Divorce and Remarriage

Jump to navigation Jump to search

1956 Article

Divorce has not permitted among the Anabaptists and Mennonites from the earliest times to the mid-20th century except for the cause of adultery, in accordance with the Biblical standard as found in Matthew 19:9, although separation (either legal or privately arranged) was generally allowed.

In a tract entitled Concerning Divorce written by one of the first Swiss Brethren in 1527, possibly by Michael Sattler, appears the earliest known Anabaptist treatment of the subject. The main points in this tract stressed: (1) the permanence of the marriage bond; (2) the supremacy of one's obligation to Christ over obligation to the marriage partner; (3) the only ground for divorce was adultery; (4) to marry one guilty of fornication was itself fornication; (5) the innocent party to a divorce was not forbidden to remarry, and was by implication permitted to do so. Except for the fifth point, regarding which there was some ambiguity and occasional divergence within the brotherhood, this tract can be thought of as summarizing quite well the position of the Mennonite church regarding divorce through the mid 20th century.

Menno Simons also clarified the Anabaptist position on divorce, referring directly to the words of Christ and of the Apostle Paul. He reiterated the theme of adultery being the only acceptable ground for divorce. "And also, that the bond of undefiled, honorable matrimony is so unchangeably bound in the kingdom and government of Christ that neither a man nor a woman can forsake one the other, and take another, understand rightly what Christ says, except it be for fornication, Matthew 19:9. And Paul also holds the same doctrine, that they shall he bound to each other, and that they are to live in union; that the man has not power over his own body, nor the woman over hers, 1 Corinthians 7:4." (Works, 247). The Wismar Resolutions of 1554, (as quoted in Mennonitisches Lexikon I, 530) say: "Adultery on the part of one member breaks the marriage relationship. However, the responsible party may return to re-establish the relationship provided he (or she) gives evidence of due repentance and a changed life. In cases of deliberate adultery, the innocent party may be free to remarry after consulting with the congregation." The position taken by the Hutterian Brethren was ". . . that nothing can break the marriage bond except adultery. In cases where a man is married to an unbelieving woman, and she desires to live with him, he may not divorce her (nor vice versa). If the unbelieving husband threatens her faith or hinders the training of the children in the faith, she may divorce her husband, but must not remarry so long as that man is living."

There has been some discussion in the earlier literature regarding the bearing of the ban and excommunication on divorce. However, the position was invariably that the ban is of itself not sufficient grounds for divorce, but only adultery, as stated by Christ in Matthew 19:9 (see Menno Simons, op. cit., 241-268; Part II, 123-137).

The predominant approach to the problem of divorce among the Mennonites was direct and positive rather than indirect and negative. It consisted chiefly of stressing the obligations of marriage, and an emphasis on the permanency of the marriage bond. This was evidenced not only by the dearth of literature on divorce, but also by the fact that neither the Dordrecht Confession nor the Cornelis Ris Confession directly treats divorce. However, both confessions put great stress on the importance of marriage, insisting that it be "in the Lord," and that it should never be entered into lightly or unadvisedly.

Literature on the question of divorce among the Mennonites prior to the 1950s is rather rare. Only occasionally did an article or editorial appear in one or another of the official publications of the various Mennonite bodies. Such as did appear were primarily of a hortative nature, and follow quite closely the theme expressed above (e.g., The Gospel Witness, 31 October 1906, 482; Herald of Truth, 26 December 1907, 482; The Mennonite, 10 December 1946, 2).

That this theme still represents the official and general position of all branches of the church in the 1950s can hardly be doubted. But that the standard has not always been upheld is also quite evident. The Doctrine and Conduct Committee of the General Conference Mennonite Church through A. Warkentin and Jacob D. Goering recently made a survey of divorce and remarriage within the congregations of this branch of the church in the United States only. These statistics indicated that approximately one marriage in thirty ended in divorce in this group in 1940-1945. The accuracy of the statistics may be doubted, and the validity of the survey questioned because it covered abnormal war years. Whether or not these divorces were all caused by adultery was impossible to say, on account of the nature of the survey and the responses obtained. However, it was an unmistakable indication of the beginning breakdown of the high marriage standards heretofore prevailing.

In a paper read by J. Winfield Fretz before the Mennonite Cultural Problems Conference held at Grantham, PA in June 1951, it was pointed out that one of the crucial problems facing the Mennonite church was whether or not to grant membership in the church to converts who had been divorced before their conversion. To accept them threatened the stability of the brotherhood because of the scarred and broken personalities and families often involved. Yet the church felt the call to evangelize all men, to call them to repentance and into the fellowship of the believers regardless of past sins. This paper also corroborated the impression made by the earlier survey, namely, that the divorce evil was becoming an increasing problem in the congregations. Industrialization, urbanization, and evil social influences of modern society tended to have a disintegrative effect on Mennonite families and communities in some areas. Those Mennonite groups which had undertaken a vigorous program of evangelistic outreach in the city mission and rural mission work were facing increasing pressure in the matter of accepting candidates for membership who have been previously divorced and remarried, since the number of such cases in the general American population was relatively high. J. C. Wenger's study shows that before 1900 the Mennonite Church (MC) tolerated the acceptance of divorced and remarried persons into membership, at least in some sections such as Virginia, Ohio, and Indiana, but that after that date the position became stricter, no such persons being admitted to membership. The practice in the 1950s on this point in various North American groups was as follows: Mennonite Church, Mennonite Brethren, Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, Old Order Amish, Conservative Mennonite Conference, and Evangelical Mennonite Conference (Kleine Gemeinde) groups did not accept divorced and remarried persons into membership. Evangelical Mennonite Brethren and United Missionary Church did accept such persons. The practice in the General Conference Mennonite group varied, since there was local autonomy, but many congregations did accept such persons into membership.

In Europe the Dutch, Northwest German, West Prussian, and Palatinate-Hesse groups have for some time accepted divorced and remarried persons into membership, and permitted divorce to members, although the cases have been rare, and the last-named group permitted divorce only on the ground of adultery. The Badischer Verband until World War II did not permit divorce except for adultery nor receive divorced and remarried persons, but after the War permitted reception of the innocent party in such cases, with remarriage allowed. Swiss and French Mennonites maintained a position similar to that of the Badischer Verband. -- Jacob D. Goering

1990 Article

The earliest Anabaptist tract on divorce and remarriage, "Concerning Divorce", was written in 1527 and has been attributed by some to Michael Sattler. It stressed the permanence of the marriage bond, the priority of one's obligation to Christ over one's obligations to a marriage partner, adultery as the only grounds for divorce, taboos against marrying a fornicator, and sanctions against remarrying when divorced. Menno Simons also called for faithfulness in marriage, allowing adultery as the only grounds for divorce, according to Matthew 19:9 and 1 Corinthians 7:4. According to J.C. Wenger, the Swiss Brethren, the Moravian Hutterites and the Dutch Mennonites all had similar standards regarding divorce. With such a clear view among Anabaptists, what are Mennonite attitudes 450 years later?

Divorce rates in the United States have been among the highest in the world. The number of divorces peaked after World War II and declined to a low of under 200 per 100,000 population in 1960. However, since then divorce rates have been rising steadily, so that by 1980 they were well over 1,540 per 100,000. Divorce rates in Canada were in the vicinity of 40 per 100,000 population through the 1950s and until 1968, when divorces began to rise sharply with passage of the new Canada Divorce Act. Canadian divorce rates then escalated to 278 per 100,000 population in 1981. Thus, American rates were, at one time, more than six times as high as Canadian rates (260 compared to 40). By 1980 the ratio was about two to one.

Industrialization and urbanization tend to result in smaller nuclear families which are more mobile, but also more vulnerable to breakdown. Although not yet as frequent as in North America, divorce is also increasing in Europe. One can also expect that divorce will also increase as Latin America, Asia and Africa, where divorce rates are still quite low, are increasingly influenced by industrialization.

Divorce rates do however vary considerably by religious orientation, as shown in Canadian religious comparisons in 1981. Non-Judeo-Christian groups have the highest rate of divorce (17 percent), followed by those who prefer no religion (12 percent). These two groups are significantly above the Canadian average of 7.7 percent in 1981. The Mennonites (3.3 percent) rank at the bottom with the Hutterites (.2 percent) and the Reformed bodies (1.9 percent). This suggests that ethnic, family, and small group ties, especially when combined with strong religious commitment, still inhibit divorce.

J. Howard Kauffman and Leland Harder, who surveyed most of the Mennonites in North America in the 1970s, found that 77 percent believed that marriage was a lifelong commitment never to be broken except by death; only one percent thought incompatibility was reason for divorce (data from 1972). Their study also indicated that only .3 percent of married couples were separated but not divorced, which was still a very low figure compared to national statistics. A later 1989 study by Kauffman and Leo Driedger found that 72 percent believed marriage was a lifelong commitment never to broken. Denominationally the range varied from 64 percent (General Conference Mennonite) to 81 percent (Mennonite Brethren). The number who felt marriage could be broken if attempts to reconcile disharmony failed increased from 22 percent in 1972 to 27 percent in 1989.  

Leland Harder, who surveyed General Conference Mennonites in North America in 1960, 1970, and 1980, found that divorce rates among Mennonites are rising (.6 percent of members reported breakdown in 1960 and 1.7 percent in 1980). Those who had ever been divorced rose to 4.8 percent in 1980. Eighty percent of the congregations reported that at least one or more members were either divorced or separated in 1980. One fourth reported 10 or more members separated or divorced; 4 churches reported over 40. While urbanization is a factor, other factors must be considered to explain these variations. Again, there were substantial national differences with .8 percent of General Conference Mennonite members having experienced marriage breakdown in the United States and .2 percent in Canada in 1960, a ratio of four to one. The same national differences remained in 1980 (2.4 percent and .6 percent) respectively. The Kauffman/Driedger 1989 study indicated that 4.2% of Mennonites had experienced divorce or separation.

Michael Yoder conducted a study of the Mennonite Church, the largest group of Mennonites in North America, in 1982. Yoder found that separation and divorce were lowest among active members (.5 and 1.0 percent) and highest among inactive members (2.0 and 4.2 percent). This may indicate that religious commitment is an important factor in marriage maintenance, although it may also indicate that those experiencing marriage breakdown tend to become inactive in congregations. While only 3.2 percent of the active members were ever separated or divorced, three times as many inactive members (9.3 percent) were in this category. Although the percentages were relatively low compared to national figures, about 5 percent, or almost 5,000 persons, in the Mennonite Church were or had been separated or divorced. This percentage was very similar to that of the General Conference Mennonite Church in 1980.

Yoder also found that one fourth (24.1 percent) of the blacks in his study had been separated or divorced at one time, while Asian Mennonites showed the lowest rate (1.8 percent) of marriage breakdown. Both groups are non-Caucasian and both were heavily urban (85 percent and 71 percent, respectively). The percentages seemed to be related to traditions of family stability within ethnic groups. While traditional white Mennonites appeared to be closer to the Asian type, Mennonites who were American Indians resembled more the pattern found among blacks, and Hispanic Mennonites were located in between.

Paul Lederach made an important study of youth in the Mennonite Church which compared the beliefs and attitudes of youth from broken homes with those of all youth. He found that youth from broken homes had weaker Christian convictions and ethics, attended church activities less often, had more trouble getting along at home, and more often exhibited deviant behavior. The home is the primary place for socialization of children, and these data clearly show that broken families cannot compete with normal ones in the rearing of children. Much more research is required to determine to what ex tent these findings apply elsewhere in the world, and what are the many factors which cause family breakdown. -- Leo Driedger


The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, c. 1496-1561, trans. Leonard Verduin, ed. J. C. Wenger. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1956.

Menno Simons. Complete Writings, English trans. Elkhart, IN: John Funk, 1870. (References in the 1956 article are to this edition.)

Driedger, Leo, Michael Yoder, and Peter Sawatzky. "Divorce Among Mennonites: Evidence of Family Breakdown." Mennonite Quarterly Review 59 (1985): 367-382.

Harder, Leland. General Conference Mennonite Church Fact Book of Congregational Membership. Newton, 1971, 1980-81.

Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v.  I, 529 f.

Kauffman, J. Howard and Leland Harder. Anabaptists Four Centuries Later: a Profile of Five Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Denominations. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1975: 122-23, 170-76.

Kauffman, J. Howard and Leo Driedger. The Mennonite Mosaic: Identity and Modernization. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1991.

Springer, Nelson and A.J. Klassen, compilers. Mennonite Bibliography, 1631-1961, 2 vols. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1977: index.

Wenger, John C. "Concerning Divorce: a Swiss Brethren Tract on the Primacy of Loyalty to Christ and the Right to Divorce and Remarriage." Mennonite Quarterly Review 21 (1947): 114-119.

Wenger, J. C. Dealing Redemptively with Those Involved in Divorce and Remarriage Problems. Goshen, IN, 1954.

Wittlinger, Carlton O. Piety and Obedience: The Story of the Brethren in Christ. Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1978, 117-19, 525-27.

Yoder, Michael. "Findings From the 1982 Mennonite Census." Mennonite Quarterly Review 59 (1985): 307-349.

Author(s) Jacob D. Goering
Leo Driedger
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Goering, Jacob D. and Leo Driedger. "Divorce and Remarriage." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 22 Jul 2024. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Divorce_and_Remarriage&oldid=175209.

APA style

Goering, Jacob D. and Leo Driedger. (1989). Divorce and Remarriage. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 22 July 2024, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Divorce_and_Remarriage&oldid=175209.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 74-75; vol. 5, pp. 241-242. All rights reserved.

©1996-2024 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.