Musical Instruments

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Musical Instruments have only comparatively recently been introduced into Mennonite churches as an aid in worship. The first instrument was the pipe organ, installed in the Mennonite church of Hamburg-Altona, Germany, in 1764, and in the Mennonite church at Utrecht, Netherlands, in 1765. Other Dutch Mennonite churches followed in rapid succession. The Prussian Mennonites introduced their first organ in the Neugarten church in 1778; the Danzig church installed one in 1906, after which others followed. The introduction of the organ made the old chorister or Vorsänger system obsolete. Gradually this honored office disappeared, although in some churches the organ and Vorsänger competed for some time. The Danzig Mennonite Church introduced a written Choral Buch in 1806 specifically for the organist. It contains 111 different chorale titles, of which 86 are Bach harmonizations.

The introduction of musical instruments in the Mennonite churches of Russia occurred considerably later. Here it was primarily the reed organ which was used in churches. Only a few of the Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren churches introduced this instrument (Gnadenfeld) before World War I. The guitar was also used, particularly at youth meetings in Mennonite Brethren circles in connection with the lighter Gospel songs. An extreme wing of the M.B. used in its early stage various musical instruments such as barrel organs, drums, flutes, and violins, most of which were soon discarded (A. H. Unruh, 113).

Among the more conservative Mennonites of Russia and also among those who later settled in Canada and Mexico the use of musical instruments in worship services was not tolerated. The Old Colony Mennonites still forbid instruments entirely. In the early days of the Reformation the more radical reformers, e.g., Zwingli, Calvin, and the Anabaptists, discarded the use of musical instruments. This became a tradition perpetuated for centuries. It was taken for granted that the musical instrument was to be used only for worldly entertainment; the introduction of musical instruments in the church would mean the opening of the gates of the church to secular and sinful influences. By the 1950s in the General Conference Mennonite Church, the Mennonite Brethren, the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren, the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren, the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren, the Evangelical Mennonites, and the Mennonite Brethren in Christ, the use of the musical instruments had been accepted for worship services. The Brethren in Christ General Conference in 1955 authorized the use of musical instruments by congregations desiring them. Those churches who can afford the cost and have a sense of appreciation install pipe organs. If not, they may have an electronic organ, a reed organ, or a piano. The latter was used particularly in churches where the lighter Gospel songs are preferred above the chorales and hymns.

The first pipe organ installed in an American Mennonite church was at West Swamp, PA in 1874. By 1890 most of the Eastern District Conference (GCM) churches were using either a pipe or reed organ. The Berne (Indiana) Mennonite Church installed a reed organ in 1890 and a pipe organ in 1914. Eva Sprunger's centennial history of the Berne church (First hundred years) says, "Instrumental music was considered sinful and was not allowed. ... It was not until 1901 that opposition was sufficiently overcome to pass a resolution permitting the use . . . in the Sunday School." The Western District (GCM) passed a resolution in 1881 leaving the decision regarding the use of musical instruments in worship to the individual congregations.

All schools of the General Conference and most other groups use musical instruments. The first musical instrument was an organ used at the Wadsworth Mennonite School, which had been brought from Europe by C. J. van der Smissen, whose wife, Hilegonda Jacobs Deknatel, had received it from her father, Johannes Deknatel, of Amsterdam. Later this organ was used at Bethel College, where it is now a part of the Kauffman Museum collection.

Reed organs were introduced into the Swiss French, and South German churches east of the Rhine about the turn of the 19th century. Pipe organs were, however, not in use in the 1950s.

The Mennonite Church (MC), and the more conservative groups of Swiss-South German background, such as the various Amish groups and the Old Order Mennonites, in the 1950s maintained a form of worship in which the instrument had no place. The prohibition of instruments was based in part on a long-standing tradition, but was also based on the desire to maintain strong congregational singing and the fear that the use of instruments would harmfully affect this. In some areas of the Mennonite Church for a time, and always among the more conservative groups, the use of musical instruments has been forbidden even in the home. Some conferences, such as the Virginia Conference (MC), made it a conference regulation for a time that ordained ministers should not have instruments. George R. Brunk I was a vigorous opponent of musical instruments and largely responsible for the introduction of this spirit into the Virginia Conference. Even in the 1950s instruments were not allowed in the buildings of the Eastern Mennonite College, nor were they used in the music department there. The same rule applied at Hesston College from the beginning until about 1950. No such policy was applied at Goshen College.

This changed dramatically in the following decades. Almost 200 years after musical instruments were first introduced into Mennonite worship in Germany and The Netherlands, North American congregations of the Mennonite Church (MC) began using instruments during worship services. In the 1700s, in European Mennonite churches, organs were installed to improve congregational singing. During the 1960s in Mennonite Church (MC) congregations, they were introduced for pre-service music and the offertory. It was often assumed that the instruments would not be used to accompany singing. Preceding this development was the increased introduction of keyboard instruments and other instruments into Mennonite homes and church schools, as well as exposure to instrumental programs in public schools.

Since the 1960s there has been a pronounced change in organ building; on the one band the development of electronic organs, on the other hand, the emergence of the Neo-Baroque organ. The latter is the result of the Orgelbewegung (organ movement or revival), a return to earlier principles of organ structure: mechanical action, encased pipes, organs placed within the worshiping space, etc. These new/old instruments are often called tracker organs.

Almost all congregations that have installed organs for the first time in recent decades have purchased electronic instruments, usually because of low cost and convenience of installation. The first North American Mennonite congregation to install a tracker organ was Zion Mennonite Church, Souderton, PA (Fisk organ, 1968), followed by West Zion, Moundridge, KS, and Kern Road Chapel, South Bend, IN. The first educational institution to introduce a tracker organ was Bluffton College (Flentrop, built in The Netherlands, installed 1964), followed by Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries, Elkhart, IN; Goshen College, Goshen, IN; Canadian Mennonite Bible College, Winnipeg; Bethel College, North Newton, KS, and Conrad Grebel College, Waterloo, ON.

The bell choir is a fairly recent phenomenon in the musical life of some Mennonite communities, both for young people and adults. This form of musical expression seems to be limited to congregational life; it is not associated with church schools. The introduction of folk music and other popular styles of music in the 1960s and 1970s brought with it the introduction of guitars, drums, and other instruments into church life.

Several Mennonite musicians have been successful in pursuing a career in instrumental music, usually in areas of teaching but also, to a lesser degree, in performance.


Bixel, J. W., Cornelius Krahn, Esko Loewen, and Phyllis Bixel in Mennonite Life 13 (July 1958), special issue.

Carkeek, A. in Music/The AGO-RCCO Magazine (April 1977).

Jenkins, P. and George Taylor. "Rudolf von Beckerath." The Diapason 68, no. 3 (February 1977): 1, 3, 10-11.

Music issue, Mennonite Life 3 (April 1948).

Schmidt, O. Church Music and Worship Among the Mennonites. Newton, 1981.

Schmidt, Orlando. Festival Quarterly (1978-79).

Unruh, A. H. Die Geschichte der Mennonitenbrüdergemeinde. Winnipeg, 1954.

Wittlinger, Carlton O. Quest for Piety and Obedience: the Story of the Brethren in Christ. Nappanee: Evangel Press, 1978: 361-62.

Van der Zijpp, N. Geschiedenis der Doopsgezinden in Nederland. Arnhem, 1952: 108, 242 note 14.

Author(s) Cornelius Krahn
Orlando Schmidt
Date Published 1989

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Krahn, Cornelius and Orlando Schmidt. "Musical Instruments." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 18 May 2022.

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Krahn, Cornelius and Orlando Schmidt. (1989). Musical Instruments. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 May 2022, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 794-795; vol. 4, p. 1146; vol. 5, p. 612. All rights reserved.

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