Mennonites in Asia
At the beginning of the new millennium the center of Mennonite numbers and influence had shifted significantly south and east. Africa and Asia together account for more than half of the global Mennonite fellowship. As of 2018, Mennonite World Conference (MWC) reported that the total number of Mennonite members in Asia totaled nearly 440,000 in 17 countries.
The earliest Dutch Mennonite missionaries to Indonesia arrived in 1851. North American Mennonite mission energies turned to Asia in the last years of the 19th century with at least three denominations sending missionaries to India before 1900. As vigorous, independent denominations, the Indonesian and Indian Mennonite churches have grown to become some of the largest in the world and, together, made up the large majority of Mennonites in Asia. Another early mission effort was in China where missionaries established several strong communities in the early 20th century. Their Mennonite identity essentially disappeared when the new communist government gathered all Protestants and Catholics, respectively, into two national church structures. After World War II, western mission agencies entered several new fields with churches established in Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. In 2018 small groups of Anabaptist believers were present in many more parts of Asia.
Even such a brief summary hints at how challenging the Asian context is, both for new churches and for well-established ones. The range of social issues is vast: the wide gulf between some of the richest and some of the poorest communities in the world, caste, rapid population growth and urbanization, restrictive and even hostile governments, internal and external conflict, globalization and its impact on such matters as tourism, immigration, etc. And, of course, the competitive nature and sometimes active persecution of Christian witness in a context of global religions such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. All of these factors often limit church growth but can also be an opportunity for creative and necessary new directions. Mennonite thinkers emerging in the region have the responsibility for initiating Asian Mennonite contextual theologizing. One necessary part will be church history written from the “new” church point of view. Therefore, Mennonite World Conference in 1996 sponsored a series of regional histories (completed between 2003 and 2014) researched and prepared by historians from the region -- Churches Engage Asian Traditions made its debut in 2011.
Indonesia and Singapore
A vast nation astride the equator, Indonesia is a land of 13,000 islands and a distance from west to east of 5,000 km. It is also a meeting place for many cultures. Indonesia has a steadily increasing Islamic population, reaching 227 million adherents by 2018, making it the largest Muslim population in the world. Dutch colonized the country for 350 years, ending after Japan invaded in 1942. The Dutch mission agency Doopsgezinde Zending Vereniging (DZV) were the first Mennonites to work in Asia, with the first missionaries arriving in 1851. Pieter and Wilhelmina Jansz eventually located in central Java and Pieter began a long career of teaching and evangelizing. Jansz developed a relationship with a Javanese mystic who came to be known as Ibrahim Tunggul Wulung. This respected figure came to believe that new Christians should form a jungle community separated from the urban Muslim population. Such villages successfully enculturated a form of Christian faith that took hold and began to spread in many locations. From 1851 through 1942, the DZV gave overall direction but during the 1930s pressure for local autonomy increased. After World War II an independent church became inevitable. This ethnic Javanese synod is now named Gereja Injili di Tanah Jawa (GITJ), and has ministered in the Muria region, including institutions such as schools and hospitals.
In the early 20th century, DZV contacts with the ethnic Chinese community in Muria led to the establishment of the Gereja Kristen Muria Indonesia (GKMI) and its later outgrowth the Jemaat Kristen Indonesia (JKI). These synods have grown and become vigorous institution builders in their own right, with the former most notably establishing a mission agency Pengutusan Injil dan Pelayanan Kasih (PIPKA) and the latter a strong Bible college. Both have established worshipping communities abroad, including churches in the United States, Singapore, Cambodia and Australia. All three synods have extensive church planting programs on several Indonesian islands. Total membership in 2018 was 102,000 according to MWC.
One Mennonite congregation in Singapore was established by the Indonesian mission agency PIPKA in 2002. The congregational membership listed by MWC in 2018 was 78.
India and Nepal
After the Dutch in Indonesia, India became another major focus for Mennonite missions in Asia. During a century of British colonialism, Christianity had been introduced in urban areas of India, but rural areas remained untouched, with Hinduism, Islam and animism the primary faiths. Mennonites were late to the scene, led by the Mennonite Brethren, who arrived in 1889.
The Mennonite Brethren mission settled in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. Vigorous evangelism and social outreach, especially in rural areas, brought this lively conference of nearly 1,000 congregations to become one of the largest Mennonite denominations in the world. In 2018 it operated a hospital, an economic/social development organization, and a full-fledged seminary. The Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church sent workers to India in 1899 in response to a terrible famine. Both groups settled in what is now Chhattisgarh state, with the former centered in the town of Dhamtari, while the GCMC established two main centers – one to the east and the other to the north of the city of Raipur. The Brethren in Christ sent their first missionaries in 1905 and by 1916 had established work in north Bihar state – later extended to eastern Bihar and the state of Odisha (Orissa).
These four groups pursued the rather typical Indian mission mode of establishing compounds where missionaries lived in large “bungalows,” served by staffs of Indian workers. In addition to church planting, mission efforts included institutions such as hospitals, orphanages, student dormitories and schools of all kinds. While the Indian churches grew, and local leadership became better educated, they continued to be dominated by the white missionaries until government policies in the 1970s dictated that churches and most mission institutions become formally owned and operated by Indians. By then, the local churches had become well-known by their official local names: the Mennonite Brethren Church of India, the Mennonite Church in India, the Bharatiyah General Conference Mennonite Church, and the Brethren in Christ Society.
By mid-century, the missions had also been reaching out to new areas: The Mennonite Church established Bihar Mennonite Mandli (Church) near Ranchi, in southern Bihar (now in the new state of Jharkhand). The BIC Bihar church sent missionaries across the border to Nepal, and to the state of Odisha, southwest of Kolkata.
Mennonite missions in India were often more open to ecumenical work than were their mother churches in North America. Mennonites cooperated with other missions, including joining with other denominations to establish Union Biblical Seminary in 1953. The Mennonite-related conferences also began to think creatively about working together, and in 1963 established the Mennonite Christian Service Fellowship of India (MCSFI). Sometimes compared to Mennonite Central Committee (MCC has worked in India since 1942) for its relief and development work, its name indicated another focus: building fellowship. MCSFI has regular “All-India” gatherings for Mennonite women, youth, and pastors. This has been especially helpful for the organization’s newer members: United Missionary Church, BIC Odisha, BIC Nepal, and Gilgal Mission Trust. Total membership of the groups affiliated with Mennonite World Conference totaled 257,000 in 2018.
While one Mennonite mission board had joined the United Mission to Nepal in the 1950s, that organization did not engage in church planting. But in the 1980s the BIC church in Bihar sent local evangelists across the border into Nepal, where a number of congregations emerged. Most BIC Nepal congregations are in the lowlands of Nepal adjacent to the Indian border. MWC reported a little over 1,000 members in 2018.
China and other Chinese-Language Political Entities
Christians from the west and from other Asian countries have been in and out of China for centuries, beginning in the 7th century. But for many reasons it never gained a strong foothold. Following the 19th century Opium War between China and Great Britain, and especially with China increasingly open to new ideas after the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, western missionaries sought to share the Gospel as never before. Mennonite mission organizations participated in this, working in several locations in mainland China, including Fujian Province, Henan/Hebei Provinces (border), Inner Mongolia, Shandong Province, and Sichuan Province.
All these churches lost their formal Mennonite identity after the establishment of a communist government in nearly all of mainland China in 1949. By the early 1950s, a government-sponsored campaign to impugn the reputation of missionaries and Chinese pastors led to the departure of nearly all foreign church workers, and severely compromised the independence of the church. The government centralized all Protestant groups under a single, officially-recognized church, the Three Self Patriotic Movement (there is also a separate, Roman Catholic TSPM). Even so, pressure and oppression grew more intense culminating in the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. During this difficult period many individuals, including Christians, were required to sign a “confession and prosecution,” church properties were confiscated, and Christian activity was effectively halted. After the end of the Cultural Revolution, Christian activity and church attendance was again possible. Several former Mennonite communities were eventually successful in regaining possession of a few former church properties, but the churches were still required to remain within the TSPM. They have been in contact with North American Mennonites via the inter-agency educational exchange program now known as Mennonite Partners in China.
During the late 1940s, Mennonite Central Committee was invited to work at rural medical assistance in Taiwan. In 1953 the General Conference Mennonite Church took over MCC’s work in eastern Taiwan. The Mennonite Christian Hospital eventually expanded to become the world’s largest Mennonite hospital. The mission also broadened the mandate to include church planting, especially among Taiwanese-speaking groups. The church grew rapidly during the 1950s and officially took the name Fellowship of Mennonite Churches in Taiwan in 1963. This strong church has become highly urbanized within recent decades but retained its eager commitment to Christian discipleship. According to MWC, membership in 2018 was more than 1,600.
From the 1970s through the 1990s, Mennonite mission agencies worked cooperatively in the autonomous coastal city of Hong Kong – and later in nearby Macau. Churches emerged and eventually established relationship with the global community of Mennonite World Conference. With four congregations in the two cities, membership totaled a little over 100 in total in 2018.
Japan and South Korea
In a fashion similar to China, Japan strongly resisted the church for many centuries. For Japan, the turning point was World War II, after which it was occupied for a number of years by the United States. During the occupation, many North American churches sent missionaries, among which were several Mennonite-related groups. The Japan Brethren in Christ Church (BIC) has most members on the far-west of Honshu island. The Japan Mennonite Brethren Churches are centered in the west-central part of Honshu, with most churches in and near Osaka. The Japan Mennonite Christian Church Conference (MC) has its churches on the northern island of Hokkaido. The Japan Mennonite Christian Church Conference (GC) has its membership mainly centered on the island of Kyushu. In addition, there are three Mennonite congregations in Tokyo, relating together as the Tokyo Area Fellowship of Mennonite Churches.
The first-generation believers in Japan were energetic in building up their churches, creative in outreach to their communities, cooperative among themselves, and sent a number of mission workers to serve in countries around the world. Nevertheless, growing the church in Japan continued to face many challenges and the Mennonite churches of Japan have grown very little since the end of the mission era – in fact, few denominational churches of any group have grown. Christianity in Japan remains at about 1% of the population. In 2018, MWC reports nearly 2,700 Mennonites in Japan.
Mennonite presence in South Korea began with the arrival of Mennonite Central Committee in 1953 following the end of the Korean War. MCC operated relief programs and opened a vocational training school, wrapping up its presence in 1971. The positive witness of this work, especially that of the Mennonite Vocational School, led some individuals to travel to North America and attend Mennonite colleges and universities, where their sense of kinship with Mennonite theology and way of life was confirmed. In 1996, a small number of people established Jesus Village Church in the city of Chuncheon. Since then a number of small fellowships have emerged, and some of them have formalized the Mennonite Church South Korea in 2016. MWC reports that the various congregations identifying as Mennonite had a membership total of 87 adults in 2018.
Vietnam and Cambodia
Vietnam, colonized by France from the 19th century, began significant resistance that culminated in the French Indochina War (First Indochina War – 1946-54). Mennonite Central Committee responded in 1954 with a program of relief and material aid. Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM) sent its first personnel to Vietnam in 1957. By 1963 a small fellowship met at the University of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) and later expanded to the Binh Thanh district of the city.
Despite the tragedies of the Vietnam War (Second Indochina War – 1955-75), Mennonite ministries and church membership grew steadily in South Vietnam. But after the April 1975 victory by communist North Vietnam, churches faced years of tenuous existence. Church properties were confiscated, and it became very difficult to meet as congregations. Government programs forcibly moved people to rural areas or to “re-education camps.”
By 1986 the economy began to improve, and certain social restrictions were eased. In the 1990s Vietnamese citizens of the United States and Canada formed the North American Vietnamese Mennonite Fellowship and in 1998 connected with the independent house church movement. By 2008 the Vietnam Mennonite Church gained official registered status, though a vigorous, unregistered Mennonite network continued to meet. That movement continued to be very active but faced opposition from local authorities taking strong action against unregistered Christian groups. Nevertheless, both registered and unregistered groups have grown steadily, with total membership recognized by MWC in 2018 at over 5,000.
There are several Mennonite congregations in Cambodia, including those made up of ethnic Khmer, Vietnamese and Indonesian people. According to MWC, total baptized membership was 210 in 2018.
The Philippines, an island archipelago east of Vietnam and south of Taiwan, was a colony of Spain for 350 years. At the close of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the nation came under the control of the United States, which in 1935 granted the nation commonwealth status. During World War II, Japan invaded the Philippines, and there was fierce fighting on land and sea during which an estimated 1,000,000 Filipinos died.
Mennonite Central Committee arrived after the war to assist war victims, establishing a hospital before departing in 1950. About the same time, an independent evangelist, Felonito Sacapaño, began work among tribes in Abra in northern Luzon. His organization, Missions Now, Inc. (MNI), developed a relationship with Eastern Mennonite Missions, which in 1972 sent workers to serve with the church. MNI reorganized in 1991 as the Integrated Mennonite Churches of the Philippines, Inc., centered in northern Luzon, as well as Manila and Laguna. The church was known for community service and working toward peace and reconciliation throughout the country. In 2018 MWC estimated nearly 1,700 Mennonites in Philippines.
Thailand and Myanmar
While Mennonite Central Committee has had offices in Thailand at various times, no Mennonite-related church had been established before the 21st century. In 2000 the North American Mennonite Brethren sent a small missions team to begin work in Chonburi, Thailand. After several Mennonite Brethren congregations were planted in Thailand, a conference called the Thai MB Foundation was formed and officially recognized by the government in 2009. In 2014 that body had 15 congregations with 1,500 members. The Mennonite Brethren mission team has continued to serve alongside the foundation and other local church partners.
Within the past few decades, Mennonite communities in Europe and North America have been blessed with fellow Anabaptists from around the globe. Mennonite Church USA includes several congregations of the Hmong ethnic group, many of whom emigrated from Thailand and Laos over several decades. In the early years of this century, these groups determined to make connections with their ethnic kin in north-central and northwestern Thailand. Connections with Hmong churches that are part of the Church of Christ Thailand (CCT) have developed steadily, and the CCT District 20 Hmong Church was officially welcomed into communion as a full member of MWC in 2017.
Several Mennonite mission agencies are still active in Thailand. In 2018 MWC estimated that Mennonite-related groups in Thailand totaled more than 63,000 members.
The nation of Myanmar (formerly Burma) has only in recent years hosted Mennonite mission workers. But Mennonite connections began when a young man came into contact with Mennonite Brethren personnel in India. He later founded the Bible Missionary Church in Myanmar, and in the early 2000s began communicating with Mennonite agencies. Conversations with Mennonite World Conference finally led to the group formally becoming a member in 2009. Several other groups also identified as Mennonite, and the number of members recognized by MWC in 2018 was just under 2,000.
Other Countries in Asia
Some ethnic-German Mennonites long-established in 19th and 20th century Ukraine, found themselves forcibly resettled by Soviet authorities in Soviet Central Asia during the middle 20th century. When they were granted freedom to move in the 1950s, a few resettled south where the climate was more hospitable. Some settled in Alma Ata – now known as Almaty – in Kazakhstan, and others further south in Kyrgyzstan. Some still identify as Mennonite, with MWC estimating the Kyrgyzstan Mennonite membership as 200 in 2018.
Mennonite mission work continues to reach Asian nations where there is not yet a Mennonite church present. In some places missionaries have a stated aim to plant Mennonite churches. In other locations mission workers are called to plant churches that may never claim Mennonite identity. And in yet other countries, Mennonite personnel work in integral mission/holistic ministry where establishing a new church is not the goal and may not even be possible.
This article is based on the original English essay that was written for the Mennonitisches Lexikon (MennLex) and has been made available to GAMEO with permission. The German version of this article is available at https://www.mennlex.de/doku.php?id=loc:asien
Asheervadam, I. P., et al., Churches Engage Asian Traditions. Global Mennonite History series. Intercourse, Pa.: Good Books, 2011.
Kanagy, Conrad, Elizabeth Miller and John D. Roth, Global Anabaptist Profile: Belief and Practice in 24 Mennonite World Conference Churches. Goshen, Ind.: Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism, Goshen, 2017. Available in full electronic text at https://www.goshen.edu/isga/gap/.
Lee, Robert. The Clash of Civilizations: An Intrusive Gospel in Japanese Civilization. Christian Mission and Modern Culture Series. Harrisburg, PA.: Trinity Press International, 1999.
Luke, Krupadanam. Mennonite Brethren Missionary Work: In Villages Shamshabad Hyderabad District, A.P. India 1920-1970. Self published, 2003.
Malagar, P.J. The Mennonite Church in India [Nagpur?]: National Council of Churches in India, .
The Mennonite Central Committee Story 4 volumes. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1980-1981.
Mennonite World Conference. "Asia and Pacific" 2015. Web. 26 June 2019. https://mwc-cmm.org/maps/asia.
Shenk, Wilbert, Luke S. Martin and Charles Christano. “Mennonites,” in Scott W. Sunquist, ed. A Dictionary of Asian Christianity. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2001: 533-534.
Yoder, Lawrence M. and Sigit Heru Soekotjo. Sejarah Gereja Injili di Tanah Jawa (History of the [Mennonite] Evangelical Church of Java). Pati, Indonesia: Evangelical Church of Java History Commission, 1980.
Mennonite World Conference 2018 figures
Original 1955 Mennonite Encyclopedia Article
By Harold S. Bender. Copied by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 176-177. All rights reserved.
Java and Sumatrɑ
The first Mennonites to enter Asia permanently were representatives of the Dutch Mennonite Mission Board which established work in East Java in 1851 which has developed into a Chinese Mennonite church and a Javanese Mennonite church, later independent of the mission board. The Mennonite Central Committee began a relief work in this area in 1948, which is still continuing. In 1869 missionaries of the Dutch Mennonite Mission Board also established a work on Sumatra, which had to be abandoned after World War I because of lack of support. The 1950 Mennonite membership in Java was about 10,000.
The next Mennonite mission work in Asia was that established in India in 1899-1901 by the Mennonites of North America: (a) by the Mennonite Church (MC) in the Central Provinces in 1899, (b) by the General Conference Mennonite Church in the same area but 150 miles (240 km) farther south a year later, 1900-1901, (c) by the Mennonite Brethren Church in 1899 in the far south in Hyderabad, the first two being preceded by relief work by each group in the great famine of 1896-1899. All three of these missions developed into large and vigorous enterprises, with well-established indigenous churches with a total membership in 1950 of almost 20,000. The Mennonite (MC) mission established a daughter mission in 1940 in Bihar, some 600 miles (1000 km) to the north of the original mission in the Central Provinces. The Mennonite Brethren in Christ Church had earlier entered India in 1924 in Bihar. The Mennonite Central Committee carried on relief work in India in 1945-1950, chiefly in the great famine of 1946 in the region near Calcutta. An inter-mission relief agency, called the Mennonite Committee for Relief in India, called forth by this effort, was still in existence in 1955.
China had been entered by several American Mennonite mission boards during the first half of the 20th century, but by 1951 all work had been suspended and all missionaries recalled as a result of the intolerable conditions and pressure imposed by the Communist government established in 1949. H. C. Barthel (Krimmer Mennonite Brethren (KMB) Church) arrived in China in 1901 and founded in 1904 an independent organization, the China Mennonite Missionary Society, which carried on an extensive work in Shantung. H. J. Brown started work independently in Hopei province in 1909 which was taken over by the General Conference Mennonite Mission Board officially in 1914. The Mennonite Brethren Mission Board in 1919 took over the work in Fukien province which had been established by F. J. Wiens in 1911. The KMB Conference established a work in Mongolia in 1924. The Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities entered China after World War II in 1948. The total membership of all the Mennonite churches in China in 1950 was probably less than 10,000.
Mennonites did not enter Japan until after World War II. Then in rapid succession the Mennonite Church (MC), 1949, the General Conference Mennonite Church, 1950, and the Mennonite Brethren Church in 1950 entered. The first Japanese Mennonites (12) were baptized in the Mennonite Church mission in Hokkaido in 1951.
Meanwhile Mennonites from the older colonies in European Russia began to migrate to Asiatic Russia. The first group settled in Turkestan 150 miles (250 km) northeast of Tashkent in 1880-1881, establishing a colony which lasted at least until 1930. The total number never exceeded 1,500 souls. The migration into what is known as Siberia began in 1899 and resulted in the establishment of large and prosperous colonies in the region of Omsk and Slavgorod-Barnaul before World War I. After World War I in 1926 a small colony was established in the Far East on the Amur River border of Manchuria near Blagoveshchensk. Increasing pressure led to the liquidation of most of this colony by flight into Manchuria (Harbin) in 1930, from which ultimately (1931-1933) all emigrated either to California (Reedley) or to Paraguay, with a few reaching Brazil. A smaller number fled from western Russia across the Siberian border into "Sinkiang province, finally reaching Shanghai and emigrating to California in 1949. One family of the Sinkiang group crossed the Himalayas into India, joining the Mennonite Brethren mission there. The western Siberian Mennonite colonies still exist in modified form, having apparently suffered the least of any of the Mennonite settlements in Russia.
Mennonite Relief Work in Asia
The Mennonite Central Committee entered the Far East with its relief work first in India (1944-1950), then China (1945-1950) with the Hong Kong relief unit operating until 1952, then the Philippines (1946-50), Japan (1948- ), Java (1949- ), and Taiwan (1950- ). Far Eastern Headquarters were established at Hong Kong in 1950. The peak number of workers in Asia was in 1949 with an average of 65.
Mennonite Membership in Asia
The maximum total baptized Mennonite membership in Asia, including both mission churches and Russian Mennonite settlements in 1925 was an estimated 60,000 distributed as fellows: Java and Sumatra 10,000, India 20,000, China 10,000, Turkestan and Siberia 20,000. In 1950 the number was probably less than 45,000 because of heavy losses in China and Asiatic Russia. The maximum number of Mennonite missionaries in Asia was reached about 1935 with nearly 150 persons, all but six North Americans. In 2006 the total population in Asia and the Pacific was 240,000 as listed in the table below.
|Author(s)||John F Lapp|
Cite This Article
Lapp, John F. "Mennonites in Asia." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 2018. Web. 4 Mar 2021. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Mennonites_in_Asia&oldid=164262.
Lapp, John F. (2018). Mennonites in Asia. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 4 March 2021, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Mennonites_in_Asia&oldid=164262.
©1996-2021 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.