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Sixteenth Century

During the 16th century Christopher Columbus and many others explored new worlds. Feudalism was declining and nationalism was on the rise. New ideas were spawned, the old structures could no longer hold the new ideas, discoveries and religious ferment. It was a changing economic, political and religious environment, and new canopies had to be built to integrate new discoveries and traditional values. Urbanization was an important part of this process. The Anabaptist-Mennonite movement started primarily in cities such as Zürich, Bern, Strasbourg, Emden, Amsterdam, Leeuwarden, Groningen, Leyden, Rotterdam, Antwerp, Brussels, Münster and Cologne. In the Swiss, South German, and Austrian cities, the Anabaptist movement was crushed and survived only in remote areas. It was different in The Netherlands. Of the thirteen cities listed by Cornelius Krahn, only two were Swiss; the majority were north European, often members of the Hanseatic commercial league. While Anabaptists in central Europe fled the cities, in the northern cities they survived first as an underground movement, later as a tolerated minority and finally as a recognized religious group. (It must be remembered that these cities were relatively small and non-industrialized. The largest of them had 100,000-200,000 inhabitants, many had between 20,000 and 50,000. They were dominated by commerce and artisan crafts rather than large industries and factories. Many urban dwellers maintained small livestock; city neighborhoods retained some elements of rural life.)

Paul Peachey's study, published as Die Soziale Herkunft der Schweizerischen Täufer (The Social Origins of the Swiss Anabaptists), of 762 Swiss individuals who were connected with the Anabaptist movement in central Europe, shows that 150 of these were urban (20 percent). There were 612 villagers and peasants (80 percent), whom he classified as rural. Of the 150 who were urban, 20 had been clergy (14 priests and 6 monks), 20 more were urban lay intellectuals (including Grebel, Manz, Denck and Hugwald), 10 came from the nobility, and 100 were citizens, often urban artisans. Among the artisans, tailors and bakers were most common. Peasants (460) constituted about three-fifths of the total number of persons listed. Combining them with the villagers we conclude that four-fifths of the people appearing in court records belonged to the non-urban population. Most of the urban Anabaptist leaders disappeared within two years (1525-27) through martyrdom, early death, recantation, exile or other unknown destiny. Thus, the Swiss Anabaptist movement was only one-fifth urban to begin with, and almost completely rural two years later. Severe persecution made an urban foothold impossible.

Urbanism among Mennonites of the northern Low Countries is as old as Mennonitism itself. There are some 1,500 Mennonites in Amsterdam, and some 1,300 in Haarlem in 1986 as well as more than 1,000 in a number of other cities. In the 16th century Amsterdam and Rotterdam were part of the Hanseatic League, whose ships plied the Baltic sea between such ports as Bergen, Oslo, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Danzig, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and London. While Menno Simons himself emerged out of rural Friesland, he nevertheless served Mennonites in many urban centers of the 16th century.

W. L. C. Coenen made a study of the Anabaptist martyrs in The Netherlands and found that not one out of 161 martyrs was a farmer. Among the 58 occupations were weavers (27), tailors (17), shoemakers (13), sailors (6), carpenters (5), goldsmiths (5), hatmakers (5), bricklayers (4), bakers (3), leather dealers (3), teachers (3), saddlers (3), and potters (3). There were also Mennonites in rural areas in North Holland, Friesland, and Groningen. Persecution also drove some to the east into Prussia, mostly into the countryside as well as the suburbs of cities such as Altona, Hamburg, Danzig, Marienburg, Elbing and Koenigsburg. Many moved upward into the middle class.

Thus, two major Mennonite branches emerged in Europe: The Swiss and South German rural farmers, and the Dutch, North German Russian entrepreneurs with roots in the commerce and artisan manufacturing of northern Europe. While many Dutch Anabaptists have always remained urban, most others turned to safer rural environs and became farmers because of persecution. Thus, for hundreds of years, these rural Mennonites have been known as the "Stillen im Lande" (peaceful country folk). However, in the 20th century Mennonites in some parts of the world are moving to cities.

World Mennonite Urbanization

A Mennonite World Conference map shows that in 1984 there were 724,000 Mennonite members in 57 countries. Almost half (46.1 percent) resided in two countries of North America, (333,704 members) and the other half (53.9 percent) were located roughly in equal numbers on the four continents of Asia (7 countries, 113,504 members), Africa (11 countries, 107,221 members), Europe (13 countries, 92,368 members), and Latin America (23 countries, 76,938 members). Only one eighth (12.7 percent) live in Europe, the place of Anabaptist beginnings. About two-thirds (most in Europe and North America, and some in South America) are descendants of European Caucasians, and one third are now mostly of Asian and African origins (demography).

In 1984, 90 percent of all Mennonites in the world lived in eleven countries. In Table I we see that one third (32 percent) live in the United States; only about 5 percent live in the original countries of The Netherlands (2.8 percent), Germany (1.6 percent) and Switzerland (.4 percent). The range of urbanization of these countries varies enormously from a high of 82 percent in The Netherlands, to a low of 14 percent in Tanzania.

Table 1.  Of Mennonites in Eleven Countries and Degree of Urbanization of These Countries, 1974-83

Countries % of
Nation Urban
Number of
% of
Total World
United States 73.1 232,192 32.1
Canada 75.7 101,512 14.0
Zaire 34.2 66,408 9.2
Indonesia 22.4 62,911 8.7
Russia 64.1 55,000 7.6
India 22.1 43,998 6.1
Mexico 66.0 31,161 4.3
Netherlands 81.7 20,200 2.8
Paraguay 38.6 13,939 1.9
Tanzania 13.8 13,614 1.9
West Germany 77.0 11,688 1.6
Totals   652,623 90.2
Source: United  Nations Demographic Yearbook, 1983, and Mennonite World Conference map, 1984

While statistics on Mennonite urbanization for the United States and Canada are available, it is very difficult to assemble data on urban Mennonites in the Soviet Union and most of the other countries. Estimates by Mennonites who live in these countries show that usually Mennonites are more rural than respective national urban figures; in no case were Mennonites more urban than respective national averages. Mennonites still are urban in The Netherlands, where they have always lived in cities, and where they remain the largest original Anabaptist group (20,000). Mennonites have also moved very heavily into cities in the Soviet Union after World War II, and Mennonite urbanization is also escalating in North America so that about half of Canadian Mennonites are urban.

Urban Mennonites in North America

Since almost half (46.1 percent) of all Mennonites live in the United States and Canada, and since the best urban data are available from there, we shall examine North American Mennonite urbanization in more detail. Howard Kauffman and Leland Harder made the most extensive survey of North American Mennonites in 1972; Driedger and Kauffman published a paper on urbanization using some of these data in 1982. They found that two thirds of the total sample of Mennonites taken in North America were rural, and one third were urban, living in cities of more than 2,500 people. They found that Canadian Mennonites were significantly more urban (44 percent) than American Mennonites (32 percent). However, there are many interesting variations by region and by size of community.

We find Canadian and American Mennonites are similar in the farm and village/town categories. However, there are twice as many rural non-farm Mennonites in the United States (18 percent) as in Canada (8 percent). This greater proportion of non-farm American Mennonites accounts for the higher total rural proportion.

Table 2. Comparison of American and Canadian Mennonites by Rural and Rural Differentiations

Country and Region Size of Community    
  Farm Rural  Non-Farm Village/Town 2,500 2,500-25,000 25,000-250,000 Over 250,000 Total % N
East 35% 31 13 16 4 1 100 895
Midwest 36 20 15 19 9 2 100 792
Prairies 39 4 26 15 7 10 100 760
Pacific 13 9 4 28 25 21 100 326
Total USA % 34 18 16 18 9 6 100  
N 933 491 447 492 241 169   2773
Ontario 29 11 15 13 29 2 100 299
Prairies 42 2 12 5 4 35 100 373
Columbia 17 21 10 19 19 4 100 93
Total Canada % 34 8 14 10 16 18 100 763
N 258 62 108 76 120 139    
North American                
Sample % 34 16 16 16 10 9 100  
N 1191 553 555 568 361 308   3536
Source: J. Howard Kauffman and Leland Harder, eds., Anabaptists four centuries later: a profile of five Mennonite and Brethren in Christ denominations (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1975); Driedger and Kauffman in Mennonite Quarterly Review, 56 (1982).  

The basic difference between the two countries in the three urban categories (small city, medium, and large metropolitan centers), is that American Mennonites reside twice as frequently in small cities and Canadian Mennonites are two to three times more likely to reside in larger metropolitan centers. There were also important regional variations. Only 20 percent of the Mennonites in the American East, 23 percent in the Midwest, 32 percent in the American prairie states, and 74 percent of the Pacific Coast Mennonites were urban. Mennonites in the western United States, who were largely of Dutch-Russian background were roughly twice as urban as the Mennonites in eastern America, who were largely of Swiss (Pennsylvania-German) background. These urban distinctions by region are not apparent in Canada. Roughly 40 to 45 percent of the Mennonites were urban in all parts of Canada in 1972. Since then urbanization has increased.

A closer examination of Mennonites in some of the major metropolitan centers of North America shows that there are 1,000 or more members in six centers in Canada. The largest numbers are located in Winnipeg (9,400), Saskatoon (2,300), Kitchener-Waterloo (2,300), and Vancouver (4,800) in 1985. These Mennonites worship in more than a dozen churches in each of five of the centers (3 dozen in Winnipeg). Canadian urban Mennonites are mostly of European heritage who have moved to the cities from rural hinterlands, or who have entered cities as immigrants especially after World War II. Each of the eight cities listed have substantial rural Mennonite hinterlands which feed into these cities. While Mennonites of Asian backgrounds are also starting urban churches, they still represent a small proportion of urban Mennonites in Canada; African origin Mennonites hardly exist in Canada.

Table 3. Mennonites Located in Selected Metropolitan Centers of Canada and the USA, 1985

Metropolitan Centers
(100,000 plus)
Size of Metropolitan Population
(Census 1980/81)
Number of Mennonites
(all ages, 1981 Census)
Number of
Mennonite Churches
Mennonite Adult
Winnipeg 578,625 19,105 36 10,000
Saskatoon 152,265 9,915 14 5,000
Kitchener/Waterloo 285,145 9,760 14 4,900
Vancouver 1,250,610 9,515 16 4,800
St. Catherines 301,565 5,985 6 3,000
Calgary 587,025 3,635 12 1,900
Toronto 2,975,495 2,950 4 1,500
Edmonton 650,895 1,920 7 1,000
Lancaster, Pa. 54,725 (non-metro) 23 3,100
Harrisonburg, Va. 53,264 (non-metro) 10 1,784
Fresno, Cal. 515,013   7 1,249
Elkhart, Ind. 46,515 (non-metro) 9 1,144
Chicago, Ill. 7,102,328   18 1,006
Wichita, Ks. 411,313   6 978
Los Angeles, Cal. 7,477,657   10 534
Washington, D.C. 3,060,240   9 437
New York, N.Y 9,119,737   14 406
Philadelphia, Pa. 4,716,818   9 371
Source: 1980 USA Census, 1981 Canadian  Census, and Mennonite conference yearbooks

The patterns of Mennonite urbanization tend to be different in the United States. Rural Mennonites have not so much moved from hinterlands into large metropolitan centers as they have been attracted more to small cities (Lancaster, Harrisonburg, Elkhart). Mennonite congregations in larger cities are more often the result of mission and church planting efforts and represent a greater variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds. Table 3 indicates that there are relatively small numbers of Mennonites in the very large American metropolitan centers of three million or more. The Mennonites (2,754) who worship in 60 congregations located in Chicago (1,006 members), Los Angeles (534), Washington (437), New York City (406), and Philadelphia (371), comprise groups averaging fewer than 50 members, compared to Canadian urban churches with average memberships of 325. Eastern American Swiss Mennonites are attracted more to smaller urban centers of 50,000 or less: Lancaster, Pa. (9 churches, plus others outside the city itself), Goshen, Ind. (12 churches, with 9 more in adjoining rural areas), and Harrisonburg, Va. (10 churches, plus several located in adjoining rural areas). Western Russian-background Mennonites in Fresno, Cal, (7 churches), and Wichita, Ks. (6 churches), follow the Canadian pattern more.

Amsterdam was the world urban Mennonite center for more than 400 years, with Mennonite membership as high as 10,000. By 1986 this had declined to 1,500 members worshiping in five places. This was part of a general decline in membership in The Netherlands from 31,000 in 1972 to 20,200 in 1984. Thus, after World War II, Winnipeg has emerged as the largest urban Mennonite center in the world with 19,100 Mennonites (1981 census), representing about 9,400 adult members who worshiped in 44 churches in the city in 1988.

There are many Mennonite institutions in Winnipeg, including two colleges, two high schools, the Mennonite Central Committee headquarters for Canada and for Manitoba, two offender ministries half-way houses for former prisoners, a hospital, many homes for the elderly, several credit unions, 44 churches, six newspapers, several musical and drama societies, two national conference offices (GCM and Manitoba, Canada), and scores of Mennonite businesses and companies. A variety of conferences, associations, corporations, organizations, and societies keep information flowing between Winnipeg Mennonites and other Mennonite communities.

Leadership of Mennonite churches in Winnipeg has been entirely Mennonite. About 150 ministers have served the 44 Mennonite churches in Winnipeg over the past fifty years, and all of them (except four to six) were Mennonite. Many were well educated and were heavily involved in provincial, national, and international Mennonite conference activities. Most of the leaders in the 44 churches are graduates of Mennonite Bible schools, high schools colleges and seminaries. Thus they come in constant contact with networks of leaders from all over Canada, the United States and the world. Mennonite leadership also extends to editors of Mennonite and non-Mennonite Winnipeg papers; businessmen in influential places; teachers and professors at elementary, secondary, and university levels; social workers; medical professionals; and virtually all other professions and occupations. These positions have given them the means to inform and promote their identity at all levels of society. More importantly, they are active in their Mennonite churches and they are committed to their heritage and perceived by their fellow Mennonites as committed members. The degree of integration between Winnipeg Mennonites in their Mennonite structures and their everyday occupations is considerable. It is a natural outflow of their faith, life and work. Similar activities are happening in many other cities, but usually not on the same scale.

Urban Mennonite Beliefs and Attitudes

To what extent do beliefs, and attitudes of Mennonites change as they urbanize? The early Anabaptists believed in adult baptism, and they could not take part in war. They also believed in the priesthood of all believers, a disciplined church and the importance of evangelism. They did not swear the oath, and they could not serve in governments. Studies show that these beliefs are still held by urban and rural North American Mennonites alike. However, Driedger and Kauffman found more rural-urban differences when they examined social issues of the day. There was a great deal of consensus against issues such as use of hard drugs, and becoming drunk. However, many more rural than metropolitan Mennonites thought that it was wrong to gamble (80 to 69 percent), smoke tobacco (67 to 56 percent), remarry when the first spouse is still living (66 to 49 percent), drink alcohol moderately (57 to 34 percent), divorce when the cause is not adultery (55 to 39 percent), attend for-adults-only movies (54 to 32 percent), engage in social dancing (50 to 30 percent), masturbate (49 to 37 percent), and divorce when the cause is adultery (39 to 24 percent).

Fewer metropolitan Mennonites hold to some present and past norms of personal morality, but there is somewhat more urban flexibility on family breakdown. More research is required to document the quality of urban Mennonite beliefs, attitudes and behavior especially in other parts of the world.


Coenen, W. L. C. Bijdrage tot de Kennis van de Maatschappelijke Verhoudingen van de Zestiendeeeuwische Doopers. Amsterdam, 1920: 1-90.

Driedger, Leo and J. Howard Kauffman. "Urbanization of Mennonites: Canadian and American Comparisons." Mennonite Quarterly Review 56 (1982): 269-90.

Driedger, Leo. "Canadian Mennonite Urbanism: Ethnic Villagers or Metropolitan Remnant?" Mennonite Quarterly Review 49 (1975): 150-62.

Driedger, Leo. "Post-war Canadian Mennonites: From Rural to Urban Dominance." Journal of Mennonite Studies 6 (1988): 70-88.

Krahn, Cornelius. Dutch Anabaptism: Origin, Spread, Life and Thought. Scottdale, PA, 1981: 90-100.

Kauffman, J. Howard and Leland Harder, eds. Anabaptists Four Centuries Later: a Profile of Five Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Denominations. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1975.

Peachey, Paul. Die Soziale Herkunft der Schweizerischen Täufer in der Reformationszeit. Karlsruhe, 1954: 102-27.

Peachey, Paul. The Church in the City. Newton, KS: Faith and Life, 1963.

Author(s) Leo Driedger
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Driedger, Leo. "Urbanization." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 2 Aug 2021. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Urbanization&oldid=170076.

APA style

Driedger, Leo. (1989). Urbanization. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 2 August 2021, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Urbanization&oldid=170076.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, p. 903-907. All rights reserved.

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