Inter-Mennonite Cooperation

Jump to navigation Jump to search

1958 Article


The development of sectors of the Anabaptist movement in distinct linguistic and geographical areas (Switzerland, South Germany, Netherlands, Moravia, Vistula Delta) and the emergence of the Hutterite brotherhood in Moravia as a variant communistic type resulted in a lack of close relations between the distinct Anabaptist groups already in the middle of the 16th century. The tensions became very serious between the Hutterites and the Swiss Brethren, as well as between the Dutch-Northwest German followers of Menno and the High Germans (and Swiss Brethren). As a consequence brotherly relations were completely severed in both cases, and in the latter case Menno Simons excommunicated the entire opposite party. Close relations, however, were maintained between the Dutch Mennonites and those of the Vistula Delta. A relatively harmonious relationship was also achieved among all the South German and Swiss Anabaptists, of which the general Anabaptist conferences of 1555, and 1557, and 1568 at Strasbourg are a testimony. For a time there were two distinct groups of Anabaptists in the South, viz., the Swiss Brethren (more in Switzerland), and the followers of Pilgram Marpeck. As the recent doctoral dissertation, Pilgram Marpeck, sein Kreis und seine Theologie (University of Zurich, 1955), by J. J. Kiwiet has shown, it was Marpeck who, after strenuous endeavor (1540-1554), succeeded in bringing the two groups together in 1555. Kiwiet even holds that the remnants of the Melchiorites in South Germany were included in this union.

The account of the tragic divisions, in Dutch Mennonitism, beginning in 1566, which were not fully overcome in the Netherlands until the forming of the Algemene Doopsgezinde Sociëteit in 1811, is better given in the article Netherlands, although these divisions penetrated all the Anabaptist-Mennonite communities in North Germany from Emden to Konigsberg, and even had significant consequences in the earlier stages of Mennonite history in Russia. The attitudes of certain of these schismatic parties were often very harsh toward the other groups, including general excommunication and the requirement of rebaptism for transfer of members. This was particularly true of the Flemish versus the Frisians. The Frisians and particularly the third major group, the Waterlanders (who were not transplanted outside the Netherlands), were milder in their attitudes.

The Hutterites went their own way completely until the early 19th century when they settled in the Ukraine near the Molotschna Mennonite settlement, and were aided by Johann Cornies. There was some friendly correspondence in the 18th century between them and the Dutch Mennonites. No close relations resulted from their settlement in 1874-1877 near the Mennonite settlements in South Dakota. However, a considerable number of Hutterites in South Dakota joined the General Conference Mennonite and Krimmer Mennonite Brethren groups, no doubt in part because of the memory of Cornies' assistance.

The Swiss Brethren continued relatively isolated (the South German Anabaptists having practically died out by the time of the Thirty Years' War, 1618-1648). However, the great tribulations of the mid-17th century in Bern resulted in repeated intervention in their behalf by the Dutch Mennonites, and the ultimate settlement of some Swiss Mennonites in Holland, where they were finally absorbed. The Swiss Brethren settlers in the Palatinate in the time of their suffering from the French invasions at the end of the 17th and beginning 18th centuries received from the Dutch Mennonites substantial financial relief, and aid in emigration to Holland and Pennsylvania. Considerable correspondence between Palatinate Mennonite leaders and the Dutch Mennonite relief agency lies in the [[Amsterdam Mennonite Library (Bibliotheek en Archief van de Vereenigde Doopsgezinde Gemeente te Amsterdam)|Amsterdam Mennonite Archives]]. The Dutch Mennonites were also generous in their aid to the West and East Prussian Mennonites suffering from floods or persecution in the 17th and 18th centuries. The attempted settlement of the Lithuanian Mennonites from the Memel area in Holland in the early 18th century was a failure.

Apart from the above-noted relations the Mennonites of the Netherlands and the rest of Europe developed no intimate relations or cooperative effort until the 19th century, when the Dutch Mennonite mission in the Dutch East Indies (beginning in 1847) enjoyed considerable support from the Mennonites of Russia and Germany. The mission, representing the evangelical fraction of the Dutch, became an inter-Mennonite bond which transcended the negative effect of the rise of modernism in the Dutch church. In Germany the Mennonitische Blatter (founded in 1854) and the Vereinigung der Mennonitengemeinden im Deutschen Reich (a conference founded 1886) both contributed much to bringing the various and widely scattered Mennonite communities together as well as mediating good relations with the Dutch Mennonites.

The development of the Mennonite World Conference (first meeting in Basel in 1925) under the leadership of the German pastor, Christian Neff, was the first extensive inter-Mennonite relationship developed in Europe. In the post-World War II period (1945- ) a series of international Mennonite cooperative organizations arose, which multiplied and intensified good inter-Mennonite relationships in Europe. The list included the International Mennonite Peace Committee (1936, 1949), European Mennonite Bible School (1949), European Mennonite Evangelizing Committee (EMEK, 1952), European Mennonite Relief Committee (1954), Mennonite Voluntary Service (MFD, 1954), and Der Mennonit (1948, its inter-Mennonite publishing committee created in 1957). All of these organizations included representatives of all Mennonite national groups in Europe (Dutch, Swiss, French, and German) except the Bible school and Der Mennonit, which had no Dutch representation. The North American Mennonites were represented through the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in all of them except EMEK. The European groups were also all represented along with North America in the Preparatory Commission for the Mennonite World Conference, and took part in its sessions. After 1950 the MCC operated out of Basel, Switzerland, a Christian education materials project (CEMO) with the cooperation and later direct management of the Mennonite Publishing House of Scottdale, the latter publishing at Basel through the Agape Verlag (est. 1955) German and French materials for summer Bible schools. An Advisory Council representing four of the European national Mennonite groups (except Holland) cooperated in the project.

The schisms which caused so much trouble and difficulty in Holland and on through to West Prussia and Russia (1565-1811), and the Amish schism (1697) in Switzerland, France, and South Germany, were all overcome in Europe. The only remaining schism was that of the Mennonite Brethren and Mennonite Church in Russia (1860), which still persisted in Russia. This schism caused much bitterness at the beginning, and resulted in long-continued tensions.

North America

The successive migrations from Europe to North America (1683-1860), i.e., from Switzerland, France, and Germany to Pennsylvania and further west, including Ontario, resulted in the formation of a new North American Mennonitism which maintained no connections with its European homeland. (Mennonite and Amish groups at first remained separate in the New World.) The same was true also of the successive waves of immigration from Russia to the prairie provinces and states of Canada and the United States (1874, 1922, 1930, 1947 ff.) and to South America (1930, 1947 ff.) in Paraguay, Brazil, and Uruguay. The Mennonite Brethren-Mennonite schism was perpetuated in all these settlements and lands, although there was a varying amount of cooperation between the two groups, both in Russia and in North and South America. The Allianz-Gemeinde, founded in 1907 in the Ukraine, was a vain attempt to bridge the gap between the two major groups. In Russia (from 1910), in Paraguay (1930), and in Brazil (1930) a valuable co-operative organization was established in the form of the KfK (Commission for Church Affairs), which represented both major groups and the Allianz-Gemeinde. In Russia, under the pressure of conditions, a general conference was formed in 1910, including both the Mennonite Brethren and Mennonite groups, which also had a beneficent influence on intergroup relations in the new settlements in Paraguay and Brazil (1930 ff.), where there was considerably closer cooperation than in North America.

Most of the Mennonite immigrants from Europe to North America in the first 190 years (1683 to 1860), being of relatively homogeneous Swiss-South German background (including Alsace-Lorraine), naturally formed one common brotherhood, uniting in the group known as the Mennonite Church (MC), overriding even the Amish schism, although half of the Amish, the Old Order and the Conservative Amish, remained outside this fold. The only exceptions were the smaller Swiss and South German groups arriving in the second quarter of the 19th century, which, though akin to the earlier immigrants of this group, shared in the formation of the General Conference Mennonite Church (begun in 1860), whose first nucleus was a dissident block (1847) from the Eastern Pennsylvania area of the Mennonite Church (MC). The large first Russian and Prussian Mennonite immigration groups of 1874-1880 in their prairie state settlement joined the General Conference Mennonite group.

The formation of the "General Conference of the Mennonites of North America" in 1860 was the first attempt at a deliberate over-all union of all Mennonite congregations. The vision was that of John H. Oberholtzer, who conceived of it as cooperation of autonomous congregations working together in the fields of missions, publication, and education. The beginning was inauspicious, securing the adherence of only a few congregations at the outset, but gradually one third of all the Mennonites of North America was brought under its wing, including most of the large Swiss settlements in Indiana and Ohio, and ultimately the Central Conference composed largely of regional Illinois Amish. By no means all of the Russian Mennonite immigrants, however, joined the General Conference, even outside the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren. and Mennonite Brethren groups, the Peters-Wall churches (later Evangelical Mennonite Brethren) and the large Old Colony group in Manitoba remaining outside. It was successful in bringing together into one working fellowship a great number of congregations of divergent origins and backgrounds.

Since the Mennonite Brethren and smaller splinter groups from Russia also continued their separate life, and the conservative "Old Colony" groups in Manitoba (1874-1880 arrival) did the same (not joining even the General Conference group), and since several new schismatic groups (Evangelical Mennonites, Evangelical Mennonite Brethren, Mennonite Brethren in Christ;, and Central Conference) were formed in the period 1855-1890, both from the older Mennonite Church group and the General Conference Mennonite group, the ranks of the North American Mennonites were by 1900 rather badly broken. The effects of the Oberholtzer division of 1847 in Pennsylvania, of the Mennonite Brethren division of 1860 in Russia, of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ division of 1875 in Indiana and Ontario, and of the smaller Egly (1866) and Stuckey (1871) divisions in Indiana and Illinois, left deeper wounds than was sometimes realized, and augmented the already existing distance between the various Mennonite groups due to differences in European background and to differing emphases developed in America. Hence it was that inter-Mennonite relations in North America were largely negative or even polemic in the period before World War I (1914-1918).

However, some welcome exceptions to the general negative American status before 1914 should be noted, the chief being the cooperative inter-Mennonite effort to aid the often very needy Russian immigrants of 1874-1880. The Mennonite Board of Guardians, founded in 1873 for this purpose, though not an official cooperative effort of conference bodies, was composed of representatives from the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite groups and rallied support from almost all sections of Mennonitism in America. To support this work Union Aid committees were formed in Eastern Pennsylvania and Ontario. J. F. Funk (MC) with his Mennonite Publishing Co. at Elkhart, Indiana, became and remained for many years the chief publisher for the Russian Mennonites in Manitoba. For over 40 years, for instance, the Mennonitische Rundschau was published by him and his later successors at Scottdale. The Mennonite Aid Plan founded in 1882 at Elkhart in the Mennonite Church group, soon secured a clientele among the Russian Mennonites, especially in Minnesota and South Dakota, and ultimately became chiefly their agency. The Home and Foreign Relief Commission (MC) founded in 1897 at Elkhart, IN, for famine relief in India, was a quasi inter-Mennonite organization with widespread support from several Russian Mennonite groups in the prairie states, and with D. J. Jantzen, a "Russian" Mennonite, as a leading co-worker and one-year secretary. M. S. Steiner (d. 1911), the president of the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities, had a vision of an inter-Mennonite mission organization, which he attempted but failed to achieve. The Congo Inland Mission (1911) was the first and only successful inter-Mennonite mission organization, with official representation at first from two conferences (Evangelical Mennonite and Central) and later of three, the General Conference Mennonites being added later.

Significant inter-Mennonite co-operation in North America did not begin until 1913, had only a slow growth between the two world wars, and came to full growth only after 1940, particularly with the remarkable development that took place after World War II. An attempt at drawing all Mennonites of North America closer together was made through the All-Mennonite Convention (meetings held usually triennially 1913-1936), but with little permanent success. Bluffton College, enlarged in 1913 from "Central Mennonite College," together with the Mennonite seminary, later (1921) called Witmarsum Theological Seminary, carried for a time the inter-Mennonite idea, having a board unofficially representing three Mennonite bodies (General Conference Mennonite, Evangelical Mennonite, and Central Conference), and hoping to unite all branches of Mennonites in a common educational effort. This vision also did not come to fruition and Bluffton finally became a straight General Conference Mennonite school, while Witmarsum was discontinued in 1931. One other joint institution, the Mennonite Old People's Home at Meadows, Illinois, was established in this period (1923) by the Central and Defenseless (Evangelical Mennonite) conferences.

The major event in inter-Mennonite cooperation in the period between the wars was the founding of the Mennonite Central Committee in July 1920 as the official agency of six Mennonite bodies for famine relief in Russia. Fortunately it was not disbanded upon the completion of this work in 1925, but only remained moribund, to begin its real career with the colonization of Russian refugees in Paraguay in 1930. Almost simultaneously the Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization (CMBC) was organized (1922, preceded by Canadian Central Committee in October 1920), representing most Mennonite groups in Canada, to aid in the great migration of Russian Mennonites to Canada. Both the MCC and the CMBC continued to be vital service organizations on an inter-Mennonite basis, though with different fields of work, and furnished the background and stimulus for many subsequent inter-Mennonite activities and organizations. The Mennonite Colonization Board, organized about the same time (1924) in Kansas on an inter-Mennonite basis, accomplished little and finally was absorbed by the MCC in 1947.

The experience of co-operation in the extensive and long-continued MCC program of service to the new Mennonite settlements in South America, in which all the North American Mennonites joined, was an important and wholesome influence on inter-Mennonite relations, both within North and South America.

World War II gave the greatest impetus to inter-Mennonite cooperation through the joint effort of all major Mennonite bodies to define a common peace position in the United States and to administer Civilian Public Service. The Mennonite Central Peace Committee, organized in March 1939 as the official agency of seven Mennonite bodies to work in this field, turned over its work to the MCC and its Peace Section in January 1942. The Peace Section continued as a vital inter-Mennonite organization in this field. The good success of the MCC in its relief, colonization, and peace work, gradually led all Mennonite bodies in the United States and Canada, except the most isolated smaller ones, to support its work and to join its membership, so that it became the one truly all-Mennonite inter-Mennonite organization. As such it continued to enjoy immense prestige and good will.

The scope of MCC activities gradually increased to include Voluntary Service (1946), though to a somewhat limited extent; Menno Travel Service (1947); Mental Health Service (1947) that in 1957 administered three mental hospitals; European Farm Trainee Program (1950); I-W Services (1952); coordination of Mennonite Disaster Service (1955); Ailsa Craig, Ontario, Boys' Farm (1955); Mennonite Indemnity, Inc. (1957), which was a reinsurance company to serve over 60 Mennonite mutual aid societies; and the joint delegation to Russia (1956). All these MCC activities served on an inter-Mennonite basis, either through representation from various Mennonite bodies or by service to them. The Mennonite Central Committee was also the carrier of the Mennonite World Conference in 1948 and represented the North American groups in the planning of the Conference for 1952, though replaced by the North American Committee of Reference and Counsel for the Sixth Mennonite World Conference, which represented seven Mennonite bodies.

A series of inter-Mennonite agencies in the field of relief and nonresistance was also set up in Canada, all later affiliated with the MCC. They were the Nonresistant Relief Organization (November 1917) in Ontario, the Conference of Historic Peace Churches (July 1940) in Ontario, the Mennonite Central Relief Committee (March 1940) in Western Canada, and the Canadian Mennonite Relief Committee (December 1940) in Manitoba.

In the United States a significant number of new inter-Mennonite organizations were set up after World War II. They included the Association of Mennonite and Affiliated Colleges (1944), the Mennonite Research Fellowship (1946), the Mennonite Encyclopedia (published by a joint publishing committee of the three major Mennonite publication boards set up in 1947), the Association of Mennonite Hospitals and Homes (1951), the Association of Mennonite Aid Societies (1955), and the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries, set up in 1956. The last is a grouping of Biblical seminaries with center at Elkhart, Indiana (Mennonite Biblical Seminary, General Conference Mennonite, and Goshen College Biblical Seminary, Mennonite Church, at Goshen, with hoped for adhesions of certain other groups later). In 1956 the Mennonite Publishing House (MC) and the Mennonite Publication Office (GCM) began the joint preparation and publication of a graded Sunday-school lesson series. The Mennonite Quarterly Review (founded 1927) and Mennonite Life (founded 1946) have from the beginning had inter-Mennonite editorial boards, though published by single agencies. The Mennonite Weekly Review, reaching as it does a large readership in all branches and having an all-Mennonite news coverage, has been a wholesome influence. The latest (in 1958) inter-Mennonite project was the Inter-Mennonite Ministerial Study Conference, sponsored by the Inter-Mennonite Ministerial Study Committee, which in turn was sponsored by the North American Committee of Reference and Counsel for the Sixth Mennonite World Conference, and which was composed of representatives of five North American Mennonite conferences.

Local inter-Mennonite meetings of various kinds have been held in several Mennonite communities, such as the Mennonite Teachers Association (Kansas), Sunday-school conferences, ministerial meetings, and conferences of former CPS men. Disaster Service agencies have been set up on an inter-Mennonite basis across the United States (1954-1956), and in more than one case inter-Mennonite groups have cooperated in actual disaster work. In the area of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, an inter-Mennonite ministerial meeting was held (annually after 1950) and in another area (central Illinois) one such meeting was held in 1956. In Chicago for some years an inter-Mennonite meeting of city missions was held annually (after 1940). In New York, Chicago, Toronto, Philadelphia, and Iowa City, inter-Mennonite student group meetings have been held occasionally and in Philadelphia the Mennonite Student Center was established (1953), open to all Mennonites though operated by one group alone.

The Conference on Mennonite Cultural Problems met annually 1942-1947, after that biennially, sponsored by the Association of Mennonite Colleges. After 1947 this association also sponsored annual summer tours of Mennonite students and alumni to Europe. It also sponsored the Inter-Collegiate Mennonite Peace Society, which was active after 1950.

A considerable number of educational institutions were established on an inter-Mennonite basis from 1886 on, sometimes with only two groups cooperating officially, sometimes without official group cooperation but on the basis of a private board of control with unofficial representatives from two or more groups. Among these have been Mountain Lake (Minnesota, USA) Bible School (1886); Mennonite Collegiate Institute at Gretna, Manitoba (1890); Freeman Junior College, Freeman, South Dakota (1903); Immanuel Bible School (later Academy) at Reedley, California (1927); Lustre Bible School at Frazer, Montana (1928); Elim Bible School at Altona, Manitoba (1928); Steinbach Bible School at Steinbach, Manitoba (1936); Bethany Bible School (now Academy) at Munich, ND (1938); and Grace Bible Institute at Omaha, Nebraska (1943).

A number of Mennonite hospitals have also been established on an inter-Mennonite basis, chiefly in Manitoba, such as Concordia at Winnipeg (1930), Bethania at Altona (1936), Bethel at Winkler (1935), and Bethesda at Steinbach (1937).

The remarkable growth of inter-Mennonite activities after 1940 reflected a growing mutual understanding and enlarging good will among Mennoniles of the several distinct denominational organizations. By the 1950s mergers of several Mennonite groups had taken place, or were in process: General Conference Mennonite-Central Conference in 1945; Evangelical Mennonite and Evangelical Mennonite Brethren in 1953 (never fully merged); Krimmer Mennonite Brethren and Mennonite Brethren planning to merge in 1957. Earlier the Mennonite (MC) and Amish Mennonite district conferences (MC) had merged in stages in 1916-1925, and in 1956 the Conservative Mennonites had to all intents and purposes merged with the Mennonite Church (MC). One related group, the Brethren in Christ, originally branching off from Lancaster County (Pa.) Mennonites in 1770, but with little or no connection to Mennonites since then, has drawn very close to the Mennonite denominational family through its membership in the Mennonite Central Committee, in the Council of Mennonite and Affiliated Colleges, and in the Mennonite World Conference. On the other hand, the Mennonite Brethren in Christ (United Missionary Church) drew almost completely away from the Mennonite family even dropping the name Mennonite except in Pennsylvania.

Through numerous channels also the relations between European Mennonites and North American Mennonites grew closer and warmer. Chief of these channels was the MCC relief work in Europe in 1945 ff., which directly served Mennonites in all European countries, and brought some 300 workers from America to Europe often in direct contact with European Mennonites in various local areas. These workers and MCC executive committee members often attended Mennonite congregational and conference meetings in Europe, as well as numerous special meetings designed to provide for fellowship between European and American Mennonites. MCC area directors were charged with liaison responsibilities, and in 1950 a direct Liaison Committee was established in Germany composed of representatives of the MCC and the three German Mennonite conferences. The Student Exchange Program sponsored by the Association of Mennonite Colleges brought over 100 European Mennonite students to American Mennonite colleges from 1946-1957, and the MCC Exchange Trainee Program likewise brought over 150 young Mennonites to America in the same period. The Mennonite World Conference in 1948 brought some 25 European delegates to America, many of whom toured American and Canadian Mennonite congregations afterwards. And the two world conferences in Europe since then, at Basel (1952) and Karlsruhe (1957), brought over 500 different American Mennonites to Europe. The MCC brought Elder Samuel Gerber from Switzerland on a tour of North American churches in 1951. Ernst Crous of Gottingen, Germany, served as exchange professor at Goshen, Bethel, and Bluffton colleges in 1948-49.

Closer relations between the older European and American bodies and the young churches established in Asia, Africa, and South America by mission efforts were cultivated not only by the regular visits of mission board secretaries to the several foreign fields, but also by the MCC relief operations in these areas and by visits from leaders of the younger churches to the West as well as attendance by some of them in Mennonite colleges and seminaries in the States and Canada, and at the World Conference sessions. The MCC centers in Sao Paulo, Montevideo, and Asuncion in South America also contributed to closer relationships.

Closer intergroup relations among the mission areas of the several boards on the foreign mission fields, especially in India and Japan, were fostered through the creation of area cooperating relief committees through MCC stimulus. Such committees were created in India (Mennonite Relief Committee for India, 1948) and Japan.

The only inter-Mennonite institution established in the areas outside Europe was the Mennonite Biblical Seminary founded in Montevideo, Uruguay, in April 1956, supported by the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite mission boards in North America and administered by an inter-Mennonite board of directors representing Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina.

Thus inter-Mennonite relationships were growing on an intercontinental as well as an interdenominational and international basis, and gave good prospect of continuing to grow closer and more fruitful. -- Harold S. Bender

1990 Update

Mennonites have an exceptional history of scattering on account of migration and mission. Consequently, various elements of tradition, geography and language have created distinct movements and considerable separatism (schisms). While the separatist tendency never was fully overcome, movements toward unity and reconciliation began to appear, beginning notably in the early 20th century. This article summarizes developments since the 1950s.

Africa and Asia

On these two continents the Mennonite and Brethren in Christ conferences are wholly indigenous, for the most part the result of the European or North American mission activity. The denominational divisions of North America and the geographical and theological identity of Europe are reflected in a certain measure in many of these conferences, which consciously assume an identity related to the founding denomination. Others have chosen to be Mennonite but without such specific identity, and still others have no Mennonite mission background but are nonetheless by choice related to the Mennonite community.

There are certain countries where multiple North American mission agency activity has resulted in multiple Mennonite denominations (India, Congo, Japan). However, in many cases "inter-Mennonite relations" is simply a euphemism for transcultural, transnational fraternal relationships.

Significant efforts at cooperation have been initiated in India. The Mennonite Christian Service Fellowship of India (MCSFI), organized in 1963, brings together six conferences in a cooperative agency for mission, service, and peace activity. In Japan, the Nihon Menonaito Senkyokai (Japan Mennonite Fellowship) fulfills a similar function for at least some of the Mennonite bodies.

Of special significance are the continental organizations: Africa Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Fellowship, Asia Mennonite Conference (regional Mennonite conferences).

The earliest Mennonite foreign mission activity was initiated by a Dutch missionary in Indonesia in 1851. Members of two synods, one resulting from the Dutch Mennonite mission work, the other fully indigenous in its origins, live in a common area. Informal working relationshps are common, but the Mennonite Scholarship Commission is the only joint project of the two synods. The Akademi Kristen Wiyata Wacana (AKWW; Mennonite Bible Academy) is the Bible academy of the Gereja Injili di Tanah Jawa (GITJ; "Javenese Mennonite Synod"), also serves students from the Persatuan Gereja-Gereja Kristen Muria (GKMI; "Muria Mennonite Synod").

The two synods in this nation have recently pointed to a new dimension of international, inter-Mennonite activity by a 1985 GITJ document calling for "conference-to-conference" relationships. This refers especially to a desire for a fraternal contact with the Algemene Doopsgezinde Sociëteit (ADS; "Dutch Mennonite Conference") and with Mennonite conferences in North America, rather than limiting overseas contacts to mission and service organizations as has been the story of the past.

Central, South America

Mission activities in this area have been extensive, as have been migrations of Mennonite from Europe and Canada. There is considerable diversity of conference affiliation and a variety of language and ethnic groupings, often in the same country. The differences among Mennonites of Spanish, Portuguese, German, English, and Indigenous cultures are surmounted with some difficulty if at all.

On the other hand, cooperation among various denominations within the language groups has been significant. The German emigrant groups, including three major conferences, Mennonite General Conference (Kirchliche Mennoniten), Mennonite Brethren, and Evangelical Mennonite Brethren, worked together closely in the difficult pioneer days in Paraguay. These habits persist.

A Gemeindekomitee (church committee) brings together conference leaders from all German-speaking groups in Paraguay. The Komitee für Kirchliche Angelegenheiten (committee for church affairs) in Neuland and Fernheim colonies brings together the leaders of the three conferences locally. Likewise, these conferences have formed a united mission, Licht den Indianern, which has successfully planted new churches among the neighboring Indigenous population.

A second mission committee known as Mennonitisches Missionskomitee für Paraguay (Mennonite Missions Committee for Paraguay) has been formed by General Conference Mennonites and Evangelical Mennonite Brethren for work in Menno Colony and eastern Paraguay. Four conferences composed of Indigenous and Spanish speaking congregations have resulted from these inter-Mennonite mission activities.

The development of an agency (Beratungsbehörde) for Indigenous people, more recently known as Asociación de Servicios de Cooperación Indigena-Menonita (ASCIM; Mennonite-Indigenous Cooperative Service Association) in 1961, has been an all-colony effort of considerable magnitude. Through this agency, education, health, and resettlement services have been provided to the Indigenous peoples.

Smaller Mennonite populations in Brazil and Uruguay have worked together informally with less structure. Among the Old Colony Mennonites of Bolivia, Belize, and Mexico, inter-Mennonite cooperation is very limited.

Only a few countries have multiple conferences, but throughout Latin America there are numerous nations with Spanish, Portuguese, or English-speaking Mennonite communities, many of them quite small. Except for Central America, distances prevent extensive cooperation. The Congreso Latino American (Latin American Congress) has met occasionally. Other area-wide Spanish activities include the newly formed (1984) Agrupación Menonita Latino-Americana de Comunicaciones (AMLAC; Latin American Mennonite Communications Group) with a mandate to unify the churches by enhancing communication and suppporting mass media activities among the Spanish-speaking conferences. The Curriculo Anabautista de Educación Biblica Congregational (CAEBC) is a cooperative inter-Mennonite group formed to prepare Spanish-language curricula for conferences both in North America and Latin America.

Another approach to cooperation has been the development of regional organizations within the larger continental area. The Consulta Anabautista Menonita Centroamericana (Central American Anabaptist and Mennonite Consultation) meets annually with representation from seven or eight nations. By 1986 it had had its 13th meeting. A mission consultation, sponsored by the Latin American Congress in 1986, drew representatives from the entire area including representatives of the various language groups. Also sponsored by churches in eight nations of Central America is the Seminario Ministerial de Liderazgo Anabautista (SEMILLA; Seminary for Anabaptist Ministerial Leadership), a program of theological training by extension (Consulta).

Another group, Congreso Menonita del Cono Sur (Mennonite Congress of the Southern Cone), representing Mennonites in Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil, Bolivia, and Argentina, meets less often but is also a vigorous and effective gathering of leaders and conference representatives.

Latin America became the first continent other than Europe or North America to host a Mennonite World Conference assembly—the ninth assembly held in Curitiba, Brazil, in 1972.


Development after World War II, including the emergence of the European Economic Community, have facilitated cooperation among European Mennonites in the postwar period. Within France a major move was the merger in 1980 of the Groupe des Églises Mennonites de Langue Française (French-language Mennonite Church Group) with the Association des Églises Evangéliques Mennonites de France (AEEMF); Association of Evangelical Mennonite Churches of France) under the latter name.

A similar movement developed in Germany as the two German Mennonite conferences known as the Verband deutscher Mennonitengemeinden (Federation of German Mennonite Congregations) and the Vereinigung der deutschen Mennonitengemeinden (Union of German Mennonite Congregations) began discussions in 1982 by sponsoring a fellowship meeting for members of both conferences. In 1983 the Arbeitsgemeinschaft deutscher Mennoniten (AdM; German Mennonite Task Force) was formed. The task force is led jointly by the presiding leaders of both "Vereinigung" and the "Verband." In 1983 an annual Gemeindetag (church fellowship day) was begun.

A very concrete expression of this growing unity was the merger of the official periodicals sponsored by the two German conferences. The Mennonitische Blätter of the "Vereinigung" and the Gemeinde Unterwegs of the "Verband" were combined into a new periodical named Brücke as of January 1986.

The most inclusive agency of Mennonites in Europe continues to be the Europäisches Mennonitisches Evangelisationskomitee (EMEK; Europe Mennonite Evangelism Committee). In 1967 Europe's own relief and service agency was formed, patterned after the example of the North American Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). This new agency, named Internationale Mennonitische Organisation (IMO), represents joint relief committee activity of the Dutch and German churches together with the Mennonite Brethren of Europe. While France and Switzerland have separate relief committees, the Mennonitische Tschad Hilfe (Mennonite Chad Aid) unites the broader European community in a common cause.

The older European-based International Mennonite Peace Committee), not to be confused with the International Mennonite Peace Committee that has emerged under Mennonite World Conference auspices, has been reactivated as the Europäische Mennonitische Friedenskomite (EMFK; European Mennonite Peace Committee) with broad representation from the major European Mennonite groups.

The invitation to Mennonite World Conference (MWC) to hold the 11th assembly in France (Strasbourg, 1984) became the first occasion for a Mennonite World Conference assembly to be sponsored by the five major conferences of Europe rather than the churches of a single country.]

Other activities include the Inter-Menno trainee program (international exchanges) and the Europäische Mennonitische Bibelschule/Ecôle Biblique Mennonite Européene (European Mennonite Bible School) at Bienenberg, Liestal, Switzerland, governed by a broadly based board of Mennonite representatives from most of the European Mennonite conferences.

Mennonites of Europe and North America have long maintained fraternal relationships, most frequently via exchange of students and visits by mission and service administrators and conference leaders. North American mission work in Europe has on occasion been reviewed with European leaders. EMEK and IMO periodically send representatives to counterpart MCC and Council of International Ministries (CIM) sessions in North America. Canadian leaders have worked closely with the German and Dutch churches in their ministry to Mennonite resettlers (Umsiedler) from the Soviet Union to Germany. For many years a North American has been serving on the faculty of the Bienenburg Bible School.

A consultation regarding common concerns in relief work administration in Europe was held in 1979 attended by North American and European representatives. Of special significance was a subsequent meeting held at the Bibelheim der Mennonites Thomashof, near Karlsruhe, Germany, on 13 November 1986. This brought together a broader group representing both relief and mission agencies such as IMO, EMEK, and EFMK, together with representatives of MCC and four North American mission agencies. Also present were representatives of three younger churches in Spain, Portugal, and Ireland. This three-way working session was cast in the context of looking at Europe as a mission field—a concept stimulated by the message of Leo Laurenz on the occasion of his retirement as chairman of EMEK It is notable that inter-Mennonite cooperation in this remarkable consultation was occasioned by a concern for mission.

North America

Inter-Mennonite cooperation in North America, which did not begin in any substantial way until 1911 and only came to fruition after 1940, did indeed escalate rapidly in the postwar years. The organization of the Congo Inland Mission in 1912 and the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in 1920 were the harbingers of a movement toward cooperative organizations that reached a peak in the decade of 1961-70. During that period, 23 new inter-Mennonite projects were initiated. By 1974 a cumulative total of 72 such projects were recorded. While no subsequent annotated list is available, the trend has continued, although probably not at the same rate of increase.

A North American consultation on inter-Mennonite Relations in 1974, a subsequent gathering in 1982, several consultations in Canada, and other events have continued to probe the frontiers of organizational cooperation.

The inevitable question of merger has continued to surface periodically. After many years of discussion, the merger of the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren with the General Conference of the Mennonite Brethren Church was consummated in 1960. In 1969 the Missionary Church Association and the United Missionary Church merged, creating the Missionary Church.

In the mid-1960s both the Mennonite Church (MC) and the General Conference Mennonite Church (GCMC) appointed interchurch relations committees to study the development of interdenominational and, specifically, inter-Mennonite relationships. This study included meetings between the two committees in 1966 and in 1969. The possibility of merger between the two bodies did not receive support from either of the two conferences. In effect, the need to wait for broader local congregational initiative, the hesitancy to impose a bureaucratic decision, and the desire for broader inter-Mennonite relationships with other Mennonite bodies led to a negative decision regarding merger at that point.

However, the emergence of dually affiliated congregations, a phenomenon limited largely to congregations related to the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church, opened a new, if not altogether satisfactory, level of congregational activity. In 1974 a study reported 15 congregations with dual or triple affiliation. That pattern has continued; the Mennonite Yearbook (1997) lists more than 240 congregations that were affiliated with at least one other Mennonite or Brethren in Christ (BIC) denomination, a four-fold increase from 1987.

Meanwhile, the broad variety of organizational relationships continued. MCC (Canada) was formed in 1963, replacing several historic peace church organizations and other inter-Mennonite agencies, thus becoming the national body with the broadest involvement of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ groups. Subsequently, MCC (United States) was also formed, while MCC itself continued as a joint, binational North American body. The other earlier group, Congo Inland Mission, became the Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission (AIMM) in 1972 and broadened its representation, continuing as the only inter-Mennonite mission agency in North America.

The range of organizational activity continued to expand as additional projects of mutual interest were shaped into new structural patterns. Columbia Bible College, a joint project of the Mennonite Brethren and the Conference of Mennonites in British Columbia (GCM) and the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, a merger of the seminaries of the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Indiana, are two illustrations of co-operative efforts in the areas of history, scholarship, missions, literature and peacemaking.

The Mennonite Church biennial assembly and the General Conference Mennonite Church triennial sessions were held jointly at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 1983. The joint conferences issued a statement on inter-Mennonite relationships. Continued references to merger were heard, but the recurrent theme was caution—cultivating broader Mennonite relationships in North America was viewed by many as a prior consideration.

In more recent years, inter-Mennonite activities have tended to move beyond cooperation among existing projects and programs of the various major groups. There has been notable expansion in the development of major common projects. These include such projects as the Believers' Church Bible Commentary Series, the Mennonite Experience in America history project, and two hymnal projects (Mennonite Hymnal, 1969 [GCM and MC] and Hymnal: A Worship Book, 1992 [GCM, MC and the Church of the Brethren]). In 1987 an inter-Mennonite group was assigned to work on a new Mennonite confession of faith; this confession, entitled Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, was adopted at the 1995 joint sessions of the Mennonite Church/General Conference Mennonite Church. Each of these projects has involved major North American Mennonite groups in various ways.

In 1976 the Council of Mission Board Secretaries (COMBS) was enlarged and renamed Council of International Ministries (CIM). From the time of its inception in 1958, the Council of Mission Board Secretaries (COMBS) has opened up a new pattern of inter-Mennonite fellowship and discussion. In addition to the value of this interaction, the COMBS group was instrumental in dealing with broad issues of mission, service strategy and philosophy; this collaboration left a considerable impact on the growing overseas missionary and relief activity of the North American churches. The cooperation among administrators also resulted in a series of consultations on "Hunger and Population pressures" in 1968, "The Christian Worker in Revolutionary Situations" in 1971, and "Relief, Service and Missions Relationships Overseas" in 1964.

In addition, discussions in this context were influential in the development of several notable projects such as MCC's Teachers Abroad Program (TAP), the Council of Mennonite Colleges (CMC) and International Education Services (IES).

Perhaps the most creative and radical development was the formation of China Educational Exchange (CEE) in 1983. This became the joint administrative arm of the mission boards, MCC, MCC Canada, and the Mennonite colleges as a new style of service evolved when China opened its doors to the West.

In its earlier years, COMBS provided the context in which North American assistance and relationships to growing churches in other continents were initiated and coordinated. The organization of what came to be known as the Africa Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Fellowship (AMBCF) and the Asia Mennonite Conference (AMC) as well as the Mennonite Christian Service Fellowship of India (MCSFI) received encouragement and support through this group. In its revised format, the CIM has continued as a context for consultation, a vehicle for joint action and a setting for missiological study.

The emergence of the Council of Moderators and Secretaries (CMS) in 1972 brought a new focal point to North American inter-Mennonite efforts. For the first time, the heads of the four largest North American denominations (BIC, GCMC, MB, and MC) began to meet regularly, although there had been an earlier series of North American all-Mennonite conferences which set the stage for broader inter-Mennonite cooperation (regional Mennonite conferences). The group claimed no administrative authority but served as a forum for exchange, discussion, mutual information and acquaintance. Emerging issues of North American inter-Mennonite activity came under its purview. Through CMS, North American inter-Mennonite agencies began to give regular reports to the leadership of various conferences. Increasingly, concerns of mutual interest to the churches came to the agenda of the CMS, such as the proposal for a Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT), first suggested at the Mennonite World Conference Assembly in Strasbourg in 1984. This proposal was picked up and studied in an inter-Mennonite context, culminating in a broadly representative consultation in December 1986.

In addition to working together in Mennonite Central Committee Canada (MCCC), the leaders of Canadian conferences began to meet as a council of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ moderators. A series of annual meetings held in connection with the annual MCCC meetings culminated in a theological consultation in January 1987. Eight groups sent official representatives; five more sent observers. The meeting concluded with a brief but dramatic announcement that "The Canadian Council of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Moderators" had just held its inaugural meeting.

The development of projects which were more closely related to the congregation produced a growing openness in churches to interaction with other Mennonites. Such activities as Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA), MCC relief sales, and the MCC SELFHELP Crafts (now Ten Thousand Villages) project involved more and more people in local congregations. Even the books that were published and became best sellers, such as Mennonite Community Cookbook (Herald Press, 1950), and More-with-Less (Herald Press, 1975), facilitated growing awareness and sensitivity. Such inter-Mennonite periodicals as the Mennonite Reporter (Waterloo, Ontario; now Canadian Mennonite), and the Mennonite Weekly Review (Newton, Kansas) added their influence.

A remarkable and creative new initiative emerged in Ontario as the two district conferences of the Mennonite Church (MC), the Western Ontario Mennonite Conference and the Mennonite Conference of Ontario and Quebec, and the Conference of United Mennonite Churches of Ontario (GCM) began a process of integration that was completed in 1988. The decision to achieve final integration in 1988 resulted in the first truly inter-Mennonite district conference with dual denominational affiliation, the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada.

The planners of the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church assemblies agreed to meet jointly at Normal, Ill. in 1989. A major new step was the invitation to the Mennonite Brethren and the Brethren in Christ to share with these two bodies in planning a joint study conference in connection with that event, thus broadening the base of inter-Mennonite discussion and contact. This, together with the confession of faith study and the work of the Council of Moderators and Secretaries, elevated inter-Mennonite reality to the highest level of denominational leadership on the part of the four major North American bodies. Joint MC-GCM sessions were again held in 1995 at Wichita, Kansas, where delegates of both assemblies voted to integrate the two largest Mennonite denominations. It is anticipated that the formal merger will be completed in 1999, but several area conferences (Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada, Pacific Northwest Mennonite Conference and Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference) have already become integrated MC-GCM conferences.

The 12th Mennonite World Conference Assembly in Winnipeg, Manitoba (1990) was one the most inclusive bases yet established for any MWC assembly. Three years prior, the hosting committee was organized with representation from at least ten Canadian conference bodies. History was again made at Mennonite World Conference 1997 in Calcutta, India, the first World Conference held outside of Europe or North America.

The implicit, if not explicit, goal of inter-Mennonite relationships and cooperation may be deemed to be greater unity or perhaps eventual merger. The theological, cultural, social and geographical diversity of Mennonites brings into tension several elements of Mennonite polity and tradition. On the one hand, there is the question of faithfulness to one's conscience, biblical understanding and tradition. In the non-creedal pattern of Mennonite ecclesiology, the congregation is essentially autonomous, and the authority of the district or conference is limited. On the other hand a strong sense of community and interdependence, also arising out of the Anabaptist heritage, requires a commitment to one another as individuals, congregations, and districts, and a semblance of unity and well-defined identity at all levels of church life.

The tension between autonomy and community, between individual freedom and mutual responsibility will continue to influence the relationships among Mennonites. C. J. Dyck, in a paper read to the 1982 Consultation on Inter-Mennonite Relations, declared that Mennonites were more united than the list of inter-Mennonite activities would indicate. Paul Toews wrote in 1983 that the events that have been and are most effective in eroding the boundaries between and among Mennonites are theological renewal after World War I, the development of institutions that generated common work activities, and the growing ecumenical trend after World War I.

It is clear that a younger generation in North America and Europe is less concerned with historic separations. The issues that prevailed and divided Mennonites a generation or two ago are no longer as relevant as they seemed then. In the younger churches around the world, the impact of a multiplicity of mission and service agencies representing a series of North American conferences, each with their individual overseas activity, is often confusing and intimidating. In any event, the emergence of a worldwide Mennonite community, as embodied in the Mennonite World Conference, puts the question of unity in new perspective.

Not only overseas, but also in North America, the issue of inter-Mennonite cooperation becomes critical on the frontier of mission witness and church planting. New congregations are emerging in urban areas, or among the rapidly growing émigré communities. In such "foreign" communities close to traditional North American Mennonite communities, the term "Mennonite" is much more easily understood than the various terms that modify the name and signify specific traditions within the larger Mennonite community.

It is not surprising that growing interest in the Mennonite faith, the presence of several Mennonite groups in our larger urban centers, and the development of cooperative evangelistic efforts raise questions about the identities of new churches. This problem was a significant issue in the development of the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada and will most likely have a strong influence in future considerations of new frontiers in inter-Mennonite cooperation.

The proliferation of Mennonite structures may seem out of proportion to the size of a small denomination. The instincts that gave priority to spiritual unity and fraternal cooperation ahead of structural change has seemed right. Yet it is clear that structures will also need to be altered when the mood of the church calls for organizational changes that more truly reflect growing Mennonite spiritual unity and common commitment to one another. -- Paul N. Kraybill

See also Mennonite World Conference; Bender, Harold S.; Epp, Frank H.; Gingerich, Newton L.


For listings of inter-Mennonite organizations, see Mennonite Directory. Scottdale, Pa.: Mennonite Publishing House, annually until 2001. Additional inter-Mennonite agencies are listed in Mennonitisches Jahrbuch.

Dyck, C. J., ed. An Introduction to Mennonite History, 3rd ed, Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1993.

Dyck, C. J. "Where Have We Come From? A Review of the Past 25 Years of Inter-Mennonite Agency Developments." Proceedings of Consultation on Inter-Mennonite relationships October 21-23, 1982.

Kauffman, J. Howard and Leland Harder. Anabaptists Four Centuries Later: A Profile of Five Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Denominations. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1975: 252-60.

Kraybill, Paul N. "North American Inter-Mennonite Relationship." Proceedings of Inter-Mennonite Consultation.(Rosemont, IL, Oct. 28-30, 1974, copy at Mennonite Historical Library, Goshen.

Lapp, James M., ed. Principles and Guidelines for Interchurch Relations. Scottdale, PA: Interchurch Relations Committee of Mennonite General Conference [MC], 1971.

Lichdi, Diether Götz. Über Zürich und Witmarsum nach Addis Ababa. Maxdorf: Agape-Verlag, 1983.

Mennonite World Handbook, ed. Paul N. Kraybill. Lombard, IL: Mennonite World Conference [MWC], 1978.

Mennonite World Handbook. Strasbourg, France, and Lombard, IL: MWC, 1984.

Mennonite World Handbook, ed. Diether Götz Lichdi. Carol Stream, IL: MWC, 1990.

Retzlaff, Peter. Research in Inter-Mennonite Relations. Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1967.

Redekop, Calvin. Strangers Become Neighbors. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1980.

Shenk, Wilbert R. An Experiment in Interagency Coordination. Elkhart, IN: Council of International Ministries, 1986.

Toews, John A. History of the Mennonite Brethren Church, ed. A.J. Klassen. Fresno, CA: Mennonite Brethren Board of Literature and Publication, 1975.

Toews, Paul. "Dissolving the Boundaries and Strengthening the Centers." Gospel Herald (25 January 1983): 49-52.

Author(s) Harold S. Bender
Paul N. Kraybill
Date Published 1990

Cite This Article

MLA style

Bender, Harold S. and Paul N. Kraybill. "Inter-Mennonite Cooperation." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 25 Jul 2024.

APA style

Bender, Harold S. and Paul N. Kraybill. (1990). Inter-Mennonite Cooperation. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 25 July 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 44-48; vol. 5, pp. 445-449. All rights reserved.

©1996-2024 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.