1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Mennonites

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MENNONITES, a body of religionists who take their name from Menno Simons (see below), the most valued exponent of their principles. They maintain a form of Christianity which, discarding the sacerdotal idea, owns no authority outside the Bible and the enlightened conscience, limits baptism to the believer, and lays stress on those precepts which vindicate the sanctity of human life and of a man's word. The place of origin of the views afterwards called Mennonite (see Baptists) was Zürich, where in 1523 a small community left the state church and (from Jan. 18, 1525) adopted the tenet of believers' baptism. Unlike other Reformers, they denied at once the Christian character of the existing church and of the civil authority, though, in common with the first Christians, it was their duty to obey all lawful requirements of an alien power. By Protestants as much as by Catholics this position was not unnaturally regarded as subversive of the established foundations of society. Hence the bitter persecutions which, when the safety of toleration was not imagined, made martyrs of these humble folk, who simply wished to cultivate the religious life apart from the world. There was something in this ideal which answered to that medieval conception of separation from the world which had leavened all middle-class society in Europe; and the revolt from Rome had prepared many minds to accept the further idea of separation from the church, for the pursuit of holiness in a society pledged to primitive discipline. Hence the new teaching and praxis spread rapidly from Switzerland to Germany, Holland and France. While the horrors of the Münster fanaticism, which culminated in 1534, made Anabaptism a byword, and increased the severity of a persecution directed against all Baptists indiscriminately, the reaction against the fatal errors of the Münster experiment increased also the adherents of communities which discarded the sword; thus Menno was brought into their ranks. Each community was independent, united with others only by the bond of love. There was no hierarchy (as with the Familists), but “exhorters” chosen by the members, among them “elders” for administering baptism and the Lord's Supper; an arrangement so readily renewed that the sure way of putting down such a body was the execution of all its constituents, often by drowning, an appropriate end, according to Zwingli's quip. The remnant of the Swiss Mennonites (not tolerated till 1710) broke in 1620 into two parties, the Uplanders (or Amish, from their leader Jacob Amen) holding against the Lowlanders that excommunication of husband or wife dissolved marriage, and that razors and buttons were unlawful. In Holland the Mennonites have always been numerous. An offshoot from them at Rhijnsburg in 1619, founded by the four brothers, farmers, Van der Kodde, and named Collegianten from their meetings, termed collegia (thus, as not churches, escaping the penal laws), has been compared to the Plymouth Brethren, but differed in so far as they required no conformity of religious opinion, and recognized no office of teacher. With them, as Martineau notes, Spinoza had “an intense fellow-feeling.” Later, the exiled Socinians from Poland (1660) were in many cases received into membership. There had previously been overtures, more than once, for union with Mennonites on the part of Polish Socinians, who agreed with them in the rejection of oaths, the refusal to take human life, the consequent abstinence from military service and magisterial office, and in the Biblical basis of doctrine; differences of doctrinal interpretation precluded any fusion. In Holland the Mennonites were exempted from military service in 1575, from oath-taking in 1585, from public office in 1617. In Zeeland exemption from military service and oaths was granted in 1577; afterwards, as in Friesland, a heavy poll tax was the price of exemption from military service; but since 1795 they have enjoyed a legal exemption from oath-taking. In France the Mennonites of the Vosges were exempted from military service in 1793, an exemption confirmed by Napoleon, who employed them in hospital service on his campaigns. That he did not exempt the Dutch Mennonites is due to the fact that “they had ceased to present a united front of resistance to military claims” (Martineau); in fact they sent a large band of volunteers to Waterloo (Barclay). While in Germany the Mennonites exist in considerable numbers, more important are the German Mennonite colonies in southern Russia, brought there in 1786 by Catherine II., and freed, by the grant of complete religious liberty, from the hardships imposed by Prussian military law. These colonies have sent many emigrants to America, where their oldest community was settled (1683) at Germantown, Pennsylvania. Their settlement in Canada dates from 1786. Among the American Mennonites there are three sections, and a progressive party, known as New School Mennonites.

S. Cramer gives (1903) the following statistics: in all, some 250,000 members, of whom over 80,000 are in the United States, 70,000 in Russia, 60,000 in Holland, 20,000 in Canada, 18,000 in Germany, 1500 in Switzerland, 800 in France, and the same number in Poland and Galicia.  (A. Go.)