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1955 Article

The term "community" is used with a variety of meanings. Commonly it is used to refer to a group of people settled in a particular small geographic area and having a relatively large number of interests, activities, attitudes, traditions, and cultural aspects in common. It may be a village, town, township, or even city or county. In a certain sense a state or even a nation is sometimes called a community, though in a strict sense this is not possible. When applied to Mennonites, the term "community" has all of these meanings plus the connotation of a homogeneous religious group with clearly marked beliefs, principles, and characteristic social practices. In common usage the terms "Mennonite community" and "Mennonite church" (congregation) are used interchangeably almost to the point of being synonymous. There is, however, a sense in which the term "community" has a wider application than the term "church" since it includes persons who are not actually church members. Originally, church and community were one because the church was composed of adult believers only, but this is no longer the case. There are today adult non-church members whose family and cultural backgrounds are Mennonite but who never joined the Mennonite Church. These individuals consider themselves Mennonites of a sort and are generally so considered by others. This was particularly true in Russia where the Mennonite settlements were German Protestant cultural islands in the Slavic Greek Orthodox cultural body, and where in the 1940s up to one third of the adult population were not baptized members. In the post-war settlements in South America, the percentage of unbaptized members was still higher. The problem of racial or cultural (unbaptized) Mennonite community members existed in Russia and in other places also, such as the Danzig area earlier, and western Canada since 1922. In other words, membership in a Mennonite community has a cultural inference which is not confined to those who subscribe to the doctrines of the church nor those who adhere to the religious discipline required of members in an organized religious body. 

When applied to Mennonites, then, the term "community" is basically a religious concept with certain sociological implications. The economic, the social, and the political aspects of the Mennonite community are all subordinate to the religious. The religious aspects are primary and all-pervasive. The roots of the Mennonite community are clearly discernible in the 16th-century genesis of the Mennonite Church which emerged in the "left wing" segment of the Reformation. A central reason for establishing a new church in the Reformation era was that the true church was to be composed of adult baptized believers only. Children and religiously indifferent adults were not to be considered members of the church, hence not of the Christian community. Menno Simons' ideal of the church was described in the words "without spot or wrinkle." The sincere efforts of its members to live scrupulously righteous lives in a sinful world often made Mennonite communities conspicuous. Their constant and conscious effort to live under the guidance of God and after the pattern of Christ won for them the descriptive phrase "communities of the spirit." While not politically conscious, the Mennonite communities were characterized by the concern they expressed for democratic values, such as religious freedom, tolerance, individual rights, and congregational church government. 

North American Mennonite communities in the 1950s were characterized by their ethnically homogeneous character. In all of the older communities, one could still clearly discern the ethnic background of the Mennonites. There were three main Mennonite ethnic groups; namely, the Swiss, the Dutch, and the German, although even the German Mennonites may ultimately be traced back to either Holland or Switzerland, but of these the Dutch never appeared in community form in North America. The distinguishable characteristics are observable not only to the genealogist and the historian, but to anyone who listens to the speech, the dialect, and the accent of North American Mennonites. Many Mennonites of the 1950s were bilingual. The Pennsylvania-German dialect was still universal among all Old Order Amish and Conservative Amish and very common in some of the Mennonite (MC) groups and many of those who descended directly from the Swiss group. The German was also common among most of the Mennonites who have come originally from West Prussia and Russia. The Swiss who came directly from Switzerland to Ohio and Indiana, and those who came to Kansas and South Dakota by way of Polish Russia, still spoke the Swiss dialect to some extent. 

Mennonite communities, while affected by the culture of the times, in the 1950s were still rather largely characterized by the compact nature of their settlements. This was especially true of agricultural areas where the pull of the church in a community tended to draw its members into the community and by degrees drive out by the processes of competition, invasion, and succession, the non-Mennonite populations. The predominant occupation was still agriculture, although a noticeable shift of Mennonite population from the farms to the towns and cities was everywhere evident during the first half of the 20th century. Where Mennonites have gone to cities, the solidarity of the communities has been shattered. There were only a few cases of Mennonite communities in urban areas, and most city Mennonite churches have been unable to maintain their traditional characteristics of solidarity. In fact, Mennonites moving to the cities have in large numbers lost their identity as Mennonites. A major exception to this was the large Mennonite population of Winnipeg, chiefly of the 1922 ff. and the 1947 ff. immigrations from Russia, compactly settled in several suburban areas of Winnipeg.

While most North American communities in the 1950s still reflected a sense of solidarity, and to the non-Mennonite appeared to be culturally compact and somewhat isolated from the rest of the world, this was at times only a surface appearance. Every Mennonite community, including the Old Order Amish, has felt the impact of the revolutionary changes of the times. No community has escaped the penetrating poisons of modern secularism. The processes of accommodation, adaptation, and assimilation have subtly gone on and gradual changes took place even though the significance of these changes has often not been recognized until long after the community has taken on the new characteristic.

Among factors accounting for the sociological changes in the structure and the character of the American community were the public school, the radio, the printing press, the automobile, and a host of other technological inventions which changed the fundamental nature of living and earning a living. The public-school system with its compulsory education, its standardized textbooks, and its inevitable throwing together of children from a variety of religious, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds, plus the conscious effort to teach all people to think alike, resulted in something of a standardization of behavior and acceptance of cultural values by Mennonites along with their fellow North American citizens. Listening to nationally broadcast radio programs, reading highly illustrated magazines and newspapers, and participating in technical American recreational activities, all tended to water down many of the North American Mennonite patterns of behavior to something of a standard American norm. Intermarriage has taken place at a accelerated rate in recent decades, especially in areas where Mennonite populations are small, and where mating along exogamous lines is therefore the natural and inevitable result. Despite the many changes that have taken place in Mennonite communities, a relatively stable character is still manifested. The best index to this was perhaps the low rate of social disorganization. Cases of serious crime in the 1950s were a rare exception in Mennonite communities. The divorce rate, which is an index to family stability, was low and divorce still remained the very rare exception in the 1950s Mennonite community. Mennonite communities were still characterized by industry, piety, and respect for law.

The small rural communities generally were underestimated in their contribution to the stabilizing forces of a society, yet it is in such areas that the basic values of neighborliness, honesty, self-reliance, and reverence for life and property were most persistently developed. It is in this respect that Mennonite communities may have contributed a larger share to the strength of a national society than they were given credit for. Because of variety in industry, sobriety, and thrift, most Mennonite communities were economically prosperous, thus building up the economic resources and the property values, which again were considered assets to any society.

In the 1940s the growing awareness of the value of the Mennonite rural community as a source of strength for the brotherhood, as well as an awareness of the danger threatening this community, led Mennonite scholars and leaders to a careful study of Mennonite community life and the conscious promotion of ways and means of strengthening it. The Mennonite Community Association, organized in 1946 to serve primarily the Mennonite Church (MC), was an instance of this. Among its chief projects were the publication of a monthly illustrated journal called The Mennonite Community, founded in 1946. The Committee on Industrial and Social Relations of the Mennonite Church General Conference devoted increasing attention to this area of concern and interest, and among other activities holds an annual "Conference on the Mennonite Community" which meets successively in major centers of the church. Guy F. Hershberger of Goshen College was a leader in this movement.

The typical ethnically, culturally, and religiously homogeneous Mennonite community is possible only in rural areas where land availability has made possible fairly compact continuous settlement. This has been the case in the Swiss Jura, at places in Alsace and the Palatinate, and in West Prussia, only in restricted areas in Holland such as Friesland and the Zaanstreek, and not at all in the generally scattered type of rented farm economy and settlement in South Germany. In Russia, however, and in South America and Mexico, where the settlement was practically always on virgin soil and in closed colonies, Mennonite communities par excellence could be and were established. These communities, completely isolated from their environment by language, culture, and religion, with even a measure of political autonomy in Russia and Paraguay, had to assume complete social, cultural, and economic functions. They deserve and call for a more complete and thorough study than has yet been attempted. -- J. Winfield Fretz 

1990 Update


The phrase, "the Mennonite community," is probably second only to "the Mennonite church" as the most prevalent term used by Mennonites and others to refer to the Mennonite phenomenon. This suggests that the term community, however it is defined, has central significance for the Mennonites. A brief review of the term and related concepts, however, is necessary before the subject of "Mennonites and community" is discussed.

Social Science Definition of Community

Even though it has a long and distinguished career in social science, the term community has acquired no unified definition (Reiss, Warren, Kasarda, and Janowitz). There is also little agreement on how to conceptualize community (Polsby). One helpful approach is to distinguish between normative and descriptive community types. The normative perspective defines community as a social system characterized by certain types of goals, relationships, and processes ranging from the utopian to the actual. Clearly the criteria for defining and studying community derive from a value system, or a paradigm based on personal preference or value commitment.

The descriptive approach attempts to utilize objective and scientific assumptions and criteria to define, as well as to analyze, the nature and function of community. An exasperating circular dilemma has resulted from this approach, because community has to be defined by the scientist before it can be studied or observed, and as yet, no single theory has succeeded in becoming accepted as the dominant one. Even the attempts to define the various descriptive approaches are in no danger of convergence. The most general descriptive approach assumes that community has: (1) some type of delineation in space and time; (2) a semblance of being a social system, if in miniature; (3) some unified objective, system of objectives, or goals toward which the members of the collectivity strive. The most generally used definitions under this second rubric include: (1) the ecological approach, in which "all individuals, their interrelationships and institutions, and their social systems can be allocated to territorial space" (Reiss, 122), and (2) the social systems approach, defined as "the smallest territorial system which encompasses the major features of society, that is, a society in miniature" (Reiss, 125).

Although a mass of important information and insights have been produced by the descriptive approach, especially by community studies such as Middletown, USA, Yankee City, few substantive theories about community have emerged which could be scientifically tested. The only exception to the preceding statement concerns studies of community change, as, for example, Albert Hunter's description of an urban area which had been studied twenty-five years earlier (Hunter, 1975). This latter approach provides a basis for evaluating societal change in general.

Different has been the writing on normative approaches to community, which, though less amenable to scientific testing, has become the dominant sociological literature on community. Here can be listed most of the masters of community theory, including Ferdinand Tönnies, Emile Durkheim, Charles Horton Cooley, Robert Redfield, Charles P. Loomis, and others.

These scholars and many others have subscribed to a qualitative approach to community, focusing on the quality of human relationships (e.g., personal and intimate), the meaning of the individual in relationship to the group, the way the individual and group influence and create each other, and the way values and traditions function in groups. The normative approach to community is really an attempt to understand more fully the nature of human society, and it uses the concept of community as a metaphorical tool to manage and focus the data. The major conclusion derived from the normative community literature is that community is lost or in danger of being lost. Recent scholars, such as Hunter, retort that neighboring and similar elements of community are not necessarily decreasing in the city.

The Mennonite society has been interpreted by social scientists as a prototype of community usually from the normative point of view. Hence Loomis and Beegle, John C. Bennett, E. K. Francis, and John A. Hostetler, to name a few recent scientists, have studied the Mennonites and described them as retaining the traits of an authentic community, meaning thereby some type of achievement of "primary" type relationships, with mutual support and having a common bond, goals, and history. Driedger and Redekop describe the "Community Study Approach" as one of the major ways that has been used in studying Mennonites in recent years (1983). We turn now to analysis of how Mennonites have related to the concept of community.

Mennonites and Community Historically

Soon after their emergence as a utopian movement, Mennonites began to build enclaves of like-minded persons committed to the same beliefs, ideologies, and goals. Hence the Mennonites in Switzerland, France, Germany, Austria, Holland, Prussia, and Russia proceeded to live in geographically isolated regions. Some of these emerged into full-fledged "commonwealths" in the Mennonite colonies in Russia, Canada, Mexico, and Latin America (Rempel, Kreider, Redekop). The settlements in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and elsewhere have more often been defined as Mennonite communities (Hostetler, Fretz). Recent sociological studies of Mennonites include Jean Séguy's Les Assemblées Anabaptistes-Mennonites de France (1977) and Esther Epp-Tiessen's Altona (1982).

A serious conceptual problem emerges, however. Unless one takes a normative approach, it is almost impossible to discuss the Mennonites historically as communities, because of unclarity as to what definition of community one uses. Further, the Mennonites will hardly conform to any scientific definition of community, for they are simultaneously more and less than any sociological definition of community. Mennonites have never been defined by delimited geographical boundaries, nor seen as a microsocial system by scientists or Mennonites.

Mennonites have cohered around an ideological basis (religious system of theology and practice), which provided the dynamic for developing a historical consciousness has been characterized as an ethnic group consciousness, although that term also has its limitations as will be defined below (Peachey; Redekop, 1984). Hence community can only be utilized, whether by members or outside students, as a metaphor or label when talking about Mennonites.

Ideologically, Mennonites have been concerned about building community, if it is normatively defined. Such concepts as church, congregation, fellowship, Gemeinde, Gemeinschaft, colony of heaven, all allude to dimensions of the ideological community which Mennonites have espoused. Menno himself said, "What is the church of Christ? A community of saints" (Menno, Writings, 742). The church, defined as that group of persons which has committed itself by repentance and confession of faith to each other, is thus the "Mennonite community."

Equating the visible, sociological, and especially the rural aspects of Mennonite experience with the church of Christ and the community of saints, however, has been the great temptation in the life of Mennonite peoples, and, we might add, indicates a capitulation to sociological community. Thus the "rural bias" of Mennonite life and faith, as it has expressed itself in the Germanic Mennonite tradition, especially in Europe, Russia, North America, and Latin America; and the assumptions that Mennonite faith could survive best in the rural arena, are illustrative.

The bulk of American as well as European Mennonites have lived in rural and village situations, and have formed enclaves of spatially proximate families and congregations. Especially the conservative Mennonites, such as the Old Order Mennonites or Hutterites in North America, Russian Mennonites living in "commonwealths" in Russia, Paraguay, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, and Bolivia, to name a few, have expressed aspects of the community, but as indicated above, have not done so in a full sense because the ethnic dimension needs to intersect the analysis. The Mennonite movement, from its inception, has been derived from a common religious faith, as transmitted through time by the story of persecution, martyrdom, rejection, peculiarity, and concept of biblical discipleship.

Thus an ethnic dimension has emerged, which possibly describes the Mennonites better than community, if by ethnicity is meant the development of a consciousness of belonging based on an ideological commitment. This consciousness has contributed to the cohesion resulting in such common subcultural aspects as dress, architecture, speech (dialect literature; German language) and endogamous marriage patterns, to list only a few (Francis; Redekop, 1984). But this ethnic dimension has always transcended spatial, i.e., local, community boundaries and can be characterized better as a people which knows no boundaries or nationality. Seeking lodging among Mennonites while traveling ("Mennoniting your way") across continents is a contemporary expression of this awareness that became popular in the 1970s.

A helpful approach is to observe how community has been used as a modifier of Mennonitism itself. One such is the term "community of discernment" which refers to the fellowship of believers as the source of biblical interpretation (Burkholder, Lind). Another is "disciple community" or "covenant community," which emphasizes the way the collective group of believers exercises admonition and discipline upon its members, who "have voluntarily entered into the communion of Christ Jesus" (Menno, Writings, 415) (Bauman). The "serving community" has been used to emphasize the *mutual aid, service, and caring aspect of Mennonite faith. Other terms include the "holy community" (Bender), the "colony of heaven" (Hershberger), or the "gathered community" (Gross, 61).

Although this does not exhaust the list, it illustrates the range of perspectives from which community is defined, and also the metaphorical content. There is no unitary way in which community can be used to describe Mennonites and it is probably precisely because of its wholistic and metaphorical nature that the word community continues to be relevant and useful in addressing Mennonite issues. An analytical look at the referents of "community" would be a possible focus for future research.

Community as Metaphor for Anabaptism-Mennonitism

Mennonites have been defined (even accused) as having been communistic, socialistic, communitarian, and utopian (Klassen, Clasen, Goertz). Consequently, the Münsterites are now considered a part of the Anabaptist movement, along with other revolutionary groups. These terms, and others described above, all attempt to point to, and explicate, the essential nature of the Anabaptist-Mennonite phenomenon. How is community helpful as a term to help define it? As indicated above, the scientific definition of community has been a cripple from birth. Thus community must be seen more as a metaphor than an exact description. What is the reality it points to?

(1) The church of Christ, as it is expressed in the unique theology and faith of the Anabaptist-Mennonite protest. Here the Mennonite "community of faith" is central, and this orientation is increasingly relevant as new "converts" or members are being brought into the body from various subcultural and nationality groups.

(2) The Mennonite congregation as community. Anabaptism-Mennonitism has been identified as congregational, as insisting that the reality of the Christian faith is structured and expressed in the local congregation. Here the emphasis is on polity, or how faith is ordered. The local body of believers as the gathered community defines how the term community is used. This dimension comes close to the sociological definition of community, because of its identifiable and spatial references, but it goes beyond either the ecological or social-system definition of community. But it is possible to talk about the Mennonite community when the reference is the congregation in its observable social and religious aspects.

(3) The community of a religious people. The narrow road that Anabaptism has preached has meant that the movement did not spread to all of society as had originally been assumed. Hence a minority structure emerged, which has produced a self-conscious people, determined to live faithfully according to their confession and commitments. As indicated above, this has produced a people conscious of their past, present, and future (Gordon), and thus it is possible to refer to this religious ethnicity as the Mennonite community. But it does not imply that the Mennonites were only an ethnic group; religious faith has been the hinge of their existence (Redekop, 1984).

(4) Mennonites as a communal people. Anabaptists and Mennonites from the beginning were reported to have resisted being defined as communists. This, however, bears further analysis, since newer research indicated Anabaptism has been motivated by communistic factors, as witness the Hutterites, Münsterites, and the increasing intentional community movement in contemporary North American, European, and Latin American contexts. The evidence is mounting rapidly that if the Anabaptists were not indeed communistic by definition, they have adhered to a communal ethic from the beginning, with communitarian expressions. This communal ethic informed their personal, social, and religious existence, in which the motivation of the individual was subordinated to the collective, not only in material, but in other areas as well. The central idea seems to have been Gelassenheit or yieldedness to the will of Christ to love and serve the neighbor, whether a fellow believer or a non-believer (Crank, Smucker). This concept influenced Anabaptist-Mennonites as they adjusted to the major social, political, economic, and educational institutions. Mennonites are consequently, according to this approach, better defined as a religious communal society than as a community. -- Calvin Redekop


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Author(s) J. Winfield Fretz
Calvin W. Redekop
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Fretz, J. Winfield and Calvin W. Redekop. "Community." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 16 Jul 2024.

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Fretz, J. Winfield and Calvin W. Redekop. (1989). Community. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 16 July 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 656-658; v. 5, pp. 173-176. All rights reserved.

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