In the first few centuries of the Christian era the faith spread far and wide through Asia, Europe and Africa. Then came the time when the Emperor Constantine professed to espouse the Christian faith. For a time persecution ceased.
But the church that made peace with the Imperial power became corrupted by peace and power. Many Christians refused to be part of such a church and maintained the original purity of the faith. So persecution began once more, this time by a church that had become earthly and pagan, yet still called itself Christian. From the records of the persecutions by the Imperial church it is evident that the network of pure churches still stretched across much of the known world.
By the late Middle Ages there was still a network of churches that stretched from Bulgaria to England. They were known as Cathars, Bogomils, Waldenses, Albigenses, Lollards and many other names, but there was communication between them all. The Inquisition, a major, systematic escalation of the persecution almost succeeded in destroying those churches.
In the 1500’s the remnant of the persecuted reorganized and are known to history as Mennonites, after the name of Menno Simons, one of their more prominent leaders. Churches were organized in Flanders, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the Palatinate. The members of these churches spoke Dutch or German. Some of the members in Flanders also spoke French.
Mennonites today are often thought of as a unique Dutch/German ethnic group. Many among them have lost the faith but held on to their Dutch/German culture, leading to confusion as to what it means to be a Mennonite.
I am a Mennonite by faith, but not by culture. I think that should be considered the norm. Our faith goes back to the Apostolic era, it did not begin with Menno Simons (he strongly denied being the founder of a church).
I am a member of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. A large part of the membership of this church in North America is made up of people of Dutch/German ancestry. This causes confusion, within the church and without.
Yet when it comes to sharing the gospel in other lands, there is no confusion. It is the gospel we are endeavouring to share, not language or lifestyle. There are members of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite in 40 countries around the world. Some are indigenous, not under the tutelage of a mission organization, others are moving in that direction as quickly as local members are ready to take leadership positions, some are new missions.
Much of the international growth has come as a result of tract distribution. Gospel Tract and Bible Society, an agency of the church, distributes millions of tracts, in over 100 languages. In the last few years this has been accelerated by their website. You can find the website here. People can read tracts online, print them for reading at home, order copies for distribution, and ask questions. Some of those with questions may ask “Where is this church? Why isn’t it in my country?” Enough questions like that, ones that show a serious spiritual longing, and a visit is made and a mission may begin.
We are told that the website reaches a new demographic. Previously, many of those who ordered tracts were church leaders or evangelists, now it is more individuals who are searching to understand what Christianity is all about, what Jesus means for their personal life, their home.
Another change in recent years is a great increase of inquiries from French-speaking countries. There are members of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite in six French-speaking countries in Africa and a new mission in a seventh. Visits have been made with interested people in France and there are plans to place a family there for at least a few months.
I also have a French blog, on which I post articles about the Anabaptist faith in history and today. The readership isn’t all that big as yet, but so far this year there have been people from 51 countries who have taken a look at that blog. The top five countries were, in order, the USA, Morocco, Canada, Bénin and France. Do those first two countries surprise you? There are French-speaking people all over the world.
2 thoughts on “Mennonites: ethnic group, culture or faith?”
The culture versus faith dynamic and identity extends far beyond Mennonite circles.
It’s a big part of Quaker reality, too. Even though we make a note of being a “Friend by convincement,” or personal experience, we also emphasize a way of living rather than a creed, and that can become a habitual routine rather than a vital awareness if we’re not careful.
Like Mennonites, Friends are also undergoing identity changes through our global extensions. There are more Quakers in Nairobi, Kenya, than in Philadelphia or London, and they’re evangelically Christian rather than the traditional Quietist image of Friends. They’re also much more emotionally expressive than their more customarily reserved Friends in America and Britain.
Still, Mennonites and Quakers hold our identity more highly than I see happening in many other denominations.
For some of us, that gives us a special relationship for our fellow members around the world. It’s why I study Spanish every morning, in the hope of someday visiting our sister congregations in Cuba.
Thank you for those insights. Yes we want to preserve our identity, but I think we often mistake the appearance for the essence.