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With the exception of the Amsterdam Mennonite Theological Seminary in The Netherlands which began in 1735 and the Witmarsum Theological Seminary (1921-31), graduate-level seminary education for Mennonite pastors did not arise until after World War II. In the 18th, 19th, and first half of the 20th century, North American Mennonite pastors were chosen out of the congregation without the benefit of formal theological or biblical education. However, those chosen were recognized spiritual leaders who often had formal training equal to or a little beyond the average congregational member. In the late 19th and early 20th century Bible institute training became accessible to some, especially among Mennonite Brethren and General Conference Mennonites.

These pastors educated themselves in the pastoral ministry. They found ways to increase their knowledge and skills for ministry. Like Orie O. Miller, a dedicated lay leader and executive for Mennonite Central Committee and the Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities, these pastors read their Bible through each year. Others memorized Scripture while resting horses in the midst of farm work. A few educated themselves by extensive reading. For example, Christian E. Charles and John W. Burkholder of the Lancaster Mennonite Conference read 300 pages a week throughout their lives. J. B. Smith, the first president of Eastern Mennonite College, gained much of his training through correspondence courses.

As a rural people in the 19th century, Mennonite farmers had more time available for reading during the winter months. North American Mennonite pastors read available books during the evening hours. As a result they were highly esteemed leaders in the community. They observed other pastors at work and learned by listening. They related their learnings to the context of their ministry.

Following World War II graduate-level seminary education gained momentum in the Mennonite churches of North America. However, as late as 1980 only 25 percent of Mennonite Church (MC) pastors and 35 percent of General Conference Mennonite Church pastors were seminary graduates. To provide training for the others, seminars and ministers' week programs emerged. In the Mennonite Conference of Ontario and Quebec (MC) (later part of Mennonite Church Eastern Canada) a "Conference-Based Theological Education" program began in 1977. The Atlantic Coast, Franconia, and Lancaster Conferences developed a Conference-Based Theological Education program in 1980. A similar program emerged in Kansas. In Central America, South America, Africa, and Asia, Mennonites began adapting Theological Education by Extension as a means of training pastors without seminary education.

Author(s) Paul M Zehr
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Zehr, Paul M. "Self-Education." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 27 Jul 2021.

APA style

Zehr, Paul M. (1989). Self-Education. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 27 July 2021, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, p. 808. All rights reserved.

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