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Capitalism, along with communism, is a familiar word in much of the modern world; the ideologies these two words imply have contributed to some of the greatest crises in history. Capitalism has no precise meaning, but it can be assumed to depend upon, or be constituted by "self interest as ultimately the servant of society, the minimization of the role of the state, and the institution of private property . . ." (Hoover, 294-5). Adam Smith (1723-90) proposed that the seeds of capitalism derive from the tendency of human nature to "truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another" (Smith [1776] 1952, p. 6).

While the above characteristics have existed in most human societies, the entrepreneur has focused and energized the "capitalistic" emphasis in western Europe and North America during the last two centuries. The entrepreneur's own energy and wealth, and that of others, has sparked the growth of capitalism. Capitalism has undergone a great transformation from the time of Adam Smith. Capitalism emerged gradually, and did not necessarily follow upon feudalism nor need much technology, but it needed a free market (Polanyi) and stable governmental support. Max Weber (1864-1920) maintained that capitalism required entrepreneurial organization of capital, rationalized technology, free labor, and unrestricted markets. Modified capitalism is said to have developed from the internal contradictions between private property and self-interest as being best for society and reality. Restraints against the uninhibited promotion of self-interest were the natural result.

Contrary to Marxist theory, modern pluralistic modified capitalism (i.e., modified to suit the various national and historic conditions) is not doomed to self-destruction, unless it will be overthrown with violence. The real possibility for this hinges on the nuclear weapons confrontation between the two great proponents of each ideology, the Soviet Union and the United States.

Anabaptists, Mennonites, and Capitalism in Theory

Anabaptist-Mennonite beliefs have promoted respect for government, peace, and integrity in social and human relations, but have been diametrically opposed to two basic tenets of capitalism, namely, the centrality of self-interest in human action and the respect for the sanctity of private property. Anabaptists and Mennonites have had a belief system or theology that stressed regeneration of the individual and made self-interest and self-will submissive to God's will and the welfare of the neighbor. This belief system has been termed "Gelassenheit" (Cronk). In this view human energies should be directed to helping the neighbor and sharing natural resources with them. The "Sermon on the Mount," "following Jesus," the "way of the cross" and other phrases refer to the "Gelassenheit" or communal ethic, which best typifies the attitude of Mennonites regarding the two cardinal ideas of capitalism, namely, self-interest and private property.

That Anabaptists and Mennonites must be seen historically as a part of a general confrontation and rejection of the emerging capitalist orientation is indicated by the many antagonists and theoreticians who defined Mennonites as "communistic" (Kautzky, Zschäbitz) or socialistic, both in the 16th century and in later eras. The actual communistic organization in economic life for example, among the Münster Anabaptists or the Hutterian Brethren and the many anti-self-interest and anti-private property activities which have defined Mennonites, as discussed briefly below, indicate the direction of Mennonite and Anabaptist theology.

Anabaptism-Mennonitism and Capitalism in Practice

Mennonites, with the exception of those in the Soviet Union after 1917, in China during the Maoist revolution, and in eastern European countries since World War II, have operated almost exclusively in a capitalistic environment. Hence they have adapted and adjusted to the capitalistic economic institutions in which they operated. But this does not automatically make them capitalistic in orientation or commitment.

It must be admitted, however, that a substantial and increasing percentage of European and North American Mennonites, including pockets of Mennonites in Brazil and Paraguay, have become rather completely involved in the capitalistic free enterprise system. Businesses of great size developed early in The Netherlands, Germany, Russia before the Revolution, Canada, the United States, Brazil, and Paraguay. Statistical information is not readily available on the incomes and the wealth held by Mennonites, but most concentrations of Mennonite congregations contain a substantial number of millionaires owners of various business, investors, and participants in industrial and commercial establishments. One writer estimates that there were nearly 1,000 Mennonite millionaires in Canada and the United States in 1979 (Marketplace, 1979). It can be assumed that the Mennonites who have entered the entrepreneurial arena often become politically and religiously conservative. Kauffman and Harder's study indicated that 74 percent of United States Mennonites chose the Republican Party in 1972, but we have no breakdown by occupation or wealth. On the basis of interviewing conducted by the present writer, it is clear that the more successful financially, the more conservative politically the Mennonite entrepreneur generally is.

There are, however, sectors of Mennonites who have resisted becoming ideologically captivated by capitalism. The best example is the Hutterite sector. Although it could be remonstrated that they are a type of "church capitalism," the Hutterites believe that "community of goods (Gütergemeinschaft) is the will of God, who from the beginning created all things common for common use" (Hostetler, 146). The "semicommunal" sector of Mennonitism, including the Old Colony Mennonites, the Sommerfelder Mennonites, the Old Order Mennonites, the Amish, and related smaller groups do not generally promote a capitalistic ideology which stresses self-interest and the sanctity of private property. Their practice of' mutual aid and communal ownership of the land (the latter among the Sommerfelder and Old Colony Mennonites) and their stress on simple living, which downgrades self-enhancement and the accumulation of private property, strongly indicate the rejection of the classic capitalistic ethos. Further and intriguing proof of the underlying "communal" ethos in the mainstream Mennonite tradition is the emergence of the modern intentional communities. More than 30 such communities in 1980 (Fretz 1979, p. 116) provide evidence for this strand of residual communalism in Mennonitism.

Furthermore, almost everywhere in Mennonite congregations are found individual families, couples, and persons, who in various forms reject classical capitalist activity. Some have joined intentional communities, while others have given substantial amounts of time in voluntary service to various church and secular organizations, especially Mennonite Central Committee. Some comparative data suggest that Mennonites spend a much higher amount of time in voluntary service to other people than do most of their neighbors. This does not prove an anticapitalistic bias, but it shows that their "self-interest" is not actively directed toward amassing private property, the heart of the capitalistic effort.

As indicated in the article on business, one, if not the greatest, battleground for the survival of the Anabaptist faith is the role of economics in religious life. The values of classical capitalism collide head-on with Anabaptist values. The question before Mennonites is: how can Christians participate in the necessary economic life without being seduced and captured by the lures of self-interest and the sanctity of private ownership of property?

See also Economics; Marxism; Political Attitudes; Socialism


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Cronk, Sandra. "Gelassenheit: the Rites of the Redemptive Process in the Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonite Communities." Ph.D. diss., U. of Chicago, 1977, cf. Mennonite Quarterly Review 55 (1981): 5-44.

Fretz, J. Winfield. "Newly Emerging Communes in Mennonite Communities," in Communes: Historical and Contemporary, ed. Ruch Shonle Cavan. New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1979.

Hostetler, John A. Hutterite Society. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1974.

Hoover, Calvin. "Capitalism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan, 1968.

Kauffman, J. Howard and Leland Harder. Anabaptists Four Centuries Later. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press,1975.

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Smith, Adam. The Wealth of the Nations. London, 1952; originally published 1776.

Zschäbitz, Gerhard. Zur mitteldeutschen Wiedertäuferbewegung nach dem grossen Bauernkreig. Berlin, 1958.

Author(s) Calvin W Redekop
Date Published 1989

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Redekop, Calvin W. "Capitalism." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 28 Sep 2022.

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Redekop, Calvin W. (1989). Capitalism. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 28 September 2022, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, p. 125-127. All rights reserved.

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