Jump to navigation Jump to search

Ethnic groups are those with a common cultural tradition and sense of identity which sets them off from the larger society around them. For most of their history Mennonites have been distinctive enough to qualify as an ethnic, as well as a religious, group. Whether this is still the case in the late 20th century is more open to question than it was previously.

Several strands of Mennonite ethnicity developed in Europe and were carried to the New World. The Swiss and South Germans, experiencing nearly 300 years of persecution, fled to isolated rural areas and sought to stay physically and theologically separate from the hostile world around them. The Amish schism intensified already strict church discipline which governed all of life. A strong teaching on humility (Demut) was reinforced by their socially marginal position.

As the Swiss and South German Amish and Mennonites moved to the eastern United States and Canada in the 1700s and 1800s, they became known for their tightly-knit agricultural communities, their emphasis on plain dress, and their separation from the "world," which included other religious groups. Those in Pennsylvania did share a "Pennsylvania Dutch" (Palatine German) tongue with their neighbors for a time, but were distinguished by their plainness of dress and severity of customs and church discipline from the "fancy Dutch" (German Reformed, Lutherans and others). Pennsylvania Dutch cooking, developed to its highest form by the Amish and Mennonites, includes such specialties as shoo-fly pie, snitz and knepp, a variety of sweet and sour pickles and condiments, custards, dumplings, soups, and a variety of dishes based on apples.

The Hutterites, who experienced the most severe and long-lasting persecution of all Anabaptist groups, also practiced plain dress, severity of church discipline, a strong two-world theology, and a German (Tyrolean) tongue. They alone developed the practice of New Testament sharing of resources (mutual aid) into a formalized Christian communalism (Gütergemeinschaft) in which all property was held in common by the Bruderhof, at once a social, economic, and religious community. Those Hutterites who retained community of goods and the Bruderhof pattern after migration to the western United States and Canada in the 1870s retain their distinctive language and culture. Those who gave up the communal pattern have been largely assimilated into the General Conference Mennonite Church in South Dakota.

The Dutch and North German Mennonites experienced less than a century of persecution, and mingled more freely with their non-Mennonite compatriots from whom they enjoyed a good deal of respect. They were the least isolated and least distinct of all European Mennonites. Whether they developed a separate Mennonite ethnicity in the Netherlands and north Germany is questionable.

However, some of these Mennonites moved east to take advantage of offers to settle and develop agricultural lands first in Prussia and then in Russia and the Ukraine. Here they developed their own distinctive low-German tongue (Plattdeutsch, or Plautdietsch), foods (e.g. vereniki, borscht, pluma moos), and eventually a subsociety virtually closed to outsiders. To be a Mennonite in the Russian colonies was perhaps even more a cultural than a religious phenomenon. As the Dutch/Russian Mennonites moved to western Canada and the United States and later to Mexico, Paraguay, and South Brazil, they retained their low-German culture, foods, and ethnic pride for several generations. It is still strongly in evidence among the more culturally and religiously conservative of them, the Old Colony Mennonites in Mexico, and the colony Mennonites of Paraguay, Brazil, and Bolivia.

North American society, however, with its materialism, extreme individualism, nationalism, mass communication, modern transportation, and stress on education and upward mobility, has taken its toll on the old style Swiss-German and Low-German ethnicity. Only the most conservative groups, such as the Amish, Old Order Mennonites, Old Colony Mennonites, and the Hutterites, clearly retain the old ethnicity. For them separation from the world is of prime importance. Among the more progressive, acculturated groups, those increasingly open to contact with the world and lacking strong collective discipline, the old ethnicity is gone or nearly so. New members, often of non-Mennonite and non-German background, have joined progressive Mennonite congregations and denominations (such as Mennonite Church [MC], General Conference Mennonite Church, Mennonite Brethren, Evangelical Mennonite Church) that at times find their ethnic heritage and customs an impediment to evangelism and church growth. In fact, some new members may feel that their welcome is less than enthusiastic if they lack an easily recognized Mennonite surname. Some progressive Mennonites are also embarrassed by what they regard as ethnic provincialism. Increasing numbers of young Mennonites find non-Mennonite marriage partners, another significant departure from the fairly rigid endogamy of the past.

Progressive Mennonites, however, strive to retain and build a less visible ethnicity of Mennonite ideals (e.g., peace, service, simplicity, mutual aid) fostered by inter-Mennonite cooperation in Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Disaster Service, Mennonite mutual aid associations, and a growing number of inter-Mennonite business and professional organizations (e.g., Mennonite Economic Development Associates, Mennonite Medical Association). The various North American Mennonite colleges and seminaries have been instrumental in establishing and fostering the new ethnicity of Mennonite ideals and inter-Mennonite cooperation.

The new Mennonite ethnicity, if one exists, is now portable, largely symbolic and ideological, rather than the old concrete, rooted, rural ethnicity of language, food, dress, family, customs, and land. Only time will tell whether a symbolic, portable ethnicity of values and ideals can endure once the ties of a distinct and common language, history, isolation, memory of persecution, and rural community have weakened or disappeared as they have for the progressive Mennonite groups of North America.

See also Folklore.


Dyck, Cornelius J. An Introduction to Mennonite History. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1967, 1981.

Juhnke, James C. "Mennonite History and Self Understanding: North American Mennonitism As a Bipolar Mosaic" and Donald B. Kraybill, "Modernity and Identity: The Transformation of Mennonite Ethnicity," in Mennonite Identity: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Sam Steiner and Calvin Redekop. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1988.

Toews, Paul J. "Dissolving the Boundaries and Strengthening the Nuclei." Christian Leader (22 July 1982): 6-8.

Author(s) Michael L Yoder
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Yoder, Michael L. "Ethnicity." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 29 Nov 2023.

APA style

Yoder, Michael L. (1989). Ethnicity. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 29 November 2023, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 274-275. All rights reserved.

©1996-2023 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.