Private Christian Schools (United States)

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From the beginning of settlements in America, Mennonites have been involved in private schooling. The earliest schools were elementary level. Secondary schools, often referred to as academies, began to appear in Mennonite communities in the late 19th century. Some were affiliated with a developing Mennonite college. Examples were the school developed at Freeman, South Dakota (1900); Hesston, Kansas (1909); and Harrisonburg, Virginia. (Eastern Mennonite School, 1917). This early growth period for Mennonite private schools was parallel to the movement into missions and external service activities.

Two themes, in juxtaposition, provided the purposes for Mennonite elementary and secondary schools from the late 19th century through the early 1960s: emergence from isolation and preservation of a way of life. The former developed from a felt need to he better prepared for serving in the church's expanding missions and service efforts. The latter took shape in response to increasing threats to the church's accepted life-style (nonconformity). By 1900 American youth were attending the nation's growing number of high schools and Mennonite youth were entering public schools in increasing numbers. Of those Mennonites who completed high school, a few were entering colleges and universities, mostly other than Mennonite institutions. In these public school environments, Mennonite youth were being exposed to the mores and life-styles of the dominant youth culture which provided significant threat to the longstanding traditions of the church. Both themes took further shape during World Wars I and II and the years immediately following. These events were significant influences in bringing Mennonites from isolation into contact with the outside world.

How was the church to respond? From the early 1940s through the early 1960s the above developments provided the impetus for Mennonites to establish significantly more elementary and secondary schools. High schools emerged in most population concentrations of Old Mennonites (MC). Of the 10 members of the Mennonite Secondary Education Council (MSEC) in 1987, all but one were established during these two decades. Most of the members of the Mennonite Elementary Education Council (MEEC) 1987 were also established during this period, but they were heavily concentrated in the Mennonite population centers of the eastern United States.

The differing regional and denominational patterns for establishing Mennonite schools are interesting. Whereas both elementary and secondary schools developed side-by-side in the eastern centers, west of the Allegheny Mountains the new schools were predominately high schools. Moreover, most of the schools developed after 1940 were among the Mennonite Church (MC) and Amish populations. Why these differing patterns?

Several explanations are worth considering. First, the decades of the 1940s and 50s marked the beginning of the end of nearly a century of major emphasis on Mennonite conformity in external matters, such as dress, hairstyles, participation in athletics and school dances, and attendance at motion picture theaters. Moreover, militarism was running rampant in the public schools. That public schools in America have served as the most dominant influence in developing conformity among middle and late adolescents is well documented in the educational literature. By 1950 many Mennonite youth were attending and graduating from high school. Mennonite schools as an alternative to the public schools were envisioned as a vehicle for assisting congregations to combat the enormous pressure for conformity to the world the young people were experiencing. The emphasis on the Mennonite high schools over the elementary schools emerged because the most apparent breaches of life-style patterns were occurring during middle and late adolescence. Almost all of the statements of purposes of the Mennonite high schools refer in one way or another to the concern for preserving the accepted life-style patterns. Those Mennonite groups less threatened by life-style changes also had less reason for establishing private schools. This explains the significantly less interest among the General Conference Mennonites in developing high schools during this period.

Second, in each region Mennonites were influenced by the local public schooling patterns. In the East, for example, the private school system predates the public school system at all levels. The latter half of the 19th century was a period of rapid growth of public high schools, which coincided with the settlement of many communities in the Northwest and the Plains States by Mennonites and others. Mennonites became deeply involved in these local public schools. Many held positions on school boards or became teachers and administrators. These rural communities were settled largely by Protestants and the Mennonites did not experience the alienation that resulted from the religious diversity of eastern population centers a century earlier. The newcomers west of the Alleghenies were comfortable with and committed to public education. When the retreat from participation in public high schools came about in the 1940s over the threat to traditional life-styles, church leaders and parents apparently did not perceive the public elementary schools to pose the same level of threat. Even in the 1980s, in Mennonite communities east of the Alleghenys a larger percentage of the Mennonite population participated in Mennonite high schools than was true of the rest of the country. Several eastern high schools enrolled over 50 percent of the local Mennonite population whereas elsewhere the range was from 20 to 30 percent.

After 1961 only a few Mennonite schools were established. Attendance continued to increase in the Mennonite schools as the postwar "baby-boom" generation moved through the school years. Enrollment entered a period of decline in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and since then has gradually increased.

Among the Amish, however, the private school movement followed a different pattern. Not until the emergence of the movement to consolidate small rural public schools in the late 1950s and early 1960s did the Amish establish many independent schools. So long as the public schools were primarily small rural schools, the Amish were generally content to send their children to these community-based schools where frequently the population consisted largely of Amish children. As consolidation brought together students from many sectors of the community, the Amish no longer felt comfortable in these settings. In the larger Amish settlements of Holmes County, Ohio; LaGrange County, Indiana; and Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, only a small minority of the Amish children attended the public schools in 1987.

The governance patterns for Mennonite schools were primarily of two types: conference schools and patron schools. Unlike the colleges and seminaries, the Mennonite Board of Education (MC) did not govern any of the high school and elementary schools. The majority of the high schools were owned by regional conference bodies, whereas the elementary schools were predominantly patron schools. In both governance types, school boards of 6 to 12 members directed the work of the staff.

The Mennonite Secondary Education Council (MSEC) and the Mennonite Elementary Education Council (MEEC), both with precursors dating to the 1940s, evolved into their late 1980s forms in the 1970s. The programs of MSEC were more developed than those of the MEEC, although the programs of the MEEC were expanding while those of the MSEC had stabilized. Both councils focused on in-service education for administrators. The MSEC also included in-service activities for board members and teachers. The Mennonite Church's Board of Education (MBE) and the MSEC cooperated in identifying joint priorities and in providing staff assistance for achieving these common goals. In 1987 the MBE held a similar planning session to identify joint goals with the MEEC. Whether these planning initiatives would lead to employment of staff members sufficient to meet the joint priorities remained to be seen. Both councils were beginning to develop curriculum for Bible teaching.

Mennonite schools secured their teaching materials from a variety of publishing sources, including nonsectarian, mainline denominational, evangelical, and fundamentalist. Although several Mennonite-related private publishing groups were preparing materials focused on the Mennonite private school market, none was successful in making a major inroad on the market. Rod and Staff and Christian Light publishers were two examples. In staff development materials, the Blackboard Bulletin had significant impact on teaching in the Amish schools (Pathway Publishers). Neither the efforts of the publishing houses in Scottdale, Pennsylvania. (MC), or Newton, Kansas. (GCM), were successful in developing sufficient interest in Mennonite schools to warrant publishing comprehensive curriculum materials, although Mennonite Publishing House at Scottdale discussed involvement in the elementary school Bible curriculum described above.

From meager beginnings, Mennonite schools developed into first-class operations. Their students were among those best prepared in the church for further study in high schools and colleges. Providing adequate funding for the Mennonite schools continued to be a struggle. School facilities were generally not as elaborate as are those of the public schools in the same communities, but were in most cases adequate. Although the Mennonite schools struggled in their earlier years to attract competent teachers, in the late 1980s the teachers were equally prepared and on the whole probably more competent than the public school teachers. Most taught with credentials issued by the states in which the Mennonite schools operated. The same was true of the school administrators.

See also Amish; Bergthal Mennonites ; Church of God in Christ, Mennonites; Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church; Fellowship Churches; Socialization.

See articles on most groups listed in Conservative Mennonites article and articles on individual Amish settlements.


Hershherger, Noah. A Struggle To Be Separate: A History of the Ohio Amish Parochial School Movement. Orrville, Ohio: published privately, 1985.

Author(s) Orville Yoder
Date Published 1990

Cite This Article

MLA style

Yoder, Orville. "Private Christian Schools (United States)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 20 Jan 2022.

APA style

Yoder, Orville. (1990). Private Christian Schools (United States). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 20 January 2022, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 722-724. All rights reserved.

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