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1956 Article

The Mennonite concept of the family is closely related to other Protestant groups, although there are some differences. An early characteristic among the peaceful Anabaptists along these lines was the emphasis on a union of heart and mind and a common loyalty to God. This emphasis on the devotion to a common cause, ideal, and community, transcending the personal preferences, was an outstanding feature of early Anabaptist family life. Only if this is realized can other characteristics be understood. The individual who entered into a covenant with God and joined the church of believers owed his first and supreme allegiance to God. For this reason marriages outside this covenant (church) were not desirable nor permissible. If a member of the church transgressed and was consequently banned, the marriage partner within the church was expected to conform to the regulations and standards of the congregation to the point of "shunning" the marriage partner outside the fold. The body of Christ and its members and their well-being were considered primary, and personal matters, even in family life, secondary. For this reason a member of the church severed his relationship by marrying outside the church. In many instances this was even the case when a person from a conservative group married into a more tolerant branch of Mennonites. All this is in line with Roland H. Bainton's observation regarding the characteristics of marriage and family life during the days before the Reformation and also afterwards. The Middle Ages emphasized the sacramental nature of marriage and family life. Love and companionship were not prerequisites for marriage. In a more "romantic age" love was emphasized, although not necessarily as a prerequisite for marriage. It was during the Reformation and particularly among the Anabaptists that a third stage came about. This was the idea that it is essential that marriage partners have the same ideals and thus become life companions.

Attention must also be called to a much advertised and exaggerated development among the Münsterite Anabaptists (1534 f.) pertaining to marriage and family life. Although originally the Anabaptists and Münsterites were strictly monogamic with high ethical ideals based on the covenant idea, through Jan van Leyden's example and the introduction of the Old Testament pattern for an Anabaptist kingdom at Münster polygamy was introduced, partly to take care of the women whose husbands had been killed during the siege of the city. This occurrence on the periphery of Anabaptism during the 16th century has been exploited by the opponents of the movement and used to "prove" a lack of ethical conduct in all Anabaptists. With the fall of Münster this development came to a close without finding imitation anywhere in Mennonite history.

Literature and illustrations emphasize a strong family life among Mennonites. It is true it was patriarchal in the early days (see picture by Aurèle Robert, "The Anabaptist or the Bernese Farm," Lausanne, Switzerland). The basis for an integrated harmonious and strong family life lies in the emphasis on common ideals for which families and groups were willing to sacrifice property and homes and even their lives, migrating from country to country. Hardships experienced in isolation not only tied the members of one family closer together, but also united groups of families. Living in closely knit small groups in isolation and practicing nonconformity to, the world over longer periods of time not only emphasized and strengthened family relationships, but also caused marriage among relatives. Although there seems to have been strong opposition to this practice and conferences have been held to discuss this matter (Mennonitisches Lexikon I, 516), the practice could hardly be avoided as long as Mennonites were opposed to outside marriages and lived in small isolated communities. Gustav E. Reimer, who studied five Mennonite congregations in America, mostly of Prussian background, has shown that marriage among first and second cousins was quite common among Mennonites, particularly of rural groups. He found that in the Whitewater Mennonite community of 93 young men, 15 were related to less than half of all the girls in the community, 24 to more than half, and 6 to more than three fourths. Fifty-three boys were related to 44 girls. However, Reimer suggested that there probably have not been more consanguine marriages among Mennonites than among other similar rural groups. He also came to the conclusion that the results of consanguinous marriages in the number of defective offspring did not seem to be greater than in families where the marriage partners were not related. Such marriage tends to double in children certain traits common to both partners, both desirable and undesirable. It seems, however, that some of the children with weaknesses tended to remain unmarried and that endogamic marriages caused the group to withdraw from society and that the chances for successful outside contacts were weakened.

The practices of proposing for marriage among Mennonites were in harmony with earlier concepts of marriage and family life and differed considerably from the mid-20th century. Among the Swiss Anabaptists and their conservative descendents (Amish), the practice was based literally on Genesis 24. The deacon or Steckelmann among the Swiss and the deacon or Umbitter among the Prussian Mennonites were entrusted by the family of the young man with the task of presenting the proposal to the chosen girl's parents. After this initial contact he himself came to the home of the girl of his choice. D. Chodowiecky's "The Mennonite Marriage Proposal" and Cornelis Troost's illustrations to Asselijn's Jan Klaasz (Mauritshuis, The Hague) have featured this event. This practice was also observed among the early Anabaptists of the Netherlands. The Wismar Articles of 1554 defined the views and practices along these lines. It was stated that children should not marry secretly, should consult their parents before taking steps along these lines, but that they should be given an opportunity to make their own decisions (Brons, 99). This was again stressed in the Twelve Articles of the Frisian Mennonites which were presented annually to the congregations in 1639-1716, stating that young people should not marry without the consent of the parents, that boys and girls should not associate too freely, that the approaching marriage should be properly announced, and that weddings should not be too elaborate, but "in the fear of the Lord and according to the example of Tobit" (Brons, 130). In 1765 regret was expressed in the Danzig congregation that the good old practice of having the Umbitter present the proposal was gradually being given up (Mennonitisches Lexikon I, 516).

The engagement was announced from the pulpit, after which the young couple visited day after day with relatives of the community. The marriage usually took place two weeks after the announcement of the engagement, to which occasion not only all relatives, but often the whole community was invited. The weddings were plain but all guests were served a regular full meal, and friends and relatives from a distance stayed for a number of meals.

For a long time the Mennonite ministers had to struggle to obtain permission to marry their own church members and to have the officials recognize such a marriage. In Germany the last barriers were not removed until 1918. In the Netherlands this was achieved at an earlier date. In Russia and in America Mennonites never confronted any problems along these lines.

The Mennonite family has been traditionally large. In Russia the population doubled within a generation (25 years), which was still the case in the mid-20th century among the Old Colony Mennonites in Mexico. In 1926 the Manitoba Mennonite settlement in Mexico had a total population of 3,340, and in 1949 it had increased to 7,706, which indicated that it did not even take twenty-five years to double their number. Similar increases can be found in conservative isolated rural Mennonite settlements. In Galicia the increase was 30 per thousand annually and among the Hutterites it was 45.9 per thousand in 1946-1950, which was almost double the national rate (24.2). Reimer found that the average number of children of the Mennonite community of Whitewater, Kansas, was 7.45 in 1876-1884; 6.11 in 1885-1900; 6.21 in 1901-1910; 7.11 in 1911-1918; and 3.5 in 1919-1924. The average for the Amish of Elkhart County, Indiana, was about 8 and for the Hutterites about 10. The age of marriage for men at Whitewater was 28.2 and for girls 22.85 in 1885-1900; for men 28.16 and for girls 22.74 in 1901-1910; and for men 28.65 and 23.78 for girls in 1911-1918. Statistics for the Mennonites of Prussian background in Nebraska were similar. The age of marriage among the Amish and Hutterites was lower. These statistics also corresponded somewhat with those available regarding the Mennonites of Russia. From 1890 to 1910 the average number of children per family was seven; and in 1911-1925 there was a gradual decrease to an average of five, which was mostly due to the impact of World War I, the Revolution, and other outside factors. By the time of the outbreak of World War II there was only one child per family. The main reason for this decrease was that most of the young men had been exiled (Stumpp, Tafel K.).

One of the striking observations regarding the old-fashioned Mennonite family of the Prusso Russian background was that widowers would usually remarry soon after the death of a spouse. In this case they would quite often marry a much younger girl instead of a widow. Records proved that this observation was not an exception but a rule. As an example we mention Bernhard Harder, whose wife died on 13 October 1878, and who remarried on 13 February 1879. This was comparatively a "long" period of mourning. Schmiedehaus reported that among the Old Colony Mennonites remarriage after a few weeks was common. (See also Birth Rate and Marriage) -- Cornelius Krahn

Family in Mennonite History and Life in America

Any attempt to describe the nature and significance of the family in Mennonite life and thought is unfortunately handicapped in the 1950s by a number of limiting factors. The more important of these limitations are:

(1) The paucity of sociological studies of Mennonites in general, and the Mennonite family in particular; (2) the highly subjective nature of many of the references to aspects of family life found in the existing literature on Mennonites; (3) the lack of adequate descriptive materials on the Mennonite family before the present century, with which present-day family patterns may be compared; (4) the marked differences in religious beliefs and cultural traits in the area of family life found between the various branches of Mennonites in the 1950s.

In the 1940s-1950s a few pioneer studies of an objective, scientific nature have been made of specific Mennonite groups. Notable among these studies, which gave some attention to family organization, were (1) Walter Kollmorgen's cultural anthropological study of the Old Order Amish of Lancaster County, Pa.; (2) an exhaustive study of the Hutterite colonies of the United States and Canada by a research team headed by Professor Joseph W. Eaton of Wayne University; (3) the study of the Mennonites in Paraguay by J. W. Fretz; (4) John A. Hostetler's studies on the Amish, particularly in Mifflin County, PA; (5) extensive research on Mennonite settlements in Manitoba by E. K. Francis; and (6) the Mennonite family census conducted in 1950 by the Mennonite Research Foundation.

It should also be noted that several Mennonite church historians have included brief but helpful descriptions of Mennonite family traits in their historical works. These include John C. Wenger's history of Franconia Mennonites, Melvin Gingerich's study of the Mennonites of Iowa, and John Umble's study of the Amish Mennonites of Union County, Pennsylvania. Limited studies of family size, marriage, and birth and death rates have been made on Mennonite groups in a few local areas. It is obvious that the foregoing isolated, though valuable, studies of Mennonite life can present at best only a fragmentary picture of family organization among Mennonites as a whole. A more complete analysis of the Mennonite family must await additional years of painstaking research by qualified scholars both within and without the Mennonite faith.

The fourth limiting factor mentioned above refers to the cultural variations between existing Mennonite bodies. Although there is general subscription to the central doctrines of Anabaptist-Mennonite faith by all Mennonite branches, the practical applications of these doctrines vary markedly. At one end of the cultural continuum are the very rural, conservative Amish and Hutterite bodies with their many distinguishing overt cultural traits. At the other end of the continuum are the most "progressive" or "liberal" bodies, such as the General Conference Mennonites and the Mennonite Brethren in Christ, whose overt cultural traits are not so easily distinguishable from the dominant American cultural pattern.

Cultural variation among Mennonite bodies is clearly reflected in family traits and organization. Courtship patterns, marriage ceremonies, authority patterns, family size, attitudes toward divorce, attitudes toward birth control, and other aspects of the family vary considerably between Mennonite bodies. For that reason, generalizations about the "Mennonite family" are frequently difficult and sometimes impossible. Frequent reference must be made to specific groups, and differences noted between them.

Because of the limited nature of information available, this article deals almost entirely with five American groups: Old Order Amish, Hutterian Brethren, General Conference Mennonites, Mennonites of Paraguay, and the Mennonite Church (MC). The omission of other Mennonite groups is due solely to lack of materials.

As in all cultures, the family is the primary social institution among Mennonites. In the Mennonite culture of the 1950s, however, the family was especially significant. This was true in part because the Mennonites fortified the family institution with a literal interpretation of the Scriptures, and in part because in the more than four hundred years of their history they have been largely agrarian. Mennonite culture patterns have frequently been forged in frontier settlement conditions, such as in Russia, United States, Canada, Mexico, and Paraguay. The rigors of pioneering have always made great demands on the institution of the family.

Mennonites believed in the words of God when He said concerning Adam, "It is not good for man to be alone" (Genesis 2:18). Considerable social pressure was normally exerted against the bachelor and "old maid." With regard to size of family Mennonites tended to accept literally God's command to Noah, "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth" (Genesis 9:1).

The Mennonite family of the 1950s was strictly monogamous. Marriage was regarded as a sacred union to be consummated only "in the Lord" and to be sustained "until death do us part." Divorce occured very rarely, and was strictly taboo except for reason of adultery as permitted in Matthew 19:9. Among the Amish, divorce, desertion, or separation did not exist. Any party to such a marriage dissolution would become the object of severe social disapproval. This was slightly less true in certain sections of the most liberal Mennonite bodies, where not only had an occasional divorce occurred, but where there were a few instances of the remarriage of divorced persons, such persons at the same time retaining church membership. A 1952 study of 52 mission stations maintained by the Mennonite Church (MC) revealed that six persons on membership rolls were divorced. In rare cases a divorcee may be found on the roll of an established congregation in the Mennonite Church (MC). The remarriage of a divorced church member would not be permitted in any Amish or Mennonite (MC) congregation in the 1950s. Only one divorce and two separations occurred among the Hutterites since their settlement in the United States until 1950.

Courtship and mate selection practices varied considerably along the conservative-liberal Mennonite continuum. Amish young people began to "run around" at about 16 or 17 years of age. Dating was carried on more secretly than openly, and its purpose was solely to find a mate. The American pattern of extensive "casual dating" (that is, dating different persons without intent to court), carried on very openly and with a great amount of romantic sentimentality, was simply not found among the Amish. Amish young men and women had frequent opportunities for mingling, but "pairing off" took place largely at the close of an evening social event, and couples rarely appeared in public together until near the time of the wedding.

In the less conservative Mennonite branches, the conventional American dating and courtship practices prevailed. A considerable amount of casual dating took place. After a period of from several months to several years of "going steady," the successful courtship eventuated in engagement. Traditionally among American Mennonites and Amish Mennonites engagements have not been announced (see Courtship Customs), but this custom was changing.

Among the Mennonites of South America of the 1950s "young people may fraternize informally at times of church gatherings such as weddings, funerals, and religious holidays, but the idea of a young man or woman dating many different individuals is as unfamiliar to the young people in the colonies as it was to our grandparents" (Fretz, chapter 4).

In the Mennonite colonies of South America it was customary for the minister to announce engagements at the close of a Sunday morning worship service. Among the Amish, engagements were not announced, but "publishing the banns" was required. Publishing the banns was also customary among the Hutterites and, in general, among most European Mennonites, including those who had immigrated from Europe in recent decades. The practice was found also among some conservative congregations in the Mennonite Church group. However, in most present-day Mennonite Church, General Conference Mennonite and related branches, the custom has been dropped.

Data from the Mennonite Church (MC) family census (1950) show that for Mennonite Church males first marriages occurred at the average age of 24.8 years. The corresponding average for females was 23.3 years. The median age at marriage for Mennonite women was 21.7 years. For all persons married for the first time in the United States in 1950 the median age at marriage was 20.3 for women and 22.8 for men. The median age at marriage in 1950 for Hutterite marriages was 23.5 for men and 22.0 for women. For the Amish, Hostetler reports that "on the average, girls marry at 22 and boys at about 24. The normal age for marriage ranges from 18 to 26." These data suggest that Mennonites tended to marry at slightly older ages than the United States population as a whole, and that the age span between husband and wife was somewhat less. Eaton and Mayer discovered that the age at marriage had been increasing among Hutterites. For the United States, age at marriage had been decreasing. Trend data were not yet available for other Mennonite groups.

Data on marriage rates were available only for the Hutterites. Eaton and Mayer discovered that Hutterites had a very high marriage rate. By the age of 45 less than 2 per cent of all Hutterites remained unmarried. For the United States as a whole, 8 per cent of men and 7 per cent of women had not married by the age of 45, a rate which was high compared to other countries.

In many congregations (MC) known to the writer the number of unmarried women of marriageable age was considerably larger than the number of unmarried men of marriageable age. It was probable that greater numbers of young men than of young women left the church, causing an excess of unmarried women. An investigation should be made as to whether this may be a general pattern for Mennonites, and if so, how it may affect the female marriage rate.

Available data indicated that Mennonites (MC) had larger families than was true for the United States as a whole. The average completed family in the United States in the 1950s had 3.1 children. The average completed Hutterite family had 10.4 children. For Paraguayan Mennonites the figure was 8.4 children. In a Pennsylvania Amish community the average completed Amish family was found to have 7-8 children. The family census study indicated that completed Mennonite Church families had 4.9 children. The data also indicated that there was a direct relation between Mennonite conservatism and large families. Of four Mennonite groups studied in Elkhart County, Indiana, the General Conference Mennonites had the smallest families, and the Amish the largest. Since urban families in general had fewer children than farm families, the rurality of the conservative groups no doubt was a major factor in the larger family size. Birth control practice may partially explain variations in family size. Hutterite and Amish families shunned all methods of birth control, whereas the more educated and urbanized Mennonite families frequently practiced birth control. The more liberal groups did not oppose such practice.

As is usual in rural societies, the Mennonite family was the basic unit in other social institutions of the community. Parents seldom attended functions without their children. Only among the more urbanized, progressive families in mid-20th century had "baby sitting" become more common. The entire family normally attended church services, weddings, funerals, picnics, and other social events as a unit. It was customary to bring infants to church as soon as they were old enough to be taken anywhere, not infrequently as young as six weeks.

The home also tended to be the center of social and religious events. Among the "house Amish," who have no meetinghouses, church services and all other events took place in the homes of the members. Among most Mennonite groups, family reunions, neighborhood get-togethers, and young people's social and literary events usually took place in homes. Among the more urbanized Mennonite congregations, however, such events tended to be scheduled outside the home either in church or community facilities.

Religion played an important role in the mid-20th century Mennonite family. Grace at meals (usually audible, sometimes silent) was universal, and probably the most overt religious activity in the home. In addition, many homes had some type of family worship. In some cases family worship was perfunctorily routine with little variety or imagination. The extreme of this was where the father daily read a passage of Scripture and lead in prayer. In other cases considerable variation in programing, in participation of all members of the family, and in the use of music was to be found. Church conference resolutions frequently called attention to the need for stronger and more extensive family worship programs in Mennonite families. Ministers periodically exhorted parents to establish "family altars." Nevertheless statistics gathered through the Sunday schools in 1952 indicated that only about 30 per cent of Mennonite Church families have some form of family worship.

Other religious traits found in Mennonite homes included religious wall mottoes, religious literature, and collections of sacred music on records. The latter item, however, would not appear in Amish homes.

More significant than material traits was the role that religion played in the inner life of the family members. The Spirit of God, when manifest in the lives of family members, yields the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance. It is by such spiritual qualities that the highest and noblest in human relationships is achieved, in the family as elsewhere. Mennonites have perhaps succeeded in manifesting these spiritual qualities in their interpersonal relationships to a greater extent than the bulk of the human race. This is not to overlook the fact, however, that some Mennonite families seriously lack these qualities, and give evidence of maladjustment, either between mates or between parents and children, or both. In marriages which are basically unhappy, the mates tended to endure each other, working out some type of accommodation rather than dissolve the marriage.

The recognition of family frictions has led the more progressive Mennonite churches to give attention to family life education. Through sermons, Sunday schools, Sunday evening services, and special conferences and institutes increasing attention was being given to the social, psychological, and spiritual factors which affect the success of family living. In 1952 the Mennonite Church Commission for Christian Education prepared a series of popularly written booklets on courtship and family relations. Careful studies should be made of discipline methods, authoritarian controls, and other aspects of parent-child interaction in Mennonite families to discover their effect on the personality development of Mennonite youth.

With respect to authority, Mennonite families in the 1950s were patriarchal. The degree of authority exercised by the head of the family varied considerably among the Mennonite branches, and between families within a given branch. Patriarchal forms were most strongly evidenced among the conservative Amish and Hutterite groups. Traditional forms stemming from European culture of centuries ago had been fairly well preserved among these groups. On the other hand, the Mennonite Church in the United States and Canada, and particularly certain sections of the General Conference Mennonite, had assimilated many of the equalitarian, democratic, and individualistic values and ideals of the dominant American culture. Mennonites of recent immigration from Europe to Canada, Mexico, and South America reflected the more authoritarian patterns of Old World patriarchal family life.

Among the Mennonites of North America it should be noted that the process of assimilation was bringing about some notable changes in family organization. Among the more "modernized" Mennonite families the husband was likely to share much of the decision-making process with his wife and children. Family devotions might be on a more democratic basis. The wife had in some cases come to share in the management of family finances. She was likely to share with her husband in property ownership. She may have a joint bank account with him. She may assume more leadership in the church and community than was formerly thought correct. Sex differentiation tended to disappear in the seating arrangement in church. The wife, and even the mother, had in some cases taken a job outside the home and thus shared with her husband in the "bread-winning" process. The Amish mother, wrote Hostetler, would be horrified by the thought of working outside the home and at the same time trying to raise a family. The Amish husband was still occasionally seen walking ahead of, rather than beside his wife. On festive occasions among the Amish the men were always served before the children and women. The women were expected to "keep silence in the churches" (1 Corinthians 14:34).

Concerning Paraguayan Mennonites, Fretz related: "A North American visitor is likely to be impressed with the way the woman of the house played the role of servant. In the writer's many home calls, the woman was seldom present during the visit, and in most instances, where the visit took place over mealtime, only the husband and guest were seated at the table. The wife generally served the food, but only in a few instances did she take part in the conversation."

Discipline in Mennonite and Amish homes was generally strict, and children were carefully taught to obey their parents and the rulings of the church. It appeared that discipline may on some occasions have been too strongly administered, resulting in the arresting of healthy personality development, and in the rejection of the authority of both the parent and the church he represented. On the other hand, there were instances where it appeared that discipline was administered too lightly, or, what may even be worse, without consistency.

With respect to mate selection, Mennonites were endogamous. Here again the pattern varied from one group to another. For the Amish, "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers" (2 Corinthians 6:14) was literally interpreted as "Do not marry a person who is not Amish." Mennonite Church (MC) district conferences often declared that Mennonites should marry only "in the faith," implying within the Mennonite faith. Although basically endogamous, the more culturally liberal groups frowned less on the intermarriage of a Mennonite with a member of some other Protestant (especially evangelical) denomination. Nevertheless in the liberal groups there was considerable teaching on the inadvisability intermarriage. The research findings of Terman, Burgess Cottrell, and other family sociologists were cited in defense of this position. Furthermore it was always hoped that a person marrying outside the Mennonite faith would bring his mate into the Mennonite fold rather than vice versa.

In Mennonite culture the "kinship system" also operated. Grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, cousins, and in-laws were apparently more significant in the lives of Mennonites than in American society at large. This was no doubt partly due to rurality, but was also a result of familistic idealism together with rather highly developed in-group feelings. Much visiting of relatives was carried on. This, of course, diminished where urban families settled some distance from the home community.

Among Amish congregations church services have been traditionally held only on alternate Sundays. This allowed the intervening Sundays to be used for visiting relatives. Visiting was, of course, very informal, often without benefit of prior invitation. Among the more assimilated Mennonites social etiquette normally called for at least some advance notice that a family was coming for a meal, or to stay overnight. In most cases a formal invitation necessarily preceded such a visit.

Among the Amish, where familism was very strong, a modification of the "extended family system" could be found. In such a system grandparents, their children, and their grandchildren lived together in one household, as for example in traditional China. It was customary for an Amish couple to remain on the farm as long as they lived. If financially possible, the couple obtained farms for the older sons when they married. A younger son normally remained on the home farm after he was married, continuing to live with the parents. Instead of all living in the same house, however, a "grossdawdy" house was constructed next to (and often attached to) the main farmhouse. The grandparents and any unmarried daughters occupied this smaller house, while the son's expanding family occupied the main house. The son gradually took over complete responsibility for the farm.

In Hutterite society, an even stronger familistic system prevailed in the 1950s. Over one hundred Hutterite colonies were located in South Dakota, Montana, Alberta, and Manitoba. Organized along communal lines, each colony consisted of from 50 to 150 persons of all ages who were for the most part interrelated. The single family unit was, however, strong and clearly defined despite the fact that all property was held in common, all families worked together under one management, and lived and ate together in one location.

The aged in the Mennonite culture had an unusually secure position compared to aged persons in urban American culture. This was especially true in the Amish and Hutterite groups. The communal system of the Hutterites and the "extended family" relationships among the Amish provided the aged with a life guarantee of care and protection. The aged patriarch retained a role of counselor, if not direct manager, in the affairs of his kinship group. Thus he retained considerable social status in relation to others, a condition usually denied the urban resident, who was frequently forced to retire at an arbitrary age, thus losing the sense of usefulness and responsibility so important to human happiness.

No Amish or Hutterite aged person in the 1950s would be left to a government agency for care as a public ward. It was regarded as not only a disgrace, but also a sin for any child to allow his parents' needs to go unmet.

The same interest and concern shown for the aged also was evidenced in relation to all other defective or dependent persons, such as the physically handicapped and the mentally deficient and deranged. Medical care was normally sought when needed. However, the reluctance of these groups to submit their dependent members to the care of some outside agency had in a few cases resulted in a family's attempting to provide necessary care which they were incapable of giving. Especially among the Amish there prevailed a number of superstitious practices and "home remedies" which had on occasion served to deny a family member the necessary physical or mental health care which modern medical and psychiatric practice was able to provide.

Among the other Mennonite branches the aged and dependent family members were also well cared for. As one goes in the direction of the more liberal groups among Mennonite bodies, there was increasing readiness to seek the aid of public and private health and welfare institutions. The inroads of urbanism and secularism weakened the familistic system, and the security of dependent persons was proportionately reduced. There were, however, few Mennonites who became wards of a government agency.

In conclusion it should be noted that the Mennonite family was not static but dynamic. It was true that among the Old Order Amish and Hutterite groups social change was occurring very slowly. Traditional family forms tended to persevere in spite of the unusually dynamic nature of the surrounding American environment. Even the modern inventions of the telephone, the radio, electricity, and modern household appliances were resisted by the Old Order Amish group, thus offsetting the extensive social and economic changes which such inventions normally precipitated in the family.

The more progressive Mennonite branches generally welcomed the new inventions which science had offered. While enjoying the conveniences and leisure which these inventions afforded, they at the same time were subjected to subtle and fundamental changes, some of which tended toward family disintegration rather than integration. Perhaps no single invention made a greater impact upon family life than the automobile. The automobile shortened the time-distance to the hospital, the doctor, the market, the church, and distant relatives. At the same time it multiplied the potentialities for breaking down the associational pattern of the family unit. Possibly the greatest threat to Mennonite family stability in the mid-20th century was the increasing number and complexity of the activities which drew members out of the family into the community institutions and activities round about. Family recreation, for example, which once was about the only type of recreation available, now was maintained only at the price of concerted effort and planning. Even family worship suffered from the blows of irregular and activity-packed time-schedules. The lines of communication between Mennonites and the surrounding increasingly urbanized, secularized, and individualized culture pattern were multiplied in number and intensity.

Time alone will reveal whether the strong Mennonite familism of the mid-20th century would withstand the disintegrating forces which increasingly faced it. Would additional Mennonite groups, bent on preserving their familistic culture, cut the lines of communication with surrounding cultures by migrating to the remote areas of the world's remaining frontiers? Or would the sturdy religious and moral convictions of past generations continue to meet the challenges of today? In past generations, Mennonite family stability was protected partly by compact settlement in geographically and socially isolated rural communities. As this pattern gives way, increasing spiritual resources and a greater awareness of the issues at stake will be needed to meet the challenge of modern urbanization, individualism, and secularization. -- J. Howard Kauffman

1990 Update


The Mennonite family of the 1980s continues many of the same characteristics noted in the earlier Mennonite Encyclopedia article above. However, some significant trends can be observed over the past three decades, due to the gradual modernization and acculturation of Mennonites under the impact of powerful secular forces of the late 20th century. Most notable are the continuing urbanization of Mennonites and the fallout from two major social movements: the "sexual revolution" of the 1960s and the women's rights movement of the 1970s.

In past generations Mennonites maintained various social and cultural boundaries by which acculturation was resisted, but these appear to be weakening as Mennonites increasingly participate in social networks of the larger society. Only the most conservative groups (Hutterites, Old Order Amish, Old Order Mennonites, Old Colony Mennonites) maintain effective social barriers between themselves and the "outside world." Familism is still very strong among these groups, but among the more progressive Mennonite bodies family solidarity is increasingly eroded by patterns of geographic mobility and the individualistic ideologies of a "me first" generation. Not all is negative, however, as some social trends favor the family, such as increased economic resources and more favorable treatment of women in society.

The description and analysis of Mennonite family patterns has been enhanced by a number of empirical sociological studies since the 1950s. Among these are (1) Kauffman's survey of 149 Midwest Mennonite Church (MC) families in the late 1950s; (2) the 1963 Mennonite family census conducted by the Mennonite Research Foundation; (3) Augsburger's investigation of the relation of family control patterns to the child's personality development; (4) Lederach's 1968 survey of Mennonite Church (MC) teenagers; (5) several surveys of the sexual attitudes and behavior of Mennonite college students; (6) the 1972 Kauffman-Harder survey of 3,691 members of five Mennonite denominations; (7) Harder's three censuses of General Conference Mennonite (GCM) congregations in 1960, 1970, and 1980; (8) Yoder's 1982 census of the Mennonite Church; (9) studies on marriage and divorce among Canadian Mennonites by Driedger and others; and (10) the 1989 Kauffman-Driedger survey of 3,083 members of five Mennonite denominations. In addition, some aspects of family life are included in Redekop's reports on Mennonites in Mexico and Paraguay, Hiebert's work on the Church of God in Christ Mennonite (Holdeman), and Hostetler's books on the Hutterites and Old Order Amish.

The Decline of Kinship

According to family sociologists, a characteristic of modern society is the tendency of kinship structures and relationships to weaken in favor of the ascendancy of the nuclear family unit. Interaction with, and a sense of duties and responsibilities toward, one's relatives beyond the nuclear family tend to diminish when adult children no longer live near their grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins and when community agencies, insurance, pension plans, and social security programs tend to displace the traditional obligations to care for the family's elderly relatives.

As long as Mennonites were primarily agricultural and married children continued to live in the community of their birth, kinship structures were dominant over individuals and nuclear family units. Choice of occupation, choice of spouse, aspects of personal behavior, obligations of mutual aid, etc., were subject to the opinions, counsel, and informal sanctions of parents and other close kin.

With urbanization and its concomitant geographical mobility, Mennonites like others experience declining interaction with relatives despite increased phone calls and correspondence and the popularity of annual family reunions, sometimes poorly attended by the younger generation who live at a distance. "Familism" defined as a strong sense of relatedness and mutual obligations with one's kin, tends to give way to "individualism," a sense of detachment and resistance to family and kinship controls. Familism is still strong among the Old Orders and in the more conservative rural Mennonite communities, but among Mennonites who pursue higher education, urban occupations, and service assignments in distant places, nuclear families are often thrown upon their own resources and the resources of non-family friends, in meeting the exigencies of a fast-moving, competitive, urban way of life. As Bender (1982, p. 114) points out, modern society removes some of the supporting pillars of husband-wife units, and breakdowns are more likely to occur. Slowly increasing divorce rates among Mennonites give testimony to this.

Trends in Family Demography

No trend among Mennonites is more striking than the recent shift from rural to urban residence and from farm to non-farm occupations. Only the Hutterites continue to be wholly agricultural. Although they still avoid cities as a place of residence, an increasing proportion of Old Order families live on non-farm plots and engage in non-farm occupations. In northern Indiana it was estimated in 1989 that at least half of Old Order Amish men were no longer farmers by primary occupation.

The trend among Mennonites is indicated by the 149 families surveyed by Kauffman in 1956 and 1979. Ninety-five percent of the husbands and wives were reared on farms, 68 percent were living on farms in 1956 (only 52 percent of the husbands were farmers), but only 18 percent of the children were living on farms in 1979, among whom only 12 percent were farmers by primary occupation. Yoder's 1982 census indicated that only about one-fifth of Mennonite Church (MC) adherents live on farms, although nearly two-thirds live in rural areas. The 1972 church member survey revealed that, of the five denominations included, the Mennonite Church was the most rural, followed in order by the Brethren in Christ, Evangelical Mennonite Church, the General Conference Mennonites, and the Mennonite Brethren Church, the latter being most urbanized, with 56 percent living in urban areas. By 1989 the Mennonite Brethren remained the most urbanized (73 percent); and among the five denominations surveyed the percentage increased from 35 percent in 1972 to 48 percent in 1989.

Compared to the general American and Canadian populations, Mennonite households have somewhat higher average incomes. Home ownership rates are higher than the national populations, and the proportion of Mennonite family incomes below the poverty level is relatively low. Less than one percent of Mennonite church members, who in 1972 had not retired, reported themselves as unemployed. This compares to at least five or six percent unemployed in the national populations. Thus Mennonite families, on the average, enjoy a somewhat higher economic standard of living than other North American families. As Mennonites leave farming, the shift is more into professional, business, and other "white collar" occupations and less into "blue collar' trades and factory work which generally pay lower wages.

Apparently the movement of Mennonites away from farming does not result in less satisfaction, on the part of husbands or wives, with the husband's occupation, according to the 1956 survey.

Family demography also notes the marital status of a given population. Yoder's 1982 census of the Mennonite Church (MC) indicates the marital status of persons of marriage age, in this case all adults aged 20 and over, as follows: single (never married), 17.6 percent; married to original spouse, 70.2; widowed, 5.7; widowed and remarried, 1.6; divorced, 1.8; separated, 0.9; remarried after divorce, 2.2; (total = 100 percent). Harder's censuses of GCM congregations yielded the following distributions (the first percentage shown in each category is for 1970, the second for 1980): single, 19.4, 19.3; married, 72.4, 71.5; widowed, 7.3, 7.4; divorced, 1.0, 1.8. (Total percentage for 1970 = 100.1; for 1980, 100 percent.) His data did not distinguish between those married to their original spouses and those who had remarried after widowhood or divorce.

The tendency of many more women than men never to marry was reported elsewhere (marriage); likewise the gradual increase in the small proportion who experience divorce. Compared to adult national populations, Mennonites are more married and less divorced. In 1972 only 1 percent of Mennonites had experienced divorce; this increased to 4.2 percent in the 1989 survey. The percentages in the general population were much higher.

Another significant trend among Mennonite families is the decline in the average size of families, defined as the number of children ever born. The available data indicate that in the 1950s Mennonites (MC) had nearly 50 percent more children per family than was true in national populations. The families in the 1956 study ended up with an average of 3.9 children per family. Since then Mennonite fertility has declined more rapidly than fertility in the national populations, so that currently Mennonite fertility is no higher than national fertility, as indicated by the 1982 census. This reflects the lower birthrates associated with non-farm residence and occupations, and with higher educational achievements, Contraception is widely practiced among Mennonites, reflecting changes from earlier generations.

Hutterite and Amish birthrates are still much higher than Mennonite rates, but there is some indication of very recent downward trends in the number of children born to completed families, suggesting that birth control may be gradually entering the thinking and practice of these conservative groups.

Lastly, the employment of Mennonite wives has witnessed a significant increase. Among Hutterites and the Old Orders, gainful employment of married women is very rare. Among Mennonites, however, the data indicate that married women are employed at rates at least equal to married women in comparable national populations. According to the 1972 church member survey of five denominations, 45 percent of all women, married and not married, were employed at least part-time, compared to 40 percent for the population of the United States in 1970. By 1989 56 percent of Mennonite were employed outside the home; almost an identical percentage to the percentage for women in the United States. In 1972, counting only housewives, 38 percent were employed at least part-time. Only 14 percent were employed full-time. The percentages of housewives employed ranged from 23.5 for farm residents to 49.1 for those church members living in cities of more than 25,000 people.

At the time of the 1956 survey 20 percent of the Midwest Mennonite wives were employed at least part-time; this was when they had children at home. By 1979, 65 percent of these wives had been employed at some time during their married years. It is likely that even larger proportions of younger Mennonite wives mill have been employed during their married years, perhaps for considerably longer periods of time than the earlier generations. This is certainly a significant outcome of the increased urbanization of Mennonite families. These trends are related to declining birth rates and the desire of wives to supplement the family income or to follow career interests.

Family Relationships

Family interpersonal relationships can be classified into at least four categories; husband-wife, parent-child, sibling relationships, and relationships of the members of a nuclear family to other relatives. Are Mennonites any different from other population segments with respect to the quality of family relationships? For example, does the strong Mennonite emphasis on peace and harmony between peoples and nations have any effect on peace and harmony within the family?

Definitive answers to these questions are difficult to obtain. The quality of personal relationships is not easy to assess, and there have been very few attempts to apply empirical methods to the study of relationships. With several exceptions, we are left with chiefly inferential and speculative answers to these intriguing questions.

At least four concerns have emerged as Mennonites have reflected in recent decades on the trends occurring within their families: (1) What are the effects on the quality of family life resulting from urbanization? (2) is the decline of patriarchy a gain or a loss for Mennonite families? (3) How has the sexual revolution affected Mennonite families? (4) How have Mennonite families been affected by the women's rights movement? Comments on these issues will be limited to Mennonites, since family life among the Hutterites, Old Order Amish, Old Order Mennonites, and Old Colony Mennonites appears to be undergoing little, if any, change.

One can assume that urbanization and modernization affect Mennonite families in much the same ways as non-Mennonite families. Family sociologists note that some changes are positive. As a result of improved medical care fewer families are broken by the early death of a spouse or child. Family wellbeing profits from improved material resources and increased levels of living. There is more leisure time for family members to share together, although there is the question of how well that time is used. Families have gradually become more "democratized" through more sharing of decisions between spouses and between parents and children. There is more overlapping of husband and wife roles, which is believed to improve understanding and communication between spouses.

On the negative side, marital breakup rates have soared and are about twice as high in urban areas as among the rural farm population. The available data indicate that this is true for Mennonites as well, although the rates are comparatively low in both rural and urban areas. For the general population, crime and delinquency rates are higher in urban areas. Data for Mennonites are lacking, but Mennonite cases seem to be very rare anywhere. Absence of parents from the home, due primarily to their employment, is greater in non-farm areas, and this is assumed to be a negative factor for family wellbeing. it was noted above that urban mobility tends to weaken kinship relationships. Urban children lack the opportunity to learn many work skills that their rural farm cousins regularly gain. Urban housing is more crowded, with the result that space for family members to work and play together is much more limited. It has been generally assumed that greater stresses in urban life are responsible for the higher rates of mental disorders in cities. Data are lacking to clarify how similarly Mennonite families share in these aspects of urban society.

By the use of scales to assess the quality of husband-wife and parent-child relationships, Kauffman explored farm and non-farm differences among the families surveyed in 1956. Unfortunately there were only 15 urban families in the non-farm category. No significant difference was found between farm and non-farm families with respect to husband-wife and parent-child relationships. However, further analysis indicated that rural residence per se was favored, but the residence factor was overcome by the fact that farm families tended to be more patriarchal, which factor was detrimental to the quality of interpersonal relations. In other words, if farm families were no more patriarchal than non-farm families, the interpersonal relations scores would have averaged somewhat higher among the farm families.

These findings speak to the question of the effect of declining patriarchy on Mennonite families. Those families in which the father was definitely or slightly dominant were compared with those in which the spouses shared responsibilities more equally. It was found that the equalitarian families scored somewhat higher on the husband-wife and parent-child relationships scales. Thus the decline of patriarchy appears to be beneficial rather than detrimental for the quality of relationships between family members.

These findings tended to be corroborated a few years later by Augsburger in a survey of 293 students in Mennonite colleges. He compared respondents who had experienced "direct" family controls (administered more autocratically by an individual or individuals) with others who had experienced more "indirect" controls (administered more democratically through group processes). Direct control patterns were reported more frequently by students who were older, from farm backgrounds, and from eastern communities in the United States. Students who had experienced more indirect control patterns scored somewhat higher on scales measuring personal and social development, and on items indicating patterns of personal behavior such as church attendance and absence of disapproved behaviors such as smoking and drinking. Thus the movement away from traditional stricter control patterns, generally associated with patriarchy, appears beneficial.

Returning to the question of the impact of urbanization, it was found that children in farm families evidenced slightly fewer neurotic symptoms than the non-farm children, and that farm children were somewhat more accepting of traditional Mennonite values. We conclude that rural residence is favorable in some ways, but not in others. The negative effects of greater patriarchy tend to offset the advantages of rural location, so that the overall effects of urbanization are not negative, insofar as the quality of personal relationships is concerned. Of course, this does not speak to other, possibly negative, aspects of the urban environment.

What has been the effect of the women's rights movement? Certainly Mennonite women, as others, have increasingly entered formerly exclusively male occupations, including the ministry. Doubtless the increasing rate of employment of Mennonite wives and the declining Mennonite birthrates have their connection to the achievement of more equality between women and men. It appears that the younger generation of Mennonite husbands is increasingly sharing with their wives in household tasks and childrearing, and wives are sharing much more in providing family income. Does this greater overlapping of husband and wife roles enhance the quality of family interpersonal relationships and success in child rearing?

In the 1979 follow-up of families studied in 1956, data on 554 children were obtained and a measure of personal success was computed for each, based on educational and occupational achievement, church membership and attendance, involvement in service activity, community and church leadership, and the absence of social and emotional disorders. These "offspring success scores" did not differ significantly between those children reared in the more patriarchal families as compared to those reared in the more equalitarian ones. However, the success scores did average higher in those families where the husband-wife and parent-child relationships scores were higher in 1956. This suggests that the success of children is more closely related to the quality of the emotional relationships (particularly affection) which the child experiences in the family than it is to the way authority is distributed between the parents.

Other findings with respect to offspring success scores indicate that children from rural families had slightly higher average success scores than the offspring of urban families. The success of children was found to be unrelated to family size or to whether or not the wife was employed outside the home while they were rearing their children. Major changes have occurred in American and Canadian societies in connection with the so-called sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Most notable are the greater openness in the discussion of matters of sexuality, major increases in the rates of premarital and extramarital sexual relations, a major increase in illegitimate births, and greater public awareness and discussion of homosexuality.

With their concern for personal morality, Mennonites have sought to resist the inroads of loosening moral standards evident in the mass media and public behavior. During the early 1980s a major study on "Human Sexuality in the Christian Life" was undertaken by leaders and congregations in both the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church (MC). The resulting study report, accepted by both denominational assemblies, affirms the principle of limiting sexual relations to married couples. Although the report disapproves discriminatory attitudes and behavior towards persons of homosexual orientation, it does not approve the practice of homosexual acts.

The 1972 survey indicated that 85 percent of church members believe that a sexual relationship outside of marriage "is never justified." Seven percent were uncertain, and eight percent were ready to justify it under certain limited conditions. Those responding "is never justified" ranged from 66 percent of the 20-29 years age group to 95 percent of the members 50 years and over. Thus attitudes of the younger generation are clearly more permissive, probably affected by shifts in public attitudes. There are infrequent cases among Mennonites of extramarital intercourse, illegitimate children, and sexual abuse of children, but their occurrence has not been documented except as they are noted by family counseling agencies.

There have been several attempts to discover the rate of premarital intercourse among Mennonites two surveys of Mennonite college students by Kauffman (in 1968 and 1978) and a master's thesis at Purdue University. The results of these studies indicated that there is an increase in recent years in the proportion of persons who have intercourse prior to marriage. The data indicated rates of about 20 percent in 1968 and 30 percent in 1978, both far below the prevailing rates in the national populations. Premarital intercourse occurred among Mennonites in the past as well as the present, but stricter standards in the past often required public confession of such behavior. The recent erosion of the standard is apparently accompanied by the assumption that the occurrence is not to be considered as a matter of public concern.

Family Life Education

Many programs have emerged in recent decades in the attempt to help individuals become better prepared to meet the increasing problems and risks of modern marriage and family living. These programs aim to help youth in their understanding and preparation for marriage and to help married people move successfully through the various stages of marriage adjustment and parenting and on into the retirement years. The church is only one of many institutions (schools, colleges, youth organizations, parent support groups, publishers of books and magazines, etc.) that attempt to influence youth in their steps toward marriage and to help married persons not only to save their marriages but to enrich them as well. Increases in the divorce rate and in attempts to save marriages have occurred over the same years. One can only hope that the tide of marriage and familly problems and failures has been somewhat retarded by educational and counseling efforts.

Family life education courses have been included in Mennonite college curricula and in many church high schools. Some congregations have a committee that promotes family life education in the congregation, particularly among the youth. Some congregations promote marriage enrichment workshops. Seminary training has incorporated marriage counseling courses into the training of pastors and Christian educators. Denominational Christian education commissions have held workshops on family life education about every 10 years, for the purpose of developing and promoting family life education in the churches. The denominational publishing programs have produced a variety of books and articles designed to help Mennonites meet the problems of marriage and family living. Mennonite radio and television programming produces short messages emphasizing Christian values in marriage and family life. Traditional standards of sexual morality are periodically emphasized from the pulpit and in Sunday school classes. Recent emphases focus on improving the quality of parenting in the hope that the next generation will have better preparation for marriage because their parents were more successful in modeling parenthood and spousal relationships. If succeeding generations can stem the tide of family disorganization and disintegration, perhaps the current sense of urgency in working at the problems will be credited for some of their success. If the future of the church -- not to speak of society in general-depends on what happens in families, as some stoutly claim, then the allocation of resources to family life education is timely indeed. -- J. Howard Kauffman


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Some of the best descriptions of the Mennonite family and home of Prusso-Russian background can be found in:

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Author(s) Cornelius Krahn
J. Howard Kauffman
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

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Krahn, Cornelius and J. Howard Kauffman. "Family." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 23 Oct 2018.

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Krahn, Cornelius and J. Howard Kauffman. (1989). Family. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 October 2018, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 293-299, v. 5, pp.288-292. All rights reserved.

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