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Christians have traditionally considered pride to be the most basic of human sins, and humility a most necessary attitude for persons to come into proper relationship with God. Teachers and preachers from John Cassian (ca. 360-ca. 435), Pope Gregory I (ca. 540-604), and Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225-74) to William F. "Billy" Graham (b. 1918) have put pride on the list of the seven or eight chief sins. In the 16th century, the Protestant reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin considered pride, or hubris, the very essence of fallen humans' rebellion against God.

For 16th-century Anabaptists, if one attitude underlay all sin, it was disobedience. And when they defined obedience they did not make humility the central or organizing idea. Instead, borrowing apparently from medieval monastics and mystics, they emphasized Gelassenheit (yieldedness), self-denial, readiness to suffer, and Nachfolge (discipleship--imitation and following after Christ). Of course those were self-denying concepts in the same family with humility. And as Anabaptist writers elaborated, they mentioned humility as characteristic of a truly Christian life and walk. Moreover, before the 16th century ended, some Anabaptists developed very explicit rules for expressing humility For instance a discipline drawn up at Strasbourg in 1568 enjoined tailors and seamstresses to make and members to wear only simple and plain clothing, to wear "nothing for pride's sake." Nonetheless, in Anabaptist thought and teaching, the ideas of pride and humility were not as central as they were for the Protestant reformers--or as they would become about 1800, in a quite different way, for Mennonites in North America.

In North America, in the first three-quarters of the 19th century, humility assumed its most important and comprehensive role ever in Anabaptist-Mennonite understanding of Christian faithfulness. In 1763 in a posthumous book, Eine Restitution. . . ., a very influential eastern-Pennsylvania elder named Heinrich Funck asked why Jesus' nonresistant followers were no longer suffering. His remarks were only a small part of his book, but the most practical part. Funck's answer: Suffering had ended because nonresistant Christians had sought political power, wealth, and other marks of status to the point that the world no longer saw them as a rebuke to its proud ways. Suffering would return if Jesus' followers would be more humble.

To Funck, the test of whether one stood against the ways of the world, the mark of the true Christian, was suffering. However, within three or four decades a shift occurred. The mark came to be humility itself. The shift was especially clear in a small book by Christian Burkholder, a pastor and elder in Lancaster County, PA: Nützliche und Erbauliche Anrede an die Jugend (Helpful and edifying address to Youth), penned in 1792, published in 1804. Through Burkholder's Address ran a central motif: Jesus' peaceable followers were humble. They studiously avoided all impulses and marks of pride and self-promotion, whether spiritual or outward. Burkholder did not call on youth to follow a grand and conquering Christ. He taught new birth and atonement through Jesus' shed blood, yet his call was not even primarily for sinners to come and repent beneath the Savior's cross. Instead it was for the earnest seeker to follow the "meek and lowly" Jesus--in practical life and walk. To Jesus' manger, Burkholder wrote, "we are to direct our course." The Christ in the manger was "an example to us of true humility.

For six or seven decades after the first printings of Burkholder's Address its humility theology dominated North American Mennonite (and Amish) thought. The second edition, published the same year as the first, carried an endorsement from 27 ministers and deacons of the influential Lancaster Mennonite community. Before the 19th century ended, the booklet appeared in a dozen German or English editions. More editions came in the 20th century, mainly for Old Order groups.

As yet no scholar has adequately explained the shift to humility theology. Possible explanations include: (1) In America, Mennonites were getting on so well economically and socially that the suffering idea grew too distant from their experience; so they sought another motif for self-denial. In this view, Heinrich Funck's desire for suffering was ironic, for he himself was a wealthy miller, landowner, and bishop with ample prestige in his own circles. (2) Mennonites borrowed humility language from Pietists. To find phrasing that became the code language of 19th century Mennonite humility theology one has only to read key passages from an early Pietist, Johann Arndt, Book two, chapter eleven of Arndt's Wahres Christenthum, for instance, continually pits the Demut (humility), Armut (weakness, poverty), and Sanftnmt (meekness) of the pious against the Hofart (pride, arrogance) and Weltliebe (love of the world) of ungodly neighbors. (3) Mennonites were reacting against aggressive self-assertion which they found particularly in the newly formed United States, some of it expressed in revivalism. It is clear in Burkholder's Address that its author rejected both the slogans of liberty so common in the new nation and a tendency of revivalists to speak much of their personal religious experience. To him the test of genuine new birth was objective fruits, not such testimonies. And his list of fruits began with humility.

Whatever hypotheses are correct, humility theology provided Mennonites with a message very relevant to Americans. It was not a complete message, for it contained almost nothing of the triumphant, conquering tone also to be found in the Bible. Moreover, it carried a built-in dilemma: the very humility that Mennonites might have offered as a prophetic message to the proud "world" held them back from asserting the message clearly and forthrightly. But whatever its problems, humility theology stood in sharp contrast to the public mood of the United States just when that nation was acting on boasts of "manifest destiny" and other arrogant slogans. Hardly any message could have been more relevant to the time and place.

Compared to Burkholder's Address other Mennonite writings did not state the humility paradigm quite so prominently. Some of these other writings include A description of the new creature (1838, in English and German) by eastern-Pennsylvania minister Abraham Godshalk and commentaries which Virginia elder Peter Burkholder added to an 1837 edition of an old Dutch Mennonite confession. Yet the theme was there, by then taken more or less for granted. Humility theology had taken deep root. That fact is evident for instance throughout early volumes of the Herald of Truth, the paper John F. Funk began publishing in 1864 primarily for "old Mennonites" (MC) and Amish Mennonites. In 1866 and 1867 there came a fresh and more self-conscious statement of humility theology: Pride and humility, a small booklet in English and in German by the Ohio "old Mennonite" elder and church-wide leader John M. Brenneman. Brenneman recounted salvation history essentially as God's efforts to deal with human pride and spelled out how humility should express itself objectively: in plainness of furniture or buildings or attire, in accepting a modest position at table, and in other very particular, visible, practical, day-to-day ways.

Such emphasis on the practical and visible was a strong feature of that early 19th-century humility theology. While not ignoring the inner quality, Mennonites insisted that humility show itself explicitly and objectively rather than remain essentially spiritual and subjective. The theology of humility reinforced pacifism and vice versa: the meek and humble were also those who let themselves be vulnerable rather than seeking vengeance or doing violence, and vice versa. Moreover, from the Protestant Reformation onward, Protestants had put greater emphasis than had Anabaptists on the steps of repentance and yielding which prepared the way for initial justification; Anabaptists and Mennonites put somewhat greater emphasis on the self-denial and yielding which would make possible a Christian walk and a genuine discipleship after initial, forensic justification. In the 19th century the same difference reappeared in the way Mennonites and Protestants treated humility. Careful investigation would probably show that while Mennonites borrowed humility language from Pietism, they used the words differently, referring less to the yielding and submission of self in the Bußkampf (repentance-struggle--a favorite concept of Pietists) and more to the lifestyle and outer marks of faithfulness of Christians, both individually and as church. Something similar may have accompanied the Mennonite encounter with revivalism: Lewis O. Saum has demonstrated that there was a strong theme of humility also in the faith and outlook of many everyday Americans in contrast to bombastic rhetoric of their nation and its leaders. But again, a careful reading of Saum suggests an emphasis more subjective than that of the Mennonites, an emphasis focused more on spiritual submission and repentant yielding.

Humility theology took root primarily among "old Mennonites" (MC) and Amish in America, and even more deeply among old-order groups as they emerged during or at the close of humility theology's era. "Progressives" such as the constitutional reformer John H. Oberholtzer in 1847 and the founders of the General Conference (GCM) in 1860, or revivalists such as Daniel Hoch in Ontario or Daniel Brenneman in Indiana, chose other principles. Indeed, to a large extent they reacted against humility theology as not activist enough, or not sufficiently modern, or not enough oriented to inner religious experience. As for "Russian" Mennonites who settled in North America in the 1870s, few of them made humility their main paradigm. To be sure, some small "Russian" Mennonite groups had something which resembled humility theology. For instance in 1833 in the Ukraine an articulate Kleine Gemeinde (Evangelical Mennonite Conference) minister named Heinrich Balzer published a pamphlet which among other points lamented Mennonites' preoccupation with business and their "pride, ostentation, vanity, greed for money, lust for wealth, avarice," and other signs of degeneracy. And although Krimmer Mennonite Brethren who left the Crimea and settled near Hillsboro, Kans., in 1874, emphasized inner experience more than did North American Mennonite humility theology, their rules called for plain carriages and dress and other objective signs of humility much as John M. Brenneman did in his booklet. But for the larger groups coming from the Tsarist Russia, humility was not the central concept. Of course, like virtually all Christians, they and progressive Mennonites with longer histories in America taught that humility was a key Christian virtue. But teaching it as a virtue, even a key one, was not the same as using it to define the very self-identity of the followers of Jesus. It was not the same as making it the central test of faithfulness.

Among "old" and Amish Mennonites, John M. Brenneman's booklets of 1867 marked a climax; soon thereafter, humility theology rapidly waned. Within 15 years younger leaders led especially by evangelist John S. Coffman were creating a Mennonite quickening (called by partisans a "great awakening" [renaissance, Mennonite]) which brought revivalism, churchwide programs and institutions, and a general spirit of activism. The main code words of the quickening era were not "humility" and "the meek and lowly Jesus" but rather "active" and "aggressive work." The test of faithfulness became not a life-style eschewing pride so much as vigorous Christian service. Coffman and such leaders as Menno S. Steiner and Daniel Kauffman still taught plainness and sometimes spoke of meekness or humility. But now plainness was not always the mark of a meek and quiet spirit. It could just as well be an aggressive nonconformity--a way (as a young activist put it in 1894) for God's army to appear in uniform.

No doubt a great deal of the self-perception of humility survived in the folk-Mennonite soul long after the public discourse of "old" Mennonites and Amish Mennonites had become more assertive and aggressive. But the era of making humility the central, organizing ideal of objective Mennonite faithfulness had ended. The time of making it the central difference between God's peaceful children and a status-seeking and vengeful world, had passed. By about 1885 or 1890 the era of humility theology was history.


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Author(s) Theron F Schlabach
Date Published 1989

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Schlabach, Theron F. "Humility." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 1 Apr 2020.

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Schlabach, Theron F. (1989). Humility. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 1 April 2020, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 400-402. All rights reserved.

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