Switzerland

 

Languages: German, French, Italian, Romansh

Religions: Roman Catholic 40%, Protestant 25%, Muslim 5%.

Population: 8 million

Capital: Bern

Mennonites in Switzerland

Number of Mennonite Congregations: 14

Congregations located mainly in the northwest.

From ‘Armengutskasse‘  to Swiss Mennonite Mission (SMM)

Author: Pierre Zürcher

Mutual aid is important in current Mennonite congregations, as it was in the past. Whenever a Swiss Mennonite church was founded, an ‘Armengutkasse‘, a charity fund was set up to assist the poor and needy. This fund was sourced from the voluntary donations and legacies of individuals or childless couples. Although the bishop of the prince bishopric at that time had the legal right (the droit d’auboine) to take possession of these legacies, he often benevolently relinquished this right because he recognised that the Mennonites were taking good care of the poor in their midst. The archives of the Swiss Mennonite Conference have preserved numerous handwritten account books from 11 Mennonite churches; the oldest entry is dated 1715.

 

Mennonite and non-Mennonite recipients

 The churches’ charity funds supported people in a large part of the country, covering the entire Jura and extending into the Basel area as well as across the border into France. Individual cases of non-Mennonite recipients of this support are also recorded. Some entries from the account books in the Swiss Mennonite Conference archives give interesting insights. Deacon Christen Tschantz records in 1768 that he received for the ‘Armengut‘ from Bürki’s last will and testament 300 crowns. Another charity fund treasurer reports: ‘On 11th September I received 91 francs from Ueli Lehmann before his death, for the poor, in 1859‘. And finally, single elderly people were often able to live with Mennonite families in their old age. These families were paid room and board by the ‘Armengutskasse‘.

 

Swiss Mennonite Mission (SMM)

 The Anabaptist ‘Armengutkasse‘ indicates the importance of mutual aid in Swiss Mennonite congregations – long before governments introduced social welfare. It is therefore no surprise that sometimes people were suspected of joining Mennonite churches just because they were attracted by this kind of a social security system. After World War II, the Swiss Mennonites founded their own organisations for missions (SMEK) and aid (SMO); since 1998 these are united in the Swiss Mennonite Mission. In recent history aid projects have been organised repeatedly. For example, in 1974 a large shipment of 50 tonnes of powdered milk was sent to famine-struck Chad. Over the years projects of this kind have taken place a lot, often in cooperation with the aid organisation of the North American Mennonites, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).

 

 

 

 

 

Faith in Swiss Mennonite family life, yesterday and today

Author: Nelly Gerber-Geiser

'Für Spys und Trank, für d’s täglich Brot, mir danke dir, o Gott‘. (For health and strength, for daily food, we give thee thanks, oh God). The table is set. The extended family has gathered, ready to eat. It is Sunday, early November, 2013. Mealtime is an opportunity for grandparents to pass on an important tradition of the faith to their grandchildren. A song is sung as table grace, which, though not known to everyone present, is acknowledged respectfully. Some present have just come in from church, one grandchild from Sunday School. Sowing the seeds of faith, and tending to the seedlings: …that the coming generation might know them… and declare them to their children, that they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments –  Psalm 78:6-7

 

Preparing Sunday

‘We can no longer read the Bible and hold devotions together. Everyone leaves the house at different times.’. Those were the words of a mother in the 1960s. She continued: ’Back on the farm when I was young, we would never even consider beginning the day without meeting for morning prayers. Every evening at least 12 of us met again to hear father read from the family Bible, and to pray. It was important to our parents to pass on their faith, at home, in school, and in church’.

 

’As the eldest of a large family I had to work hard preparing for Sundays, shining many pairs of shoes, laying out Sunday clothes, scrubbing floors, tidying the yard, bathing younger siblings in a large tub in the kitchen, and (finally) baking the Sunday cake. Saturday smelled of soap, floor wax, Zopf  (a braided loaf baked for Sundays), cake and soup. We wanted to have as much as possible prepared for Sunday, so that we’d have time to go to church (after dinner) and to meet with relatives and church friends. Almost every Sunday dinner included guests’.

 

Hospitality

Hospitality was important on Anabaptist farms, not only on Sundays. When peddlers or people in need knocked at the door, they were given a hearty meal, sometimes receiving food and lodging in exchange for work. These people were all welcomed at the dinner table and were included in family activities such as singing in four-part harmony around the harmonium.

 

Trends, influences and expressions of faith

Author: Lukas Amstutz

A visitor to any of the 14 Swiss Mennonite churches will quickly discover that Swiss Mennonites are diverse. Worship styles and theological convictions vary not only between but also within churches. On the one hand, this diversity is rooted in a high degree of autonomy in faith and in the life issues of a congregation. Theological statements that are developed at a conference level are solely recommendations. On the other hand, a closer look at this diversity reveals many different theological and spiritual influences and trends in past and present.

  

Revival movements

In the 19th century, many churches were caught up in the revival movement of their time.  The Pietist seminary then founded at St. Chrischona near Basel was attended by many Mennonite leaders. Thus many churches follow a pietistical-revival tradition, which emphasises conversion, daily devotions, and moral integrity. Evangelism and (foreign) mission are a high priority, as is cooperation with the ‘Evangelische Allianz’ (member of World Evangelical Alliance). Less emphasis is given to conscientious objection, which in many cases has given way to a degree of conformity to the state.

  

New influences

After World War II, North American Mennonites brought new influences. Inspired by 16th-century Anabaptists, they valued discipleship, solidarity in the community of believers, and non-violence. To reinforce the biblical, theological and historical roots of these basic elements in the churches, the European Mennonite Bible School was founded in 1950, now the theological seminary at the Bienenberg near Liestal. Anabaptist convictions led Mennonites to lobby for a civil service, a process lasting many years, finally succeeding in 1992. Meanwhile, awareness has grown that a peace witness consists of more than just conscientious objection. Humanitarian aid is as much a part of a peace witness as is working to enable social justice or conflict resolution. This witness is frequently pursued together with church partners and others.

  

Faith expressions

 In several cases, charismatic faith expressions and modern forms of worship have increased. A greater emphasis is being given to a more emotional relationship with God and to trust in the Holy Spirit to move people through word and deed as well as miracles. These diverse faith expressions are all a part of current Swiss Mennonite churches. Whether they are completely detached competitors or will complement each other and modulate to a new unity in diversity is yet to be seen.

 

Historical overview

Author: Hanspeter Jecker

Some of their contemporaries saw them as devout eccentrics, the state church saw them as dangerous heretics, and the authorities saw them as insurgent rebels. Throughout Europe they faced discrimination and persecution, and were arrested and tortured, disinherited and dispossessed, banished and executed – nowhere for as long as in Switzerland. A minority, though, saw them as people who were serious about being Christians, and valued them as dependable neighbors because they tried to live what they believed. Who were these ’Anabaptists’, who refused to attend official church services, to swear oaths, and to perform military service – and were often willing to pay a high price?

 

The beginnings

The beginnings of the Anabaptist movement can be found during the Reformation in the sixteenth century. In contrast to forced participation in the state church, Anabaptists envisioned an independent congregation based on voluntary membership. In 1525, former associates of Zwingli in Zürich began to baptize adults who professed their faith. In other parts of Europe, similar movements were developing during this period. The movement expanded through Europe quickly, in spite of immediately implemented persecution. But especially in Switzerland, continuous and systematic repression increasingly forced Anabaptism into isolation. This helped to create an environment of growing social isolation and at times theological narrow-mindedness. Conflicts within Anabaptism led to a split and to the birth of the Amish movement in 1693.

 

Persecution

By 1700 intense persecution had nearly eradicated Anabaptism in Switzerland. Only on Bernese territory have churches been able to maintain a continuous existence until the present. Traces of Anabaptist beliefs with Swiss roots follow the paths of emigrants to places such as the Jura, the Alsace, the Palatinate, the Netherlands as well as North America. Outside pressure did not begin to soften until the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. The influence of Pietism and Revivalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries allowed Mennonite congregations to grow and find new life.

 

Reconciliation

A neighborly togetherness between the state church and independent churches was still not the norm by far. Only gradually did an attitude of opposition give way to steps of reconciliation and mutual appreciation – such as most recently the ‘Täuferjahr 2007’ and the extended Mennonite/Reformed-church dialogue (2006-2009). Today in Switzerland there are 14 Mennonite congregations with a total of 2300 members.

Anabaptist Tour of Switzerland

Author: Hanspeter Jecker

Tourists today often associate Switzerland with the Matterhorn, chocolate, watches and banks. But Switzerland offers more... Our Anabaptist tour begins in Basel, where Erasmus of Rotterdam published his Greek New Testament in 1516. This edition was the source text for Luther’s and Zwingli’s translations of the Bible, the book that gave the impetus for the entire Reformation.

  

Zürich

 Zürich became the centre for the transformation of church and society. Theologian Ulrich Zwingli’s influence here began in 1519. Discourse quickly developed as to how extensive the reforms should be, how quickly and under whose leadership they should evolve. After 1523, Zwingli was increasingly criticised by some of his closest followers. In re-baptising adults in 1525, they broke with him definitively. In 1527 Felix Mantz was martyred by drowning in the River Limmat.

 

‘Anabaptist cave’

 Persecution unfolded rapidly, and the Anabaptist movement retreated to the city’s hinterland. Worship services were held in remote places like the “Anabaptist cave” near Hinwil . In the beginning the Anabaptist movement resembled a melting pot of frustrated individuals  disappointed by the Reformation. A rapid decision on which direction the movement should take was essential. For this purpose, Anabaptist leaders met in Schleitheim in 1527. Here ‘Swiss Brethren’ agreed on the principles of non-violence and voluntary church membership. In the canton of Bern the Anabaptist movement took a firm foothold. In the Emmental, the Oberaargau and the Thun region Anabaptists were quite numerous at times. Many sites still bear witness to the repression they endured, particularly the Anabaptist hiding place in Hüttengraben in Trub (with a museum) as well as Trachselwald Castle with its cells.

 

Jura: from refuge to ‘home’

In the midst of the early migration, the remote farms of the Jura offered suitable temporary refuge. The Jura is the site of another impressive place of worship, the ’Geisskirchli’ (‘little goat church’) cave. The temporary refuge in the Jura became home to many, however, and around 1900 numerous meetinghouses were built (e.g. Les Bulles, Moron and Jeangui, which has a permanent exhibition). Returning to Basel, we are reminded of the first Mennonite World Conference, which took place here in 1925, and of the beginnings of the European Mennonite Bible School in 1950, which is now found at the Bienenberg near Liestal.

 

Swiss Mennonites are reputable farmers

Author: Jürg Rindlisbacher

 Farming is still very relevant in today’s Swiss Mennonite communities. Only two of the 14 churches have no farming families. In some churches in the Jura mountains, e.g. Kleintal, Sonnenberg or La Chaux-d’Abel, a majority of the members either grew up or currently resides on a farm. Today’s Swiss Mennonite farmers earn their living in mountainous regions predominantly from livestock or dairy, producing milk, cheese, meat, and eggs. Cereal, fruit and vegetables are primarily produced for self-sufficiency, though some also for the market. Two farms in the Basel and Neuchâtel regions produce wine.

 

From farming and pastoring towards industrial and social work

For more than four centuries, the words ‘Swiss Mennonite’ and ‘farmer’ were almost synonymous. Swiss Mennonites were known as hardworking, reliable farmers, cultivating their land in the Emmental and the Jura mountains. Their church communities met for worship on the farms, and their pastors were also farmers, caring for their animal and human (spiritual) herds. Since the 1950’s, more and more Swiss Mennonites have changed their vocation from agricultural to industrial or social work, and their place of residence from rural to urban areas, where new churches, such as Berne and Biel were founded. This reflects a general development in Swiss agriculture. Between 1965 and 2011 the number of farms diminished by two-thirds; the farms remaining have increased in size but the families and number of employees per farm have decreased, due to mechanization and increasingly globalized markets.

 

Mennonite traces in agriculture and stock

Swiss Mennonites have left a considerable mark on the agriculture in their country. Both by reclaiming land in the Jura area in previous centuries when hardworking Emmental farmers settled in the woody hills, and by breeding animals such as the Montbéliard cow or the Franches-Montagnes horse. These traces may fade in the context of the current vast changes in Swiss agriculture. Cultivating mountainous regions is no longer considered economically beneficial, and the Franches-Montagnes workhorse is no longer needed. All the same, current Swiss Mennonite farmers remain committed to their profession. In November 2013, a Mennonite farmer was elected chairman of Swissherdbook, the largest cattle-breeding association of Switzerland.

Music and Singing

Author: Margrit Ramseier

2013: ‘Gott lebet noch’ (God liveth still). The choir of the oldest Mennonite church in Switzerland, Langnau in Emmental, celebrates its 125th anniversary with a choral service.

2008: ‘Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe’ (Glory to God in the highest). A powerful piece in four-part harmony. The voices of hundreds of attendants from multiple Swiss churches ring out in song at a funeral. The hymn is sung from memory for the most part, and the accompanying organ is actually superfluous. Attending guests are astounded by the singing.

 

1965: ‘Halleluja, denn Gott der Herr regieret allmächtig’ (For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth). Sitting with family members in the antique chairs of the French Church in Bern and hearing Händel’s ‘Messiah’  performed by a choir of over 100 Mennonites – an experience to remember!

 

Singing in harmony is an important element of the church service for many congregations. It is a Swiss Mennonite characteristic that they are proud of, but also fear they might lose over time. This has not always been the case. The earliest Anabaptists composed songs of martyrdom and sang them in unison. For a long time the ‘Ausbund’ was the most important hymnal. When the Reformed Churches in Switzerland changed to singing in four-part harmony the Anabaptists claimed this to be worldly and sinful.

 

From revival songs to classical church-music

In the 19th century revival songs arrived in Mennonite congregations. Chapels were constructed, persecution had ended - strong reasons to come together and sing. The reed organ started making its way into many churches and living rooms. Choir practice remained one of the few acceptable forms of entertainment well into the 20th century. Teachers at Anabaptist schools were often choir directors or ministers. They encouraged and developed the musical abilities of their students. Classical church music was discovered. Choir festivals were held and large works were performed with great enthusiasm. Singing in four-part harmony became customary. The result : a considerable number of professional musicians in Switzerland have an Anabaptist background.

 

Cultural conflict

And today? Mennonites are still singing joyously. However, four-part harmony is no longer the norm. The number of choirs has declined over the years, and new worship forms are emerging. Diversity in praise has caused the repertoire of shared hymns to diminish. Many congregations are experiencing a kind of cultural conflict between members for whom traditional hymns and singing in harmony are closely linked to their Mennonite identity and others favouring a heavily anglicized form of worship music. Finding common ground is an ongoing challenge and a lesson in love.

 

 

Military Service and Civil Service

Author: Hans Ulrich Gerber 

Today’s Swiss Mennonites are clearly not the ‘quiet in the land’, like they were in the 19th and early 20th century. Having been a culturally and religiously distinct group in society until World War II, the Swiss Mennonite community as a whole has been subject to a development similar to that of other historic churches. From 1960 onwards, Anabaptists  evolved from being a homogeneous and isolated community to being recognized and involved. The joys and pains of highly diverse communities in post-Christendom transition apply to Mennonites just as they do to others, as the example of military or alternative service and related resistance movements illustrates. 

Non-combatant soldiers
In the 19th century, after military service became mandatory, many Anabaptists left Switzerland for North America where freedom of religion and conscientious objection seemed more tangible. Later on, informal reassurance and goodwill from Swiss authorities allowed Mennonites to be recruited into the army as non-combatant soldiers, i.e. without weapons, which was considered acceptable by the church elders.  However, when the army offered horses and later Land Rovers to soldiers (combatants), modest Mennonite farmers saw an incentive to become soldiers. With the late Pietist revival not promoting pacifist orientation, commitment to refusing armed service eroded.

 Conscientious objectors
By the late 1970s and early ‘80s, mostly under the influence of North American recovery of the ‘Anabaptist vision’, a number of young Swiss Mennonite men chose conscientious objection. Until the mid-‘90s they went to prison, a choice not always supported by their congregations. The debates over allegiance to the state according to Romans 13 versus resistance to killing according to the Sermon on the Mount were heated. The Swiss Mennonite Peace Committee, formed in the early ‘80s, joined the emerging political movement for the introduction of an alternative civil service. This was finally introduced in 1996.

 Social justice
Clearly, for Anabaptists there is  more than the question of military service versus  conscientious objection. There is still a lot of discussion around the issues of decisive engagement for social justice. The debate gets even more heated when it comes to engaging in active resistance to injustice and militarism and to state-committed violence such as when refugees are forcibly expelled. Possibly, the Swiss Mennonite community is as diverse as society at large in these questions.