Concerning politics, the traditional Mennonite stance, despite some deviation and exceptions, may be described as separationist or apolitical. The earliest major comments are found in the Schleitheim Confession (1527) which spoke of two orders, one inside the "perfection of Christ" and the other outside. Among those items which the separated believers "should shun and flee" the authors included "civic affairs." Because Jesus did not accept any political office, his faithful followers should likewise refuse to be "a magistrate if one should be chosen as such." "The worldly princes lord it over others by use of the sword," i.e. by the use of force, "but not so shall it be with you."
Early Expressions and Experiences
By the middle of the 16th century a significant segment of the Dutch Anabaptists were permitting their members to hold local political offices not involving capital punishment. In his later writings Menno Simons himself seemed less certain about nonparticipation in the magistracy. Perhaps he thought that local office holding could be justified in the same manner as he justified calling "emperor, kings, lords and princes" to recognize their "spiritual King" and to govern wisely.
In Switzerland, and later in North America, nonparticipation in government became the official norm, at least until the late 19th century. In northern Europe some, mainly local, political participation persisted. In Russia, meanwhile, Mennonite migrants from northern Europe developed substantial settlements and by the early 19th century were fully involved in the political administration of their own "Mennonite Commonwealth." Their activism flourished. By the early 1900s these Mennonites were electing their own representatives to the Duma, the Russian national parliament. The entire Mennonite experience in Russia, from the late 18th century until after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, is rife with political activism locally as well as with national authorities.
In Canada and the United States in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries
While the principle of avoiding politics persisted among Mennonite groups in Canada and the United States, the reality hardly reflected the theory. In Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Ontario Mennonite leaders, perhaps unconsciously at first, became important political activists. For example, in what is now Ontario, Mennonite leaders petitioned for military exemption as early as 1793. Abraham Erb, leader of the first Waterloo, ON settlement in 1806, probably did not consider himself to be a political leader, though he surely was one. Similarly Moses Springer, the first mayor following Waterloo's incorporation in 1857, probably would not have wished to be called a Mennonite politician, at least not until he was elected to the provincial legislature a few years later. Analogous accounts can be cited for most of the other early Mennonite settlements as well. We should note, in passing, that sometimes the role of these Mennonite political leaders had more to do with the Mennonite ethnic community than with the Mennonite church.
The coming of the politically experienced, often astute, Mennonites from Russia in the 1870s widened Mennonite political involvement, especially in Canada. For example, in the spring of 1873 a Mennonite delegation from Russia drove a hard bargain for settlement lands in western Canada. Hesitantly the delegation's spokesman agreed to "accept" eight townships in southern Manitoba. They thanked the Canadian government for its extensive assistance but then added, "Should we, after the arrival of the first of our immigrants, think that another location than the present one which you have reserved for us would suit us better, then we hope that you will exchange the reserve to such parts as we should find preferable...." On July 25, 1873, their amended requests were granted. Such clever, not always subtle, "pressure" politics, or at least self-serving interaction with politicians, has been widespread ever since.
Even though their leaders were deeply involved in group politics, and occasionally held individual elected offices, most Mennonite conferences in North America continued to endorse the traditional stance of noninvolvement. For example, in 1878 the Mennonite Brethren (MB), organized as a conference only in the United States, passed a resolution which stated "That members are not permitted to hold government offices or take any part at the polls. However, we appreciate the protection we enjoy under our Government."
By 1890 the MB stance had changed somewhat. The delegates that year decided "That members of the Church refrain from participation or involvement in the contentions of political parties, but are permitted to vote quietly at elections, and may also vote for prohibition." In 1893 their position was modified further, perhaps by a developing influence from the newly founded, more politically activist, Canadian sector. The conference agreed "That our brethren shall not hold the offices of justice of the peace or constable. A member may be a 'notary public.' " This position was not officially modified for more than a half century. Parallel developments can be traced for the other major Mennonite groups, roughly at the same time for the General Conference Mennonite Church (GCM) but substantially later for the largest group, the Mennonite Church (MC) also known as "Old Mennonites."
The awareness of political relevance and involvement developed slowly. A major article by Edward Yoder in 1939, "The Obligation of the Christian to the State and Community--'Render to Caesar,'" in the Mennonite Quarterly Review still relied on more traditional Mennonite categories. Increased urbanization, socioeconomic advancement, rising levels of education and of affluence, greater participation in the professions and the broad impact of World War II forced Mennonite groups to rethink their political pronouncements. Guy F. Hershberger's 1944 volume, War, Peace and Nonresistance, while still advocating substantial nonparticipation, broadened both sociopolitical awareness and sociopolitical concerns.
A Shift Begins in North America
Simultaneously most North American Mennonite groups, having initiated or completed a language transition, found themselves compelled to rethink the social implications of the gospel. An important study conference held at Winona Lake, IN, in 1950 attempted to set forth a Mennonite position distinct from both the evangelical (Fundamentalism) and liberal social gospel positions. The ethical stance spelled out at that time was invoked frequently in subsequent decades to justify an increasingly activist, though mainly nonpartisan, political stance in the United States.
The decade of the 1950s witnessed some major shifts. In 1951 the Mennonite Church (MC) passed a policy statement which still focused mainly on peace, war, and nonresistance, while also recognizing some positive roles for the state (church-state relations). Importantly, however, the document stressed "witness to the state" and "claims" of the state, not participation in politics.
The years 1956 and 1957 produced several key publications. In 1956, while contributors to the volume edited by Guy F. Hershberger, The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision, raised mainly historical questions, Elmer Ediger, in a short piece in Mennonite Life, recast the issue in his essay, "A Christian's Political Responsibility." Simultaneously J. Winfield Fretz, also in Mennonite Life, asked, "Should Mennonites Participate in Politics?" In 1958 Guy F. Hershberger probed new practicalities with his study, The Way of the Cross in Human Relations, and Elmer Neufeld advanced the discussion substantially with his widely noted Mennonite Quarterly Review article, "Christian Responsibility in the Political Situation." In new settings new options gradually gained a hearing. By 1959 the question was put clearly by Harley Stucky in Mennonite Life, "Should Mennonites Participate in Government?"
Thereafter the theological and also sociopolitical reassessment of church-state affairs, particularly in political terms, progressed quickly. John Howard Yoder's 1964 analysis, The Christian Witness to the State, broke new ground. The 1965 Chicago Consultation of 46 Mennonite scholars in theology and, notably, the social sciences provided A New Look at the Church and State Issue. With the 1972 release of John Howard Yoder's pivotal The Politics of Jesus and the appearance in the same year of John H. Redekop's pamphlet, Making Political Decisions: A Christian Perspective, the theoretical underpinnings of selective Mennonite sociopolitical activism were taking shape.
The Canadian Experience of Holding Public Offices
Local and Provincial Office Holders
But the broader Mennonite constituency had not waited. In Canada, early political activism included, at the provincial level, the election of Cornelius Hiebert in Alberta (in the riding of Didsbury-Conservative), 1906-9, and Gerhard Ens in Saskatchewan (Rosthern-Liberal [L]), 1905-13.
In the 1950s and thereafter, many Canadian Mennonites, virtually all from the General Conference Mennonite Church (Conference of Mennonites in Canada) or Mennonite Brethren conferences, and almost all with roots in Russia, won election to provincial parliaments. In Alberta Ray Ratzlaff (Three Hills-Social Credit [SC]), was elected in 1967 and went on to serve as minister of tourism, etc., and Robert H. Wiebe (Peace River-[SC]), was also elected in 1967. Werner Schmidt was elected as provincial Social Credit Party leader but was not elected to the legislature in 1971 and in subsequent attempts.
In British Columbia, Harvey Schroeder, though not a Mennonite church member, was widely viewed as a Mennonite legislator when first elected in 1972 (Chilliwack-[SC]). He served as minister in several departments and eventually was elected Speaker of the legislature. In 1984 Peter A. Dueck (Fraser Valley-[SC]) was elected for the first time and promptly became minister of health.
In Manitoba, Robert Bauman (La Verendrye-Progressive Conservative [PC]) won election in 1973 and eventually served in six different ministries. Jake M. Froese (Rhineland-[SC]) served in the legislature from 1959-73. Harry J. Enns (Rockwood-Iberville-[PC]) was elected in 1966 and served successively as minister of three departments. Arnold Brown (Rhineland-PC) gained election in 1973. Albert Driedger (Emerson-[PC]) became an elected representative in 1977. In the same year Victor Schroeder (Rossmere-New Democratic Party [NDP]) began a lengthy stint as an elected Mennonite democratic socialist, serving in various capacities, including minister of finance.
Saskatchewan similarly produced many Mennonite provincial legislators. David Boldt (Rosthern-[L]) served in various ministerial portfolios following his election in 1960. Isaak Elias (Rosthern-[SC]) was elected in 1956. Allen Engel, another democratic socialist (Assiniboia-Gravelbourg-[NDP]), first gained office in 1971. Harold Martens (Morse-[PC]) won in 1982. In 1978 Herbert Swan (Rosetown-Elrose-[PC]) began a stint which included a time as Speaker. One of the early Mennonite democratic socialists, John Thiessen (Shellbrook-Cooperative Commonwealth Federation [CCF]), won in 1956.
Numerous other Mennonites ran for provincial office, representing all of the major and some of the minor political parties. Such Mennonite political activism is now firmly entrenched. In any provincial election in the five western provinces Mennonites can now be found as candidates and as activists.
National Office Holders
At the national level parallel trends developed. Erhart Regier (Burnaby-Coquitlam, BC-[CCF/NDP]), not formally a churchman, was elected a Member of Parliament (MP) in 1953 and served until 1962. Other MPs included Siegfried J. Enns (Portage la Prairie, MB-[PC]), 1962-68; Dean Whiteway (Selkirk, MB-[PC]), 1974-79; and Jake Epp (Provencher, MB-[PC]), 1972-1993. A member of the Mennonite Brethren church, Epp served in various cabinet portfolios and was the first Mennonite to be appointed to the Canadian federal government's cabinet. Other Mennonite MPs have included Benno Friesen, although not a Mennonite church member during his term (Whiterock-Surrey-Delta, BC-[PC]), 1974-93; Jake Froese (Niagara Falls, ON-[L]), 1979-80; John Reimer (Kitchener, ON-[PC]), 1979-80, 1984-1993; Paul Steckle (Huron-Bruce, ON-[L]), 1993, re-elected 1997; and Raymond Chan (Richmond, BC-[L]), 1993, re-elected 1997.
There has been no shortage of Mennonite candidates at the national level, at least since the 1950s. If we include all who identify with the Mennonite ethnic community or the Mennonite church, or both, then the total number reached 16 in the 1974 election and 11 in 1980.
Canadian Mennonites have also attained high offices as nonelected appointees. In Manitoba Peter Thiessen served as assistant to the province's premier, Edward Schreyer (NDP), in the 1970s, and William Regehr served as principal secretary and chief-of-staff to Premier Howard Pawley (NDP) in the 1980s. At the national level Peter Harder served as executive assistant to Progressive Conservative Party Leader Joe Clark, who was Prime Minister of Canada, 1979-80.
Throughout the national, provincial, and local civil servant sector, Mennonites are commonplace. Not surprisingly a 1965 Conference of Mennonites in Canada (GCM) survey revealed that about one percent of conference membership was in "Government service." As a percentage of income earners, the figure would have been substantially higher.
The magistracy, more narrowly defined, has also been penetrated by Mennonites in Canada. Several Mennonites, mostly lawyers, have gained judicial experience. In Manitoba John Enns has served as crown prosecutor of the provincial government.
Holding Political Offices in the United States
In the United States, relatively speaking, Mennonites have been less involved in partisan politics, at least in running for public office at the state and national level. Doubtless the dominance of the more conservative Mennonite Church (MC) and the smaller percentage of Mennonites in the total population of a very large country have been relevant factors. But there were activists, even in earlier years: Christian William Ramseyer, Republican (R) from Iowa (1915-33); Benjamin F. Welty, from Lima, Ohio (1917-21, Democrat [D]); and Edward Clayton Eicher, from Washington County, Iowa, (1932-38, [D]) all were members of Congress. Eicher became a commissioner on the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington, DC (1938-42) and chief justice of the US District Court for the District of Columbia (1942 ff). More recently, in 1970, James Juhnke ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat in Kansas' fourth congressional district, and, in 1980 and 1982 Leroy Kennel, a member of the Lombard, Illinois Mennonite Church (MC) ran as an unsuccessful Democrat candidate for the United States Congress.
At the local level Mennonites in the United States, but not particularly those with Russian roots, have undertaken some successful ventures in politics. In Kansas several Mennonites have served in the state legislature. Ferdinand J. Funk was elected state representative for one term in 1984. Peter J. Galle was elected in 1902. Walter W. Graber, a Democrat, won a seat in the 1960s. H. P. Krehbiel served one term, 1908-10. J. A. Schowalter served three terms beginning in 1934 and Harold P. Dyck served nine terms, 1970-88. In Nebraska Maurice A. Kremer, a Mennonite from Aurora, was first elected as a nonpartisan senator in 1962. He served several terms. In South Dakota, Harvey Wollman served for several years as Democratic lieutenant-governor and in 1978 served briefly as acting governor. Interestingly, Lieutenant-Governor Wollman was "sworn in" as acting governor by his brother, Roger, a Republican member of the State Supreme Court since 1970 and subsequently chief justice of that court. In 1984 South Dakota had two Mennonite state legislators, Terry Miller (Freeman-R) and Benny Gross (Onida-R). Several other Mennonites have served in state legislatures.
Involvement in Other Forms of Politicql Activism
In the United States, as in Canada, Mennonites have become very active in a wide range of political party activity. For many the distinction between two kingdoms has become obscure.
The establishment of a Washington Office by the MCC Peace Section, in 1968, marked a major milestone in Mennonite political activism (lobbying). Delton Franz has developed it into a significant national political voice. In 1975 MCC Canada established a similar office in Ottawa. William Janzen, who had an uncle who was excommunicated by a Mennonite church for voting, has served as director.
The Mennonite political presence in Ottawa, and also to a large degree in Washington, builds on a long tradition of political activism, albeit mainly to further self-serving causes dealing primarily with migration, settlement, conscription, education, and assorted exemptions. Importantly, from the 1920s until the 1980s a Canadian Mennonite delegation met with every Canadian Prime Minister. In the United States, Mennonite leaders have often met with senators and congressmen.
In light of the growth of Mennonite political activism, it is hardly surprising that the 1972 Kauffman-Harder study found extensive constituency support for political activism. Seventy percent felt it "proper for congregations to urge citizens to vote." For Mennonite Brethren and the Evangelical Mennonite Church the figure rose to 94 percent. An average of 32 percent considered it "proper for congregations to encourage groups within the church to engage in political action."
In the United States where much political activism in recent decades has been rooted in ventures related to Mennonite Central Committee, such activism has been more theologically informed than in Canada. It has also, however, been much more controversial. In Canada, where political activism has been more pragmatic and partisan it has generally been less rooted in any form of Anabaptist theology. While in the United States Mennonite political activism, at least its high profile component, has since the 1960s consisted mainly of information campaigns and lobbying, in Canada it has consisted mainly of partisan organizational activity, campaigning, and public office-holding, although lobbying has developed in Canada also, sometimes in cooperation with non-Mennonites. Project Ploughshares is a notable example.
In both countries the spiritual descendants of Menno are well on the way to becoming part of the general political establishment. Increasingly, in these free and prosperous lands, as they move up the socioeconomic scale, Mennonites are learning, for better or worse, to take political activism seriously.
Epp, Frank H. "Mennonites and the Civil Service." Mennonite Life 23 (October 1968): 179-82.
Franz, Delton. "The Washington Office: Reflections After Ten Years." Washington Memo (July-August, 1978).
Juhnke, James C. A People of Two Kingdoms: The Political Acculturation of the Kansas Mennonites. Newton, KS: Faith and Life, 1975.
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: 150ff.
Keeney, William. "Mennonite Cooperation with Government Agencies and Programs." Proceedings of the 15th Conference on Mennonite Educational and Cultural Problems (June 1965): 62-74.
Kraybill, Donald B. Our Star-Spangled Faith. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1976.
Neufeld, Elmer. "Christian Responsibility in the Political Situation." Mennonite Quarterly Review 32 (1958): 141-62.
Redekop, John H. "Involvement in the Political Order." Christian Leader (27 September 1977): 10-14.
Redekop, John H. Making Political Decisions: A Christian Perspective, Focal Pamphlet no. 23. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1972.
Redekop, John H. "Mennonites and Politics in Canada and the United States." Journal of Mennonite Studies 1 (1983): 79-105.
Redekop, John H. "The State and the Free Church," in Kingdom Cross, and Community. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1976: 179-95.
Yoder, Edward. "The Obligation of the Christian to the State and Community --'Render to Caesar.'" Mennonite Quarterly Review 13 (1939): 104-22.
Yoder, John Howard. The Christian Witness to the State. Newton, KS: Faith and Life, 1964.
Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972: 135-214.
|Author(s)||John H Redekop|
Cite This Article
Redekop, John H. "Politics." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 25 Jun 2021. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Politics&oldid=167135.
Redekop, John H. (1990). Politics. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 25 June 2021, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Politics&oldid=167135.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 711-714. All rights reserved.
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