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Historically Mennonites have stressed the importance of the wise use of their resources, including time, money, and energy. They looked to the Bible for guidance in daily living and placed emphasis upon using any leisure time for productive purposes such as Bible study to gain a better understanding of the Scriptures. Play and recreation activities for adults were thought of as wasting time. Many team sports were considered to be activities of the world and were avoided by Christians who had separated themselves from the world (nonconformity).

The Industrial Revolution, compulsory education, and a lack of agricultural land brought about an end to the way that Mennonites were able to shield themselves from worldly influence. Entering high school and taking jobs in neighboring cities brought them increasingly into contact with people of other faiths.

This interaction with non-Mennonites exposed young Mennonites to a large variety of "worldly" amusements, including participation in team sports. Individual sports such as hunting and fishing were utilitarian because they put food on the table and thus they did not pose the kind of problem presented by participation in team sports, e.g., football and basketball. Attendance in public high schools brought with it the opportunity for Mennonite youth to participate in sports, which frequently caused family disagreements and confrontations in the church. In some churches, this actually became a test of membership (discipline).

The history of team sports and intercollegiate athletics in Mennonite colleges reflects the general attitude of the period. From the beginning students were highly interested in organizing team sports while the schools' supporting constituency generally opposed interschool athletics. The faculty and college boards were cautious, being aware of the desires of the student but fearing negative reactions from conservative and vocal constituents. While some administrators and board members supported the athletic programs, many felt that sports were detrimental to the schools' purposes and objectives. The attitudes of people changed gradually with the passing of time.

Physical education classes, recreation, and intramural sports have been an important part of Mennonite colleges since their inception. Intercollegiate participation in team sports came earlier to Bethel College and Bluffton College than to the other Mennonite colleges.

As early as 1897, a group of 30 students at Bethel College organized a football team. This met with opposition from the faculty and constituency, and the board expressed its hope that every state in the union would soon prohibit football. In 1901 the faculty took the following action: "Realizing the dangers in modern football, some of the objectionable features which have of late been introduced into the game at Bethel College, the faculty at their meeting on the 22nd of November placed the following restrictions on the game, so far as playing football at this institution is concerned: 'Football may be played at Bethel College only on the condition that no running with the ball, interference, or mass plays of any kind be permitted'." Summarizing this turbulent period at Bethel, P. J. Wedel said that "In spite of objections and restrictions, athletic contests gained in favor with the student and assumed a more prominent place in student activities" (Wedel, Bethel College, 128). By 1910, athletics, primarily basketball and baseball, had found an important place in student activities at Bethel College. Football was introduced officially in 1914 and intercollegiate competition has continued.

Sports at Bluffton College had a similar history. Hardesty indicates that tennis and baseball were played at Bluffton during the 1904-05 school year with the first official football game being played in 1905 (Hardesty, 16-18). However, it was not until 1908 that intercollegiate games were permitted in all sports. In 1914 a new, more conservative, college board considered football to be "unsavory and barbaric," bringing an end officially to football at Bluffton. However, unofficial games continued to be played by a team named the "Bluffton Collegians" and coached by Professor H. W. Berky. A traditional story relates that a football was buried ceremonially in back of the chapel building after a chapel service. Not until 1922 did the board relent and permit a football game in which Bluffton defeated Toledo.

Intercollegiate athletics came to the Mennonite Church (MC) schools (Goshen, Hesston, and Eastern Mennonite College) much later than to the General Conference schools (Bethel and Bluffton). In 1911 the Mennonite Board of Education (MC) officially discouraged "all games which encourage the spirit of rivalry, intercollegiate contest, etc." There is evidence of participation in intercollegiate sports of basketball, tennis, baseball, and track at Goshen College in 1918-20. In 1920 the Mennonite Board of Education passed a resolution prohibiting all inter-school athletic events (Umble, 237-38). Before World War II these schools emphasized intramural sports and physical education programs focusing on participation by all students.

The faculty approved an intercollegiate program in 1956 and Goshen College had its first official game with another school in 1957. Hesston College and Eastern Mennonite College had similar histories.

While women were included in the physical education programs of the colleges, it was not until the 1960s that they actively participated in intercollegiate team sports. In the 1950s Mennonite colleges held "Sports Days" to which women from other schools were invited. It was not until 1958 that the Goshen College girls team played its first official basketball game with Grace College and its first season of play was in 1963-64. In 1987, team sports for women at Mennonite colleges include field hockey, tennis, basketball track, and volleyball.

In the 1980s most Mennonite schools in the United States participate in intercollegiate team sports, many of them in leagues with regularly scheduled games for both men and women. Faculty, school constituency, and students appreciate the way participation in team sports helps develop leadership, teaches cooperation, and unifies and promotes school loyalty. Even so, questions continue to be raised concerning intercollegiate athletics. The newspapers are constantly reminding us of the excesses and recruitment violations in many of the universities with extensive athletic programs. There are questions raised as to the place of highly competitive contact sports in relationship to Mennonite nonresistance and peace testimony. There are always questions raised relating to the costs of specific programs. Even though concerns are still being expressed, it is readily apparent that intercollegiate sports are being enthusiastically supported and enjoyed by students, faculty, and the school constituencies.


Buhr, Gerhard R. "A Historical Study of Men's Intercollegiate Athletics at Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas from 1900 to the Spring of 1960." Master's thesis, Kansas State Teachers College, Emporia, KS, 1962.

Burkholder, Rebecca. "Today's Athletes Inherit Program Begun by Gingerich." Goshen College Bulletin. November 1962): 15.

Echoes (Bethel College Annual, 1908).

Gingerich, Roman. "Campus Recreation and Athletic Program." Paper read at the Recreation Study Conference, Elkhart, Indiana, 1956.

Hardesty, Von. A Narrative of Bluffton College. Bluffton College, 1974.

Lapp, John A. The Mennonite Church in India, 1897-1962. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1972: 60

"Minutes." Faculty meeting, Bethel College, 22 November 1901.

"Minutes of Annual Meeting of the Mennonite Board of Education," held at Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana, 17 June 1911.

Oswald, Charles Evan. "A History of Sports in the Mennonite Church of North America since 1900." Master's thesis, U. of Illinois, 1956.

Ruth, Beth Johnson. "Goshen Women Playing Through." Goshen College Bulletin. (November 1982): 5.

School and College Journal (Bethel College, January 1897).

Umble, John. Goshen College, 1894-1954. Scottdale: MPH, 1955.

Wedel, Peter J. The Story of Bethel College. North Newton, KS: Mennonite Press, 1954.

Author(s) Oswald H Goering
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Goering, Oswald H. "Sports." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 24 Jun 2024.

APA style

Goering, Oswald H. (1989). Sports. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 24 June 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 853-854. All rights reserved.

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