Spiritual Life

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Spiritual Life, or spirituality, refers to aspects of Christian life that unite what Mennonites commonly understand as separate topics: doctrine (theology) and ethics. In the classic Christian tradition of the first twelve centuries, teaching on "spirituality" was no more and no less than teaching and living the Christian message of salvation: the restoration of the sin-corrupted image of God in men and women and participation in the divine nature through the church's sacraments, both being grounded in the reality of the Incarnation. Proclamation and teaching, experience and ethics all emanated from this center.

Anabaptist and Mennonite suspicion of academic (scholastic) theology coupled with emphasis on discipleship ethics may partly explain why Mennonites are only beginning, late in the 20th century, to explore spirituality, that is, to reflect deliberately on the interrelationships between ethics and doctrine and on the mystery of God becoming human so that men and women could know God intimately and ontologically (in being) as well as ethically (in actions). This is not to say that Mennonites have not had their own spiritualities. It is to say that they have not reflected on the character of their spiritualities in any sustained and systematic way. Much research remains to be carried out in this field. The present article offers a brief overview of two models for understanding Anabaptist and Mennonite spirituality. A large number of articles in the present volume offer insight into Mennonite and Anabaptist spirituality, and the reader is encouraged to consult them as indicated.

The dominant interpretation of Anabaptist and Mennonite spirituality was set forth by Robert Friedmann in his classic work, Mennonite piety through the centuries (1949); variations on it have been offered by other scholars. Friedmann understood the reception of Pietism by Mennonites to be a largely negative development, an abandonment of the heroic, existential, and costly Anabaptist discipleship in favor of a sweet, interiorized piety. This negative image of Pietism has been challenged by a number of scholars, notably Dale Brown from within the Believers Church fold. Whether Pietism is viewed as a negative or positive development, however, most interpreters have used Anabaptism and Pietism as the two poles for analyzing Mennonite spirituality, with "interiorizing" Pietism being continued in revivalism and the charismatic and evangelical movements, and "externalizing" Anabaptism being reborn in the 20th century "recovery of the Anabaptist vision," the Concern movement, house churches, and the Eberhard Arnold Hutterian Brethren, to name only a few examples.

Yet another variation on this dominant framework for understanding Anabaptist and Mennonite spirituality has been offered by Joseph Liechty, Theron Schlabach, and others. In this view, humility, in part under Pietist influence, replaced the original Anabaptist understanding of suffering discipleship. Because Mennonite scholars, with a few exceptions, have not explored the pre-Reformation tradition of humility in depth, humility is portrayed as inwardness rather than a comprehensive attitude related to ascetic discipline, martyrdom (both literal and figurative), and crossbearing, as it was understood in the early and medieval church.

An alternative paradigm for interpreting Anabaptist and Mennonite spirituality makes use of "first generation" and "second generation" categories (Martin 1988). As the martyrdom spirituality of the first-generation church (1st-3rd centuries) gave way to the monastic-led church of the 4th-12th centuries, the monastic life inherited the mantle of the martyrs, the apostolic writings were collected in a fixed canon of Scriptures, and charismatic ministries were institutionalized in sacraments and ecclesial offices and tradition. Leaders in this process understood this development to be a legitimate one, a transition in which, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ continued to be embodied in the institutions and structures of the church. Thus spirituality in the second generation was characterized by liturgy (worship), sacraments (ordinances), offices, rule-centered monastic life, and tradition.

At first glance, it would appear that Anabaptist and Mennonite history does not fit this model. Anabaptists and Mennonites opposed Catholic teachings on sacraments, liturgy, church offices, and tradition. Yet a closer look reveals that the transition from Anabaptists to Mennonites involved a similar institutionalization of the initial charismatic fervor. Because their Anabaptist ancestors had originated in a revolution against corrupted institutions of the church, Mennonites continued to teach against sacraments, priestly and episcopal office, and tradition, even while de facto they were establishing their own sacraments, priestliness (bishop), and tradition. Mennonite spirituality thus became institutionalized in a manner parallel to the development of Catholicism in the 3rd-12th centuries.

One advantage of the first- and second-generation model for analyzing the history of spirituality is that it applies to all Christian groups. All movements must originate somewhere and therefore can be viewed as having a first-generation phase. Although this first generation can be prolonged for a while, all movements sooner or later must face the second generation with its need for institutionalization. One can trace this development among Catholics, Puritans, Baptists, and Pentecostal movements, as well as Anabaptists. Indeed, this model offers a way to understand comprehensively the role of revivalism, charismatic renewal, house churches, and the neo-Anabaptist "recovery of the Anabaptist vision" in Mennonite history. Such renewals are efforts, on the part of a group that claims never to have left the first generation's fervor behind, to prolong or recover the first-generation character that their doctrine requires; the recurrence of such renewal movements indicates that second-generation institutionalization is taking place and that practice is different from theory (doctrine). The conflict and confusion resulting from trying to live in the first generation (in theory) and second generation (in practice) at the same time gives rise to a wide variety of Mennonite spiritualities. Some are quite sacramental and ritualized (Amish, Older Order Mennonites, Hutterites). Others are charismatic, radical, and spontaneous (revivalism, sociopolitical activism, civil disobedience, house churches and intentional communities). Some trends in Mennonite spirituality in the 1980s have drawn from Catholic sources, although modifying the borrowings heavily in the process, since Mennonite polity makes it impossible to establish a traditional, liturgical, and sacramental spirituality in Mennonite circles. Some Catholic elements have been borrowed by abstracting meditation techniques or pastoral approaches from their sacramental and liturgical moorings and then assimilating them to the non-sacramental and non-liturgical Quaker tradition of silence and social activism.

The most significant trend in Mennonite spirituality in the late 20th century results from the disintegration of traditional Mennonite subcultures in Russia, Europe, and North America. In these second-generation subcultures Mennonite spirituality was routinized and embedded in the patterns of life within the Mennonite communities. Worship followed regular patterns that were in effect liturgies; children were born into the community and "grew into" the church in a manner that closely paralleled infant baptism; ministers and bishops (elders) were ordained and surrounded with an aura of sanctity closely paralleling sacramental ordination in Catholic or Orthodox circles. All that was missing was an articulated theology of these liturgical and sacramental practices. As Mennonites left their subcultures or were forced to leave them by external pressures, the traditional patterned, routinized, ritualized, and sacramentalized practices disappeared. Since there was no articulated and "portable" theology of liturgy or tradition that could be carried from the dissolving subculture into the new mainstream culture, a broad range of practices and theories filled the vacuum. The diversity of these Mennonite spiritualities offers a broad field for future research.


In addition to the bibliographies for articles on Family Worship; Spiritual Direction and Spiritual Formation; and Worship, Private, see the following (the list is selective, even arbitrary at points):

Augsburger, Myron. Walking in the Resurrection. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1976.

Bender, Harold S. "The Anabaptist Theology of Discipleship." Mennonite Quarterly Review 24 (1950): 25-32.

Bender, Harold S., Franklin Littell, Walter Klaassen, Gerhard J. Neumann in Mennonite Quarterly Review 35 (April 1961): sp. issue.

Brown, Dale W. Understanding Pietism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978.

Boyd, Stephen B. "Pilgram Marpeck and the Justice of Christ." PhD dissertation, Harvard University, 1984.

Brenneman, John M. Pride and Humility: a Discourse Setting Forth the Characteristics of the Proud and the Humble, first published as a series of articles in Herald of Truth in 1866; or as a separate pamphlet, Hoffart and Demuth: Einander gegenüber gestellt. Elkhart, IN: John F. Funk, 1867.

[Burkholder, Christian]. Nützliche und Erbauliche Anrede an die Jugend. [Ephrata, Pa.?], 1804.

Cronk, Sandra. "Gelassenheit: the Rites of the Redemptive Process in the Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonite Communities." PhD diss., U. of Chicago, 1977, cf. Mennonite Quarterly Review 55 (1981): 5-44.

Davis, Kenneth R. Anabaptism and Asceticism. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1974.

Davis, Kenneth R. "Anabaptism as a Charismatic Movement." Mennonite Quarterly Review 53 (1979): 219-36.

Drescher, John M. Spirit Fruit. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1974.

Dyck, C. J. "The Life of the Spirit in Anabaptism." Mennonite Quarterly Review 47 (1973): 309-26.

Erb, Peter C. "Anabaptist Spirituality" in Protestant Spiritual Traditions, ed. Frank C. Senn. New York: Paulist Press, 1986: 80-124.

Erb, Peter C. "A Reflection on Mennonite Theology in Canada." Journal of Mennonite Studies 1 (1983): 179-90.

"Focus on Spiritual Formation." Builder (January 1985): sp. issue.

Friedmann, Robert. Mennonite Piety Through the Centuries. Goshen, IN: Mennonite Historical Society, 1949.

Funck, Heinrich. Eine Restitution oder Erklärung einiger Hauptpunkte des Gesetzes.... Philadelphia: Funck family.

George, Timothy. "Early Anabaptist Spirituality in the Low Countries. Mennonite Quarterly Review 62 (1988): 257-75, also published in Doopsgezinde Bijdragen,, n.r. 12-13 (1986-87).

Goertz, Hans-Jürgen, ed. Die Mennoniten, Die Kirchen der Welt, 8. Stuttgart: Evangelisches Verlagswerk, 1971.

Goertz, Hans-Jürgen. Die Täufer: Geschichte und Deutung. Munich: C. H. Beck, 1980.

Gospel Herald (May 1982), a series of articles, "Spirituality Reconsidered."

Hostetler, Beulah Stauffer. "American Mennonites and Protestant Movements: a Community Paradigm. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1987.

Klaassen, Walter. "Spiritualization in the Reformation." Mennonite Quarterly Review 37 (1963): 67-77.

Kreider, Alan. Journey Towards Holiness: a Way of Living for God's Nation. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1987.

Lehman, Chester K. The Holy Spirit and the Holy Life. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1959.

"Letter of Henry Egly to Katherine Amstutz" in Stan Nussbaum. You Must Be Born Again. Ft. Wayne, IN: Evangelical Mennonite Church, 1980: 67-68.

Liechty, Joseph C. "Humility: the Foundation of the Mennonite Religious Outlook in the 1860s." Mennonite Quarterly Review 54 (1980): 5-31.

MacMaster, Richard K. Land, Piety, Peoplehood: the Establishment of Mennonite Communities in America, 1683-1790, The Mennonite Experience in America (MEA), vol. 1. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1985.

Martin, Dennis D. "Catholic Spirituality and Anabaptist and Mennonite Discipleship." Mennonite Quarterly Review 62 (1988): 5-25.

Martin, John B. Ventures in Discipleship. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1984.

McGrath, William B. How to Find Your Perfection in Christ: a Devotional Study of Hebrews. Minerva, Ohio: McGrath, [1986].

Miller, Marlin E. in Gospel Herald (31 August 1982): 586.

Ministry of Spirituality Committee (MC). "A Pastoral Letter on Spirituality." Gospel Herald (5 May 1987): 306-8, cf. response in Gospel Herald (22 September 1987): 668-69.

Mumaw, John R. in Gospel Herald (7 August 1984): 548-51.

Osborne, Chester C. in Gospel Herald (28 October 1986): 734- 35.

Packull, Werner O. Mysticism and the Early South German-Austrian Anabaptist Movement, 1525-1531. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1977.

Rempel, John D. "Christology and the Lord's Supper in Anabaptism: a Study in the Theology of Balthasar Hubmaier, Pilgram Marpeck, and Dirk Philips. ThD diss., St. Michael's College, Toronto School of Theology, 1986.

Runzo, Jean. "Hutterite Communal Discipline, 1529-1565." Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte 71 (1980): 160-79.

Sawatsky, Rodney J. Authority and Identity: the Dynamics of the General Conference Mennonite Church. North Newton, KS: Bethel College, 1987.

Schlabach, Theron F. "Mennonite Revivalism, Modernity -- 1683-1850." Church History 48 (1979): 398-415.

Schlabach, Theron F. "Mennonites and Pietism in America, 1740-1880: Some Thoughts on the Friedmann Thesis." Mennonite Quarterly Review 57 (1983): 222-40.

Schlabach, Theron F. Peace, Faith, Nation: Mennonites and Amish in Nineteenth-century America, The Mennonite Experience in America (MEA), vol. 2. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1988.

Schrag, Martin H. "The Brethren in Christ Attitude Toward the 'World': a Historical Study of the Movement From Separation to an Increasing Acceptance of American Society." PhD diss., Temple U., 1967.

Smucker, Marcus G. "Self-sacrifice and Self-realization in Mennonite Spirituality." PhD diss., Union for Experimenting Colleges and Universities, 1987.

Stoesz, Willis M. "The New Creature: Menno Simon's Understanding of the Christian Faith." Mennonite Quarterly Review 39 (1965): 5-24.

Swartzendruber, A. Orley. "The Piety and Theology of the Anabaptist Martyrs in Von Braght's Martyrs' Mirror." Mennonite Quarterly Review 28 (1954): 128-42.

Urry, James. "All That Glitters...: Delbert Plett and the Place of the Kleine Gemeinde in Russian-Mennonite history." Journal of Mennonite Studies 4 (1986): 228-50.

Vogt, Virgil in Concern pamphlet no. 9 (March 1961): 44-47.

Voolstra, Sjouke. "True Penitence: the Core of. Menno Simons' Theology." Mennonite Quarterly Review 62 (1988): 387-499, also published in Doopsgezinde Bijdragen, n.r. 12-13 (1986-87).

Wenger, John C. "Grace and Discipleship in Anabaptism." Mennonite Quarterly Review 35 (1961): 50-69.

Yoder, Paul M. and others. Four Hundred Years With the Ausbund. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1964: esp. ch. 2: "Teachings Stressed in the Ausbund" by Elizabeth Bender.

See also many biographies, autobiographies, and fictional accounts of 19th- and 20th-century Mennonites, e.g., Tobias K. Hershey as told to Daniel Hertzler, I'd Do It Again. Elkhart: Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities, 1961: esp. 38, 40, 127-28, 151-53; John S. Umble. "Memoirs of an Amish Bishop." Mennonite Quarterly Review 22 (1948) 94-115; Priscilla Stuckey- Kauffman. "A Woman's Ministry: Clara Brubaker Shank, 1869-1958." Mennonite Quarterly Review 60 (1986): 404-28; Peter G. Epp. Agatchen: a Russian Mennonite Mother's Story, trans. and edited by Peter Pauls. Winnipeg: Hyperion, 1986; originally published as Eine Mutter [1932].

Author(s) Dennis D Martin
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Martin, Dennis D. "Spiritual Life." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 21 Jun 2021. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Spiritual_Life&oldid=162891.

APA style

Martin, Dennis D. (1989). Spiritual Life. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 21 June 2021, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Spiritual_Life&oldid=162891.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 851-853. All rights reserved.

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