The New Mennonite Brethren Community
The North American Mennonite Brethren (MB) church is changing, developing into a new community and beginning a shift in composition that makes it look much different than it did 148 years ago when it first began.
Founded in southern Russia in 1860, the MB church comprised almost entirely German-speaking Mennonites from South Russia (the Ukraine)—known as Russian Mennonites—who, 60 years earlier, had emigrated from the Vistula Delta (modern-day Poland). Some of the first changes in composition occurred shortly after the church was formed. Lutherans and Baptists began to join the church around the time of the first North American immigration in the 1870s.
The following two migrations of Mennonites from Russia to North America in the 1920s and 1940s did little to change the composition of the MB church. However, during and following the Second World War, a significant shift involving language began to take place. During the war, the German language was associated with Nazi Germany; reprisals against church members and a few church buildings occurred. For political reasons, the language of worship gradually moved from German to English.
Following the war, this transition quickly picked up the pace, though more slowly in Canada than the U.S. By 1970, the shift was largely complete and Mennonite Brethren were already marrying outside their traditional circles. The unifying sense of a common German language and culture was waning; a new culture rooted in a Christian confessional relationship among MB congregations was emerging in its place.
While the MB church in North America experienced some compositional change in its beginnings with the establishment of a few Russian-speaking congregations, the most dramatic shifts have occurred within the past 50 years.
A significant influence occurred with the post-Vietnam War influx of refugees from Southeast Asia, which turned the MB church’s face of refugee assistance from post-Second World War German-speaking Mennonites toward these newcomers. Many eventually established their own congregations.
The common German linguistic culture of the early Mennonite Brethren has now given way to a new church community. The influence of immigrants, refugees, and local congregational outreach programs has jumped over the old boundaries of Eastern European blood relationships and traditional linguistic heritage.
Today, the MB church in Canada worships in around 20 different languages. Nineteen Chinese congregations, mostly in B.C., are rapidly expanding and worship in either Mandarin or Cantonese. In Manitoba, a French-Canadian congregation is now overflowing with Africans from Togo; the church is beginning to take on a strong African flavour in its collective culture and worship style. A wide variety of Asian congregations are springing up throughout B.C., Manitoba, and Ontario. Where a common language once united the church, you might now visit an MB congregation and encounter a worship service in Korean, Filipino, Laotian, Thai, or Eritrean.
The community of Mennonite Brethren people has changed significantly. Uniting its members is a common confession. Ethnic and linguistic differences no longer stand as barriers to church and conference unity; rather, our very differences unite us as we rejoice together in a new bond that leaps over the highest walls of language, race, and culture.
We are a rebellious new counter-culture that views the world differently. We view the world through the eyes of Jesus, who came to unite us to God through him. Our declaration as MB Christians is that we are a new people in a new relationship with each other and a common mission to build a new community under the lordship of Christ to which all are freely invited.
Ken Reddig, of German Lutheran origin, is the retiring director of the Centre for MB Studies. His family joined the MB church in 1875.
The History of the Mennonite Brethren
The following information on the history of the Mennonite Brethren is taken from Family Matters: Discovering the Mennonite Brethren, by Lynn Jost and Connie Faber, published by Kindred Productions (2002).
In the early 1500s Martin Luther, a German priest began studying the Bible in a way that critiqued some of the problems in the established church at the time. He became convinced that God offered the divine gift of righteousness to believers in him. Luther was also blocked in his efforts to reform the established church, so in 1517, he went public with 95 theses, which were indictments of church abuses. That single act started the Reformation movement that touched many countries and regions simultaneously in Europe.
In Switzerland, two other reformers reached similar conclusions. In Geneva, John Calvin, a former lawyer, reacted in much the same way as Luther. In Zurich, Ulrich Zwingli also preached reform. Known as “the People’s Priest”, Zwingli was flamboyant, energetic and a powerful preacher.
The Radical Reformation – Anabaptists
Zwingli attracted a group of young radicals who wanted even more reform. Conrad Grebel was a bright but rebellious son of high society. His decadent life had been transformed through new birth in Christ. He and his colleague, Felix Manz disagreed with Zwingli on the issue of baptism, arguing for believers’ baptism rather than infant baptism. They also supported the separation of church and state. The Zurich Council ordered Grebel and Manz to stop their home Bible studies; hence the group broke completely with the established church. On January 21, 1525 this group met to pray about their critical situation. Moved by the Spirit and with great fear, every person present was baptized and pledged to live in separation from the world. Anabaptism – "to be baptized again" – was born.
Because of the break with the established church the Anabaptists experienced persecution and martyrdom. Many fled from Switzerland to various points of Europe, including Holland. In Holland, there lived a Catholic priest named Menno Simons. He was a typical priest of the time, performing the formal religious rituals, but otherwise occupying himself with frivolous activity and maintaining a low spiritual vitality.
Menno was already having serious personal doubts about some aspects of his religious tradition, but then he heard the news about a simple tailor who had been beheaded for his "rebaptism". Menno turned to the New Testament and concluded that infant baptism had no scriptural basis and advocated adult baptism upon confession of faith. At this point, in 1531, Menno was convinced that the Anabaptists were correct regarding three truths: 1) that the Bible, not church tradition, was the authority in matters of faith; 2) that the Lord’s Supper was a memorial commemorating Christ’s redemptive act, not a sacrifice of his flesh and blood; and 3) that baptism was an act of faithful adult discipleship, not a christening event to make children Christians.
Menno remained in the Catholic Church for a few more years until his brother was killed in a revolutionary battle for an error in teaching that developed in a segment of the Anabaptist movement. Menno felt that he should have taught more openly – that perhaps it might have prevented this disaster. He therefore went public with his convictions, was "rebaptized", and officially joined the Anabaptist movement in 1537. Menno then became the overseer of several congregations in Holland and Germany and travelled frequently, partly to encourage people in the movement and partly to stay ahead of his persecutors. By 1542, the price of 100 gold guilders was placed on Menno Simon's head.
The Mennonite church bears Menno's name not because he was the founder, but because he was a church leader who rallied a scattered people and led them through a time of great tribulation. He wrote more than two dozen books and pamphlets – on the run! – and defined the theology that was to become the Mennonite church.
Menno Simons died in Denmark in 1561. He placed 1 Corinthians 3:11 on the title page of all his writings: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
Migration to Poland
In the mid-1500s, persecution and evangelistic impulses pushed the frontier of the Mennonite church from Holland to the Vistula Delta of Poland near Danzig. Polish nobles welcomed the newcomers to their estates as farm labourers. The Mennonite immigrants drained swampy lowlands, built farms, and, despite restrictions, established churches. For 250 years (1540-1790), Mennonites lived in religious and cultural isolation. They developed a lifestyle of religious tradition, cultural conservatism, and lack of missionary vision that caused them to be known as “The Quiet in the Land.”
The Vistula Delta came under Prussian rule in 1772. The pressure of Prussian militarism under Frederich the Great made it increasingly difficult for the non-resistant Mennonites. The Mennonites’ refusal to pay taxes to support the state church and the military establishment together with government restrictions on the purchase of more land for their growing families forced them to look for a new home.
Mennonite Colonies in Russia
Many Prussian Mennonites saw the land settlement policy, announced in 1763 by Catherine the Great of Russia, as providential. Russia was looking for industrious settlers for new territories acquired north of the Black Sea. Mennonites and other German immigrants were promised freedom of faith, nonparticipation in the military, land ownership, and self-government. Starting in 1788, the Mennonites established German-speaking colonies of small villages with farmlands, church buildings, schools, and homes. The early years on the Ukrainian steppes were difficult, but the industrious Mennonites eventually established themselves and by 1860, reached a population of 30,000.
Ironically, by the mid 1800s, the Russian Mennonite church had taken on many of the characteristics of the European state church of the 1500s. Church membership was a prerequisite for civic privileges such as voting, land ownership, and marriage. Baptism was extended to those who completed a catechism class, without insistence on personal commitment to Jesus Christ. Church elders began to act as civic authorities, and many of them showed no evidence of discipleship themselves. Church discipline, pastoral counselling, and mutual care were often neglected. Divisions between wealthy members and the impoverished landless class deepened. Public drunkenness, gambling, and moral decadence went undisciplined. The ordinances of the Lord’s Supper and baptism took on a sacramental character; there was the sense that the rite itself replaced a need for disciplined Christian living. The Russian Mennonites faced social, economic, intellectual, and spiritual stagnation. They were in need of renewal.
The greatest catalyst for renewal among Russian Mennonites in the mid-19th century was a Lutheran Pietist pastor, Eduard Wuest. After a personal conversion experience, he developed into a powerful preacher. Gifted with a commanding physique, melodious voice and attractive personality, Wuest was frequently a guest speaker. Many of those who were weary of lifeless formalism were drawn by his message into a vibrant spiritual relationship with God and each other.
A clash between Wuest’s followers and the established Mennonite church seemed inevitable, but Wuest himself died in 1859 at the age of 42 before the renewal could organize into a formal movement. Wuest was an important catalyst, but with his death the renewal movement turned to its Anabaptist roots for a New Testament concept of church.
Birth of the Mennonite Brethren
Many people had been converted to personal faith in Jesus in several villages of the Molotschna Mennonite colony in the Ukraine. The “Brethren,” as they called themselves, met regularly in homes for Bible study and prayer. These home Bible studies were the cradle for the birth of the Mennonite Brethren church. Two developments effected a break with the old church.
First, several small groups of the Brethren (which also included women) requested a sympathetic elder of the Mennonite church to serve them the Lord’s Supper in their own home, according to Acts 2:46-47. They wanted to celebrate communion more frequently, but their request was also in part a reaction to taking communion with people who had made no open profession of faith. The elder refused their request on the basis that private communion was without historical precedent, would foster spiritual pride, and could cause disunity in the church. In November of 1859, the Brethren decided to take the Lord’s Supper in a home without the elders’ sanction.
Second, church meetings were held to decide how to discipline the renegade revivalists. It appeared that reconciliation would be possible. Unfortunately, a few unsympathetic opponents verbally attacked the leaders of the house Bible study movement. More shouts followed. About 25 members were lost to the house church movement.
On Epiphany, January 6, 1860, a group of Brethren met in a home for a “brotherhood” meeting. This gathering proved to be the charter meeting of the Mennonite Brethren church. They examined a letter of secession that explained their differences with the mother church. The letter affirmed their agreement with the teaching of Menno Simons and addressed abuses they saw in baptism, the Lord’s Supper, church discipline, and pastoral leadership and lifestyle. Eighteen men signed the document. Within two weeks, an additional nine men signed the letter of secession. Since each signature stood for a household, the charter membership of the Mennonite Brethren church comprised more than 50 people.
At this point, we can already identify several distinctive Mennonite Brethren emphases true to the early MB church as well as today:
(1) The need for systematic Bible teaching is primary. Rejection of lifeless formalism leads to joyous expression, but this must be directed by thorough biblical instruction.
(2) Because religious ferment is subject to powerful emotional expression with shallow intellectual consideration, there is a keen need for spiritual discernment. Emotion and personal experience are servants not masters; obedience borne of biblical study is to be our guide.
(3) Leadership is to be entrusted to members with integrity and spiritual balance.
(4) While strong and wise leaders are needed, dictatorship is suspect and to be rejected. Congregational participation and action are necessary for a strong church polity.
(5) A strong ethical emphasis is needed. Happiness divorced from holiness leads to false freedom. Faith and practice must be kept in proper balance.
(6) Meaningful church worship is essential. Lukewarm worship opens the door to hyper-emotional expressions. Radical renewal demands appropriate worship forms.
Migrations to North America – 1870s
The Mennonite Brethren church in Russia grew rapidly. By 1872, 12 years after its founding, the MB church numbered about 600 members. Representatives met for the first MB church family gathering, a time of inspirational meetings and planning for evangelistic church extension. Participation in foreign missions began with financial support of mission societies and quickly moved beyond it, with the first MB mission field established in India.
From 1874-1880, some 18,000 Mennonites, prompted by the Russian government’s plans to introduce universal military service and economic factors, emigrated from Russia to North America. Among the immigrants were many Mennonite Brethren.
The new settlers experienced all the hardships of pioneer life, including primitive sod houses, grasshopper plagues, lack of markets for their produce, and limited educational opportunities.
In 1878, the first interstate meeting of MB leaders was held near Henderson, Nebraska, where the primary issue was uniting MB congregations for mission purposes. An interest in evangelism and mission has continued to bind MB congregations together throughout the years.
By the turn of the century, Mennonite Brethren congregations had been established in Kansas, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Oklahoma, Colorado, Manitoba and Saskatchewan in Canada, and soon after in California, Montana, Texas, Oregon, and Washington.
The first MB church in Canada was established was located in Winkler, Manitoba in 1888.
Migrations to Canada – 1920s
The Russian Mennonite colonies experienced great prosperity at the turn of the century. This was shattered by the events of the First World War (1914-1918) and the Russian Revolution (1917-1918). Because their culture identified them with the German military foe, Mennonites experienced hostile treatment from the Russians. When German troops gained control of the Ukraine for a time, the Mennonites divided on the issue of nonresistance, with some forming armed units of self-defence. Later, it was recognized that this was not only a tactical blunder but also a violation of their historic biblical nonresistance. The Mennonites of Russia were caught in the events of the Civil War that followed, as well as the terrors of bandit attacks.
During this time of war and anarchy, Russian Mennonites experienced widespread spiritual revival and engaged in unprecedented missionary outreach to their Russian neighbours. Communist policies allowed for open proselytizing among Orthodox Church members for a time. The revivals of 1924-1925 not only fuelled the fires of evangelism, but also enriched the Christian experience of many who fled Russia for Canada.
Around 18,000 Mennonites, about a quarter of them Mennonite Brethren, immigrated to Canada between 1923 and 1927.
Migrations to Canada – 1940s
The Mennonites who were unable to escape faced the atheistic policies of the Stalinist regime under Jospeh Stalin. Church property was liquidated and religious freedom denied. Ministers were exiled to Siberian concentration camps or killed. Conscientious objectors to military service faced martyrdom.
From 1930-1940, anti-religious oppression was even more firmly institutionalized. German occupation of the Ukraine during the Second World War (1941-1943) offered a brief interlude of relative religious freedom. When the German armies retreated, 35,000 Mennonites tried to escape with them. Some 12,000 eventually reached western zones in Germany and migrated to Canada and South America.
God’s leading for Mennonite Brethren in Canada
During the last century, the established MB churches, together with immigrating Mennonite Brethren at different times, formed the Canadian Conference of MB Churches. Originally known as the “northern district”, the Canadian Conference was established in 1945. This new structure made church growth, evangelism, youth work, Christian education concerns, stewardship, and Bible and liberal arts colleges the responsibility of the national conference.
Throughout the years, our conference has stretched beyond the borders of its European beginnings. We now have congregations based in around 20 nationalities and some congregations are completely international in composition. We worship in about 20 different languages.
Our story continues to unfold as we follow God’s leading for our future in mission, evangelism, church vitality, and the faithfulness of individuals.