology seemed limited to concern about the status of property in the community, and about its use in the community and outside. A Christian stewardship of creation and material goods implied a mutual sharing and caring (Klassen, Hershberger, Smucker). Peter Klassen describes the Anabaptist understanding of economics as "The Economics of Mutual Aid" (p. 28ff.). Anabaptists never developed any coherent discussion or theology of economic behaviour; hence, business has never figured in Anabaptist-Mennonite churchly discourse.

There has been some discussion and writing recently on the issue of economics and business. One of the first concerted efforts in North America was the Committee on Economic and Social Relations, which was formed in 1939, spearheaded by Guy F. Hershberger, who was a pioneer in the field. This committee sponsored conferences and published position papers on labor-mangagment relations, race relations, etc. The Conference on Mennonite Cultural Problems, formed in December 1941, also included economic subjects in its program, although in a more descriptive than normative manner. The most concerted writings on economics (and business indirectly) have come from Guy F. Hershberger and are summarized best in his book The Way of the Cross in Human Relations (1958). The Mennonite Community magazine included some allusions to normative economic and business relationships. The Marketplace, published by Mennonite Economic Development Associates since 1971, was the most conscious attempt to relate Mennonite theology, economics, and business. That the leadership in Mennonite pulpits has not stressed economic behaviour is surprising. Until the advent of the professional ministry, the lay ministers were almost always engaged in business or farming (or both) and would have had reasons to concern themselves with the subject. In summary, it must be said that Mennonites had an implicit theology of economics and business, expressed in their discipleship and nonconformity emphases.

The Congregation and Business Activities

Lacking an explicit theology of economics and business, Mennonites have controlled it by emphasizing a way of life which tended to promote agriculture and related activities as most consistent with nonconformity to the world. Thus, valuing land and its use has become an identifiable characteristic of Mennonites (Séguy, Redekop, 1985, Nafziger). In this way economic activity, especially business, was monitored and sanctioned by the congregational emphasize on nonconformity, nonresistance, honesty, fairness, etc. Menno Simons castigated the avarice and dishonesty of merchants and others, but has nothing further to say about how business relates to the church (Writings, 368ff.).

There is limited evidence that congregations, including those in The Netherlands, specifically admonished or disciplined members for immoral business practices. Often, especially among the Hutterites, Amish, and Old Colony Mennonites, individuals who deviated from the congregation's principles voluntarily left the church (Hostetler, Redekop, 1969).

Unfortunately, the business owners in the typical Mennonite congregation often felt alienated from other members, and their success was often resented. Some complained that "the church only appreciates the business community when it needs money." This ambiguity has been further exacerbated by the fact that the Mennonite church has become deeply involved in the establishment of myriad fraternal organizations, agencies, and institutions that make use of business practices or, in fact, have become businesses. Thus, the educational enterprise (including grade schools, high schools, and colleges), publishing houses, mutual aid organizations, and health care systems, to name a few, have become deeply enmeshed in business activities, including making of profits. But Mennonites have not openly evaluated these institutions as part of the economic stream. The promotion of economic and business activity has emerged almost by default. Most pertinent and ironic are probably the college economics and business departments, which prepare young people for careers in economics and business. This is done without a clear framework, since Mennonites have only an implicit religious belief system in the area of economics and business. Mennonite colleges were basically initiated for the propagation of the faith of their forebears, best expressed for a time in preparing for the "service professions," which seemed consistent with Mennonite beliefs. Business and economics departments, now among the most popular in North America, are more difficult to harmonize with this Mennonite ethos.

Church Agencies in Economics

Because economic activity, especially business, has not been self-consciously promoted and evaluated, it is the "parachurch" structures that have attempted to come to grips with the problem. Beginning with the mutual aid work of the Waisenamt, although there may have been other less formal earlier activities, Mennonites have begun to attempt to put in practice their religious faith in the economic sphere in specific organizations such as the cooperatives (especially in South America, Canada, and parts of the United States). The credit union movement became one of the fastest growing parachurch movements in the 1980s; the Mennonite Foundation; the numerous Mennonite mutual aid organizations, (some of which actually are insurance companies); professional organizations, such as the Mennonite Medical Association, and Mennonite Economic Development Associates, are examples of Mennonites committed to applying the Christian gospel in economics and business. Almost all of these have emerged without official congregational or conference support or initiative, often facing opposition.

But the inference is clear: Mennonites in economic activity, especially business, need help in charting a course in dangerous waters. The temptations dangers, costs, and demands of the economic arena are heavy. And there are many casualties -- many business and professional people live at the margins of' congregational life and feel alienated from the congregation. This is not to say the fault lies solely with those not involved in business. Both sides in the alienation carry responsibility to attempt to hold the poles together.

The issues of profits, accumulation of wealth (actually power), private property, charging interest, speculation and wheeling and dealing, debt versus equity financing in business, doing business with, or joining with, nonbelievers (the traditional Mennonite nonconformity theology that rejected being "yoked with unbelievers" [2 Cor. 6:14-15]), and many more similar issues are confronting Mennonites around the globe with serious implications. The reason why this entire issue is relatively neglected may well be because the membership in the pews has accepted rather fully the western "capitalistic ethic" as Hershberger so eloquently states in The Way of the Cross (esp. pp. 285ff).

Recent scholarship is redefining much of the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement as a utopian revolt (Goertz) that was concerned about reestablishing the communal life of the early church, and hence strongly eschewed private property and personal acquisition. As a general movement, Anabaptism was concerned about utilizing natural resources for the good of all. In some wings of Anabaptism, property was to be held in common, while in others private property was permissible, but it was to be at the disposal of others and for the common good. Hence, the world of economics and business challenges the Anabaptist communal ethic directly, and the record of Mennonite response so far is uneven and at times tragic. This is one of the most critical issues facing the world fellowship of Christian faith as well as Mennonites in the late 20th century. -- Calvin W. Redekop

See also Business among the Mennonites in France and Switzerland; Business among the Mennonites in Germany; Business among the Mennonites in the Netherlands; Business among the Mennonites in North America; Business among the Mennonites in Russia


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Smucker, Donovan. "Gelassenheit, Entrepreneurs, and Remnants: Socio-economic Models Among the Mennonites," in Kingdom, Cross and Community, ed. J. R. Burkholder and Calvin Redekop. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1976.

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Who's Who Among the Mennonites. 1943: 300-314.

Author(s) J. Winfield Fretz
Calvin W. Redekop
Date Published 1990

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Fretz, J. Winfield and Calvin W. Redekop. "Business." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 20 May 2024.

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Fretz, J. Winfield and Calvin W. Redekop. (1990). Business. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 20 May 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 480-481; vol. 5, pp. 113-115. All rights reserved.

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