Music, North America

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The musical scene among Mennonites of North America from the 1960s to the 1990s was one of vigorous activity, new experiences, and high levels of achievement. This development can be explained by several factors that have emerged during that period: (1) an increasing cooperation among Mennonite groups, (2) more intense musical activity in the churches' educational institutions, (3) a growing interest in the fine arts in general, and (4) a stronger financial support for the making of music.

The locus for the most impressive activity is likely that of Winnipeg, the largest metropolitan concentration of Mennonites, where educational institutions at several levels have produced an unusual amount of musical achievement, where local congregations have created numerous musical groups and a high standard for worship music, and where community organizations have produced music in every conceivable form and style, from children's choirs to Mennonite opera. Other centers of vigorous activity also are located mostly in areas where church schools are active: Waterloo and Kitchener, Ontario; central Kansas; Goshen, Indiana; Harrisonburg, Virginia, and others, such as central Ohio, central California, and eastern Pennsylvania.

Congregational Singing

The heart of music for worship among Mennonites has always been and still is the singing of hymns by the congregation. This is a worldwide phenomenon, as demonstrated in gatherings of Mennonites in Wichita, KS (1978), Strasbourg, France (1984), Winnipeg, MB (1990) and Calcutta, India (1997).

Mennonite Church (MC) congregations of North America, as well as some of the more conservative groups, long promoted four-part a cappella singing, which, according to Walter E. Yoder, began "about 1875 in the more progressive congregations and was gradually adopted by all of our churches during the 1890s. The church really came into four-part singing after they had been taught in singing classes and the church adopted the English language and the Gospel songs." Four-part singing of German chorales in congregations of Mennonites in Russia began in the mid-19th century, when the practice was introduced with "Ziphern" (numbers) on the musical staves, similar to the North American method of shaped notes.

During the 1960s and 1980s the Gospel Herald published numerous articles with suggestions for song leaders, encouraging people to attend church music conferences (late 1950s and early 1960s), giving information on specific hymns (often with a devotional emphasis), and addressing many other concerns that relate to effective congregational singing. Alice Parker, who composed several musicals based on the Mennonite community, stated in an interview that she "sees nothing wrong with having a organ in church," but she quickly adds "I think it's a shame if the a cappella tradition is let go."

More congregations have introduced instruments in recent decades. One church leader estimated that in 1988 about 50 percent of Mennonite Church (MC) congregations had pianos or organs in their churches. Some of these may be in the basement, and not all of them were used for congregational singing. Organs are mostly electronic. Glenn M. Lehman stated in 1986 that "Music buffs tell me there are about 14 pipe organs which have been deliberately purchased."

Church choirs have not become a part of regular worship in the Mennonite Church (MC). Many congregations have established choirs and smaller musical groups, but "almost no Mennonite Church congregations have choirs that sing every Sunday."

With the publication of the Mennonite Hymnal in 1969, a new era emerged for the larger Mennonite community. More and more Mennonites gradually used the same hymnal, creating a greater commonality in worship experiences. Some congregations in both conferences that produced the hymnal, however were not unanimous in accepting the hymnal, some clinging to the older collections, others preferring to sing from hymnals that included more gospel songs and music of the charismatic movement.

In 1984 the Church of the Brethren, the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church (MC) began work on a new hymnal, entitled Hymnal: A Worship Book; the Hymnal was published in 1992. A fourth group, the Churches of God General Conference, was also involved in this project, since they had been using the Brethren Hymnal; however, this group withdrew from the project before its completion. This was one of the most ecumenical ventures that North American Mennonites have attempted in the area of hymnody.

Planning a new hymnal presented unique opportunities and challenges at that particular time, influenced strongly by events and movements of the last three decades, a time of unusual creativity, with the fervent movements of the 1960s and 1970s and the new hymns that these movements produced. At the same time several great hymn writers have emerged, both in Britain and in North America. Since the church is gradually developing a global outlook, there was also the opportunity to accept hymns from non-Western sources.

One of the most difficult challenges was that of language. From the 1950s to the 1990s there was a church-wide trend to move away from archaic words to a more contemporary, conversational style. Committee members wrestled with the issue of changing archaic language in traditional hymn texts. Another aspect of the language challenge was that of inclusiveness, brought about largely by the feminist movement of the previous few decades.

Mass Choirs

The tradition of many church choirs gathering together for a Sängerfest, first established in Russia and continued for many decades in both Canada and the United States, still continues in some areas. A more recent development has been the organization of large choirs in concentrated areas. It was in 1955 that Abner Martin became the first director of the Menno Singers in Ontario, continuing until 1987, when Leonard Enns became the director. The Ontario musical scene reached a high point with the performance of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem in celebration of the Mennonite Bicentennial in 1986. This work requires an unusually large group of musical resources, both instrumental and choral, including a children's choir.

In Pennsylvania, Hiram Hershey directed community choirs for a number of years, both in Lancaster and Franconia. In 1987 he conducted a choir traveling to the Soviet Union for the fourth time. Other choirs have traveled to the Soviet Union, particularly from Canada.

In 1966 the choirs of Canadian Mennonite Bible College (CMBC) and Mennonite Brethren Bible College (MBBC; later Concord College) joined for the first time, performing J. S. Bach's Christmas Oratorio. This was the beginning of an annual tradition of singing major works by the combined choirs.

Another Winnipeg tradition is that of the Church Music Seminar. The sixth seminar was held in January 1985 with Robert Shaw as conductor. The Centennial Concert Hall was the setting for a performance of Bach's Cantata No. 4 (70 voices) and Brahms' German Requiem (250 voices), sung with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. Before the concert, Shaw told a press conference that he had never worked with a finer-sounding group of amateur singers anywhere, that there voices blended so homogeneously, as though they were all cousins. The next Church Music Seminar was planned for January 1989, with Helmuth Rilling from Germany.

Another large choir is the Kansas Mennonite Men's Chorus, directed by Paul Wohlgemuth until his death in 1987. This choir has been large, with a membership as high as 300. Concerts have often been sung at Bethany College (Kansas), where there is space to accommodate such a large choir.

Children's Choirs

In 1949, Ruth Krehbiel Jacobs, daughter of First Mennonite Church in Reedley, California, founded the Choristers Guild, the national organization for directors of children's choirs. Since her death in the early 1960s (on her way to a children's choir festival in North Newton, Kansas, USA), there has been a steady growth of junior choirs in Mennonite congregations. The Western District Conference (GCM) has sponsored workshops and festivals for children's choirs. The biennial Church Music Seminar in Winnipeg (cosponsored by CMBC and Concord College has featured resource people for children's choirs. The Inter-Mennonite Children's Choir, based in Waterloo, Ontario, is sponsored by Conrad Grebel College and provides musical instruction to local children of various Mennonite and other denominations. Romaine Sala has traveled through many states for the Mennonite Church (MC) to encourage children's choirs. Helen Litz organized the Winnipeg Mennonite Children's Choir in 1957. This group was the first Mennonite choir to perform for a national convention of the American Choral Directors Association, meeting in Nashville in 1983.


There has also been considerable interest in musical drama. Church conferences have asked Mennonite composers to prepare these for their gatherings. This is particularly true of denominational conference meetings and Mennonite World Conference assemblies. Harold Moyer, Esther Wiebe, Carol Ann Weaver, and Carol Dyck are some who have composed for such events. Other composers having received commissions to compose include Leonard Enns, Harris Loewen, James W. Bixel, and Philip K. Clemens.

Organ Builders

Jacob Hallman, a Kitchener, Ontario, inventor, completed his first electronic organ in 1949. Production began in 1951. Five hundred electronic organs were produced in just over a decade. In 1953 he began to "assemble" pipe organs. About 75 of his pipe organs were in use across Canada in 1990.

In 1976 those attending the Organ Historical Society's national convention visited and listened to an organ in Lancaster County, completed in 1835 by early American Mennonite John Ziegler, who built four pipe organs, a fact which was not generally known among Mennonites of today. Rudolf von Beckerath, (1907-76) born in Munich, Germany, was a member of the well-known Mennonite Beckerath family. He was known throughout the organ world, having installed many organs in North America, as a leading figure in the organ revival after World War II.


Bishop, Jim. "Alice Parker Church Music Apologist." Gospel Herald (28 June 1983).

Lehman, Glenn M. "Church Choirs: Established or Permitted?" Gospel Herald (16 September 1986).

Lehman, Glenn M. "The Pipe Organ's Second Wind." Gospel Herald (9 September 1986).

Schmidt, Orlando. "Mennonite Organ Builders You May Not Know." Festival Quarterly (November/ December 1978/January 1979).

Yoder, Walter E. "Our Great Heritage--Congregational Singing." Gospel Herald (2 September 1958).

Author(s) Orlando Schmidt
Date Published 1990

Cite This Article

MLA style

Schmidt, Orlando. "Music, North America." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 9 Aug 2022.,_North_America&oldid=119051.

APA style

Schmidt, Orlando. (1990). Music, North America. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 9 August 2022, from,_North_America&oldid=119051.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 610-612. All rights reserved.

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