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In this article persecution will be defined as coercion for religion's sake. It is often thought of as primarily physical torture and extremely cruel forms of execution such as crucifixion by the Romans. But mental forms of persecution have always existed and have been revived with sadistic twists in the 20th century. In Anabaptist and Mennonite history discrimination for the sake of religion has been a common if less severe form of persecution.

Religious people have frequently persecuted those of other religious persuasions. Pagan Romans persecuted early Christians. Fifth-century Christians triumphantly persecuted pagans; early in the sixth century a pagan Roman senator wrote one of the most eloquent pleas for religious liberty that any civilization has produced. Seventeenth-century Japanese persecuted Roman Catholics in support of official Buddhism. New secularists, worshippers of the Goddess of Reason, persecuted staunch Roman Catholics, especially clergy, during the French Revolution (1790s). In the 19th century, Russian Orthodox Christians persecuted Roman Catholics in Poland and Moslems in Turkey. For many centuries Christians have persecuted Jews systematically and capriciously. Many Mennonites think that some forms of excommunication, applied rigorously with the ban, constitute persecution of Mennonites by other Mennonites (Bear; P. Friesen). In short, religious conviction easily turns to righteous indignation against religious nonconformists or dissidents and breeds a malice that has produced some of the most cruel forms of persecution humans have ever devised.

Traditionally Mennonites viewed early Christians and the Anabaptists as focal points of the most severe persecutions in church history. Van Braght shaped hisMartyrs' Mirror around those two periods. Early Christians were harassed, imprisoned, and executed in barbarous ways, commonly on the charge of atheism since they did not believe in the socially accepted divinities. Or they were accused of sedition because they refused to regard the emperor as deus et dominus, god and lord; Romans believed absolute allegiance to an absolute god-emperor to be a necessity for holding together in one society many people of diverse ethnicities and religious cults. Romans displayed their predilection for terror as a means of cowing conquered tribespeople into submission in the form of uncommon cruelty in torture and overeager execution. But they bad a penchant for the rule of law, and they created a body of law and juridical thought of the highest order. Generally they intended to grant free exercise of religion to the diverse cults of their heterogeneous subjects. Indeed, one of the major reasons for Christianity's success was the Roman Empire's relative freedom of worship, interrupted by some vicious but usually local outbreaks of persecution. Systematic, empire-wide persecutions under Decius and Valerian (250-59) and Diocletian and Gelarius (303-11) were the exception to the rule.

Anabaptists were persecuted severely. It makes little difference whether one counts several hundred or many thousand martyrs: the psychological impact was terrifying, persuading many to recant and frightening away many more prospective converts. Catholics imprisoned and burned Anabaptists as apostates. Lutherans exiled or beheaded them for blasphemy and sedition. Reformed leaders (Calvinists) imprisoned and drowned them for sectarianism and breaking the body politic. (It should not be forgotten that Lutherans were also persecuted by Catholics in Austria or that Protestants routinely executed Roman Catholic priests when they were discovered while ministering to the underground Catholic church in England well into the 1600s.)

Almost everyone used torture to compel these religious deviants to return to the true church. Societies have always used torture, both to punish but also to extract confessions, in some places and times more than others. In the West juridical torture derived largely from the rediscovery of Roman law. Used largely by the church in its Inquisition (early 13th century and following), it was adopted increasingly by civil courts because it was thought to be effective. By the 16th century its use was common, in many Germanic lands routine, in numerous types of court cases but especially where heresy was presumed. It was used to induce confession, secondarily to extract information about Anabaptist leaders, places of meeting, etc. Physical forms of torture included primarily the rack -- stretching the body until the joints separated; often the thumbscrew, sometimes the suspension of the body from arms tied behind the back or from the thumb of one hand, with weights attached to the feet. Today many European museums display standard instruments for late medieval torture.

By the beginning of the 20th century the West thought that it had decisively rejected juridical torture, beginning generally in the 18th century. But the 20th century has introduced newer forms, quasi-legal or sanctioned by law, gravitating more toward mental forms, although some new physical forms have been invented -- electric shocks to sensitive parts of the body, for instance. Brainwashing is the term invented in our times to describe mental torture. In the 16th century interrogators tortured victims mentally by questionings so lengthy that they exhausted the prisoners, promising reunion with spouse and children if one recanted, giving filthy quarters and insufficient food for weeks on end to reduce resistance, etc.

Anabaptists sometimes remonstrated against persecution. One of the best illustrations is Menno's moving tract, "A pathetic supplication to all magistrates" (Writings, 523-31). He knew that governments used the edicts of Theodosius II (emperor, 401-50) against rebaptizers (418ff) to persecute Anabaptists, and complained that those proscriptions had been wrung from Theodosius by bloodthirsty bishops. He pleaded for mercy, but also for that kind of justice in which magistrates would compare the moral lives of Anabaptists with those of other Christians.

Europe's wars of religion bred a new class of politiques, leaders who preached religious indifference as a necessary way to end the bloodshed in which one religious group fought another in the name of God. in the spirit of the politiques the more severe forms of persecution gradually were replaced by discrimination, sharp in southern Germanic regions until the French Revolution granted citizenship to every human including Mennonites and Jews, mild but still painful in the North.

What forms did it take in the South? In the Swiss Confederation Mennonites could not inherit land, and their children were technically illegitimate because the state had not legally approved their marriages. Or they were imprisoned for longer periods of time on bread and water only. In 1710-11 the Bernese government devised an elaborate deportation scheme, working with a land agent to send them to the Carolinas. Some were sent on their way by barge down the Rhine, then released through the political intervention of their Dutch co-religionists when their boat reached the Netherlands. (The Old Order Amish of North America still keep alive oral tradition in the tales of that ordeal.) Some were sold as galley slaves to the Italian city-states. Swiss democracy emphasized equal participation of all, especially in times of war, more than the rights of the individual before the law.

In southern German states, including Alsace, Mennonites and Amish paid a special tax merely because they were religious dissidents. Or they were forbidden to buy more land when their population increased. Or they were harried into court, for example, when they baptized two young girls, born Amish but forcibly raised Catholic, contrary to the express prohibition to proselytize. Or, if they developed good pasture on mountainsides too steep to till, jealous villagers drove their own livestock into those pastures and forcibly excluded cattle of the Mennonites.

In northern regions Mennonites were often forbidden to enter the standard craft and trade guilds (in Danzig, for example). Some therefore became innkeepers. Or they were excluded from the universities and therefore from certain professions such as law, a prohibition that was galling to the Dutch Mennonites who were bursting with creative energy. There were other forms of discrimination; but on the whole, northern Teutonic Mennonites were less discriminated against than were the southerners.

Other times and places of special persecution or discrimination against descendants of the Anabaptist family include the Hutterian Brethren in late 18th-century Hapsburg lands of eastern and central Europe; Russian Mennonites in the 1920s and since World War II; some African, Asian, and Latin American Mennonites, especially since World War II; and finally, some North American Mennonites during wartime.

Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa (ruled 1740-80), true to a sincere but dogmatic Hapsburg family Catholicism, finally exiled those few Hutterian Brethren who refused to recant. The recanters were subjected to rigorous religious supervision, required to attend mass or special Catholic homilies and prayers, or both, more frequently than were their native Slavic neighbors -- well into the 20th century according to the memory of some of their surviving so-called Habaner descendants (Velke Levaré, Czechoslovakia, for instance). The exiles wandered in misery from one region to another before finding refuge in the Ukraine.

Twentieth-century Mennonites in Russia were driven from their villages and sent to slave labor camps where many perished. Some of their most severe tribulations occurred during and immediately after wars -- World War I, the Civil War, World War II -- and cannot be separated easily from the normal but intense suffering caused by modern warfare. (All ethnic Germans were subjected to mistreatment under the Spetskommandatura [deportation regime], 1941-55.) There is no doubt that Mennonites were persecuted for their religious faith; other Christians and Jews suffered similar persecution from a self-proclaimed atheist government determined to impose absolute conformity on everyone for the benefit of all. There is some dispute among Russian Mennonite historians on the issue of whether or not Mennonites were singled out especially for persecution. The Bolsheviks reproached them for their use of weapons in self-defense against bands of anarchists (Selbstschutz).

Mennonites in Asia, Africa, and Latin America have been persecuted, more commonly as Christians than specifically as Mennonites. In the 1960s in Zaire Mennonites were caught in the cross-fire between rebels and the central government, and were suspect in both camps. Some suffered the destruction of houses and goods, others were threatened with death, still others were impressed into forced labor. In each known instance the Mennonite was presumed to be a spy, or at least a partisan, of the other side. The church learned that Christianity means persecution. In Indonesia in the late 1940s Mennonites were suspected, sometimes accused, of being partisans of either Dutch colonialists because of their contact with missionaries, or of native freedom fighters. And during the anti -Communist upheaval in the mid-1960s Mennonites, together with other Christians, were falsely accused of Communist affiliation. No one seems to have been killed, but many were threatened; and the church learned the painful lesson of persecution for the sake of Christ. In the 1980s Central American Mennonites are persecuted together with other Christians.

In the 19th century Pieter Jansz, the first Mennonite missionary in modern times, was harassed by the Dutch colonial government in Java (later part of Indonesia), in part because he criticized colonial policies in tracts that he published in The Netherlands. His friends in the Dutch Estates General supported him. But the Javanese Dutch government treated him much more harshly than Reformed missionaries. Warfare has been the occasion for persecution or discrimination. All people suffer during war, especially those who are caught in the theaters of battle. But Mennonites have often been especially singled out for accusation or threatened violence or outright attack because of their nonresistance: Palatines during the French Revolution, Virginians during the Civil War in America, Alsatians in 1870, American draftees during World War I (two Hutterian Brethren died as a result of maltreatment), in addition to instances mentioned earlier.

European and North American Mennonites often think of the Martyrs Mirror when they reflect upon persecution. They have not kept careful records of discrimination or outright persecution in the 20th century; nor have they tried to learn much about persecution of their brothers and sisters in the non-Western countries. Often public inquiry by Westerners puts indigenous Christians under jeopardy of property destruction and even death. But an urgent desideratum for our times is a serious study of contemporary persecutions and martyrdoms.


For the Anabaptists see among others:

Braght, Thieleman J. van. The Bloody Theatre, or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians. . . (see the Martyrs Mirror article for various editions).

The Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren, vol. 1. Rifton, NY: Plough, 1987, cf. A. J. F. Zieglschmid, ed., Die älteste Chronik der Hutterischen Brüder. Evanston, 1943, and Rudolf Wolkan, ed., Geschicht-Buch der Hutterischen Brüder. Vienna, 1923.

Clasen, Claus-Peter. Anabaptism: a Social History, 1525-1618. Ithaca: Cornell, 1972, esp. 358-422.

Schraepler, Horst W. Die rechtliche Behandlung der Täufer in der deutschen Schweiz. Tübingen: [Fabian Verlag], 1957.

Stiasny, Hans H. Th. Die strafrechtliche Verfolgung der Täufer in der freien Reichsstadt Köln, 1529 his 1618. Munster: Aschendorff, 1962. 

On Mennonites in Russia, a few selected examples:

Epp, Johann. Von Gottes Gnade getragen. Gumersbach: Verlag Friedensstimme, 1984.

Hamm, Gerhard. Du hast uns me verlassen: Erfahrungen christlicher Familien in der Sowjetunion. Wuppertal: Brockhaus, 1978.

Toews, John B. "The Origins and Activities of the Mennonite Selbstschutz in the Ukraine (1918-1919)." Mennonite Quarterly Review 46 (1972): 5- 40.

Toews, John B. Czars, Soviets, and Mennonites. North Newton, KS: Mennonite Press, 1982.

Wolk, Heinrich and Gerhard Wölk. Die Mennoniten Brüdergemeinden in Russland, 1925-1980. Fresno: Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 1981, English trans. as Wilderness Journey. Fresno, 1982. Available in full electronic text at:

On Mennonites in Africa and Asia see:

Bertsche, James E. "The Shadow of Suffering," and Wilbert R. Shenk, "Who is this Christ?" in A Kingdom of Priests: the Church in the New Nations, ed. Wilbert R. Shenk. Newton, KS, 1967: 126-39, 10- 22.

Eidse, Ben. Pastor Emmanuel in the Fiery Trial. N.p.: Congo Inland Mission, n.d.

Hoekema, Alle. "Pieter Jansz (1820-1904): First Mennonite Missionary to Java." Mennonite Quarterly Review 52 (1978): 58-76.

Juhnke, James C. A People of Mission: a History of General Conference Mennonite Overseas Mission. Newton, KS: Faith and Life, 1979: 142, for Taiwan. 

See also:

Bauman, Elizabeth. Coals of Fire. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1954.

Bear, Robert. Delivered Unto Satan. Carlisle, Pa.: the Author, 1974.

Friesen, Patrick. The Shunning. Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1980.

Hostetler, John A. Hutterite Society. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1974.

Das Kleingeschichtsbuch der hutterischen Brüder, ed. A. J. F. Zieglschmid. Philadelphia: Carl Schurz Foundation, 1947, 287ff.

Wenger, J. C. "The Voice of Mennonite history." Gospel Herald 42 (1949): 730-33; and numerous articles in Mennonite periodicals, some of which can be located by using the An Annotated Bibliography of Mennonite Writings on War and Peace, 1930-1980, ed. Willard Swartley and Cornelius J. Dyck. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1987, or Nelson P. Springer and A. J. Klassen, Mennonite bibliography, 1631-1961. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1977: p. 609.

Author(s) John S Oyer
Date Published 1989

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Oyer, John S. "Persecution." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 29 Jul 2021.

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Oyer, John S. (1989). Persecution. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 29 July 2021, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 695-697. All rights reserved.

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