Education, Mennonite

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1956 Article


Mennonites originated during the 16th century, more or less simultaneously in Holland, Germany, and Switzerland; since then they have migrated from these countries to France, Russia, Canada, United States, Mexico, Paraguay, Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina. Living under the differing political, economic, and social orders of 12 national cultures, they did not develop a common educational system that was peculiar to the whole body. Only in Russia, where the Mennonites colonized in a retarded civilization, did they develop an extensive educational system of their own design. In the United States, where the national life was progressive and democratic, they found a separate school system less necessary. Hence Mennonite education must be studied separately in each country where Mennonites have established themselves.


The Mennonites in Holland have not lived in closed communities as their brethren have done, more or less, in other countries. Being largely an urban people engaged in business and the professions, they have become an integral part of the national life of the Netherlands, closely identified with their country's economic activities, social order, and educational institutions.

With one exception (Haarlem) there have never been Mennonite schools of any level in Holland, elementary, secondary, or college. Children from Mennonite homes attended the schools established by various other organized church bodies or by secular agencies. Dutch Mennonites by principle believed that this was better than to have separate Mennonite schools. Only the Haarlem congregation has operated Mennonite parochial schools. There have been two such schools. The first was opened in 1782 at the Groot Heiligland, in order to give a good education to the children of poor members, and closed in September 1952, since there were then only a few children in the inner city. The second was opened on Ripperdastraat on 1 May 1893, for the same purpose, and was still operating in 1954.

In 1811 the Algemene Doopsgezinde Sociëteit, the "General Conference" of all the Mennonite churches in Holland, was established, mainly for the purpose of assuming the joint responsibility for the Theological Seminary at Amsterdam, which the church at Amsterdam had operated in 1680-1706 and continuously after 1735. This school represented the only educational activity of the Mennonites in Holland except for the two Haarlem elementary schools.


Like their brethren in Holland, the Mennonites in Germany did not establish their own school system. During the period of persecution followed by various imposed economic, religious, and educational restrictions, the Mennonites promoted no institutions which would encourage greater opposition. A careful study of the literature pertaining to Mennonite life in Germany revealed but few references to educational activities. Sometimes in communities where the population was solidly Mennonite or in communities where a sufficient number of Mennonite children were available, the local minister organized a school in the church. The Mennonite Church of Hamburg-Altona had such a school in the 18th century. The congregation at Deutschhof, Palatinate, also had such a school. For longer or shorter periods some elementary schools were operated by Mennonites in Eastern Germany (Brenkenhoffswalde before 1834), Galicia, and Bavaria (Bildhausen, 1838 ff.).

However, one Mennonite secondary school was established. Through the efforts of Michael Löwenberg, a Mennonite minister of the Weierhof congregation in the Palatinate, the Realanstalt am Donnersberg, later named the Weierhof Real- und Erziehungs-Anstalt, was formally opened on 2 December 1867. The school, a secondary boarding school, grew immediately in students and financial gifts from numerous Mennonite churches. The original purpose, to add a full Biblical seminary for the training of Mennonite ministers, however, was not realized. All efforts by Löwenberg to secure the conference sanction and acceptance of the school failed. The school became a very successful private boys' high school, but though always operated by a Mennonite board of directors, and always having religious instruction by the Weierhof Mennonite pastor, it never had more than a handful of Mennonite students. It was taken over in the Hitler government for a Nazi training school. In 1945 the French army and in 1952 the American army took over the buildings for the use of occupation forces. In 1952 the trustees of the Weierhof school established a boys' dormitory (Schülerheim) at the nearby (4 km) Kirchheimbolanden Gymnasium for Mennonite students attending the Gymnasium.


The Mennonites in Switzerland have maintained a small number of German elementary schools in the Jura district since the early 19th century, since the Mennonite communities there are German cultural islands surrounded by French culture. The seven elementary schools operating in 1954 complied with all the educational requirements provided by Swiss law. In 1949 the Basel Bible School (Europäische Mennonitische Bibelschule) was established in Basel, sponsored by the Swiss, Alsatian, French, and South German Mennonites.


During their residence in France since the early 18th century, the Mennonites there remained in touch with their brethren in Switzerland and South Germany and shared their religious and cultural heritage with them. They have, however, become fully integrated into French life and have never had any schools of their own; Isaac Rich conducted a private school at Exincourt in 1869-1876.


For the first 100 years on the steppes of South Russia, beginning with the Chortitza settlement in 1789, the Mennonites enjoyed almost complete political, religious, and educational autonomy. Left free of governmental regulations and restrictions, they developed an educational system whose underlying philosophy was determined by the ideals of their leaders. (See Education Among the Mennonites of Russia)

Probably the most original and interesting contribution to Mennonite education was the development of secondary schools called Zentralschulen. These schools were either established by organized educational associations or by wealthy individuals. Although a few Zentralschulen were coeducational, most of the secondary schools were for boys. Both Halbstadt and Chortitza established high schools for girls.

Since the Mennonites in Russia established and supervised their own schools, they were able to offer religious instruction at the elementary and secondary level without maintaining separate Bible schools for that purpose. No liberal arts colleges were ever established. Advanced training was obtained at various universities of Europe.

By 1943 the Russian Mennonites had either been scattered, exiled, or moved to other lands. For 156 years they had lived in the steppes of the Ukraine. In the 1950s a splendid Mennonite educational system lay in complete ruin behind the iron curtain.

United States

The educational activities of the Mennonites in the United States are varied and an adequate description of them becomes quite complex. They began with the first settlement in Germantown in 1683 and have continued, more or less, to the present time. The student of Mennonite education must recognize the fact that these educational activities are carried on by a number of the different Mennonite branches independently of each other. The Amish, for instance, operate a number of elementary schools, but they are opposed to secondary and collegiate training. The Mennonites (MC) on the other hand maintain schools at all levels: elementary, secondary, and college. The Church of God in Christ, Mennonite had never established any educational institutions by the 1950s. The Mennonite Brethren Church in the mid-20th century had one college, one Bible College, but no high schools in the United States; however, it had several high schools and one Bible College in Canada; but it had no elementary schools. The General Conference group had a similar situation in Canada, but had several high schools and three colleges in the United States. The North American pattern was indeed varied, intricate, and to the outsider confusing.

When the Mennonites from the various countries of Europe settled in the vast spaces of the New World, they were anxious to preserve both their religion and their German language. To achieve these two aims they established many elementary schools (see Private Christian Schools, United States). But, in the course of time, conflicts arose between the public school systems controlled by the various states in which Mennonites had settled and the Mennonite parochial schools, which had never been wholly dissolved.

A strong interest in Christian education manifested by the Mennonites in the United States motivated the establishment and the operation of many schools. This interest has not only been continuous but was increasing. If the Mennonites in the United States were more united doctrinally, and if they were more concentrated into compact communities, they could maintain an educational system comparable to that conducted by other churches, such as the Lutherans or Catholics.

After 1938 there was a very decided increase in the number of church-controlled elementary schools, commonly called Christian day schools, among the Mennonites in the eastern half of the United States. These schools, through the 1950s, were sponsored only by the Mennonite (MC) churches and the Amish.

The ever-increasing stream of America's youth into high schools during the second quarter of the 20th century swept the Mennonite boys and girls into the movement. Although in many communities Mennonite parents encouraged high-school attendance, there were those who opposed secondary education as administered by the state. This opposition was responsible for the establishment of 15 (1954) Mennonite high schools (see Secondary Schools), and the number was increasing. These schools strived to offer a standard secondary education in a Christian atmosphere. The curriculum, for each, was prescribed in part by the state in which it operated, but the environment was determined by the sponsors of the schools.

There were in 1954 eight Mennonite Liberal Arts colleges in the United States. Two of these offered only a two-year course and therefore were classified as junior colleges. All of them were comparatively young. The oldest, Bethel College (in Kansas), was organized in 1893 and the most recent, Bethel College (in Indiana), was established in 1947. In addition there were three Bible colleges offering three-to four-year programs above high school.

Of the sixteen Mennonite bodies in the United States, only five were instrumental in bringing the eleven colleges into existence. These five branches constituted about 75 per cent of the total Mennonite population in the United States. Some of the other eleven smaller branches were strongly opposed to higher education, while others cooperated with the larger branches.

The development of colleges among the North American Mennonites was fraught with many difficulties. The two main opposing factors were a fear of higher education and the enormous cost of the establishing and operating of a college. Most of the active colleges represented second attempts. Bethel College (Kansas) emerged out of Halstead Seminary, Goshen College was preceded by Elkhart Institute, Bluffton College represents a reorganized Central College. Several other colleges functioned for brief periods and then failed, never to be reorganized. Inexperienced leadership, biased opposition, lack of financial support, and an unwillingness among the various branches to cooperate with each other were some of the main contributing causes of difficulties and failures.

The rise of Bible institutes and theological seminaries among the Mennonites in the United States came in the mid-20th century. These schools experienced considerable encouragement and support. The establishment of these schools expressed a trend toward a more educated leadership in all phases of Christian work. In 1954 there were three graduate seminaries: Mennonite Biblical Seminary, a General Conference Mennonite seminary in Chicago; Goshen Biblical Seminary, a Mennonite Church seminary at Goshen, Indiana; and Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary at Fresno, California, with strong Bible departments granting degrees at four other colleges, and three Bible Colleges which were in effect lower grade seminaries.


Education among the Mennonites in Canada became increasingly more active during the the second quarter of the 20th century. During the school year 1947-1948 they operated 22 Bible schools, 11 high schools, and 2 Bible colleges. Of particular significance was the decided trend toward the establishment and operation of Mennonite private high schools.

Undoubtedly the most serious conflict between Mennonites and the state in modern times took place in Manitoba over the school question in connection with the outbreak of World War I, which resulted in wholesale emigration of the opposing groups to Mexico and Paraguay. The attempt to secularize and nationalize schools operated by these conservative churches with the requirement that the schools be conducted in the English language was the chief cause of the conflict. (See Old Colony Mennonites)


When the more conservative Mennonites of Canada realized that they could not continue instructing their children as they had done for generations, about 5,000 left their Canadian farms to till the soil on the semiarid plains of Chihuahua, Mexico. With educational freedom assured by the Mexican government, the colonists re-established their own traditional elementary schools which the Canadian government had labeled inadequate. In 1935, hardly a decade after the establishment of their settlements on Mexican soil, there came from that government the unexpected order to close all Mennonite schools. The Mexican officials who came to carry out the order contended that the Mennonite schools were being conducted in an unlawful manner and that they would have to conform to the school laws of the land. As a result of several petitions to governmental authorities the Mennonites were permitted to resume their school activities. The Mennonites in Mexico represented an ultraconservative wing of the Mennonite Church. They had migrated twice to escape the nationalization of their schools. Their educational philosophy was rather simple. Every child must learn to read the Bible in the German language. His education was completed with a few sacred hymns and the catechism. Such traditional courses as science, history, literature, geography, and government were not included in the curriculum.

South America

The Mennonites in Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina were newcomers to these South American republics. Except for a small group from Canada, they came from war-torn Europe, poor and homeless. They are beginning a new life in a strange environment. Among their number are well-trained teachers, ministers, and craftsmen. Because of the prevailing poverty and the hard conditions of pioneer life, their schools were initially somewhat primitive, though constantly improving. Elementary schools were opened in all the villages in the Paraguay colonies and several secondary schools were established in the various colony centers by the 1950s. In Brazil the pre-World War II Mennonite elementary German schools were closed by a government order which required the language of instruction to be Portuguese and the teachers to be native-born Brazilians. In 1954 a Mennonite high school (Zentralschule) was established near Curitiba. One Mennonite village school was in operation in Uruguay in 1953. No such schools were contemplated by the small number of Mennonite immigrants in Argentina.

General Characteristics of Mennonite Education

Certain experiences in the history of the Mennonites have resulted in traditions and attitudes that explain the peculiar emphases in Mennonite education.

German Language

The determination to maintain and perpetuate German as a language of instruction and church worship has resulted in conflicts between Mennonites and the state in certain lands, such as Russia, Canada, Mexico, and Brazil. In 1870, for instance, the Russian government began a program of nationalization of all German schools within the land. When the Mennonites, who had operated their own independent school system for nearly a century, began to feel the effects of state control, they protested. They feared the results of compulsory use of Russian as the language of instruction, but ultimately submitted and discovered that they could still keep the German language as their cultural language. By the 1950s the process of assimilation had practically completed the shift from German to English among most of the Mennonites in the United States. But in Canada, Mexico, Switzerland, Brazil, and Paraguay, the language problem was still a source of difficulty at that time.


Due to the divisions in the Mennonite brotherhood, no conjoint or integrated educational program for the entire group has been planned or can well be planned.

Mennonitism and Education

An increasing awareness was growing in the minds of the leaders that an educational system at all levels would have to be operated if Mennonitism was to be preserved and perpetuated. In Western Europe, where the Mennonites had not established their own schools, substantial changes were made in the traditional Mennonite faith, including the abandonment of some major original principles; whereas in Russia and North America where church schools were established on a wide though varying scale, the changes were not so damaging to the original heritage and faith. The first half of the 20th century saw a great growth in Mennonite educational activities in both the United States and Canada. From the 1930s to 1950s one can almost speak of an educational renaissance. In order to preserve their youth for the Mennonite faith and prepare workers for the growing program of the church, new schools have been established, programs of the church enlarged, financial investment increased, and standards raised. The Mennonite schools of North America were now playing a very important role in the church; they will undoubtedly be increasingly important. In fact we can no longer conceive of the church without its schools. In 1951-52 a total of 5,704 Mennonite seminary, college, high-school, and Bible school students of all branches were in attendance at Mennonite schools in the United States and Canada. In 1953-54 in the elementary schools of the Mennonite Church (MC) alone (no other statistics available) an additional 3,500 pupils were in attendance. Reckoning those not reported, one can assume 10,000 young Mennonites were attending Mennonite schools of all levels in 1953-54. (See Education Among the Mennonites in Russia; Private Christian Schools, United States) -- Menno S. Harder

1990 Update

A few Mennonite groups still attempt to operate a sufficiently comprehensive school system to provide the basic education for all of their members. In Mexico, Paraguay, Belize, and Bolivia this is still largely the case, in part because public education is deemed inadequate, in part because certain Mennonite groups remain convinced that education is the responsibility of the church, not of the state. Many of the Old Order Mennonite and Amish groups in the United States and Canada who restrict formal education to the primary school level also seek to operate these schools for their own children. Hutterite communities accept public elementary schools, but supplement them with their own "German school" which all children attend.

The majority of Mennonite churches around the world are involved in some level of educational enterprise, but in most cases the schools they operate are not designed to enroll all of their children, nor are they intended to function at all levels and in all types of education deemed acceptable or necessary by the group.

In Canada, Mennonite elementary schools ended when some 7,700 of their proponents immigrated to Latin America in the 1920s. Public school consolidation in Ontario during the 1960s led Old Order Mennonite and Amish groups to build their own schools. By 1981 there were 56 such schools, including some operated by Beachy Amish Mennonites and Conservative Mennonites. The Church of God in Christ, Mennonite opened several schools in western Canada during the 1970s, largely in response to declining local control of public schools through the consolidation of rural school districts into larger jurisdictions. In the 1980s a few urban elementary schools were opened by Mennonite societies whose members came mainly from the large conference bodies. Other Mennonite congregations have supported nondenominational Christian day schools.

The decided trend toward Mennonite private high schools discerned by Menno S. Harder in the 1950s was not sustained. Most of the Canadian Mennonite high schools founded in the first half of the 20th century are still operating, however, and many are members of the Canadian Association of Mennonite Schools (CAMS).

In the United States high schools are operated primarily by Mennonite Church (MC) groups; there were 18 MC schools in 1987, compared with 13 in the mid 1970s. The Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, gave guarded approval to high school education in 1959, and by 1970 several of their elementary schools either offered some high school grades or supervised students taking high school by correspondence. The Mennonite Church in 1968 initiated the High Aim program with the objective of making education in Mennonite high schools more accessible among minority groups. Bible schools and institutes were not a very significant element among Mennonites in the United States. Rosedale Bible Institute (now Rosedale Bible College) in Irwin. OH, a two-year junior college, was founded in 1952 by the Conservative Mennonite Conference. The Hispanic Mennonite Bible Institute opened in Pennsylvania in 1985.

In Canada the Bible school movement declined rapidly in the years following World War II, with most schools closing during the 1950s and 1960s. Of those that continued to operate during the 1970s and 1980s, Elim Bible Institute in Altona MB closed in 1988, Swift Current Bible Institue in Swift Current SK closed in 1996, and Winkler Bible Institute in Winkler MB closed in 1997. Three others became Bible colleges with expanded curriculum: Steinbach Bible Institute in Steinbach MB became Steinbach Bible College, sponsored by the Evangelical Mennonite Conference, the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference, and the Chortitzer Mennonite Conference; Bethany Bible Institute in Hepburn SK became Bethany College, sponsored by the Alberta and Saskatchewan Mennonite Brethren conferences as well as the Saskatchewan Conference of the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference; and a 1970 merger of two Abbotsford BC schools - Mennonite Brethren Bible Institute and Bethel Bible Institute, a Mennonite Bible institute, resulted in the formation of Columbia Bible Institute (now Columbia Bible College), which became a college in 1985. In 1976 the Evangelical Mennonite Missions Conference opened Aylmer Bible Institute in Ontario for Old Colony immigrants from Mexico and the Mennonite Brethren opened Institute Biblique Laval (now École de Théologie Évangélique de Montréal), a French language Bible institute in Quebec. In 1986 the school developed a memorandum of association with Mennonite Brethren Bible College and in 1990 it finalized an association with Université de Montréal.

Two Bible colleges founded in Winnipeg, Manitoba in the 1940s developed university connections during the 1960s. Mennonite Brethren Bible College (later Concord College) in Winnipeg established links with Waterloo Lutheran University in 1961, switching to the University of Winnipeg in 1970. Canadian Mennonite Bible College became associated with the University of Manitoba in 1964. An endowed chair in Mennonite Studies was established at the University of Winnipeg in 1978, followed in 1985 by the Mennonite Studies Centre at the same university. The latter eventually developed into a liberal arts college called Menno Simons College. The three Winnipeg based colleges merged in 2000 to become Canadian Mennonite University. Conrad Grebel University College opened as a liberal arts institution on the campus of the University of Waterloo in 1964, and Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre (TMTC), an inter-Mennonite teaching and resource center on the graduate level affiliated with the Toronto School of Theology, was founded in 1990.

In the United States the Mennonite Brethren colleges of Tabor College in Hillsboro, KS and Fresno Pacific College (now Fresno Pacific University) in Fresno, CA were transferred from national to district conference control in 1979. Two other Mennonite colleges closed: Upland College (Brethren in Christ - California) in 1965 and Freeman Junior College (GCM - South Dakota) in 1985. Other Mennonite colleges shifted their programs significantly in the direction of applied studies (e.g., nursing, teacher training, industrial arts, and aviation) from their earlier liberal arts emphasis. Five Mennonite schools of nursing operated in 1986. In 1998 there were three graduate-level Mennonite seminaries in North America: Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (a merger of Mennonite Biblical Seminary (GCM) and Goshen Biblical Seminary (MC) ) in Elkhart, Indiana; Eastern Mennonite Seminary (MC) in Harrisonburg, Virginia; and Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in Fresno, California. "Conference-Based Theological Education" received increasing emphasis in the 1980s, allowing pastors to enroll part-time in off-campus seminary courses sponsored by regional and district conferences, partly administered and entirely accredited through the graduate seminaries.

As a result of the "Overseas Churchmen Abroad Study-Service Programs" begun by the General Conference in 1972, some 15 Mennonite leaders from Africa, Asia, and Latin America were studying at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries in Elkhart in 1977, with others in Costa Rica and Japan.

As the enrollment of Mennonite students at state universities, colleges, and technical institutes rose sharply during the 1960s, the larger Mennonite denominations created Student (and Young Adult) Services committees to maintain contact with these geographically scattered young people. This trend also raised new questions about the role of Mennonite schools, especially at the post-secondary level. -- Adolf Ens

See also Christian Education; Education, Hutterite; Education among the Mennonites in Russia; Elementary Education


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Author(s) Menno S. Harder
Adolf Ens
Date Published July 2006

Cite This Article

MLA style

Harder, Menno S. and Adolf Ens. "Education, Mennonite." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. July 2006. Web. 20 May 2024.,_Mennonite&oldid=175182.

APA style

Harder, Menno S. and Adolf Ens. (July 2006). Education, Mennonite. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 20 May 2024, from,_Mennonite&oldid=175182.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 150-153; vol. 5, pp. 258-261. All rights reserved.

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