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In the 16th century and later the Anabaptists were restricted in their rights to hand their possessions down to their children. Since their marriages were not solemnized in the church they were not legally valid, and the children were consequently no entitled to inheritance. This was the case in the canton of Bern in Switzerland. The opinion of a Protestant divine, 8 December 1701, saw in this attitude an unjust punishment and a sign of intolerance. On 17 May 1721 the Bern government passed a regulation that the children of Mennonite women, whose fathers were living in exile, should not be considered Swiss, but be sent to their exiled fathers. A government prescript of 17 May 1722 provided that Reformed Church parents had the right to disinherit their children if they became Mennonites; but if they returned to the Reformed Church, their inheritance should be given them without interest. "Lateral lines entitled to inheritance may claim half of the legacy of an Anabaptist, whereas according to a decree of 17 March 1729, the entire estate of a de­ceased Anabaptist falls to the Church if there are no direct heirs" (Müller, 355).

In Russian Mennonite circles it was often the practice to leave physically and developmentally disabled twice as large an inheritance as healthy members of the family.

In The Netherlands during the period of persecution (1530-1575) the property of the martyrs was usually confiscated, but there were a few cases in Amsterdam and elsewhere when families of the executed inherited the possessions of parents.

Later, until 1795, some limitations were placed on  the rights of inheritance for Mennonites. These were not uniform in all areas. In the city of Groningen in 1601 a resolution was passed that Mennonites (and others) who did have perform their marriages in the Reformed Church, and unbaptized children, would be deprived of hereditary possessions. In Deventer the congregation was not permitted to receive an inheritance in 1662 because it was "an illicit society," and in 1705 the congregation of Molkwerum had to give up a large bequest to the Reformed Church for the same reason. But these limitations were not strictly enforced, and so Mennonite congregations often received bequests. In some congregations it seems to have been the custom that members assign 10 percent of their property to the church, or that after their decease relatives made this arrangement. In some churches where there were seamen, especially whale-hunters as in De Rijp and Workum, these people, either by letter, or orally with the deacons, made an arrangement to assign a part of their property to the church, with the condition that the deacons would provide for their children.

By the 1980s North American Mennonites were changing the way they view and leave their property at death. (The following paragraphs reflect primarily patterns in the United States and Canada.) Providing for a spouse, if married, and for children remains a major goal. Passing on the family farm or business, while still desired and possible for some, is facing difficulties: a distressed farm economy, how to be fair to non-farm heirs and children choosing other careers.

Many parents chose to help their children, if they could, when they needed it most -- acquiring an education, starting a business or building a home, rather than making them wait until the parents die. They considered family needs during life and at death, rather than merely accumulating assets to leave to survivors.

This approach recognizes also that needs of survivors differ as age levels and circumstances change. Appropriate planning, therefore, takes these differences into account. For example, leaving a life interest in property to a surviving parent with young children provides income to the survivor and safeguards the interest of the children. If neither parent survives, young children will likely need all that their parents leave. Grown children who are financially established will have fewer needs. Children or adults with disabilities may have special needs. Adults surviving to retirement age will need income and possibly special care.

Another part of this approach is planning for charitable bequests or remainders for church institutions or other charities as a final "thank you" to God and an extension of lifetime giving. Mennonites, like others, are living longer. They are more prosperous. They have benefited from hard work and industriousness. The North American and European economic systems have been good to them. Their children may be financially well off. Unmarried individuals and childless couples may have no dependents. So "adopting" church institutions as "heir" to a tenth, a child's share, one-half or more of one's estate is appealing and practicable, even for people with modest means.

Provision for charitable bequests or remainders must be made in a will, trust, or other legal instrument. If an individual dies without a will, no charitable gift is allowed and the deceased person's property will be divided according to the state's formula which may not reflect the individual's wishes or values.

Mennonite Foundation offers consultation for wills, planned giving, and estate planning. Mennonite Mutual Aid does the same for health and life insurance and retirement benefits.

The church, primarily through its teaching ministry and, in particular, through the Mennonite Foundation in Canada and the United States is attempting to inform and guide the attitude toward inheritance with the biblical understanding that the Lord is the source and real owner of material wealth (Psalms 24:1) and, as God's trustees (Genesis 1:28), all we have is a trust to use responsibly and joyously for our needs and others (2 Corinthians 8-9).


Cate, Steven Blaupot ten. Geschiedenis der Doopsgezinden in Groningen, Overijssel en Oost-Friesland, 2 vols. Leeuwarden: W. Eekhoff en J. B. Wolters, 1842: II, 70-71.

Friesen, Peter M. Alt-Evangelische Mennonitische Brüderschaft in Rußland (1789-1910). Halbstadt: Raduga Verlag, 1911: 654.

Grosheide, Greta. Bijdrage tot de geschiedenis der Anabaptisten in Amsterdam. Hilversum: J. Schipper, Jr., 1938: 260.

Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. I, 603.

Müller, Ernst. Geschichte der Bernischen Täufer. Frauenfeld: Huber, 1895. Reprinted Nieuwkoop : B. de Graaf, 1972: 134, 355.

Teufel, E. "Die Beschlagnahme und Verwaltung des Täufergutes durch den Fiskus im Herzogtum Württemberg im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert." Theologische Ztscht 8 (1952): 295-305.

Wunkes, G. A. De Geref.-Kerk in de Ommelanden... Groningen, 1904: 21.

Zijpp, N. van der. Geschiedenis der Doopsgezinden in Nederland. Arnhem: Van Loghum Slaterus, 1952. Reprinted: Delft: Familie Van der Zijpp, 1980, 24.

Author(s) Christian, Nanne van der Zijpp Neff
Paul G. Goering
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Neff, Christian, Nanne van der Zijpp and Paul G. Goering. "Inheritance." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 24 Jul 2021.

APA style

Neff, Christian, Nanne van der Zijpp and Paul G. Goering. (1989). Inheritance. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 24 July 2021, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, p. 39-40, vol. 5, p. 440-441. All rights reserved.

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