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One of the dominant themes of the past 500 years in Western society (and increasingly in non-Western societies) has been modernness. The modern period coincides with Anabaptist and Mennonite history. Yet the relationship of Anabaptists and Mennonites to the modern experiment is difficult to describe and define. The roots of the modern worldview appear to lie in social and intellectual changes of the 12th and 13th centuries, as the rural-centered, feudal society gave way to renewed urban and commercial growth. ("Urban" is used here in a relative sense -- most of the population of Europe and North America remained rural until the 19th century, and urban centers were dominated by artisans, not by industrial factories. Yet the cultural center of gravity shifted from the countryside to the towns during the 13th and 14th centuries.) Intellectually this shift to an urban culture included the rise of universities and growing exploration of rational, empirical, "scientific" knowledge. In the church, scholastic-rational theology and religiosity grew as sacramental, monastic, and mystical religiosity declined. A literate laity developed. Other developments contributing to the modern world included the emergence of territorial nation-states with powerful, absolute monarchs (15th-17th centuries) and the growth of modern science in the "Age of Reason" (17th century).

All of these developments, however, constitute in a certain sense only the threshold of the modern era. Strictly speaking, the modern world arrived in the 18th and 19th centuries with the transfer of power from the aristocracy and the absolutist kings (Louis XIV in France and James I in England) to the middle classes, or bourgeoisie. The middle classes were represented by constitutional assemblies, legislatures, and parliaments which took power from the kings and aristocrats by violent revolutions or reform legislation: England (1688, 1830s), the United States (1776), France (1789, 1830, 1848, 1870), Canada (1840s and 1850s); Germany (1848, 1918). Japan embarked on a deliberate program of modernization in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

The shift of power was accompanied by the Industrial Revolution and liberal, or free enterprise, economic theory (laissez faire), the economic counterpart of the middle class political revolutions. Critique of this modern, middle-class, democratic, and laissez-faire industrial system emerged at various points in the 19th century, most notably in the Marxist and socialist movements. Although these movements of the working people were critical of the middle class entrepreneurs who led the 18th and early 19th century modern revolutions, Marxists and socialists remained modern in most of their assumptions. Thorough-going critique of the modern worldview and its rational-scientific outlook, its rationally organized economic factory system, and its rationally centralized bureaucratic politics did not emerge until the late 19th century and early 20th century. Such critique came at first only from philosophers (e.g., Friedrich Nietszche [1844-1900]), scientists (Albert Einstein [1879-1955], Sigmund Freud [1856-1939]), and artists. Only in the late 20th century has such postmodern critique become widespread. For most people in the 1980s, in Europe and North America and increasingly around the world, modern ways of life dominate, although intellectuals have been attacking or reinterpreting modern views for some time.

One of the best ways to understand modernity is to look at countervailing social, political, and religious manifestations. As anthropologists, sociologists, and historians have studied the "traditional village societies" that survived in a few remote areas of Europe and in non-Western cultures, they have learned much about the nature of the modern Western worldview (Berger). The very name traditional society focuses on what is perhaps the most important single aspect. Modern means "now" -- a worldview focusing on the now, on the latest, on the newest. A traditional society takes "handed down" things (Latin: tradita) as its starting point and modifies them slowly even as it tries to be faithful to the inherited ideas and customs. A modern worldview implicitly assumes the superiority of the latest and newest as liberating and expansive, and almost invariably scorns the old-fashioned as constrictive and oppressive.

The relationship of Christianity to the modern world has been very complicated. Often Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox leaders and people have resisted the modern emphasis on individualism, rationalism, and democracy. They have insisted on the authority of traditional structures, liturgies, and beliefs. The major Protestant groups emerged in an atmosphere in which "tradition" was blamed for many abuses in the church. Although in this sense they opened the way for modern ideas in the church, Luther, Calvin, and others were socially conservative. The most radical wings of the major Protestant groups (Zwingli, the Puritans) were the most critical of the authority of tradition, of traditional liturgy, sacramental theology, and ecclesiastical institutions (e.g., bishops). The relationship of the Puritans to the middle class political and social revolutions of the 17th-19th centuries has been much debated but that some relationship existed between them is undeniable.

Anabaptists, Mennonites, and Modernity

The Anabaptist and Mennonite relationship to modernity is likewise complicated. Historians involved in the "recovery of the Anabaptist vision" (ca. 1925-55) stressed the Anabaptist contribution to modernity in the Anabaptist emphasis on the voluntary nature of the church and religious liberty (see the bibliography under Anabaptism). More recently, scholars have studied the ways in which the Anabaptists continued medieval theologies and piety (historiography). Yet, whatever content Anabaptists retained from late-medieval Catholic asceticism or mysticism, they resolutely rejected the church's traditional worship patterns and ecclesiastical organization. Students of Anabaptist history are increasingly recognizing the powerful role played by anticlericalism and iconoclasm (antisacramentalism) in giving the Anabaptist movement its dynamic thrust.

Anabaptists became Mennonites and developed their own traditionalism, liturgies, customs, and cultures. For much of the 17th-19th centuries, Mennonites perceived themselves and were perceived by outsiders as non-modern, old-fashioned traditionalists. As European and North American societies were modernizing, and as the middle class political system and industrial economic system came to power, Mennonites remained rural and agricultural. Traditionalism remains characteristic of the "conserving" Mennonite groups: Amish, Hutterian Brethren, Old Colony Mennonites, Old Order Mennonites, and others. These groups have made a transition from a first generation of radical religious sectarianism to a second generation of structured, custom-based authority, patterns of worship (liturgy), and "rites of redemptive process" that parallel in many ways traditional Eastern Orthodox or medieval Catholic Christianity (Cronk, Martin, 1988).

At the same time, implicit in the "believers' church" vision is an emphasis on individual, adult faith and voluntary commitment that is at odds with traditional religion and societies. Traditional societies assume that religion, like the rest of culture, is handed down and mediated from one generation to another, and that it is no less genuine for having been handed down than if it were discovered for the first time. The implicit questioning of tradition resulting from the Believers' Church understanding of faith has made Mennonites uneasy even during their traditional periods and it is one factor that led to the embracing of revivalism as a means to ensure that faith is genuine and individually appropriated rather than acquired second-hand. Yet even where revivalism was embraced it was embraced with misgivings about its effect on community. The debates over Sunday schools, missions, revival meetings, life-style (dress, household furnishings, automobiles, electricity, radio), the organization of conferences with written constitutions (Oberholtzer), and many other issues are manifestations of this same tension within Mennonite circles. An illustration of this is found in the use of democracy within Mennonite polity. As heirs to an anticlerical protest tradition, the more acculturated Mennonite groups have often insisted on democratic decision-making by consensus or vote, rather than permitting a small circle of leaders to make decisions. Yet traditionalist Mennonites were suspicious of the thoroughgoing democratic constitutionalism of the early 19th century Oberholtzer controversy (in Pennsylvania, with parallels elsewhere). Most conservative Mennonites have thus retained some form of clerical authority, with aspects of "priestly" holiness attached to their bishops and elders (bishop).

Most Mennonites, however, relinquished traditionalism and embraced modernity in differing degrees and at differing pace in Europe and North America. The Dutch and North German Mennonites were among the first to become acculturated to many aspects of modern Western culture (17th-19th centuries). Mennonites in Russia, because of their autonomy and self-government, in many ways lived in traditional village societies. Once they left those villages, however, they have embraced modern North American culture more readily than their Swiss-Pennsylvania cousins who, given the religious liberty of their modern North American surroundings, held on to a traditionalist religious subculture longer. Both groups have experienced rapid acculturation in the 20th century, although the debate over these trends has given rise to numerous Old Order and conservative Mennonite divisions.

Further research comparing developments in Canada and the United States would be quite illuminating in this regard. In some ways Canadian society as a whole resisted the modern, middle class, laissez-faire, liberal, democratic political and economic system more than the United States, embracing it fully only after World War II (George Grant). Yet Mennonite acculturation and modernization has proceeded more rapidly in Canada, in many ways, than in the United States. In part this may be the result of the emigration of large groups of Canadian Mennonite traditionalists to Mexico and South America, in part it may be the consequence of more recent immigration of Mennonites displaced from Europe in the 20th century. These immigrants arrived in Canadian cities as Canada began to embrace the modern industrial-urban culture that already dominated the United States in the 19th century. The Mennonite story in Europe is also complex. Research comparing modernization among North German, Prussian, and Dutch Mennonites on the one hand, and South German, Swiss, and Alsatian Mennonites on the other hand, could be extremely illuminating

Modernity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America

Modernization is a crucial development in non-Western countries where the number of Mennonites has grown rapidly since World War II. Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) workers and Mennonite missionaries have encountered many of the modernization issues in a variety of ways. Protestant missionaries often imported modern Western culture along with their Christian faith. (Protestants often criticized Roman Catholics for "syncretism" -- the blending of indigenous cultures with Christianity. One reason Catholics were more likely to proceed this way is that Catholicism never fully embraced modern European culture, thus Catholic faith and culture was closer to traditional, non-Western cultures than was modern Protestant faith and culture.) Strong reactions against this Western cultural imperialism in 20th century has not stopped rapid global modernization. Efforts to preserve traditional non-Western societies are underway but powerful economic and political forces make this very difficult. Mennonite development workers have frequently been sympathetic to these efforts, as, for example, in MCC work with appropriate technology. Few intact traditional village societies are left in the late 20th century non-Western world, just as television and the automobile have virtually eliminated traditional rural society in North America and Europe. Yet aspects of traditional society remain in both urban and rural areas and "modernization" proceeds in varied ways around the world.


The virtues and failures of modernity are beginning to come into focus for social scientists, philosophers, and theologians in a postmodern era. "Advances" in medicine, science, transportation, and political relationships are coupled with serious ecological, social, and religious problems: pollution, alienation, medical costs, care for elderly people, crises of religious belief and overt paganization of society. What is liberating for one person or group is a tragedy for another. Within the church, democratization of leadership may constitute an advance over the tyranny of bishops or elders for some, yet lead to weak leadership and confusion for others. For four centuries Protestants perceived their rejection of images, liturgy, and sacraments as a liberation from superstition and idolatry, yet this rejection of sacrament and liturgy is perceived by many in the 20th century as having left worship devoid of symbols, pale, lifeless, and alienating.

Both Fundamentalism and Liberalism (modernism) have accepted modernity, The very term "liberal" referred to modern (19th century) constitutional democracy and laissez-faire economics long before it became a designation for a kind of theology. Fundamentalism also emerged out of circles that accepted modern Enlightenment rationalism, if only in the moderate "common sense" way absorbed by the Princeton theology (Marsden). Liberal, Fundamentalist, and Evangelical theologies alike are products of the Protestant Reformation and modern society. Ideologically Anabaptists and Mennonites are part of this broad stream, although, to the degree that they settled into traditionalist subcultures, they are not. Thus some Mennonites tried to walk a middle line and critique both Fundamentalism and Liberalism out of their traditional community theology, even while they remained committed to a certain kind of modern individualism and voluntarism, rooted in their insistence on individual faith prior to adult baptism rather than infant baptism based on the presence of faith mediated through family and church. For centuries, the major resistance to modernity came from Catholic sacramentalism and clericalism, both of which were off limits to Mennonites officially, although in practice they developed their own forms of sacraments, tradition, and hierarchy. To some degree this Mennonite traditionalism informed Mennonite critique of both Liberalism and Fundamentalism.

Virtually every sociological, ethical, theological, or cultural theme covered in this encyclopedia relates to some aspect of modernity. The body of writings, films, and other commentary on the subject is immense, yet Mennonites are only beginning to analyze the subject. A conference of scholars from Mennonite, Church of Brethren, and related groups at Elizabethtown College dealt with the subject in 1987 (papers published in Brethren Life and Thought, 33 [1988], 148-249) and another conference was planned for 1989 at Fresno, Cal. A conference on Mennonite self-understanding and identity, held at Conrad Grebel College in May, 1986, also addressed many of these issues (Steiner/Redekop).


Crook, Sandra. "Gelassenheit: the Rites of the Redemptive Process in the Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonite Communities. Ph.D. diss., U. of Chicago, 1977, cf. Mennonite Quarterly Review 55 (1981): 5-44.

Dueck, Alvin. "North American Psychology: Gospel of Modernity?" Conrad Grebel Review 3 (1985): 165-78, with responses in Conrad Grebel Review 4 (1986), 63-69, 166-67.

Durrive, Michel, Juan Notes, Freddy Raphael. "The Mennonites of Alsace Facing Modernity." Mennonite Quarterly Review, 58 (1984): 272-88.

Goertz, Hans-Jürgen. "Das Konfessionelle le Erbe in neuer Gestalt: die Frage nach dem mennonitischen Selbstverständnis heute." Mennonitische Geschichtsblätter 43-44 (1986-87): 157-70.

Goertz, Hans-Jürgen. "Das Täufertum -- ein Weg in die Moderns? in Zwingli und Europa, ed. Peter Blickle and others. Zürich: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1985: 165-81.

Hostetler, Beulah Stauffer. American Mennonites and Protestant Movements. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1987.

Hostetler, John A. Amish Society. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

Jacobs, Donald R. The Christian Stance in a Revolutionary Age, Focal Pamphlet, 14. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1968.

Kraybill, Donald B. "At the Crossroads of Modernity: Amish, Mennonites, and Brethren in Lancaster County in 1880." Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage 10 (January 1987): 2-12.

Kraybill, Donald B. "The Face of Modernity"; Ted Koontz, "Mennonites and 'Postmodernity'"; and Rod J. Sawatsky, "Beyond Modernity: a Vision for Believers' Churches," papers for the Council of Mennonite Seminaries consultation on "The Believers' Church Vision in the Postmodern World." (Fresno, CA, April 1989).

Kraybill, Donald B. The Riddle of Amish Culture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1988.

Kraybill, Donald B. and Donald R. Fitzkee. "Amish, Mennonites and Brethren in the Modern Era." Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage 10 (April 1987): 2-11.

Martin, Dennis D. "Catholic Spirituality and Anabaptist and Mennonite Discipleship." Mennonite Quarterly Review 62 (1988): 5-25.

Martin, Dennis D. "Nothing New Under the Sun? Mennonites and History." Conrad Grebel Review 5 (1987): 1-27, with responses pp. 147-53, 260-62.

Redekop, Calvin W. and Samuel J. Steiner, eds. Mennonite Identity: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1988.

Reimer, A. James. "The Nature and Possibility of a Mennonite Theology." Conrad Grebel Review 1 (1983): 33-55.

Schlabach, Theron F. "Mennonites, Revivalism, Modernity -- 1683-1850." Church History 48 (1979): 398-415.

Zeman, Jarold K. "Anabaptism: a Replay of Medieval Themes or a Prelude to the Modern Age." Mennonite Quarterly Review 50 (1976): 259-71.

For general studies of modernization, see:

Berger, Peter, with Brigitte Berger. The Homeless Mind. New York: Basic Books, 1973.

Berger, Peter. Facing Up to Modernity: Excursions in Society, Politics, and Religion. New York: Basic Books, 1977.

Berger, Peter. Pyramids of Sacrifice. New York: Doubleday, 1974.

Grant, George. Technology and Empire: Perspectives on North America. Toronto, 1969.

Hunter, James Davison and Stephen C. Ainley, eds. Making Sense of Modern Times. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986.

Lears, T. Jackson. No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920. New York: Pantheon, 1981.

Little, Lester K. Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe. (Ithaca: Cornell U. Press, 1978.

Marsden, George. Fundamentalism and American Culture. New York: Oxford, 1980.

Schmidt, Larry, ed. George Grant in Process: Essays and Conversations. Toronto: Anansi Press, 1978.

Tonnies, Ferdinand. Community and Society. New York: Harper and Row, 1957.

Turner, James. Without God, Without Creed: the Origins of Unbelief in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1985.

Author(s) Dennis D Martin
Date Published 1989

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Martin, Dennis D. "Modernity." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 23 Jan 2021.

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Martin, Dennis D. (1989). Modernity. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 January 2021, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, p. 598-601. All rights reserved.

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