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1958 Article

Many of the early Swiss Brethren of Reformation times were well educated, and a list of the Brethren in 1526 mentions a doctor and his wife as being among the group. After the persecution the Brethren largely became peasants in more isolated districts with little opportunity for economic advancement or formal schooling. Lack of reference to medical affairs in their writings leads one to suppose that they had little acquaintance with professional medicine. They were acquainted with the violent deaths accorded to martyrs. As farmers they were acquainted with the cause-and-effect relationships of exposure, violence, nutrition, and disease. It is known from family lists that the birth and death rates were high. Midwifery was practiced among them and booklets on this art ascribed to Aristotle and Albertus Magnus were used. As economic and educational opportunities increased during the 19th century the medical history of the Mennonites was similar to that of the European people of their class and location. A significant contribution to medical advance came through the work of Dr. Peter Dettweiler (d. 1904), of Alsatian Mennonite parentage, but resident in Bavaria, who discovered that the cure of tuberoulosis was not dependent on specific locations and thus became the father of the sanatorium movement.

The Hutterites of the 16th century developed medical practice far in advance of their day. They may have had personal contact with Paracelsus. Their surgeons and bathers (barbers) attended the nobility, conducted famous baths in Moravia, and recognized the contagious nature of certain diseases; the Brethren followed sanitary practices and applied principles of child training consonant with modern concepts of mental hygiene. The excellent work of the physician-surgeons played a large part in developing friendly relations between them and the nobility. Their profession was respected and at least one of the bathers, Sebastian Dietrich, became the general overseer of the entire brotherhood. Dabbling in alchemy, on the other hand, was considered highly improper. The contact of the Hutterite surgeons with the nobility tended to cause dissatisfaction with the simplicity of life practiced by the brotherhood. Frequently they drifted away from their brothers. The death, near the end of the 18th century, of the one remaining physician and his apprentice within a week was taken to be a providential sign that they should get along without professional medical care. The Hutterite chronicles record wave after wave of pestilence decimating the settlements. Unlike their neighbors who fled in panic to the forests leaving the sick to die in utter helplessness, the Hutterites nursed their victims of the plague and gave orderly burial to their dead,

In 1874-1877 the Hutterites immigrated to South Dakota and later to Canada. Here they gave their children only elementary school education and did not produce any physicians. However, they availed themselves of the medical facilities of nearby towns. At the middle of the 20th century their birth rate was 45.19 per thousand population and their death rate a mere 4.4, making them one of the most rapidly growing population groups on record. Their colonies have been intensively studied because of a reported low incidence of mental illness. (See further Medicine Among the Hutterites)

The Dutch Mennonites were less isolated and economically and socially more favored than their Swiss brethren. One of their unique institutions, that of the deaconesses, had far-reaching results in the medical world. Theodore Fliedner, a pastor of Kaiserswerth, Germany, received some inspiration for founding his famous institution while visiting among the Mennonites in Holland, although the Dutch deaconesses do not deserve the whole credit. The Mennonite deaconesses of Holland were not nurses but rather women ordained to the office of overseer of the poor and needy. They were important in staffing the projects pioneered by the Dutch Mennonite minister Jan Nieuwenhuizen. These projects included an old ladies' home, orphanages, and a home for feeble-minded children. These deaconesses also furnished the inspiration for an order of Mennonite deaconess nurses in Russia and the United States. (See further Medicine Among the Dutch Mennonites.)

The emigrants from North Germany to Russia (1789-1820) took with them their medical customs and practices. Babies were delivered by midwives. One practitioner recorded the 13,000 deliveries at which she assisted. These women received no particular stipend but were exempt from paying taxes. The mortality rate was high. In the Chortitza settlement, of the 6,874 children born between 1880 and 1922, 2,008 died in infancy and childhood, a rate of nearly 30 per cent. Trained physicians were scarce and only one was reported among the 60 villages of the Molotschna settlement in 1880.

The sense of brotherhood led the Russian Mennonite settlers to provide for the aged and infirm. From early days the feeble-minded, the deaf, and the epileptic inherited twice the amount the healthy siblings received. Such funds were placed in trusteeship and came to have a stabilizing influence in the economy of the community as well as providing for institutional care. By about the end of the 19th century the settlements had old people's homes, orphanages, a school for the deaf, and a hospital for those with nervous diseases including epileptics. To staff these institutions a school for deaconess nurses was opened at Neu-Halbstadt in 1909. The doctors were generally Mennonites who had taken training either in German or Russian universities.

While these institutions were the product of united community action, the first Russian Mennonite hospital was the result of a private venture of faith. Franz Wall, a Mennonite minister, inspired by the noble example of George Müller of Bristol, England, converted his home at Muntau, Molotschna, into a hospital in 1880.

The Mennonites in Russia were interested in helping others in need. One thousand rubles were collected and given to aid wounded soldiers during the Napoleonic invasion. During the Crimean War 5,000 sick and wounded soldiers were transported and cared for in the settlements. As a result of exposure to the diseases of the soldiers, especially dysentery and typhus, a number of the Mennonites died. At the time of the Boxer Rebellion in China 5,000 rubles were sent to the Red Cross to be used for the sick and wounded. In the Russo-Japanese War, in addition to Red Cross support, a group of twenty Mennonite young men volunteered to aid sick and wounded soldiers. Of these, a number died, including a Mennonite doctor. In World War I thousands of Russian Mennonite men served on hospital trains and in special hospitals. Mennonite  doctors  had  responsible  positions  in  these services. This medical service was civilian and staffed by volunteers, who had the legal right to serve in the forestry service. The Zemstwo Union was a civilian organization. (See also Medicine Among the Mennonites in Russia.)

The Mennonites of America were earlier suspicious of the ways of the world in education and science. Hence unscientific means for obtaining cures were often used. Among them was a system of incantations known as "powwowing" or "Braucherei." The formulae used were supposed to have some magic qualities, and were not true prayers as some supposed. References to the Virgin, saints, archangels, and the use of Latin words point to a Catholic origin, possibly pre-Reformation and peasant. Powwowing was frowned upon officially, but was still practiced in the 1950s in a few culturally retarded communities. People in such areas lacked scientific standards of evaluation and tended to patronize irregular practitioners, maintained a belief in magnetism and other devices, and placed reliance on herbs, home remedies, and advertised nostrums. However, since virtually all childbed deliveries now took place in hospitals, and immunization of children was routine, modern medical practices were being fully accepted.

In some Mennonite groups "anointing" based on James 5, has been practiced sporadically. Occasionally, in the mid-20th century, individuals were influenced by the "divine healing" movement, and a few attempted to practice it. However, vigorous counteraction in teaching and discipline prevented any significant spread of the aberration.

In Mennonitism throughout the world missionary work and the rise of hospitals and charitable work was a 19th-century development, sometimes influenced by Pietism, sometimes the natural result of a strong tradition of the ministry of Christian love to the needy, which found expression in service to non-Mennonites after the spirit of isolationism began to break down. The value of medical work became very clear on the missionary field, and the first missionary effort by the Dutch Mennonites in Java and Sumatra soon developed a medical emphasis. With some modification that pattern was typical of Mennonite medical missions, whether in India, pre-Communist China, Ethiopia, Tanzania, the Belgian Congo, or Puerto Rico. It consisted of a hospital center staffed by a medical missionary and missionary nurses, assisted by native workers who assumed more responsibility as they received training. In time a school of nursing developed, and native assistants or even doctors were added to the staff. In addition to the central hospital there were a series of outstations in charge of a missionary nurse or visited on schedule by the missionary doctor. In Asia and Africa a leprosarium was generally added. Missions in South America did not include hospital work because of the governments' policy of excluding foreign doctors.

The first Mennonite hospitals in North America were established in the communities of the Russian immigrants about 1900 and later. The General Conference Mennonites developed nursing schools under the direction of a deaconess order. The Mennonites (MC) did not develop community hospitals so early. The first of their hospitals was an outgrowth of a tuberculosis sanatorium established (1907) as an act of mercy in a non-Mennonite community. It was owned by their board of missions. In the mid-20th century this board began operating a number of community hospitals whose constituency was not primarily Mennonite. The two nursing schools of the group were under the general Board of Education and one of the schools was of the collegiate type. It was estimated that there were about 1,000 Mennonite nurses in North America in the 1950s. Among them are a number of male nurses.

In earlier days it was unusual to see a Mennonite physician. Family histories reveal that the physicians who came from Mennonite homes often did not remain members of the church. A study in 1947 revealed that one third of the doctors from such homes were no longer Mennonites. Most of these transferred membership after starting practice and attributed the change to a "broadening" viewpoint, or learning to appreciate other religious views and becoming less dogmatic. Fully half of these physicians did not practice in Mennonite communities, explaining that these lacked cultural or educational opportunities, or that some Mennonites were unscientific, patronized quacks, and were generally unappreciative of a physician's services. A Mennonite Medical Association was founded to help in correcting this difficulty.

World War II had a great effect on Mennonite medical affairs. The reservoir of doctors, nurses, and medical auxiliaries was tapped by the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) to carry on the medical phase of its relief work throughout the world. Fifteen hundred men drafted to Civilian Public Service worked in mental hospitals as aides, and about 170 women volunteered to do similar work. Other young people worked in general hospitals, veterans' hospitals, in public health and sanitation, hookworm and typhus control, or in health education. Others were used as "guinea pigs" in scientific investigations on typhus, pneumonia, infectious hepatitis, nutrition or metabolism experiments. Similar experience was continued after the war in the "I-W" and voluntary services programs.

One of the results of this experience has been an increased interest in mental health. The MCC established three mental hospitals between 1945 and 1955, and a fourth was under consideration. Another mental hospital was sponsored by the Lancaster Conference (MC) and yet another in Ontario is sponsored by the Mennonite Brethren group. These institutions represented pioneer experiments in the value of personal service religiously oriented, combined with a restful rural atmosphere.

Sickness insurance was a relatively new phenomenon on the American scene. The brotherhood has always had an alms fund in the care of the deacon, and the community often turned out en masse to do the season's farm work of the sick or injured member. It is interesting to note that there existed a Beneficial Society in the Franconia (MC) district as early as 1888 and that they paid sickness benefits. In 1902 the Menno-Friendly Beneficial Association was formed at the First Mennonite Church (GCM) in Philadelphia for the purpose of giving relief "to members who shall be confined to their homes by reason of sickness or disability or accident." Local efforts were illustrated by the Health Society of Yarrow, BC, organized in 1935. This group contracted for medical care by a Mennonite doctor for $12.00 per year for each member's family. A similar plan was sponsored by the Health Society of Coaldale, Alberta. A more extensive movement took place in the Mennonite Church (MC). As a result of official conference action Mennonite Aid, Inc., was authorized in 1949 to set up a plan for payment of hospital and surgical benefits. At the beginning of 1955 it had over 5,000 members.

In Europe Mennonites normally took advantage of the state medical insurance plans, such as the German and Swiss Krankenkasse.

The Mennonites of Mexico and South America have had special medical problems. Since the Mexican group migrated seeking isolation, it was not surprising that they were not aware that their health and sanitary practices were poor and their medical care inadequate, being limited largely to the ministrations of the bonedoctors (Knochenärzte), midwives, and such patent medicines as could be purchased at the village stores. Knowledge of nutrition was meager. Milk was sold for cash rather than consumed by the family. Sanitary installations were scarce. Immunization was not practiced and the childhood diseases, especially enteritis, took a heavy toll. Villages might be 40 to 50 miles from a doctor and almost as far from a telephone. The MCC relief services offered in various ways to assist in raising the health standards, but difficulty with government regulations and the attitudes of the settlers made it necessary to abandon the clinics. In 1954 plans were under way to have the MCC administer a local hospital in Cuauhtemoc.

The Brazilian immigrant group of 1930 included trained nurses and others who had some elemental knowledge of medicine, but no doctor. Medical services had to be obtained at a hospital 40 miles distant until Dr. Peter Dyck from Russia and his wife, a trained nurse, arrived to establish a hospital in Witmarsum. This medical work was supported financially by the Dutch Mennonites. The colonists had their own dental clinic. When the Witmarsum colony was abandoned this hospital passed out of Mennonite hands.

In many ways the most difficult health problems were presented by Paraguay. The settlers included those from Canada in search of isolation, Russian refugees stranded in Europe but refused admittance to Canada often because of trachoma or tuberculosis, and refugees from Siberia long stranded in Harbin, China. When the Canadian group arrived in 1928 about one tenth died on the way into the Chaco from dysentery and typhus. The Paraguayan government offered free immunizations against typhoid, but only a few immigrants took advantage of this. The Harbin group, too, was decimated by an epidemic of scarlet fever. Medical care was inadequate. Practical nurses and midwives did what they could. Because of poor roads and great distances the Paraguayan doctors were almost inaccessible. The MCC sent Dr. John R. Schmidt, and later his wife, a trained nurse, to bring medical aid. Dr. Schmidt found  that 75 per cent had  trachoma and about 50 per cent had hookworm. Rickets and tuberculosis of the bone were common. Hookworm control was initiated and trachoma was treated with the sulfa drugs. An adequate hospital was built to supersede the old clay-floored dispensary. A small mental hospital was erected. A North American surgeon, a dentist, and an eye specialist spent terms of various lengths giving their specialized services. A school of nursing was set up, and colonists were trained in pharmacy, anesthesia, and other auxiliaries. Promising young men were sent to Asuncion or abroad to learn medicine and young women to learn nursing. Thus a most difficult problem gave way to relentless will backed up by the world-wide resources of the Mennonite brotherhood. Several European non-Mennonite doctors were employed by the Paraguayan settlements, particularly Fernheim. In 1954 the first Mennonite doctor, a son of Fernheim but trained in the United States, began practice in the Friesland colony.

It is typical that a leprosarium was to be established in gratitude to Paraguay for offering a new home and a new outlook on life, to be jointly operated by the MCC and the Mennonite settlements with considerable financial assistance by the American Mission to Lepers. Instead of the leprosarium as originally planned, however, a series of clinics was set up, where ambulatory treatment was emphasized. (See Paraguay Mission to Lepers.) -- H. Clair Amstutz

See also Medicine Among the Hutterites; Medicine Among the Dutch Mennonites; Medicine Among the Mennonites in Russia; Paraguay Mission to Lepers.

1989 Update

Frank H. Epp writes of Mennonites in Canada, "Every cluster of neighbors boasted a midwife and a bone-setter ready, willing, and able to attend to those medical needs which tea could not cure" (Mennonites in Canada, I, 87). While Epp speaks here of the early Canadian Mennonites, it is a picture that was quite generally relevant to the more conservative Mennonites of Europe and the Americas until the mid-20th century.

There were exceptional medical people among Mennonites from the beginning. This was so in Holland, Switzerland, Prussia, and Russia. Some made outstanding leadership contributions. The Hutterites were well ahead of how others might have regarded them in medicine, particularly dentistry. Dutch Mennonites moved rapidly in deaconess services and training. In Russia the medical concern led quickly to institutions for the mentally ill, the aged, the orphaned, etc.

The movement toward more professionalized medicine did find much opposition among many dedicated Anabaptists and Mennonites from the outset. One can only speculate why there is evidence of seemingly spectacular advances and leadership from the beginning in Europe, yet parallel evidence of a strong commitment to natural healing with herbal treatments, chiropractic manipulation, and the occasional "anointing" according to the Bible. It may be that Anabaptists became a persecuted group, it became difficult to train further professionals and their reliance on cures closer to "nature" became natural. It can also be argued that a few professionals did remain among Mennonites.

Perhaps because the early Mennonite immigrants to America from the less-educated and more conservative groups, medicine had to begin over again. Even when in Russia it became clear that not all students wanted to study for education or agriculture careers, the next step was to set up a business college (Kommerzschule). Mennonites had become a people of the land who believed in strong, fairly "closed" communities. To keep these going, young people were encouraged to train for service to maintain these.

Medicine became one of the built-in features in North American Mennonite communities: "From what we've been told by our mothers and grandmothers, we are convinced that there were few ailments that they did not try to remedy in one way or another.... The remedies... included items such as salt, vinegar, goose grease, sour cream, bran, and even the lowly onion, to mention only a few... After the village store became an established part of the community, such items as apodoldac, wonder oil, 'russisches Schlagwasser', electric oil and a few other patent medicines soon became an integral part of the stock of medicines that were stored in the corner cupboard" (Tina H. Peters, in Mennonite memories, 240). Frank H. Epp also reminds us that, even in North America, some of the Reiseprediger (itinerant ministers) would dispense medicine (Mennonites in Canada, I, 295).

But it did not take long for Mennonites in North America to start pursuing medicine as a field of study. At first they usually did not come back to their home communities to practice. They often found their broadened thinking unacceptable to some of the closed thinking about healing and other "worldly" matters. So they initially were largely lost to the Mennonite churches.

The major turnaround came with World War II. Through Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) involvements in world relief work, doctors and nurses suddenly were in demand. Anybody in medicine was welcomed to help and often these people were asked to provide models for new endeavors. Especially significant was the government's willingness to let mental health services be an acceptable alternative service for conscientious objectors. Suddenly the Mennonite people in medicine were even in demand to help develop more humane ways to deal with mental illness.

When the war ended, this impact on Mennonite medicine did not end. To provide for bridge-building so that Mennonite physicians would no longer feel a need to leave Mennonite communities, the Mennonite Medical Association was formed in 1944. Already in 1942 the Mennonite Nurses Association had been founded.

There was, as usual, a mix of reasons for both groups. Not only the new mental health frontier, but also the longstanding involvement in medical missions on foreign field, were beckoning for the services of dedicated physicians and nurses. Once mission executives and missionaries saw the plight of millions in the underdeveloped countries, the old Mennonite vision for wholistic care came to the fore. Medicine, education and conversion needed to serve together. At the same time, the newly identified challenges in mental health care made profound impressions on Mennonite medicine. Many Mennonites entered specialized fields of medical practice and research related to mental health. Others became teachers in the field.

In the 1980s, in North America, like almost everywhere that Mennonites live in the world (there are exceptions in isolated places to which Mennonites have recently emigrated), medicine is a highly respected and even a sought-after profession and vocation.

In 1986 the Mennonite Medical Association (MMA) had a membership of well over 500 physicians from the United States and Canada. These people voluntarily contribute funds annually to give financial aid to medical students interested in a student elective term in a cross-cultural setting. This is done to broaden medical training and is usually carried out in conjunction with mission agencies and MCC so that these students may also get a feel for missionary medicine. in addition, the MMA sponsored the Mennonite Medical Messenger (into which The Christian nurse had been integrated) since 1949, a quarterly publication to promote Christian health care. It had a subscriber list of nearly 2,000 names. The MMA has also initiated and participated in special research consortiums on special medical issues, and has initiated medical exchanges with Mennonites from other countries.

While the MMA has been strongest among Mennonites in eastern North America (largely MC) and has been quite strong across the United States, many Canadian Mennonite physicians identify more with the Christian Medical Association (CMA) than the MMA.

The Mennonite Nurses Association (MNA) had about 500 members in 1987 and has aggressively encouraged nurses to serve overseas and in other need settings. Divided into chapters, they provide scholarships for urgent research and for students coming from needy settings, and they make supplies available for nursing education in developing countries. The MMA and MNA jointly hold an annual Mennonite Medical Convention that usually draws 200-300 practicing health care professional people. At the March 1987, Mennonite Health Association annual convention, it was estimated that about 6,000 Mennonites in North America were, at that time, directly involved in medicine as physicians and nurses.

In 1987 Mennonites were found on all the fronts of medicine: genetic research, surgeries of all kinds, textbook writing, teaching, administration, and bioethics. Their emphasis is frequently seen as a refreshing foray into the current emphasis on preventive medicine rather than total immersion in curative medicine. They were also found at the front lines with those who wanted to emphasize total wellness of people where body, soul, mind and emotions were regarded as one whole being.

When a special section at the 1984 Mennonite World Conference in Strasbourg, France, was given over to health care, about 40 people assembled from a variety of countries. All spoke enthusiastically about Mennonite involvement in this broader area, and also identified deep commitments to encouraging future Mennonite participation in all the critical areas related to medicine. -- Bernie Wiebe


Mennonite Medical Messenger (1949-1998)

Mennonite Health Journal (1999-    )

Epp, Frank H. Mennonites in Canada, 1920-1940: a People's Struggle for Survival. Toronto: MacMillan of Canada, 1982, index under "medicine."

Klippenstein, Lawrence and Julius G. Toews, eds. Mennonite Memories: Settling in Western Canada. Winnipeg: Centennial Publications, esp. 235-47.

Klaassen, Walter. "The Anabaptist Tradition," in R. L. Numbers and D. W. Amundsen, Caring and Curing. Macmillan 1986: 271-287.

Peters, Frank C. "Noncombatant Service Then and Now." Mennonite Life 10 (January 1955): 31-35.

Additional Information

Mennonite Medical Association On-Line

Author(s) H. Clair Amstutz
Bernie Wiebe
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Amstutz, H. Clair and Bernie Wiebe. "Medicine." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 16 Dec 2019.

APA style

Amstutz, H. Clair and Bernie Wiebe. (1989). Medicine. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 16 December 2019, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 550-553; vol. 5, pp. 551-552. All rights reserved.

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