Mennonite (The Name)

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1957 Article

Mennonite, the name now given to the churches which descend from the Anabaptists from the Reformation period, except those in the Netherlands, who since 1796 have been officially registered as Doopsgezinden, and the Hutterian Brethren. For a time the German name Taufgesinnte, or Altevangelisch Wehrlose Taufgesinnte was used by certain North German and the Swiss Mennonites, who still officially carried this name in the 1950s though it did not appear in common usage either by the Swiss Mennonites themselves or by others in referring to them. In France, even in modern times the name Anabaptistes has had some currency as a designation for French Mennonites but is now discarded, and Täufer has had some popular currency in Switzerland and Alsace. "Mennonite" is the only name that has ever been used in Russia and in North and South America.

The term "Mennonite" has gone through three forms historically in the Dutch language—Menist / Mennist, Mennonist, and Mennonit / Mennonite, the last two also in the German and English.

In America the form "Mennist" has been generally used only in the colloquial form "Menischt" in the Pennsylvania Dutch or "Meneest"; however, C. Henry Smith reported a letter of 1643 by the French Jesuit traveler, Father Jaques, referring to "Anabaptists, here called Menists" in the Manhattan Island, New York settlement. Smith also reported a later document of 1657 which refered to "Mennonists" at Gravesend, Long Island. The 1712 and 1727 English editions of the Dordrecht Confession used the term "Mennonist." The petition of 1775 to the Colonial Assembly of Pennsylvania regarding exemption from military service refered to the church as the "Society of Menonists," and Morgan Edwards, in his Materials Towards a History of the American Baptists (1770), called them Mennonists. A study of the book titles in Bender's Two Centuries of American Mennonite Literature . . . 1727-1928, showed the first use of "Mennonite" in titles to have been in 1813, 1835, and 1837. After 1837 Mennonist practically disappeared except in the Lancaster Calendar of Mennonist Meetings of 1854 and following years. The two first American Mennonite hymnals, Unpartheyisches Gesangbuch and Kleine geistliche Harfe reprinted the title page relatively unchanged in later editions, carried the term "Mennonist" along, the former book even in the 1941 edition. The General Conference Mennonites (Oberholtzer group in Pennsylvania) used Mennonite from their beginning in 1847-1848. Jacob Stauffer's Eine Chronik oder Geschicht-Buechlein of 1859 still used Mennonist.

In Holland the term "Menist / Mennist " was used roughly for the first century of Mennonite history, although it occurred as late as 1670 in a Dutch edition of a book by Stephen Crisp. The first use of the term in a public document was in an edict of 1545 by Countess Anna of East Friesland, issued at Emden, in which she distinguished the followers of Menno Simons from those of David Joris and Jan van Batenburg. In his reply to Gellius Faber (1554) Menno Simons objected to the designations Mennists, Obbenites, or Dirkites, saying "We are not thus divided." The form "Mennonite" appeared in Holland as early as 1643 in a book title by Gerrit van Vryburgh, but it did not displace Mennist until near the end of the 17th century. The variant spellings Mennonyt, Mennonijt, and Mennoniet also appeared at times. Mennonist appeared in the latter part of the 17th century along with Mennonit. A book of 1686 called Lantaerne spoke of "Mennonistendom." Mennist (Mennonist, Mennonit) became a party name in Holland about the turn of the 16th to the 17th century. The strict wing of the Flemish and Frisians claimed  it, while  the Waterlanders and High Germans adopted the name "Doopsgezinde," which ultimately became the general designation when all the parties reunited about the end of the 18th century. Some, like Rippert Eenkes, the preacher of the congregation at Workum, objected (1607) to the name Mennonite, "because we do not call ourselves for Menno, but for Christ." After the division of the Lamists and Zonists in 1664, the latter preferred the name "Mennonite," while the former rejected it, using "Doopsgezinde" instead.

The usage in Germany followed that of Holland, except that Mennonit finally won out over against Taufgesinnte. Mennonist was used for a time during the 18th century. Roosen's Christliches Gemüthsgespräch (Hamburg, 1702) used it, as did the 1742 edition of Güldene Aepfel (South Germany or Basel) and von Dühren's Geschichte der Märtyrer (Konigsberg, 1787). The Elbing Waldeck Catechism of 1778-1797 and its later editions of 1833 and 1837 also used it. But "Mennonit" was in use in the German translations of Deknatel and others at the middle of the 18th century; and Rues, Aujrichtige Nachrichten (1743), used "Mennoniten." There was no trace of "Mennonist" after 1800 except in traditional titles reprinted.

It is a historical anomaly that the South German Mennonites, who were excommunicated by Menno Simons and who never were under his influence personally, preferred to use his name in their group identification, whereas the Dutch, who were Menno's immediate followers, finally rejected it. "Mennonite" was of course a useful protective name, referring to a well-known peaceful leader and group, and served to displace the opprobrious name Anabaptist or Wiedertaufer which suffered from its connection with the Münsterites.

Question has at times been raised as to who among the modern descendant groups or conferences is properly entitled to use the name "Mennonite" without a modifying prefix for its denominational designation. Certainly the national groups in Germany, France, and Switzerland have a historical right to the unadorned name. In Russia the original and continuing main body, from which all other groups separated (Mennonite Brethren, Krimmer Mennonite Brethren, Kleine Gemeinde), continued with historical justice to use the simple name "Mennonite," and descendants of the group in North America are properly called Mennonite, although they have chosen for their denominational name General Conference Mennonite Church. (The Swiss and South German elements in the General Conference Church can also rightly claim the simple name "Mennonite.") In North America the original and continuing body, from which all other schismatic groups before 1874 separated (Funkite, Reformed Mennonite; Church of God in Christ, Mennonite; Stauffer Mennonite, Defenceless, Central Conference) before the arrival of the Russian Mennonites, with the same historic propriety used the name Mennonite Church. In any case, the use of the unadorned name by any particular group in Europe or America does not and cannot mean that such a group is the only legitimate "Mennonite" church. All groups which bear the name Mennonite, simply or with a prefix, and thus claim to be in the line of historic descent of the Mennonite faith are equally "Mennonite"; their legitimate claim to the title might much better be tested by their adherence to the original Anabaptist - Mennonite faith. Some modern groups of Mennonite or partial Mennonite background have deliberately decided to drop the name Mennonite in favor of another (e.g., United Missionary Church, formerly Mennonite Brethren in Christ until 1953, apparently holding that the former name was a handicap in evangelism and missionary outreach). -- Harold S. Bender

1990 Article

Mennonite is the most common designation since the mid-17th century for the largest continuing Christian tradition rooted in 16th century Anabaptism. Mennonite and its earlier versions, Menist or Mennonist, is derived from Menno Simons, the major leader and organizer of North European Anabaptism following the aborted Münster revolution. The use of "leader" here is deliberate for Menno was not a founder of Anabaptism even in the North. Rather he was above all else an organizer and thus represented the more institutionalized, second generation of Anabaptism. Mennonite, in turn, referred to the less charismatic and more quietist offspring of their frequently vilified Anabaptist parents.

Not nearly all the children of Anabaptism were prepared to be identified with Menno Simons. The Batenburgers, David Jorists, and similar northern Anabaptist subgroups neither accepted Menno's post-Münster theology nor, for that matter, became ongoing communities as did the Mennonites. Much closer to Menno were the Waterlanders in the Netherlands who became known as the Doopsgezinden (Baptism-minded, i.e., baptists). While sharing much with Menno, they considered him too strict and too conservative, particularly in the area of church discipline, to accept his name. Farther south, the communalist Anabaptists became known as Hutterites, and thereby were differentiated from the more individualistic Swiss Brethren. The Swiss along with other south German and central German Anabaptists, despite a series of conferences through which they sought to gain unity with the North German and Dutch Mennonites, were unable to accept either Menno's strict discipline, especially shunning (avoidance), nor his celestial flesh Christology (incarnation). They remained "Brethren," were renamed Taufgesinnte (baptism-minded) or, especially in the Alsace, became Amish, when they sided with Jakob Ammann in a dispute primarily over discipline. (Actually Ammann accepted Menno's strict view on discipline but rejected his Christology.) Ironically, in Germany, Switzerland, and France the label Mennonite gained increasing currency by the mid-17th century, despite earlier resistance, while in Holland, the Doopsgezinden designation remains in the late 20th century although this community simultaneously identifies with international Mennonitism.

Why did the term Mennonite replace Anabaptist? Apparently because in the larger society Mennonite did not have the negative theological and political connotations of Anabaptist. The designation Mennonite was thus increasingly used by insiders and friendly outsiders alike to avoid the sanctions associated with Anabaptist. At the same time by the mid-17th century sufficient theological commonality was attained to weaken earlier resistance to the name. Even the northern Mennonites (Doopsgezinden) dropped Menno's celestial flesh Christology and with time de-emphasized Menno's strict discipline. The Dordrecht Confession of 1632 written by the northern Mennonites and soon accepted as normative by the more southern Mennonites is a symbol of this developing commonality. Significantly all the Swiss and south Germans of Anabaptist persuasion who arrived in America in the early 18th century, usually by way of the Rhine River, the Palatinate, and Dutch Doopsgezind communities, identified themselves as Mennonites. They thus in name were the same as all those Mennonites who "migrated from the low countries and northern Germany to Prussia and Poland, and from there to Russia and the Americas.

While perhaps the label Mennonite avoided the negative connotations of Anabaptist, Mennonite was not without ambiguity. At various times and places the term was considered too negatively loaded and hence unacceptable as a label. While earlier the Doopsgezinden in Europe did not wish to be identified with Menno's separatism and legalism, more recently in North America the Mennonite Brethren in Christ became the (United) Missionary Church (later Evangelical Missionary Church), so to emphasize separation as well as to enhance its missionary image. Other smaller Mennonite groups and numerous congregations in recent decades have similarly de-emphasized or even dropped the Mennonite label for similar reasons. Leaders of the Mennonite Brethren church, the third largest North American Mennonite denomination, also ask themselves periodically if the name Mennonite compromises their evangelical message. Some have suggested that they should once again identify themselves as Anabaptists now that this term has been largely rehabilitated by recent scholarship. Perhaps the Mennonite label could also be rehabilitated but the ambiguities of the term will not readily disappear.

Mennonite is ambiguous in definition for several basic reasons. In the first place, the Mennonite tradition embraces an inherent tension between sectarian separation from the world and missionary responsibility to the world. Some of the many Mennonite subdivisions emphasize one or the other of these two, while other Mennonite groups seek a synthesis of them. Accordingly, Mennonite identifies those strictly separatist groups known for their rejection of modern culture including, for some, modern technology. These are the most visible Mennonites, and hence they influence the public reading of Mennonite out of all proportion to their numbers. In fact, sociologists frequently look to them as archtypal sectarians. By contrast Mennonite also identifies objectively a number of denominations identified less by their separatism than their active involvement worldwide alongside many other Christian denominations in education, publishing, mission and service. Almost innumerable institutions and organizations labeled Mennonite pursue this denominational agenda. The vast majority of Mennonites are of this less separatist and more activist persuasion, yet the former create the more identifiable public image.

Mennonite is ambiguous, secondly, because it has both ethnic and religious connotations. The quest to nurture their vision of the true church in peace and quiet and to separate themselves from a hostile and evil world, encouraged Mennonites over the centuries to pursue a strategy of relative ideological and geographical withdrawal. Assisted by endogamy (marriage within the group) and other mechanisms of boundary maintenance, the Mennonites over time developed a sense of being a unique people--even an ethnic group. Indeed, the sociologist E. K. Francis developed his seminal definition of ethnicity on the basis of a study of the Mennonites in Russia and southern Manitoba. The fact that frequent migrations, undertaken either voluntarily or under pressure, had robbed them of a national identity further assisted this process of creating a Mennonite ethnicity. Although their ethnicity is premised not on racial or national but on religious distinctives, that Mennonite has both religious and ethnic meanings cannot be gainsaid.

Mennonite ethnicity is, however, not uniform. In the past Mennonites divided essentially into two ethnic groupings -- the Swiss/South German/Pennsylvania and the Dutch/North German/Russian -- each with various sub-groupings. Prior to the 20th century accordingly, at least two ethnic traditions of Mennonite language, customs, dress, food, art, etc. are identifiable. For various historical reasons, however, the Dutch tradition became the more ethnic while the Swiss remained the more sectarian. But the processes of acculturation, especially in the 20th century, are rapidly transforming both traditional Mennonite ethnicities and sectarianism. Furthermore as a product of Mennonite missions numerous other ethnicities now also share the name Mennonite, with the result that Mennonite is becoming heterogeneously ethnic while acculturation processes simultaneously result in new homogenization.

If Mennonite, at least in some areas, refers to an ethnic group entered by birth as well as a religious community entered by adult decision, who is a Mennonite? The confusion is related to the rite of becoming a member in a Mennonite church. While it is clear that one becomes a Mennonite upon baptism into a Mennonite church as an adult, the children born into Mennonite homes tend also to be considered Mennonite until they are baptized. Frequently even if they do not choose to be baptized they continue to be considered or to consider themselves to be Mennonite. Emphasis upon the Christian family and on Christian nurture encourages a more inclusive definition of Mennonite than the strong emphasis on adult voluntarism might imply. This same issue arises in those countries where Mennonites have missionized and added numerous other ethnicities to the Mennonite household. Is a child or grandchild of a Mennonite community in India, who is herself only nominally Christian, considered to be a Mennonite, particularly if this person has been acculturated into the uniquenesses of the Indian Mennonite subculture and become distanced from other Indian cultures in the process? This so-called "second generation" reality is the third factor complicating the meaning of Mennonite, even though it is hardly unique to Mennonites.

Further reasons could be cited for the ambiguity of the term Mennonite, e.g., the variety of theological, political, and cultural perspectives found under the Mennonite banner. The Mennonite community worldwide embraces the entire spectrum from liberal to conservative, left to right, iconoclasts to iconodules. Furthermore, as already noted, the word Mennonite is used in so many different ways: as a adjective, as a noun, as an adverb, and even as a verb -- it is seemingly possible to "Mennonite your way," i.e., staying with other Mennonites while traveling.

What then does Mennonite mean? Mennonite clearly refers to an identifiable Christian tradition which embraces a variety of Christian communities around the world. Greater specificity however, is difficult because the term has changed over time and continues to change. Mennonite is becoming more inclusive than exclusive, and more dynamic than static. The one commonality providing definition is history (tradition). To be Mennonite is not so much to share a creed or a liturgy but a story -- the story of the Mennonite experience over nearly five centuries of history. This story is premised upon an incarnational theology, upon the quest to become a people, the body of Christ by God's grace rooted in the life and teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus, in a world frequently alien or even hostile to this Way. It is frequently a story of failure, yet also of faithfulness. To be a Mennonite then means to identify with a particular Christian community with a particular story, remembering what has been in the beginning and over time, and shaping what might yet be to the glory of God. -- Rodney J. Sawatsky


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Author(s) Harold S. Bender
Rodney J. Sawatsky
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Bender, Harold S. and Rodney J. Sawatsky. "Mennonite (The Name)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 19 Jun 2024.

APA style

Bender, Harold S. and Rodney J. Sawatsky. (1989). Mennonite (The Name). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 19 June 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 586-587; v. 5, pp. 555-557. All rights reserved.

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