communities doctrine menno christian type views
MENNONITES is a name borne by certain Christian communities in Europe and America, denoting their adherence to a type of doctrine of which Menno Simons was, not indeed the originator, but the chief exponent at the time when the anti-preclo-baptism of the congregations in which he laboured took permanent form in opposition to ordinary Protestantism on the one hand and to the theocratic ideas of the Minister type of anabaptism on the other. The original home of the views afterwards called Mennonite was in Ziirich, where, as early as 1525, Grebel and Manz founded a community having for its most distinctive mark baptism upon confession of faith. The chief doctrines of these Ziirich Baptists have been already stated in the article BAPTISTS, vol. iii. p. 353. The main interest of the sect lay not in dogma but in discipline. Within the communities evangelical life was reduced to a law of separation from the world, and this separation - enforced by a stringent use of excommunication and the prohibition of marriage beyond the brotherhood - involved not only abstinence from worldly vanities but refusal of civic duties (the state being held to be un-Christian) - refusal to take an oath or use the sword. In their revolt against the corruptions of the mediceval church the Reformers neither denied the continuity of the church as an organization nor impugned the Christian character of the state. The new sect did both ; and their position thus appeared so radically subversive of the foundations of society that it is not surprising, under the imperfect views of toleration then current, that they became the objects of bitter persecution from Protestants as well as from Catholics. But the Grebelians had no desire, like the fanatics of Minster, to found a new theocracy in opposition to the anti-Christian state. They sought only to withdraw from what their conscience condemned, content to live as strangers upon earth, and devoting all their energy to preserve the purity of their own communities. The inedieval conception of separation from the world as the true path of Christian perfection had leavened all middle-class society in Europe, and prepared many to accept separatist views of the church as soon as they were reached by the impulse of revolt against Roman Catholicism ; the pursuit of holiness in a society protected by a strict discipline is an idea which experience has shown to have a great attraction for one class of earnest minds ; hence, in spite of persecutions incomparably fiercer than any of the larger Protestant bodies ever underwent, the new doctrine and praxis rapidly spread from Switzerland to Germany, Holland, and even to France. Each community was quite independent, united to the rest only by a bond of love. There was no sort of hierarchy, but only " exhorters " chosen by the congregation, of whom the most prominent were also " elders " entrusted with the administration of the sacraments - an organization so easily kept alive or reproduced that the movement could hardly be checked by any persecution short of the total annihilation which at length was actually the fate of many of the Swiss communities. The remnants of the Swiss Mennonites broke in 1620 into two parties, the stricter of which, the Ammonites or Upland Mennonites, were distinguished from the Lowland Mennonites by holding that excommunication of one party dissolved marriage, and by their rejection of buttons and the use of the razor. Their persecution lasted till 1710 ; a few congregations still remain and keep themselves quite distinct from Baptist bodies of more modern origin. In Germany the Mennonites are somewhat more numerous ; more important are the German Mennonite colonies in southern Russia, brought thither in 1783 by the empress Catherine, which in turn have recently sent many emigrants to America. America indeed, and especially Pennsylvania, early became a refuge for the Mennonites of Switzerland, the Palatinate, and Holland, and is now the chief home of the body (175,000 in the United States and 25,000 in Canada). The oldest congregation is that of Germantown (since 1683); the most numerous of several divisions are the Old Mennonites, corresponding to the less strict of the Swiss sections.
All these communities in Europe and America are distinguished by an antique simplicity combined with antique prejudices, by indifference to the interests of the greater world, while at the same time their industry and self-concentration have made them generally well-to-do. Their religious type has varied very little in the course of centuries, as indeed is not surprising, their theology being ascetic rather than dogmatic or speculative. The Mennonites of Holland, on the other hand, have passed through an interesting and progressive history.
It was in Holland and the adjoining parts of Low Germany that the personal influence of .Menno Simons (1492-1559) was mainly felt. He was originally a priest, and was pastor at his native place Witmarsum in Friesland from 1531 to 1536, when convictions long ripening in his mind compelled him to resign his cure. At this time the anti-Fedo-baptist societies in the Low Countries were much agitated. The views which had just before received their political deathblow at Minister (see ANABAPTISTS) were not extinct, and even those who did not share them were by no means at one. Benno attached himself to the Obbenites, who held that on earth true Christians had no prospect but to stiffer persecution, refused to use the sword, and looked for no millennium on earth. Merino became one of their elders, and by his wanderings among the scattered and oppressed communities, and especially by the natural eloquence and religious power of his numerous writings, did much to sustain the faith of his associates, to confirm the type of their religious life, and to prevent startling aberrations in doctrine or discipline. He was not an original thinker; but the love which all felt for the man, and which was kept alive for generations by his writings, gave him the place which the name of Mennonites expresses.
It may be ascribed to the influence of Menno's writings that the Dutch Mennonites, though for a time (since 1554) they broke into fractions on questions of discipline, and especially on the effect of excommunication upon marriage, never fell so far apart as regards the type of their religions life as to preclude the possibility of reunion. The Waterlanders in North Holland, who held the least strict doctrine of excommunication, soon moved farther in the direction of liberality, and exchanged the name Mennonites for that of Doopsgezinden (Baptist persuasion). In 1579 they refused to condemn any one for opinions, even on the incarnation, which the word of Scripture did not pronounce necessary to salvation. They aided William the Silent with money, and from 1581 to 1618 even accepted civil office. Meantime the stricter party had undergone various divisions, which, however, in 1627-32 were reunited on the basis of confessions essentially embodying Menno's teachings. They too had learned moderation, at least in their views of CXCOMmunicatioD, and their antithesis to the state was softened since the cessation of persecution in 1581, but especially since in 1672 they were recognized as citizens. On the other hand, the adoption of a confession had deepened the separation between them and the liberal Doopsgezinden; bat doctrine was never the fundamental principle of the Mennonite communities, confessionalism took no firm root, and the two sections gradually approached, and through a series of partial fusions became at length finally united when the Amsterdam congregations came together in 1801. The persuasion declined much in numbers in the 18th century; since then it has increased, and has now 127 congregations with nearly 50,000 members. The objection to hold civil office disappeared in 1795; that to carry arms in the war of freedom against Napoleon. Baptism on profession of faith and the refusal of the oath, tolerance in matters of doctrine without religious indifference, are the chief marks of the body, which in point of theological culture and general enlightenment, philanthropic zeal and social importance, has long stood very high.
Authorittes. - The best life of Menno Simons is Cramer's, 1837. De hoop Scheffer's article in llerzog-Plitt, R. E., is excellent ; only one point of consequence in his account seems to call for modifieation, - the book against John of Leyden, said to have been published before Means joined the Obbenites, is almost certainly spurious. See Sepp, Geschiedkundige Nasporingen, i. (1872) p. 125 sq. The completest edition of Ilenno's works is that in folio, 1C36. Many of them are known only in bad Dutch versions; Menno himself wrote in the " Oostersch" or East Sea Dialect of Low German. For the literature on the Mennonites in general, see De Hoop Scheffer, on whom the foregoing sketch is mainly dependent.