The Anabaptist movement very early developed a concept of the church in which a voluntary personal commitment to Christ and to the body of fellow believers was expected. This visible community developed a common body of beliefs and a common set of ethical expectations. Members were expected to encourage each other in maintaining these and to admonish one another when someone departed from them (discipline). This meant that the primary form of "church" was the local congregation.
With this understanding of church, it was quite possible for Anabaptist groups developing in different parts of Europe to differ in aspects of faith and practice. When these differences were perceived by one group or the other to be unacceptable, a separation or schism took place. If the relationship between the two groups had been a close one at an earlier time, then the schism might be formalized by pronouncing the ban on the entire group deemed to hold the unacceptable ethical or doctrinal position.
With this emphasis on a personal commitment as basis for membership in the local church, members also had a much larger role in the discerning and upholding of the common beliefs and practices than had been the case in the hierarchical pattern of the Roman Catholic Church. When this process of arriving at a consensus broke down within a local congregation, a schism might result. If the issues separating the two portions were deemed to be serious enough, mutual excommunication might result.
The Anabaptist understanding of church also included a separation from the state and a renunciation of any coercive means of punishing dissidents. Beyond personal and group admonition, the ban was the only step available. Among some groups it therefore became the means to ensure unity within the church. During the first several generations of the movement, the more or less intense persecution created an atmosphere in which it was difficult both to develop consensus and to maintain a consistent practice of the faith. The rather frequent schisms that resulted from these factors in the early years of Anabaptism, led to the expression "Täuferkrankheit" (Anabaptist disease).
Most of the schisms which took place in Anabaptist and Mennonite history by the mid-1950s are described in this Encyclopedia. The following survey illustrates the various reasons for schisms and attempts to assess the mood in the 1980s.
The 1527 separation of the Stäbler, led by Hans Hut, and the Schwertler, led by Balthasar Hubmaier, in Nikolsburg, reflected a difference in the view of the church's relation to the state, and hence, to such issues as the paying of war taxes and the legitimate use of the sword (church-state relations).
There have been no formal schisms among the Hutterian Brethren, as the Stäbler group came to be known, since that early split. Internal tensions over the issue of their historic communal living pattern have led to the loss of individuals or families. Following the emigration of the entire Hutterite church from Russia to America in the 1870s, a large number of its members chose to abandon communal living, many of them joining the Mennonites. The process of incorporating the Society of Brothers into the Hutterian Brethren was accompanied by some "schisms" between the initial acceptance in 1930, the re-incorporation in 1974, and the re-separation in the early 1990s.
The deepest rift in this group was the separation of the followers of Jacob Ammann, who insisted on stricter discipline in the church and on shunning (avoidance) of those excommunicated. Hans Reist, whom Ammann criticized for being too tolerant, did not accept shunning. Attempts at reconciliation failed and by 1693 the Amish division was final. In the 19th century some Mennonites of the Emmental region of Switzerland joined a movement led by Samuel Fröhlich because they were dissatisfied with the low level of spiritual life in their church.
Menno's emphasis on the idea of a "church without spot or wrinkle" opened the door for his zealous colleagues to push him into using the ban to maintain a pure church. Those groups which continued to hold that the primary use of church discipline should be the correction of erring members, such as the Waterlander and the High German, by 1557 distanced themselves from those practicing the "hard" ban. A more long-lasting schism took place in 1567 with the mutual banning of the Flemish and Frisian groups. The issues dividing them were to a large extent cultural and personal. Both experienced subsequent divisions into "Old" and "Young" factions. By the middle of the 17th century a process of reunification of the various Dutch groups had begun, leading to the formation of the Algemene Doopsgezinde Sociëteit in 1811.
Mennonites in the Vistula delta area of Prussia (later Poland) maintained close relations with the Dutch church. As a result the Flemish-Frisian division took root among them and was still strong enough to be transferred to Russia with the first emigration in 1789. While that rift was gradually being overcome in Russia, a new division began about 1812. Klaas Reimer objected to the low level of morality and spirituality in the church in the Molotschna colony, and his objections led to the separation of the Kleine Gemeinde (Evangelical Mennonite Conference).
A pietistic revival in the Mennonite colonies around the middle of the 19th century and several other kinds of outside influence, led to the separation of the Mennonite Brethren in 1860, the Templer movement in 1863, and the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren in 1869. An attempt to mediate between the Mennonite Brethren and the Mennonite church (Kirchliche Mennoniten) led instead to yet another group, the Allianzgemeinde in 1905.
North American Mennonites
Frontier revivalism and pressure to conform to society proved to be divisive among Mennonites in North America. The 1775 excommunication of Martin Boehm for revivalist tendencies, and that of Bishop Christian Funk in 1778 for his support of war tax, are samples. Both John Herr in 1812 and John Holdeman in 1859 claimed to be more Anabaptist in their emphasis on discipline than the groups from which they separated. Holdeman also emphasized the necessity of the new birth and separation from the world.
The 1847 division in the Franconia (Pennsylvania, USA) Conference was precipitated by the insistence of John H. Oberholtzer on a written constitution and the keeping of minutes in the conference. Oberholtzer's East Pennsylvania Conference of Mennonites in 1860 joined with other "new" Mennonite groups to form the General Conference Mennonite Church, which became the second largest Mennonite group in North America.
An emphasis on the new birth led Bishop Henry Egli's group to separate from the Amish in Indiana in 1866, resulting eventually in the Evangelical Mennonite Church. In the 1880s Bishop Isaac Peters in Nebraska and Bishop Aaron Wall in Minnesota separated from their respective churches over issues of personal regeneration and strict discipline, and founded the Conference of United Mennonite Brethren in North America in 1889 (since 1937 the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren; since 1987, the Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches).
The increasing adaptation of the main body of Mennonites to current North American ways (acculturation) led to divisions of another kind. Certain groups, wishing to preserve traditional customs of worship and church life, separated from conferences which had introduced such new practices as Sunday schools, evangelistic services, and singing in harmony. These came to be known collectively as Old Order Mennonites, although they originated in various places at different times and are not formally associated in one organization. Locally they are sometimes known by their founding leader; e.g., Jacob Wisler, 1872, Indiana and Ohio; Abraham Martin (1834-1902), 1889, Ontario (Martin Old Order Mennonite Church); Jonas Martin, 1893, Pennsylvania. Old Order Amish, characterized by worship in homes, "plain" dress, horse-and-buggy culture, and a strictly rural way of life, are similarly distinct from "Church Amish" or Amish Mennonites (e.g., Beachy Amish Mennonite Fellowship). But their origin is less directly the result of specific schisms.
Among the Mennonites who came to Canada from Russia in the 1870s, the promotion of secondary school education led to a separation in the Bergthal group, with a large majority opposing this move. In Manitoba the small pro-education group retained the name Bergthaler, with the larger conservative blocks, geographically separated by the Red River became the Chortitzer Mennonite Conference and Sommerfeld Mennonites.
Disagreements in several Canadian groups over the seriousness of the governments' violation of Mennonite rights or privileges during and after World War I led to separations of another kind. In the 1920s parts of the Chortitzer, Sommerfelder, and Old Colony churches immigrated to Mexico and Paraguay over this issue. Where the decision to emigrate was made by the church as a total body, those who remained behind were in several cases functionally excommunicated. As a result, the non-emigrating portions of the Old Colony Church in Manitoba and the Saskatchewan Valley had to be reorganized with the help of leadership from non-Old Colony churches.
Just as a number of European divisions were transported to North America by immigration, so mission activity by European and North American Mennonites resulted in new churches in Asia and Africa separated from each other through their ties with different "parent" churches. For example, Japan has four different Mennonite and Brethren in Christ conferences and Congo has three.
Among smaller groups, especially the culturally more conservative ones, schisms continue to take place. In the larger conferences this is no longer the case, although occasionally individual congregations withdraw from affiliation with regional or national conferences. Such withdrawals have been most characteristic of the Mennonite Church (MC), where a number of independent local conferences have emerged since the late 1960s (conservative Mennonites). In general, however, among the largest Mennonite conferences in North America and Europe, there are signs of increasing cooperation and, in some cases even merger (Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada; Arbeitsgemeinschaft deutscher Mennonitengemeinden; inter-Mennonite cooperation). Ironically, mergers themselves can produce schisms if minority portions of the merging groups choose not to go along with the merger.
Bauman, Harold E. The Price of Church Unity. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1962.
Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage 7 (October 1984): 2-10.
Redekop, Calvin. Brotherhood and Schism. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1963.
Weaver, Elmer P., Jr., in Guidelines for Today (July-August 1985): 20-21.
Cite This Article
Ens, Adolf. "Schisms." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 20 Oct 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Schisms&oldid=113578.
Ens, Adolf. (1989). Schisms. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 20 October 2020, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Schisms&oldid=113578.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 796-797. All rights reserved.
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