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The English word "idleness" means habitual avoidance of work or indolence. The root meaning of "idle" or eitel (German) is "empty," "worthless," or "vain." The ancient term acedia (Greek) connoted sloth or apathy and originally referred to spiritual neglect.

Paul's admonition "if any would not work, neither should he eat" (2 Thessalonians 3:10, King James Version) was interpreted by Thomas Aquinas (died 1274) to mean that labor was necessary only for the maintenance of the individual and community. Contemplation within God's kingdom took precedence over mere labor. In western traditional society out of which Anabaptists emerged, the idleness of the aristocratic classes was not viewed as evil-their work was to govern and fight wars. Yet sloth (acedia) was considered as one of the "Seven Deadly Sins" and was characterized as "the Governor of all vice" and idlers as the "the nurse of sin." Ernst Troeltsch assumed that the Anabaptist movement emerged, for the most part, from the laboring classes under trained pastoral leaders and that their concerns about idleness were less class oriented. Menno Simons reproved those magistrates "who are after fat salaries and a lazy life" and preachers who live "a sensuous, vain and lazy life" and condemned their "pomp, luxury and carousing" (Menno, Writings, 195, 259).

The Puritan emphasis was on work within one's "calling" outside of which a person's accomplishments were insignificant. Troeltsch asserted that in The Netherlands the Mennonites, though oppressed by orthodox Calvinism, were strongly influenced by its concept of the "calling" and merged into public life to a degree that they became bourgeois and prosperous. Mennonites elsewhere in Europe also related their work and business to their religious calling as illustrated by Max Weber's (1864-1920) mention of the Prussian ruler Friedrich Wilhelm I's toleration of Mennonite refusal to perform military service because he considered them indispensable to industry in East Prussia.

Nineteenth-century American (U.S.) Mennonites imbibed the work ethic that was so prominent in the burgeoning capitalistic American economy. This is evident in the rhetoric used in the occasional periodical articles and editorials on idleness, work, or diligence which were usually bolstered by the familiar Pauline admonition. Later Mennonite recreation leaders would frown on the assertion of one writer that anything that "amuses serves to kill time, lull the faculties and banish reflection." Most important, however, there was the inference and often the exhortation to exert spiritual effort to work out one's own salvation or to help and encourage those in need, a different emphasis than the Calvinist concept of the "calling."

It would seem that the ancient idea of idleness or sloth (acedia) which connoted spiritual lethargy is most appropriate for Mennonites in an industrial and post industrial age with its accompanying rise of absorption in consumerism and with the society's felt need for amusement or relaxation. For idleness disqualifies one for leisure which is, most authentically, a mental and spiritual attitude which brings one into the whole of creation.


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Author(s) Samuel L Horst
Date Published 1987

Cite This Article

MLA style

Horst, Samuel L. "Idleness." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. 28 Sep 2021.

APA style

Horst, Samuel L. (1987). Idleness. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 28 September 2021, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, p. 414. All rights reserved.

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