Work Ethic

Jump to navigation Jump to search

Work in its many aspects is central to Anabaptist and Mennonite history and theology, but practically no discussion exists on the subject, while leisure has an extensive bibliography. This disparity indicates the implicit and unreflective acceptance of work. Work has physical, psychological, social, cultural, and religious foundations. Elements of work include the job (the economic aspects of living), career (the personal-psychological history of work), occupation (the social structure of work), vocation (the value cluster of work), and calling (the religious dimension and purpose of work). The cultural aspect of work pertains to how work, i.e., labor, has been utilized in a society, e.g., whether work is slave or free, whether it has been directed mainly to survival as over against leisure, whether it is regulated or not.

Work has great relevance for Anabaptist-Mennonites since they too are economic creatures and have been involved in economic and business activities. That Mennonites have not developed a theology of work is consistent with their practice of stressing ethics rather than abstract belief (Erb, Burkholder).

For the Anabaptists, work became a means by which toleration and the right to exist was guaranteed by the authorities of Switzerland, France, Germany, Austria, and Prussia. Thus, for example, the emigrating Dutch Mennonites earned toleration by reclaiming areas of the Vistula Delta in Prussia (cf. Séguy, Hostetler, Penner, water technology). The subsequent toleration of Mennonites in the above-named countries; and the establishment of the Mennonite colonies in Russia, Canada, Latin America; and the vast and prosperous agricultural areas in Europe, Canada, and United States, attest to the massive amounts of labor Mennonites have done. "Hard work" has always been an important element in Mennonite identity along with sobriety, honesty, dependability and the other virtues. Troeltsch insists that Mennonites came from the masses and represent the revolt against oppression of the laboring strata, hence the emphasis on work is genuinely inherited.

As Troeltsch avers, Mennonites in time "capitulated" to the "Protestant calling" (p. 705) and forsook their ideal. This is the direct consequence of interaction with the Germanic and Protestant work ethic, a concept described and popularized by Weber and others. Hence, by the end of the 19th century, Mennonite attitudes toward, and involvement in, work can be said to be rather similar to that of Protestantism. The phenomenal achievements of the Hutterite colonies; Mennonite agriculturalists in Europe; Mennonite colonies in Russia, Canada, and Latin America; and the Mennonite settlements in various parts of the United States; not to overlook the achievements of Mennonites in business, are well established facts.

In the late 20th century Mennonites can be classed in two groups regarding the work ethic: Germanically-derived Mennonites and non-Germanic Mennonites. For the first-mentioned group, work is a means to security, to social status, self-expression, and all the other general functions of work defined above. It became justified as a means to freedom alluded to above and also as a natural consequence of life on the land -- to subdue, dominate and make land productive takes much labor, the God-ordained sweat of the brow! (Genesis 3:19). Mennonite life on the land thus dignified work and made it inherently necessary, as most Mennonite novels indicate (e.g., Arnold Dyck and Rudy Wiebe [Dill]). Sociological accounts of Mennonites in general (Correll) or groups such as Russian Mennonites (Rempel), Hutterites (Hostetler), Amish (Hostetler. Cronk), Old Colony Mennonites (Redekop), Old Order Mennonites (Cronk), Church of God in Christ Mennonite [Holdeman] (Hiebert), the town of Altona, Manitoba (Epp), implicitly stress the centrality of hard work in establishing Mennonite settlements and, in a few cases, explicitly discuss the relevance of work especially on the land (Hostetler, Redekop, Cronk).

Non-Germanic Mennonites, the "new" Mennonites in Africa, Asia, Japan, and Latin America, to name just a few areas, have attitudes toward work that reflect the values of their respective societies. The "New" and "Old" Mennonites of Latin America (e.g., the Germanic-background Mennonites and the Indigenous Mennonites in the Chaco), sometimes living side-by-side, reflect radically differing work ethics, which often create tensions and misunderstandings (cf. Redekop, 1980). The implications for proselytizing non-Germanic members is obvious and is creating serious problems, with more to come. It is thus possible to say there are two attitudes toward work, existing together, sometimes in the same congregation.

With the present juxtaposition of several theologies and ethics of work, their reconciliation is possible only by recovering and adapting the earlier Anabaptist and Mennonite theology and ethic of work.

As indicated above, an informed Mennonite theology regarding work came by default, since there was little reflection on work as a part of the kingdom of God. Work became a means to gain acceptance and tolerance and the practice emerged which expressed Mennonite theology. This practice was based on strongly held convictions about following Christ and becoming part of the kingdom of God.

Thus, the understandings of work inherent in the Anabaptist tradition is ultimately derived from its utopian vision of the restoration of the primitive church (restitutionism), the 16th-century movements to liberate the peasants and artisans from oppression, and the creation of the community of believers, which implied voluntary care and support for those who had committed themselves to take on the yoke of Christ (Peachey, Nafziger).

The channel, or medium, by which this was to be achieved was the voluntary congregation, where the communal ethic took precedence over selfish goals, as Nafziger has shown. Stewardship of God's creation was thus the "theology" by which the needs of members were met through mutual aid, one's neighbor was to be served with one's own resources, and personal consumption was to be managed by the norms of simplicity and nonconformity to worldly opulence and self-indulgence. This can be termed the "communal ethic," or "Gelassenheit ethic" (Cronk), and is distinct from both the "capitalistic" and the "communistic" ethic, which have been so broadly debated in modern times.

The integration, or at least reconciliation, of the two Mennonite work ethics is possible only if both converge to the original utopian vision of the role of work in the kingdom of God. Work was not a means of grace or salvation, nor was it irrelevant; rather it was to be the means of helping to restore the pure church. Work was the basis for providing help and care directly to people in need, and for providing the resources needed to share with others. It is strange that Anabaptists rarely spoke of the role of work in following Christ, in achieving fraternity in the congregation and in serving the broader world. This is understandable only if we realize that the expressions of their concerns were the result of the specific debates and conflicts with their accusers and persecutors: the accusation of communism was a major contention, and thus the focus was on property, not on work which makes property, resources, and stewardship basically possible.

The "communal" or "Gelassenheit" ethic has rarely been fully expressed in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition, but it has been present in varying degrees over the centuries, e.g., among Hutterian Brethren, semi-communal Mennonites like the Old Colony Mennonites (church ownership of land and a certain amount of resources set aside for the poor), and the contemporary Mennonite intentional communities, especially in North America (Cronk, Smucker). Modern Mennonites, especially of those of the Germanic stream, have gradually been co-opted by the capitalistic ethic. Thus, even though there are still strong indications of a communal practice, Mennonites are now predominantly motivated by the work ethic of capitalism, in which work is the means of achieving wealth and status, but not all work, rather "smart work," where one uses training, expertise, financial clout, or other means to work in a way that will bring fast returns. No specific research on the meaning and function of work has been conducted within the Mennonite framework, although the Mennonite relation to capitalism has received some attention. This is an area of most serious neglect and if investigated, promises great rewards for the fulfillment of the Anabaptist-Mennonite vision. Contemporary discussions and analysis of work, especially in reference to its ethical and religious meaning among Mennonites, is relatively dormant. Mennonite Economic Development Associates is promoting studies of work and The Marketplace, its official publication, is taking the lead in promoting the discussion. Sunday School curricula and other publications deal with work, but not in a concerted fashion.


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.

Dill, Vicky Schreiber. "Land Relatedness in the Mennonite Novels of Rudy Wiebe," Mennonite Quarterly Review 58 (1984): 50-69.

Dyck, Arnold. Lost in the Steppes. Steinbach, 1974.

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

Epp-Tiessen, Esther.  Altona: the Story of a Prairie Town. Altona: D. W. Friesen and Sons, 1992.

Hiebert, Clarence. The Holdeman People. Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1973.

Hostetler, John A. Amish Society. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1980.

Hostetler, John A. Hutterite Society. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1974.

Nafziger, Estel Wayne. "The Mennonite Ethic in the Weberian Framework" Explorations in Entrepreneurial History 2, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 1965).

Peachey, Paul. "Social Background and Social Philosophy of the Swiss Anabaptists." Mennonite Quarterly Review 28 (1954): 102-27.

Penner, Horst. Anseidlung Mennonitischer Niederlander im Weichselmündungsgebiet. Weierhof: Mennonitischer Geschichtsverein, 1940.

Redekop, Calvin. The Old Colony Mennonites. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1969.

Redekop, Calvin. Strangers Become Neighbors. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1980.

Redekop, Calvin and Urie A. Bender. Who am I? What am I?: Searching for Meaning in Your Work. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988.

Rempel, David G. "The Mennonite Commonwealth in Russia: a Sketch of its Founding and Endurance, 1789-1919," Mennonite Quarterly Review 47 (1973): 259-308, and 48 (1974): 5-54.

Séguy, Jean. Les Assemblées Anabaptistes-Mennonites de France. The Hague: Mouton and Co., 1977.

Smucker, Donovan. "Gelassenheit, Entrepreneurs, and Remnants: Socio-economic Models Among the Mennonites," in Kingdom, Cross and Community, ed. J. R. Burkholder and C. Redekop. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1976.

Troeltsch, Ernst. The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches. New York: Harper and Row, 1960.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958.

Author(s) Calvin W Redekop
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Redekop, Calvin W. "Work Ethic." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 7 Dec 2023.

APA style

Redekop, Calvin W. (1989). Work Ethic. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 7 December 2023, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 937-938. All rights reserved.

©1996-2023 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.