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[There is a shift in perspective between the two articles below; read them in the context of their time.]

1956 Article


Nonconformity has been and remained a major doctrine in the faith and life of the Anabaptist-Mennonite community in the 1950s. It is anchored directly to the Scripture passage (Romans 12:1, 2) in which Paul says: "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God." Other Scripture passages are also used, such as (1 John 2:15, 16) "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world"; and (1 Peter 2:11) "Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul." The German has no exactly corresponding term for nonconformity, although the phrase "Nichtgleichstellung mit der Welt" and its counterpart "Weltförmigkeit" have often been used. "Weltlichkeit" corresponds to the English term "worldliness."

The concept of nonconformity is not unique to Anabaptists or Mennonites, but it has found an unusually intense and detailed application among them, particularly in earlier groups and at certain times in their history, such as 16th-17th century Holland, and 19th-20th century North America, especially among the more conservative bodies. In the course of Christian history all earnest Christian groups who have taken the concept of discipleship seriously and have sought to apply Christian ethical principles vigorously to their everyday life, have had to come to grips with the problem of the relation of the Christian to the world, to society, and to culture. This has been true in the early church, in the monastic solution to the problem of worldliness in the medieval church, in the medieval sects such as the Waldenses, in the Anabaptists of the Reformation period, in the various pietistic movements including the Moravians, and the Wesleyan movement and its modern descendants, etc. The practical answers have not always been the same, but the general principle of nonconformity to the spirit, ideals, and culture of the non-Christian world or a seriously diluted Christian culture, sometimes called sub-Christian, and an attempt to mold life after the image of Christ, has been the same.

The content of the concept of nonconformity as held by Mennonites has been compounded out of a complex of ideas and factors. One of these is the clear Biblical teaching on holiness and purity of life, on obedience to the teaching of Christ and "following after Him," and on taking up the cross, particularly the cross of suffering. The positive and negative aspects, nonconformity to the world and conformity to God's holy nature and will, are commonly teamed together, but at times the negative idea has become dominant, probably in part because of the easy availability of the negative word, and the lack of a corresponding positive word, the nearest being "holiness." However, Mennonites have seldom used the word "holiness" and are reluctant to do so in modern times because of its association with certain types of "holiness" doctrine and piety current in America. Another idea in the complex is that of being "pilgrims and strangers" on the earth, with "no abiding city here" but with a "citizenship in heaven." This involves the relativization of human society and culture and emphasis upon the transcendent value of relationship to God and of the future life with Him in a world to come, and easily turns into an other-worldly emphasis of either indifference to or rejection of many cultural values and expressions. Another idea is that of asceticism, the deliberate denial of certain material and human values for the good of the spiritual life or as an expression of anti-worldliness. Even just the emphasis on high Christian ethical ideals of purity, love, and righteousness, with which contemporary non-Christian or "nominal" Christian ethical ideas and practices stand in contrast, logically merges into a concept of nonconformity, derived from other ideas. Then there is the concept of a people of God, separate from other people and from the world. This is a major idea in the Old Testament, and carries over into the New Testament concept of the kingdom of God and the Church of Christ. (John 10: "I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep." "My sheep hear my voice." Luke 12: "Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." John 17: "I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world." 2 Corinthians 6: "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers." "Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate." "I will be their God, and they shall be my people." 1 Peter 2: "But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people." "But are now the people of God." Galatians 6: "The Israel of God.")

The persecution and oppression of the Anabaptists and Mennonites by the state and church authorities not only of the Reformation period, but of the following centuries until the 19th century, added intensity and urgency to the idea of nonconformity, but did not create it. Mennonites were not considered citizens in most areas until late in the 18th century and beyond, or were at least treated as a special class of citizens or inhabitants, and given special privileges of exemption from military service and the oath, which set them apart from the ordinary citizen of the country. The often intense and bitter opposition of the state church clergy to all dissenters, whom they called "sects," intensified this feeling of separateness. And the fact that in most areas the church and state were coextensive contributed to an identification by the Mennonites, sometimes too radically, of the state church structure with the world per se. Both state and church shared in the persecution and both tolerated unholy and worldly living, hence the idea of a separation from both merged imperceptibly into the idea of nonconformity. The rise of pietistic influence upon the Mennonites, first in Hamburg and then in the Palatinate in the 18th century, and soon also in West Prussia in certain sections, and the strong influence of the Gemeinschaft movement in South Germany, Alsace, and Switzerland in the late 19th and 20th centuries contributed further to the general idea of nonconformity. However, the very familiarity of Mennonitism with Pietism and the Gemeinschaft movement also contributed to the breakdown and ultimate disappearance of the uniquely Mennonite emphasis on nonresistance, nonparticipation in state affairs, and general withdrawal from public life. Mennonite conformity in these areas now became more a general all-Christian emphasis upon a warm piety and personal holiness. In this process the conscious Mennonite tradition itself was de-emphasized and often discredited and even broken off completely, even to the point of abandoning the name Mennonite because of its connection of nonconformity.

The propagation and maintenance of the idea and practice of nonconformity among Mennonites has been carried largely by three forces -- tradition, indoctrination, and discipline. In the close-knit self-conscious congregation or settlement group, with strong solidarity, deeply rooted tradition, and distinct separation from the surrounding culture, it has usually been taken for granted with little written regulation or deliberate group decision. In times of struggle with the forces of accommodation and strong environmental influence, usually more weight has been put upon deliberate teaching and specific regulations adopted by conferences or ministerial leadership. The device of church schools to support nonconformity has also been consciously introduced. All of these methods have operated with varying success and the emphasis has shifted from one type of action to another as deemed necessary.

The problems related to the practice of nonconformity have caused much trouble in Mennonite history and have been major factors in schisms, particularly in Holland and the United States. It is notable that practically never has any significant Mennonite schism occurred over doctrinal questions. It was more often questions of discipline, particularly in relation to nonconformity, that led to breaks in personal and group relations. The Dutch schisms from 1560 to 1700 practically all involved major or minor aspects of nonconformity. In America the labels "progressive" and "conservative" as applied to different orientations in Mennonite groups usually refer to attitudes on nonconformity or separation from the world, although they also at times refer to methods of church work and forms of worship.

The close interrelation of nonconformity and nonresistance should also be noted. History reveals that the maintenance or loss of one involves the other, and that as groups weaken on nonconformity they tend to weaken on nonresistance. While this is not absolutely true and need not be so, it has occurred often enough to give considerable ground for a generalization. The reason is probably not to be found in the logical connection of the two ideas, but rather in the fact that both positions are not popular in Christendom and can only be maintained by vigorous effort and readiness to oppose main elements in Western culture.

The following discussion will deal with the ideal and practice of nonconformity among the Mennonites under the following subdivisions: (1) Netherlands; (2) Europe, aside from the Netherlands; (3) The Mennonite Church (MC), and related groups in North America; (4) the General Conference Mennonite Church in North America; and (5) Other groups in North and South America. -- Harold S. Bender


Nonconformity as a practice of difference in dress and of difference in style of living as compared with other Christians and non-Christians is by the 1950s not found among the Dutch Mennonites. They dress like other people, partake in the cultural life and the common amusements like theater and cinema, and have no objection to smoking or drinking alcoholic beverages; they do not reject voting and by far the majority assume the obligation of serving in the army. In all these matters the church does not give any regulations or prohibitions, leaving to each member individually the decision on his private attitude to life.

This free responsibility of the Dutch Mennonites is largely due to the fact that they, at least since the early 17th century, have not lived in separated and closed groups like the Mennonites of some other countries, but have mostly lived in towns and from early times have been engaged in businesses of various kinds, closely associated with other Christians. Besides this, the fact that they esteemed the government and the country where they were permitted to live quietly may have largely contributed to the loss of nonconformity in the sense of antithesis to the pattern of life of other Christians. In a higher sense the Dutch Mennonite always has been aware of a difference between the "world" and the "kingdom of God," and being convinced in his heart that the "world" is always to be appraised lower than the kingdom of God, he has the responsibility of faith to decide in each case where he is to draw the line between "world" and the kingdom. Thus he has to practice what may be called ethical nonconformity.

For the early Anabaptists and Mennonites in Holland these matters were quite different. They were a plain people, living in a period of persecution; and led by their eschatological views they expected the destruction of this world and the coming of the new eon in the near future, which drew a sharp line between the church and the world, and between Christian life and worldly life. Though they did not make any special regulations or prohibitions before the resolutions of Wismar in 1554 (found in BRN VII, 52-54, and K. Vos, Menno Simons, 123-27, and Writings, 1041 f.), their attitude toward the world involved a special style of life, and even after the eschatological belief was dropped, they observed a plain style of living, including plain dress, houses, furniture, and food, though they never practiced asceticism, for example never prohibiting the use of beer, then the common beverage. Many from abroad, who visited and studied the Dutch Mennonites, like Benthem (1698) and Rues (1741), were struck by their "humility in dressing" and their "simplicity of life."

But after the congregations became established and organized, a difference appeared between those who wanted to maintain strictly the old plainness, and those who regarded these matters as insignificant and did not want to make any regulations.

One of the sources of the Flemish-Frisian schism in 1566-67 was the feeling of the Mennonites of Friesland that those from Flanders were dressed too worldly. The Flemish immigrants on their part accused the Frisians of paying too much attention to their houses and furniture. In the preface to the martyr's book of 1615 Hans de Ries states that the simplicity of the Mennonites had been changed into pomp and show; possessions having increased while the souls became impoverished, their clothing had become magnificent, but "the inward adornment" had been lost. From then on, the lamentations about luxury and worldliness are numerous. One illustration is Jacob Cornelisz van Dalen, a preacher in the Waterlander congregation at Amsterdam, who in 1652 published a collection of sermons along this line under the title Onciersel en cieraet van de godsalige vrouwen (Disfigurement and adornment of the Godly women), in which he attacked the inclination to ostentation both in dress and furniture and the custom of pompous weddings, "in which the Mennonites follow outright those who serve the world." Galenus Abrahamsz of Amsterdam in his sermons often urged the congregation to soberness of clothing and house appointments and repeatedly warned against superabundance in food and drinks. Pieter Langendijk in his poem De Zwitsersche Eenvoudigheid (Swiss simplicity, lamenting the depraved morals of many Dutch Mennonites) of 1713 exaggerates somewhat, but nevertheless it is true, as was also observed by some Prussian immigrants settling in Holland in 1734 (Inv. Arch. Amst. I, No. 2041), that many Dutch Mennonites did not differ much from other people as to the style of their living.

Sometimes regulations were drawn up concerning the matter of nonconformity. The Waterlanders in their delegates' meeting at Amsterdam 1647 renewed the resolutions of 1581 to urge the preachers to warn against the loss of nonconformity in matters of dress, meals, homes, and trade (DB 1877, 62-93), and the Frisian Conference of North Holland drew up twelve articles in 1639, enlarged in 1697, which deal with nonconformity in various matters (Blaupot t. C., Holland II, 223-28). These resolutions, however, did not prohibit, but merely gave advice. The Groningen Old Flemish group passed a resolution in their conference at Loppersum in 1659 (Blaupot ten Cate, Friesland, 307 f.), making a number of restrictions and forbidding certain things; these regulations were strictly maintained for about a century, and many were banned for breaking the precepts and inclining to unseemly luxury in dress and furnishings. The extremely conservative groups of Danzig Old Flemish and Jan-Jacobsgezinden, all together called "Fijne Mennisten," may have had regulations of the same kind, watching that the members did not trespass even in small matters like the style of haircutting.

Of such regulations nothing is found either among the Lamists of the 17th and 18th centuries, or among the Zonists. In the matter of refusing to accept office in the government the Zonists were stricter than the Lamists, though some Mennonites of both groups, particularly in the country, served as sheriffs, bailiffs, and in other functions even in the 17th century. In general there was no objection against business and trade, though Mennonites are said to have objected to the reprehensible practices as often found in business. Mennonite merchants and bankers had a reputation of great fairness and honesty. Yet some Mennonites objected to business, particularly for preachers. Binnert Tjallings of Grouw, when he was appointed preacher in 1781, retired from business because it seemed improper to him to be a preacher of the Gospel and at the same time to be involved in worldly matters of business. Klaas Rinses Koopmans had also taken this step when he became a preacher of the Leeuwarden congregation in 1772. "Outside marriage" (marriage with nonmembers of the church) originally was not allowed, as is stated in the Waterlander resolutions of 1568 and held by the Groningen Old Flemish until the 18th century, but among the Waterlanders, "outside marriage" was found as early as about 1620, and a few decades after also in the Lamist and Zonist congregations. Originally the Mennonites, when they had a difference with other members of the congregation, did not take the matter to a secular court. It cannot be stated how long this aversion to litigation lasted among the Dutch Mennonites (in 1613, Mennonites of Amsterdam did not ask the decision of the court), but apparently it soon disappeared, for as early as 1620 there are cases of Mennonites settling their disputes before the secular courts. A privilege granted by Prince William I of Orange in 1577 exempted the Dutch Mennonites from rendering an oath. This privilege is still in force and strictly observed in the 1950s by the Dutch Mennonites.

From the beginning until the end of the 17th century the Mennonites in the Netherlands did not take up military service; during the 18th century this doctrine gradually fell into decline, though there were a number of cases even in the last decades of the 18th century to show that on this point nonconformity had not yet been entirely lost. In the Napoleonic period (about 1810) some Mennonites were forced to serve in the army, but it was not until 1830 (Dutch war with Belgium) that Mennonites became volunteer soldiers. Though until 1898 there was no compulsory military service in the Netherlands, those who had objections having the opportunity of hiring a substitute, from about 1860 on there has been a rather high percentage of Mennonites in the army, especially in the higher ranks.

Surveying the matter of nonconformity as a whole, the Dutch Mennonites, though originally "separate," now do not differ from other Dutchmen. -- Nanne van der Zijpp

Europe, Aside From The Netherlands

The Mennonites of Switzerland, South Germany, and France, believing strongly in the spiritual principle of nonconformity, have sought to apply it practically in nonconformity in life and separation from the world. The first three centuries of their history with its severe persecution added to their strong distrust of the "world." In these centuries when they were rejected by society in general, often oppressed and restricted in their manner of life, occupation, and even place of residence by official decrees, and subject to exile, the problem of nonconformity to the world was not a difficult one. They rejected the holding of civil office and all participation in government, as well as all litigation and swearing of oaths. They clung tenaciously to the Biblical doctrine of peace and nonresistance, and therefore rejected all participation in war and military service. They accepted the stigma associated with not practicing infant baptism which was, in the lands where they dwelt, a universally observed rite. They strictly opposed marriage with persons outside the fellowship. They maintained a general simplicity in costume, home furnishings, and manner of life, although no specific or uniform costume was developed except that the Amish (after 1697) required the beard for men, and the wearing of hooks and eyes instead of buttons by all. Since these Mennonites and Amish were always strongly rural and very conservative in general, there was little direct contact with society and its changing culture, and little tendency to "worldly" fashions and practices. European rural society was itself conservative and slow in changing, and "fashions" as such were considered to be the prerogative of the urban and upper classes, not permitted to peasants and rural people. Thus a good, consistent general position on nonconformity was maintained until into the 19th century.

The 19th century witnessed a gradual transformation of the relationship of these groups to the society and culture around about them. As the old restrictions imposed by law fell away and modern culture began to penetrate the relatively isolated rural Mennonite groups, the Mennonites began to participate in the general culture and gradually lost their sense of distinctiveness and with it the desire to be different from the surrounding culture. This occurred most rapidly in the North German urban Mennonitism (Hamburg, Emden, Krefeld, Danzig), then in the Palatinate, and last of all in the rest of South Germany, Alsace-Lorraine, and Switzerland. The threat to nonresistance and nonconformity under the Napoleonic regime led to the calling of two special conferences of the Palatine congregations at Ibersheim in 1803 and 1805, where resolutions were passed reaffirming the historic Mennonite position on these two principles, with specific prohibition of military service and office holding. But this did not prevent the gradual loss of both positions. By the beginning of the 20th century the distinctive Mennonite position on nonconformity had disappeared practically everywhere, and office holding and military service were tolerated, even though not universally accepted. No distinctive practices in costume were maintained except the resistance to the cutting of women's hair in the second quarter of the 20th century. The prayer veiling gradually disappeared. Only the nonswearing of oaths remained as a remnant of distinctiveness everywhere. In Switzerland resistance to noncombatant military service has remained relatively strong, though not universal, down to the present day. In general in France and Switzerland, also in the Verband in South Germany, a certain spirit of simplicity and opposition to the crasser forms of worldliness has persisted, such as card playing, dancing, theater attendance, and the use of cosmetics. For Germany as a whole the verdict of Ernst Crous may well stand, "Thus the world overcame nonconformity"; but this is not quite true for the Verband congregations in the South, where both the ideal and practice of nonconformity are still held to a certain extent.

However, this loss of outward nonconformity did not come without a struggle in some areas. Evidence of this is to be found in the content of the Gemeindeblatt der Mennoniten, founded in 1870 as the organ of the Verband. From its beginning there was in its columns a vigorous effort to maintain the sense of separation and holiness which had for centuries characterized the Mennonites. Ulrich Hege of Reihen, the first editor, wrote many articles on church discipline, on opposing marriages outside the church, etc. He published various excerpts from Anabaptist writings, including Menno Simons and the Martyr's Mirror, on such topics as baptism and communion. A sample article on the subject of nonconformity was (July 1887) "Gleichförmigkeit mit der Welt," in which the writer points out that Christians are forbidden to love the world, and the Apostle Paul calls for not being conformed to the world; but that there are, alas, many lukewarm Christians in contemporary Christendom. The writer admits, of course, that there are no detailed applications of the principle in Scripture, but finds that the general principle is quite clear. Since Christians cannot be conformed to the world, he argues, there is no other possible view for a believer to take than that of nonconformity; God's Word demands it, and Scripture must be obeyed.

In the West Prussian Mennonite rural group around Danzig and Elbing, and along the lower Vistula and the Vistula delta, the development was very similar to that in the South German, French, and Swiss Mennonites, with the exception that some dancing and patronage of local inns (Wirtshäuser) was tolerated in the 20th century.

In the urban Mennonite congregations in Germany, such as Emden, Krefeld, Hamburg-Altona, Danzig, Elbing, and Konigsberg, the accommodation to the world, the acceptance of office holding and military service, and the dropping of any outward expression of nonconformity to the world came much earlier, and paralleled more nearly the history in Holland, with which there were close connections. This was due probably as much to the greater wealth of the families as to the influence of the urban environment.

In Russia the ideal and practice of nonconformity was made both more easy and more difficult by the pattern of settlement in the closed colonies, founded from 1789 on, and the grant of cultural autonomy to Mennonites by the Russian state, including special recognition of the Mennonite principle of nonresistance. The level of ethical and cultural life of the Mennonites was on the whole so much higher than the surrounding Russian culture and morals that there was little pull away from Mennonitism toward accommodation to the surrounding world. The principle of nonresistance was never exposed to real danger by any acculturation process, and when the government threatened to withdraw exemption from military service the threat of emigration caused a restoration of the privilege. Since the Mennonites who came to Russia from West Prussia had no particular form of costume or similar outward regulations, although in general simplicity of dress and manner of life, sobriety of deportment, and high standards of business dealings prevailed, costume never became a serious issue in Russia, particularly since the rural Mennonite settlements were far removed from the influences of urban culture and fashion. However, the prevalent complete separation from the Russian society made a practical identification of Mennonite Church and Mennonite community almost inevitable, and the retention of unbaptized persons and of spiritually indifferent baptized persons in the general complex of Mennonitism tended to obscure clear-cut ethical and behavior lines and to confuse thinking on the church and the world. The reaction of the Kleine Gemeinde (1812) in the Molotschna, and the Mennonite Brethren movement (1860) in the Molotschna and Chortitza settlements, was by the clear testimony of its leaders directed largely against the dilution of spiritual and ethical standards and performance in the Mennonite settlements and the encroachment of "worldliness," with which, in their mind, the established church leadership seemed either unable or unwilling to cope. Hence these two groups, as well as all the other schismatic groups in Russia (Krimmer Mennonite Brethren, Peters group, etc.), taught and disciplined vigorously on matters of nonconformity and worldliness, and succeeded in promoting a relative elevation of general patterns of living both in their own groups and in the general Mennonite society. They were strong against the moral looseness which had developed in the toleration of drinking in the inns, for instance, and related undesirable practices. However, although these new Mennonite groups emphasized general strictness of discipline and simplicity of dress and manners, they did not develop uniform costume patterns. The Kleine Gemeinde, however, was inclined to a considerable degree of legalism and formalism along with its spiritual strength (Friesen, Brüderschaft).

The attitude toward alcohol and tobacco among Mennonites in general deserves a special note. It is only in the late 19th and the early 20th century that prohibition of drinking and smoking became a fixed part of Mennonite nonconformity either in Europe or America. Where it has done so, it has come in from outside influences, such as the temperance movement. It is interesting to note that in the most radically culturally nonconformed American group, the Old Order Amish, there is still no general prohibition of drinking and smoking. The same has been true of smoking in the conservative nonconformed groups in Eastern Pennsylvania, including the Franconia and Lancaster Conferences, where dress nonconformity has been strictly maintained, but where smoking has only recently been disappearing. -- Harold S. Bender

Mennonite Church (MC) and Related Groups in North America

American Mennonites in the 20th century are divided into several distinct groups, some of which differ rather sharply from other groups in the matter of nonconformity. The stricter groups, such as the Old Order Amish, Old Order Mennonites, and Old Colony, almost identify certain items of 18th- or 19th-century culture with the will of God, while the culturally more liberal groups have but little sense of difference from the world and its culture except on nonresistance, the rejection of the oath, and secret societies. A middle position was taken in the 1950s by the largest group of American Mennonites, the Mennonite Church (MC). A typical member of this body would, ideally at least, hold that nonconformity applies to every area of life. In business it meant the avoidance of the "unequal yoke" with unbelievers, i.e., not entering into business partnership with non-Christians, maintenance of strict standards of honesty and integrity, a willingness to remain content with a smaller business in order to have much time and energy left for the life and service of the church, and the rejection of litigation to collect debts. In relation to the state he would not hold any office which would violate the principle of nonresistance, such as an executive, legislative, or judicial position, or serving as sheriff, constable, etc., and for some it meant not even voting for any political office, although serving on a local school board might be allowed. As to costume, the fashions of the world were rejected (although the general conventions of contemporary culture are followed), no jewelry was worn, and in certain large parts of the church at least a considerable portion of the members still maintained a "plain" garb which differed from the common dress, more particularly for women, but also for men, especially at church services. The mustache was avoided because it originally had a military association. The Old Order Amish and the Church of God in Christ Mennonites required the beard. The oath was rejected absolutely, and instead a simple affirmation was used for legal documents and in court. In general demeanor one sought to be restrained and quiet, rather than loud, talkative, or boastful. In recreation various activities were forbidden, such as card playing, theater attendance, commercial motion pictures, pool-playing and dancing. Membership in secret societies was rejected because of the oath, hierarchical titles, religious relativism, and the secrecy practiced. Marriages with "outsiders," i.e., non-Christians or non-Mennonites was almost unknown; it was formerly forbidden completely though now more often than not tolerated, except in the most conservative groups. Meetinghouses were simple and functional, and in no case carry steeples or bells. Musical instruments were not used in worship in the 1950s. Women members wore a veil on their heads during worship in obedience to 1 Corinthians 11. Both a highly liturgical service and a noisy type of religious enthusiasm were rejected for a more sober and quiet form of piety and worship. In economics there was a strong emphasis on mutual and brotherly aid and stewardship rather than on individualism which put an undue emphasis on self-seeking and wealth-seeking, although materialism was a constant temptation. In earlier times even taking interest from a brother was not permitted; in the 20th century this has been reduced to limiting the rate of interest to what is considered reasonable. There are, however, still Mennonites who do not charge interest on money loaned to a needy person.

The standard of nonconformity upheld by the church has been high, but the level of performance has sometimes sagged. Sometimes also what was intended to be only a consistent Biblical emphasis on nonconformity has tended to become the freezing of neutral social conventions of the past which are without any direct moral or spiritual significance or value in life or witness. Nonconformity has also at times been confused with a rejection of modern inventions, or identified with a rejection of the fine arts or the maintenance of the German language. This has been particularly true with the Old Order Amish, Old Order Mennonites, and Old Colony Mennonites, who have variously rejected the automobile, telephone, electricity, carpets, curtains, pictures, etc., and maintained certain German dialects, such as Pennsylvania German and Plautdeutsch.

Some groups and sections have identified ruralism with nonconformity, forbidding living in town or working in industry or business, and restricting occupations to farming and farm-related work. This has often meant a retreat into a pattern of rural sociological group life and withdrawal, with a consequent denial of evangelistic responsibility or witness, and even complacency about the group's spiritual life. Again, nonconformity patterns have sometimes been advocated on the grounds of "distinctiveness," that is, using outward marks of separation as devices to aid in the maintenance of spiritual nonconformity and to resist the process of acculturation, and to help ward off temptation to ungodliness. There has been some confusion between the concepts of nonconformity and separation, and between principles and applications. There has been a confused identification of "worldliness" with mere variation in cultural convention from age to age and place to place. There has also been considerable difference as to the degree of severity of discipline to be used to maintain nonconformity. Some have confused nonconformity with uniformity, or have felt that uniformity -- e.g., in costume -- is necessary to maintain nonconformity. Problems have also arisen when foreign mission work has been undertaken in lands with their own cultural conventions which are quite different from those of North America or the North American mother churches. Confused attempts have been made to impose the particular external nonconformity practices -- e.g., in costume -- of the sending group upon the newer indigenous churches, with attendant tensions and problems.

The struggle to maintain true Scriptural nonconformity continued to be a major problem for the Mennonite Church (MC). With the acceleration of cultural change in American life and the pervasiveness of modern American urban cultural influences through almost universal advertising, periodical reading, radio, and television, even the most withdrawn groups have been subjected to pressures to surrender principles, not to speak of the more open groups. Universal compulsory education up to and including high school with the accompanying generally lower ethical standards often constituted a severe test. Consequently increasingly recourse was taken to church high schools and elementary schools, some sixty of the latter and ten of the former having been established by the mid-1950s. Attempts were been made to forbid radio and television in the homes, often largely because of the concern to keep out influences militating against standards of nonconformity.

As the former barriers to intercourse with the larger society and general culture fall, such as language, rural remoteness, or costume, the more open groups discovered it increasingly difficult to maintain a clear and strong position on nonconformity. The moving line of demarcation between the church and the world was increasingly hard to define; sincere and honest people differed on where to establish it. The result has been a certain amount of internal tension, which at times has resulted in local schisms and some estrangement between areas and groups or between the generations. The problem of unity becomes intensified, and the threat of undue diversion from more urgent spiritual tasks to struggles over the definition of the nonconformity frontier and the details of application becomes very real. Considerable numbers of members in certain areas became alienated by the atmosphere of what seemed to them legalism and formalism and arbitrary action of church leaders and left the church. On the other hand, bishops and pastors, alarmed by trends which they found difficult to comprehend or halt and fearful for the loss of real nonconformity and spiritual decline, were tempted to reach for increasingly repressive and authoritarian measures to meet the need. That in the face of all this the Mennonite Church (MC) maintained unity and solidarity together with substantial spiritual and practical nonconformity and an increasingly strong evangelistic and mission outreach as well as a large general service program, and also largely retained its youth, is an indication of the vitality both of the spiritual heritage and the spiritual forces at work in the group in the 1950s.

The tensions within the Old Order Amish group in recent years over the degree of nonconformity and separation from the world, as well as over other questions, have become so serious as to result in repeated local schisms and the formation of new groups, such as the Beachy Amish. There has also been a constant and significant loss of members to the Conservative Mennonite Conference and the Mennonite Church (MC). -- John C. Wenger, Harold S. Bender

The General Conference Mennonite Church

The General Conference Mennonite Church, organized in 1860, though now composed of groups with different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, had its original nucleus in a Pennsylvania-German group of Mennonites who seceded in 1847 from the Franconia Conference of the Mennonite Church (MC) in Eastern Pennsylvania. The secession was in large part a reaction against an overemphasis on literalistic adherence to nonconformity as expressed in traditional forms of dress and personal and social conduct. The new conference assumed that the changes it advocated could be made without sacrifice of the New Testament principle of separation from the world. It argued that adherence to traditional church regulations was not necessarily practicing the principle of apostolic nonconformity to the world; nor that departure from these traditions was necessarily violating Christian principles of separation from the world as taught in Romans 12:1, 2. In brief, it claimed that many of the old forms were outmoded and actually hindered the most effective kind of Christian witnessing.

The coming of the large number of Mennonite immigrants from Switzerland in the middle of the 19th century to Ohio and Indiana, and toward the end of that same century of immigrants from Russia, Prussia, and Poland to Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Minnesota, strengthened the General Conference membership, giving new life, more spiritual strength and vigor, and more advance in the major concerns of the Conference such as the development of Sunday schools, higher education, missions, trained ministers, congregational church government, and a greater degree of individual freedom of choice in such matters as dress and social conduct.

In principle the General Conference Mennonites have always stressed nonconformity to the world. In practice, however, there has been wide variation in interpreting this principle. Since the Conference, in the United States at least, has no centralized ruling system, and since each congregation is its own authority in matters of faith and conduct, and because of a heterogeneous background, time has tended to accent rather than minimize differences in observance of separation from the world. In many instances local congregations leave matters, except in extreme cases, almost totally up to the individual believer.

In the most recent revised General Conference constitution, the part dealing with "The basic faith" says with regard to the separated life: " . . . membership in oath-bound secret societies, military organizations, or other groups which tend to compromise the loyalty of the Christian to the Lord and to his church is contrary to such apostolic admonitions: 'Be not unequally yoked with unbelievers' (2 Corinthians 6:14-15), and that the Church should be 'holy and without blemish' (Ephesians 5:27)." In addition to these and several other references the "Statement of doctrine" of the Cornelis Ris Articles of Faith is approved as authoritative conference practice.

The fact that there is no uniform pattern of nonconformity in General Conference Mennonite churches does not imply that there is no effort on the part of individual congregations to exercise control over members in an effort to secure genuinely devout forms of behavior. Most congregations have exercised discipline on members whose conduct deviated too far from defined norms. The areas in which discipline has been most frequently exercised are in matters of military service, secret societies, and moral matters such as fornication, adultery, and remarriage of divorced individuals. Such practices as the use of tobacco and alcoholic beverages are generally discouraged but are not forbidden. Matters relating to attendance at theaters, motion pictures, and professional sports, or the use of radios, television, and other modern conveniences are handled variously from congregation to congregation. In few, if any, congregations is a member suspended or expelled for purchasing these items or engaging in any of these activities.

There is general recognition of the need for stronger emphasis on the separated life for modern Christians within the General Conference Mennonite congregations. This was evidenced by the calling of a special conference on "The Believers' Church" in 1955, and by the appointment of the Study Committee for matters pertaining to church discipline. Efforts are being made to solicit full general approval toward developing a consecrated type of Christian living and establishing a "pure" church. Close cooperation with other Mennonite bodies in fields of peace, voluntary service, relief, education, hospital service, and mutual aid has greatly strengthened the concerns for Christian nonconformity in the General Conference. -- J. Winfield Fretz

Other Groups in North and South America

The strictest and most intense application of nonconformity in North and South America, aside from the Old Order Amish, has been practiced by the Old Colony Mennonites in Manitoba, Mexico, and Paraguay. This has included not only nonresistance affairs, and rejection of many modern inventions, and nonparticipation in civic and governmental but also rigid maintenance of the German (and Low German) language, certain regulations in costume, and strong traditions regarding house building, home furnishings, village layout, etc. In all this they have become stricter and more nonconformed than they had been in Russia and at first in Manitoba. As in the case of the Amish some more progressive elements (e.g., the Rudnerweide group) have broken away from the strict traditions of the Old Colony and are accommodating themselves increasingly to the surrounding culture. The Hutterites in North America have also been very strict in nonconformity.

The Church of God in Christ Mennonite and the Kleine Gemeinde have maintained a relatively strict application of nonconformity, though without much distinctive costume. The latter group, now called Evangelical Mennonites, are increasingly open to change and are beginning to accommodate themselves culturally.

The Mennonite Brethren, Krimmer Mennonite Brethren (KMB), Evangelical Mennonite Brethren, and Evangelical Mennonites, while maintaining ideally a strong position on nonconformity, have modified their practical application of nonconformity in recent decades. None of these groups, except the K.M.B., has ever had distinctive costume requirements, but all have emphasized simplicity, nonparticipation in worldly amusements, and an unworldly spirit. They have in general accommodated themselves more readily to cultural change than the more conservative groups. The K.M.B. group in its earlier days in Kansas had certain strict costume regulations (see Krimmer Mennonite Brethren). On the whole this group of conferences has maintained a generally stricter position on drinking, smoking, worldly amusements, and the use of cosmetics than the more liberal Mennonites of North America; but in general in outward expression of nonconformity, in business practices, in nonresistance, and litigation there has been less difference. -- Harold S. Bender

1990 Update

Nonconformity to the world is the historic Christian emphasis on Godly living and being in secular and often pagan society. Many Christian groups in the history of the church have stressed total obedience to the teachings and example of Jesus Christ, some to the point of complete perfection. The Anabaptists of the 16th century took this divine calling with unusual seriousness and many of their descendants among the Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterian Brethren still do in late 20th century. Theory and practice, however, have never been easily held together.

The relevant biblical texts and secondary literature to the mid-1950s are cited in the "Nonconformity (1956)" article above. A key volume in that literature is J. C. Wenger's Separated unto God (1951) which also included major bibliographical listings with each chapter. Yet the book marked the end of an era for Mennonites and Brethren in Christ. A generation of Mennonites came on the scene after World War II with new experiences in Civilian Public Service, global Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) involvements and more college graduates in an increasingly urbanized society. The civil rights movement of the 1960s and the peace marches of the early 1970s gave many young Mennonites causes in which they could legitimately participate both as believers and as citizens. A new social respectability seemed to have been achieved.

These kinds of developments, in turn, led to new questions, new ideas and a new image of themselves as Mennonites and their place in society. Mennonite Mutual Aid was born. It became a symbol of fresh involvements as a church in such businesses as insurance and investments. A new level of prosperity was being achieved by Mennonites in rapidly urbanizing societies in North America and Europe. Mission outreach expanded rapidly. The Amish, Hutterian Brethren, and Old Colony Mennonites were obviously also aware of change, but not to the degree of the new generation of Mennonites.

Gradually "Plain People" came to refer not to Mennonites but to Old Order Amish (Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Holmes County, Ohio, Lagrange County, Indiana, and Waterloo County, Ontario, Canada), together with a few Old Order Mennonites particularly in Pennsylvania and Ontario, the Hutterian Brethren in the Northeast, the Hutterian Brethren in the Canadian and American Midwest, and the Old Colony Mennonites in Canada, Mexico, and other parts of Latin America. Tourists loved to visit Old Order and Hutterian communities. Soon Mennonites were busy setting up interpretation centers to tell visitors what the simple life was all about. Despite occasional losses, the Hutterian Brethren and the Amish were growing rapidly. Though the demise of the latter had been predicted by some scholars, they grew from ca. 8,000 in 1900 to ca. 75,000 in 1977 (Hostetler, 1977). And they largely maintained their nonconformity in most areas of life and faith.

Meanwhile it became increasingly difficult for most Mennonites to maintain or define just what nonconformity meant, not so much historically, but in the present. For them geographical separation had largely disappeared and was not an option in any case. Earlier "boundaries" were also no longer acceptable to the acculturated new generation. There was gradual or full conformity to social customs in regard to dress, wedding bands, recreation, automobiles, farming equipment, houses, and other externals.

Nevertheless, many did succeed significantly, against great odds, in finding new, relevant forms of nonconformity even in an urbanized, highly secular environment. Not all of the following responses to the call of Christ would be acceptable to all, but the momentum was broad and, for the most part, encouraging. It was based both on biblical and historic Anabaptist premises.

(a) With Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) encouragement Doris Janzen Longacre (1940-79) published the More-With-Less Cookbook (1976) supplying nourishing, healthy but cost efficient recipes, with commentary, for a simple life style. Over 520,000 copies had been sold by 1988. Her sequel, Living More With Less (1980) was also well received. (b) From 1975-77 basic steps were taken by MCC in Canada to establish a "Food Bank" of donated grain for the hungry of the world. In the fiscal year ending 31 March 1988, some 84,296 metric tons worth $25,756,945 were shipped abroad. Approximately one-third of the grain came from Mennonites.

(c) Mennonites have normally identified nonresistance closely with nonconformity. Here the evidence was less encouraging. The Kauffman/Harder study in 1975 found that 71 percent of respondents to the study affirmed a preference for alternative service, while 11 percent chose noncombatant service and five percent regular military service (Kauffman/Harder, 133). A more recent study of the Vietnam era by James Amstutz showed 42.8 percent affirming conscientious objection, 26.4 percent received deferments, 6.8 percent choosing noncombatant service, and 14 percent choosing regular military service. Thus, even without knowing how the 26.4 percent would have chosen, nonresistant convictions seemed to have declined between 1975 and 1986 among the major groups of Mennonites studied. Another 1988 study by Kauffman and Driedger found somewhat less change -- 61 percent affirmed alternative service, 13 percent noncombatant service and six percent regular military service. But conformity to social expectations had increased.

(d) On the other hand some Mennonites took a much more serious step by not paying that portion of their federal taxes which they believed went for war purposes, remitting that amount to Mennonite Central Committee, the World Peace Tax Fund, or similar causes. They did this knowing that their bank accounts would be confiscated for that amount and that official harassment might follow. (e) Some took steps to limit their income to where they would have little or no tax liability. (f) Some took direct nonviolent action through demonstrations at weapons facilities or other forms of protest against war which did end with prison sentences or fines or both. Other Mennonites, however, felt these actions were not in keeping with biblical nonresistance. (g) The refusal to swear a formal oath in civic or legal situations remained an article of faith for most Mennonites in Europe and North America.

(h) Peace and service programs were developed, in addition to those already available through MCC, as alternative ways of expressing love. Businessmen united to form Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) in 1953 to facilitate economic development in North America and globally as resources permitted. Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) had already been organized in 1950 to assist victims of natural disasters. (i) Under the direction of Mennonite Mutual Aid, congregations were encouraged to contribute to a "Fraternal Fund" which provided help to needy individuals and causes.

(j) The earlier emphases on personal nonconformity were not neglected. The biblical virtues of modesty, humility, peace, sobriety, compassion, love, and the integrity of business, social and personal ethics, were stressed in sermons and treatises and remained a significant part of Mennonite identity. Some of the biggest changes came in the areas of dress regulations, which were largely given up, as were restrictions on recreation and entertainment (amusements), though this varied from region to region.

(k) Though the Mennonite family remained strong, divorce did occur even as congregations struggled to find ways of redemptive help and heal ing in these situations. There were occasional cases of litigation. A Victim Of fender Reconciliation Program worked effectively with the judicial system in many cities to mediate disputes in society at large. New interest in spiritual disciplines, stimulated in part by Roman Catholic, Quaker, and other writings, led to the training of resource persons and the founding of numerous small retreat centers across the United States and Canada.

In all of these trends and activities the historic conviction remained that nonconformity is not first the adherence to codes governing external behavior but an attitude of heart and mind, a commitment to discipleship and the simplification of life style precisely in the midst of a complex society with all of its advertising and seductiveness. That the expression of this attitude, and these values, would also find visible expression was assumed and expected.

If there was indeed a Mennonite "identity crisis" in the late 20th century, as some scholars believed, it would be safe to assume that it was related, at least in part, to the loss of earlier codes of nonconformity and the search for new ethical, theological, and personal boundaries. For centuries the church-world dualism of Romans 12:2 "Do not be conformed to this world" had been the ideal, albeit imperfectly achieved even in legalism.

Early Anabaptist confessions confirmed this ideal, particularly article 4 of the "Brotherly Union of Schleitheim" (1527) when it stated: "We have been united concerning the separation that shall take place from the evil and the wickedness which the devil has planted in the world.... Now there is nothing else in the world and all creation than good or evil, believing and unbelieving, darkness and light ... Christ and Belial, and none will have part with the other."

In the late 1980s have Mennonites become a part of the social mainstream or are there still signs of a counterculture intention and, if so, where could these signs be found-in economics, politics, family life, personal values, worship, or service motivation? The signs are mixed in North America, and certainly globally. Yet, except for the Amish and Old Order groups, the sectarian black and white world seemed to have almost disappeared. Only time would tell whether this is spiritual gain or loss. -- Cornelius J. Dyck


General (1950s)

Brunk, George R. Ready Scriptural Reasons. Scottdale, PA, 1926.

Cadoux, C. J. The Early Church and the World. New York, 1925.

Caemmerer, Richard R. The Church in the World. St. Louis, 1949.

Heering, G. J. The Fall of Christianity. New York, 1943.

Kauffman, Daniel. Doctrines of the Bible. Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1928.

Niebuhr, H. R. Christ and Culture. New York, 1951.

Niebuhr, H. R., W. Pauck, and F. P. Miller. The Church Against the World. New York, 1955.

Proceedings of the Fourth Mennonite World Conference. Akron, PA 1950, containing the following papers: "The Divine Imperative of Nonconformity to the World" by Frank and Harry Wenger; "The History of Nonconformity among Mennonites" by Donovan Smucker; "The Purpose and Power of Nonconformity" by Pierre Widmer; and "The Limitations of Nonconformity" by Paul Mininger.

Smith, C. Henry. "Mennonites and Culture." Mennonite Quarterly Review 12 (1938): 71-84.

Wenger, J. C. Separated Unto God: a Plea for Christian Simplicity of Life and for a Scriptural Nonconformity to the World. Scottdale, PA 1951.


Hoekstra, S. Leer der Oude Doopsgezinden. Amsterdam, 1863.

Horst, Irvin. "Simplicity Laments Corrupted Manners." Mennonite Life 10 (July 1955): 129.

Meihuizen, H. W. "Die Gemeinde in der Welt, aber nicht von der Welt." Die Gemeinde und ihr Auftrag. Karlsruhe, 1953: 210-18.

Wijbrands, C. N. Het Menniste Zusje. repr. 1913.

Yearbook Amstelodamum 25 (1928): 71.

Zijpp, N. van der. Geschiedenis der Doopsgezinden in Nederland. Arnhem, 1952: 133-56.

Europe, aside from the Netherlands

Crous, Ernst. "Mennonites in Germany since the Thirty Years' War." Mennonite Quarterly Review 35 (1951): 235-62.

Crous, Ernst. "Wie die Mennoniten in die deutsche Volksgemeinschaft hineinwuchsen." Geschichtes Blätter (1939): 13-24.

Mennonite Church (MC) and Related Groups in North America

Bible Teaching on Nonconformity. Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1940.

Biblical and Practical Nonconformity. Published by the Bible School Board of the Lancaster Conference, Lancaster, 1950.

Declaration of Commitment in Respect to Christian Separation and Nonconformity to the World. A statement of position adopted by the Mennonite General Conference, MC, Scottdale, 1955.

General Problems Committee. A Book of Standards. Scottdale, PA, 1940.

Proceedings of the Fourth Mennonite World Conference. Akron, PA, 1948, contains the following papers: Frank and Harry Wenger, "The Divine Imperative of Nonconformity"; Don. E. Smucker, "The History of Nonconformity Among the Mennonites"; Pierre Widmer, "The Purpose and Power of Nonconformity"; Paul Mininger, "The Limitations of Nonconformity."

Sherk, David. Nonconformity to the World. Elkhart, IN: Mennonite Publishing Co., 1882.

Wenger, J. C. Historical and Biblical Position of the Mennonite Church on Attire. Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1944.

1990 Additions

Amstutz, James. "MCC Vietnam Draft Pilot Study," Unpublished student papers at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS), 1986

Amstutz, James. "Sources of Mennonite Draft Statistics." Unpublished student papers at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS), 1986

Burkholder, J. R. "What's Wrong With Nonconformity?" Gospel Herald (5 September 1950): 879.

"Christian nonconformity to the world," in Proceedings of the Fourth Mennonite World Conference (August 3-10, 1948): 41-62.

Dueck, Marvin. "Old Colony Mennonites in Mexico: Defensive Structures to Preserve a Way of Life." Unpublished student paper at AMBS, 1987.

Durrive, Michel and others. "The Mennonites of Alsace Facing Modernity." Mennonite Quarterly Review 58 (1984): 272-88.

Epp, Frank H. Education With a Plus: the Story of Rosthern Junior College. Waterloo, 1975: ch. 9.

Fretz, J. Winfield. The MEDA Experiment, 1953-1978. Waterloo, 1978.

Gingerich, Melvin. "Change and Uniformity in Mennonite Attire." Mennonite Quarterly Review 40 (October 1966): 243-59.

Gingerich, Melvin. Mennonite Attire Through Four Centuries. Scottdale, PA, 1970.

Guenther, Allen R. "Unmasking the Self-love Lie." Christian Leader (2 September 1980): 6-8.

Hostetler, Beulah Stauffer. "Midcentury change in the Mennonite Church." Mennonite Quarterly Review 60 (1986): 58-82.

Hostetler, Beulah Stauffer. "Defensive Structuring and Codification of Practice: Franconia Mennonite Conference." Mennonite Quarterly Review 60 (July 1986): 429-44.

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

Hostetler, John A. "Old Order Amish Survival." Mennonite Quarterly Review 51 (1977): 352-61, the entire issue is given to articles on "The Plain People".

Kauffman, J. Howard and Leland Harder, eds. Anabaptists Four Centuries Later: a Profile of Five Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Denominations. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1975.

Kauffman, J. Howard and Leo Driedger. The Mennonite Mosaic: Identity and Modernization. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1991.

Wenger, J. C. How to Live a Dynamic Christian Life. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1955.

Yoder, John H., ed. and trans. The Legacy of Michael Sattler, Classics of the Radical Reformation, vol. 1. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1973.

Author(s) Harold S. Bender
Nanne van der Zijpp
John C. Wenger
J. Winfield Fretz
Cornelius J. Dyck
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Bender, Harold S., Nanne van der Zijpp, John C. Wenger, J. Winfield Fretz and Cornelius J. Dyck. "Nonconformity." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 30 Jun 2022.

APA style

Bender, Harold S., Nanne van der Zijpp, John C. Wenger, J. Winfield Fretz and Cornelius J. Dyck. (1989). Nonconformity. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 30 June 2022, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 890-897; vol. 5, pp. 635-636. All rights reserved.

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