faith

Mennonites – Traditionally modern with values that last?

Author: Beate Zipperer
Translator: Anne Zipperer

When children enter kindergarten, or at the latest when they start going to school and want to attend religious class, their families will have to start explaining things. Especially in Bavaria where most people are Roman-Catholics, Mennonites are considered quite exotic. When you explain who Mennonites are, or what is special about them, you start to rethink the standards and values of this denomination.

 

A family?

To be a Mennonite is basically passed down within and through families. Are we therefore a ‘family church‘? Does the Mennonite church structure change slowly? Traditions only last if you fill them with standards and values. Those are established only through statements from Jesus Christ. These standards and values were also influenced by early Reformatory ideas that apply to other Protestant churches as well. In short, they are:

 

Sola Scriptura – the Bible is the only foundation of our faith (Galatians 2:6-9)

Solus Christus – only Jesus Christ has authority over believers (Ephesians 5:23-24)

Sola Gratia –Only through mercy can humankind be saved (Romans 1:17)

Sola Fide –Only through faith is humankind justified (Galatians 2:16)

 

Guidelines

Many churches have guidelines about faith and life. Those get adapted, adjusted and extended. Churches are living organisms, with people who seek God's promises, which are fulfilled by the Holy Spirit. In summary, at our local congregation the guidelines are:

 

Live faith: At the core for us is the God as he is described in the Bible, this is the reality of God we experience. To live for that is the meaning and the mission of all Christians and churches;

 

Live faith: turn towards the other. Jesus Christ shows us God's love and His way of living in many different ways. To us He is unparalleled in importance. We want to follow him.

 

Live faith: experiencing God's work in our daily life and giving it the space it deserves.

Through the Bible God talks to us directly. The Bible, as we understand it under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is the guideline for our life and our teaching. This requires, time and again, our willingness to listen to God and to each other.

 

Live faith: together we create church life and take responsibility

Appropriate to our gifts and possibilities we involve ourselves in the life of the church and are part of the testimony of Jesus Christ.

Reformer

Author: Marius Romijn

Menno entered priesthood in the early years of the Reformation, when the Sacramentists were also on the rise – they rejected the sacrifice of the Mass. As a curate in Pingjum, he doubted the Eucharist miracle,  and started to study the Bible more in-depth. Meanwhile the Anabaptist movement entered the Netherlands. After the beheading of Sicke Freerks, who had been re-baptized, Menno also started having doubts about infant baptism. Still, at the end of 1532 he became a priest in Witmarsum; in this period he was known as an 'evangelical preacher'.

 

The fast-growing Anabaptist movement put emphasis on the Second Coming of the Lord being at hand; the true believers had to live purely and non-violent in a congregation free of sin. An increasing group of Anabaptists, led by Jan Matthijs - later on succeeded by Jan van Leyden - tried to establish the 'New Jerusalem' in the cathedral city of Münster. They managed to overthrow the city council, and all inhabitants had to take up arms against the bishop, who would send an army to recapture the city.

 

After one year, this small Anabaptist kingdom perished in violence. Some people around Menno were involved in Anabaptist violence in Friesland. The Anabaptists where thrown into confusion, and persecution was severe. Menno still had a comfortable life, but felt like 'living in Egypt'. In 1536 he left the Catholic Church, and had to live in hiding. After much consideration and many dialogues, he was baptized.

 

In 1537 Menno accepted a request to become an elder. Gradually he became a leader of the Dutch Anabaptists, and the influence of his rival David Joris decreased. The authorities offered money for his capture. Several persons who had sheltered Menno were executed. He had started to write books and pamphlets, all considered illegal. He had to travel constantly, and finally lived as an exile in Holstein, with his wife Geertruyd and their children.

 

The pure congregation was crucial for the Anabaptists, therefore they used ban and shunning. This was meant to make sinners repent and return. In Emden the influential elder Lenaert Bouwens banned the husband of Swaan Rutgers. This mean she had to avoid all contact with him. She refused, because in doing so, she would break her marriage vows. Menno wanted to come to a settlement, but Lenaert threatened to ban him as well, and Menno yielded. This was the reason for the liberal group of the Waterlanders to branch off. On his deathbed, Menno expressed his regret about 'having been a servant of men, instead of God'.

 

Menno has been a church reformer of the second generation. He was no scholar like Luther, Zwingli or Calvin. As a practical leader, he managed to unite the peaceful Dutch Anabaptists during a stressful period. However, at the end of his life this unity fell apart.

 

Source: Piet Visser, Sporen van Menno. Het veranderende beeld van Menno Simons en de Nederlandse mennisten (in cooperation with the Netherlands, Canada, United States of America and Germany, 1996).

 

 

Witnesses of the Kingdom of God

Author: Fulco Y. van Hulst

What is peculiar about Dutch Mennonite ethics – and how is it made visible? The Bible passage that was very dear to Menno Simons was 1 Corinth 3:11: 'For no one can lay any other foundation than that which has been laid, which is Jesus Christ.‘ Christ still is the guiding light for ethics from a Mennonite perspective.

 

Sermon on the mount

Mennonite ethics is best characterized as “Sermon on the Mount”-ethics, or as an ethics of following Jesus as the central example of what it means to live a life that pleases God. Particular guidance is found in the sayings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, as well as in his further teachings and parables. These sayings draw our attention to caring for our neighbor, especially the weak and oppressed, to the love of God that demonstrates itself in the love of others, to overcoming violence and evil and (ultimately) to loving one's enemy These are the practices that are considered to be the measures of a good life. Peace ethics should specifically be considered a characteristic element of Mennonite ethics in Dutch context. A good example would be the way in which Mennonites practiced peace ethics by actively supporting conscientious objectors who did not want to fulfill their mandatory army duty.

 

In the world

The Dutch Mennonite community developed largely in an urban context in close contact with the social-cultural upper class of society. These contacts were much more intensive and often much more peaceful than in other countries in Europe, where Mennonites often lived in a situation of (deliberate) isolation and even persecution and suppression. Through these contacts Dutch Mennonites were able  to spread their message of justice and peace in an active and practical way within society.

Altogether we might say that the focus in Dutch Mennonite ethics is on social ethics: the congregation is considered to be the foretaste of God's Kingdom of Justice and Peace. On the one hand Mennonite congregations try to take practical responsibility in society, by supporting diaconal projects, or by actively profiling themselves as a peace church. On the other hand the Mennonite congregations try to confront society, holding up a mirror, making the reality of The Kingdom of God visible by actively witnessing to the Peace of God in words and deeds.

 

References: World English Bible, 2002.

Social Services

Author: Theo Hege

As part of  the Mennonite churches of France Mennonite social services were born from the massive social action of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in France which began during World War II.

Helping the disabled

In 1945-1946, its leaders urged Mennonite churches to be involved in service to the neighbour. This approach made it possible to continue the early work after the withdrawal of the MCC thanks to the creation of ‘l’Association Fraternelle Mennonite’ and ‘l’Association du Mont des Oiseaux’: the purchase of the Valdoie property to install a child institution in Valdoie, near Belfort in 1950 and, the following year, the acquisition of a second children's home at Mont des Oiseaux, near Wissembourg.  The Mont des Oiseaux turned into a home for the care of children and adults with psychological or mental disabilities.

 

Furthermore, the American Mennonite missionary action, relayed by the association ‘Mission Mennonite Française’,  began around 1953 in Châtenay-Malabry, and  founded a local  Mennonite church. At the same time, it welcomed a local initiative to care for mentally handicapped children. The joint growth of this diaconal service and evangelism didn't happen without difficulty. The association ‘Les Amis de l'Atelier’ was created in 1961 and then grew into a Foundation in 2011.

 

Support-center and foreign students

In 1966, the 'Mission Mennonite Française' initiated  the creation of  a work and accommodation support-center. Today, the association has changed its name and is called: ‘Association des Institutions du Domaine Emmanuel’ (AEDE). The whole of the institutions and services comes down to these figures: 91 institutions and services, 4.188 beneficiaries, 2.633 employees. Financing comes essentially  from public funds.

Also,  the ‘Mission Mennonite Française’ opened a residence for foreign students in 1976. It ran until 1998. In 1995, the Mennonite church of Montbéliard opened  a small emergency accommodation  facility with a capacity of 12 studios.  It is the  ‘Maison d’Acccueil de la Prairie’.

 

In 1977, at the purchase of the building to host the new Mennonite church in Strasbourg, a small residence with seven rooms  for students opened.  Today in 2014, it has expanded to 14 rooms and 9 studios.

From individual to organized compassion

Author: Frédéric de Coninck

How can we explain why many people in favour of individual compassionate actions towards those in need have reserves immediately we initiate discussion concerning structures dealing with these problems?

Martyrdom

Author: Hermann Heidebrecht

Shortly after seizing the power in Russia in 1917, the Bolsheviks started fighting religion because they saw, above all, the clergy being a major obstacle in creating a new communist society. In the late 1920s this caused the strongest persecution of Christians in Europe of the 20th century.

Persecutions

The full scale of the persecutions in those days was only revealed in the 1980s . A special state commission published the following numbers: during the Soviet era, about 200.000 ministers (priests, pastors, church elder, preacher, deacons) were murdered. An additional 300.000 ministers were locked up in prisons and in labor camps. Many ordinary Christians also suffered a similar fate. About 40.000 church buildings were destroyed. From 1935 all churches in Mennonite villages were closed.  First, congregations were assigned extremely high taxes. When these could not be paid, church buildings were confiscated and turned into cinemas, granaries or workshops. Most of the church elders and preachers were arrested.

 

Imprisonment

This also happened to elder Jakob A. Rempel from Grünfeld. Due to generous financial support, from 1906 until 1912 he studied theology, philology, and philosophy at the preacher’s school and University of Basel (Switzerland). Back in Russia, Rempel became a schoolteacher and later a university professor. He rejected a call to a professor position at Moscow University because he was elected elder at his congregation in Neu-Chortitza. In the 1920s, Rempel led the Mennonite brotherhood and negotiated with the government to ensure the continuing of the congregations. In 1929, Rempel had to flee from Grünfeld, as his property was confiscated, and his family deported. In November 1929 he was arrested in Moscow and tortured for  seven months. Then he was sentenced to 10 years of labor camps.

 

Rempel’s last letter

Several years later, he managed to escape but shortly afterwards he was arrested again. He was kept in prison until September 11th 1941, when he, together with 156 other prisoners, was shot on a personal order of Stalin. In one of his last letters he wrote:

 

They can put me in chains, strike me, cut off my head, but nobody can take my faith, my knowledge, the history of my life. From a stable boy to a professor, and even higher in the work for my community, I am now at the peak of my life. I will not boast about that nor shrink from the chosen way, but I bow deeply before the one who prescribed this way to me. 

 

Mennonites in their new motherland Russia

Author: Johannes Dyck

A large part of the today’s Mennonite community in Germany consists of people  who spent a part of their life in Russia. Most of them immigrated to Germany in the last few decades. Their names look like Frisian and Flemish ones. In the stormy 16th century, they became Mennonites and fled to safer places in the Danzig area, then under Polish government. Later, when these territories became Prussian and they were again oppressed because of their faith, they looked for a new place to live in Russia.

 

A warm welcome

In 1789 Russia warmly welcomed the first group of Mennonites. The Tsarist government promised them freedom of faith and exemption from military service and settled them in autonomous self-governed settlements called colonies. The first one was called Chortitza on the Dniepr river. At special Mennonite request, the government was even willing to provide them with twice as much land as other settlers from Germany. In 1804, the next major group of Mennonites from Prussia immigrated to Russia and founded the Molochna colony. Several smaller groups followed. The last migration wave took place in 1859.

 

Hard-working settlers

The diligent and hard-working Mennonites turned the virgin soil of the steppes into a blossoming landscape. Their hard work made Southern Russia, where they settled, became ‘the breadbasket’ of Europe. The small factories they started, over a course of decades and generations, became a prosperous industry with a very strong position on the internal Russian market. With time, the original settlements became  too small for the growing Mennonite population. Having enough resources, the Mennonite community expanded eastwards. At the beginning of the 20th century, large colonies were established even in Siberia – the Asiatic part of Russia. Throughout the generations, they did not lose the ability to work hard, nor the readiness to settle in new, inhospitable areas to make them suitable for living .

 

Motherland Germany

On the eve of World War I and the Russian revolution of 1917, Mennonites in Russia became one of the most progressive members of the worldwide Mennonite family. Still living in colonies which had long before become German islands in the multi-ethnic Russian Empire, they managed to keep a vital connection to their motherland Germany.

 

See more about Mennonites in Russia in the Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (http://www.gameo.org)

Menno Simons’  Hiding Place

Author: Hans-Jürgen Goertz
Translator: J. Jakob Fehr 

On the north side of the village of Bad Oldesloe in Germany there is a whitewashed cottage with a thatched roof under a majestic linden tree, the Menno Kate. The Kate stands as a memorial to the last years of Menno Simons (1496-1561), the namesake of the Mennonites. After Menno was expelled from the city of Wismar in 1544 he found shelter in the estate of Wüstenfelde, where he could work on his publications in peace, writing to his congregations and discussing controversial issues of church discipline with fellow church leaders.

 

The secret printing press

Menno Simons lived on the Fresenburg estate with a group of Anabaptists who had been permitted to live at a nearby estate. The village of Wüstenfelde was later destroyed during the Thirty Year’s War, and so it is not clear whether the Menno Kate was rebuilt on exactly the same site or not, or perhaps even survived the war. He may have lived right in the Menno Kate when he was supervising the printing of his works. He was permitted to use the printing shop in the spring of 1554 and the summer of 1556. In spite of the general prohibition on printing Anabaptist literature, we know that four of his books, including his famous Foundation Book, were published in this time frame. Menno remained in Wüstenfelde after the printing shop was closed. He died there on January 13, 1561 and is said to have been buried in a cabbage patch five kilometres from the Menno Kate.

 

From hide-away to museum

Since 1902 a memorial stone and a bronze plate honour the memory of Menno Simons at the Menno Kate. The cottage is a listed historical monument. It is leased by the Union of German Mennonite Congregations and cared for by the Mennonite Historical Society of Germany. In the 1960s it was restored and turned into a small museum, displaying books, maps and images from the lively history of the Mennonites. It opened in 1986 and after further renovation it has been available to visitors since 1999.

 

Symbols of reconciliation

The aged linden tree that was supposedly planted by Menno himself is called the ‘Menno-Linde’. Several years ago Mennonites planted two beech trees, one in Wittenberg and one near the cottage. Both trees reaffirm the recent act of reconciliation between the Lutheran churches and the Mennonites.

A builder and artist

Author: Paul F. Thimm
Translator: Eliza ten Kate 

In Gdansk you'll find traces of a Mennonite family of builders and artists, the Van den Blocke family. The Hansaic city of Danzig (Gdansk) was one of the richest and most beautiful cities in Northern Europe.

Willem was the son of the sculptor François van den Blocke, from Mechelen, Belgium. Together with his brother Egidius, Willem moved to Danzig, which was looking for skilled craftsmen to translate the city's pride into buildings. His most reputable commission was the Upper Gate, which was the start of the 'Royal Route' through the inner city. He decorated it in stone, with coats of arms of Poland, Prussia and the city itself. In Oliva he built the tomb of the Kos family. In Königsberg another one of his tombs can be found.

 

Willem's son Abraham, architect and sculptor, cooperated in building the Artus Court and Neptune's fountain, and built the marble tomb for the marquis Bonifacio in the Church of the Holy Trinity. He also designed the Golden House of Mayor Speimann and the Golden Gate. Willem's other son Isaac painted pictures in St. Catherine’s Church and in the City Hall, and painted images on the altar and the pulpit in St. Mary's Church. Together with their other brother Jacob, a carpenter, they also worked on the triumphal arch for King Sigismund.

 

Newcomers to Danzig, like Egidius' and Willem's sons Abraham, Jacob and David, gained citizenship by taking the citizen's oath. This might very well be the reason they became Luterhans, since Mennonites are forbidden from taking oaths.

 

Presumably Willem and his son Isaac remained Mennonites. A sign of this is that Willem named his three sons after the patriarchs. His 'Vermeulen-Bible' also points to this, because from a textual perspective it matches the Mennonite 'Biestkens-Bible'. The Danzig merchant Krijn Vermeulen had these Bibles printed for his Dutch speaking fellow-believers. On Willem's copy his name and the date 1607 are printed.

 

Isaac requested to be able to practice his trade without having to take an oath. His Anabaptism can also be found in his painted ceiling in the City Hall. God isn't portrayed in it, but merely indicated by an arm coming from heaven and the Tetragrammaton.

 

Sources:

Horst Penner, ‘Niederländische Täufer formen als Baumeister, Bildhauer und Maler mit an Danzigs unverwechselbarem Gesicht‘, in: Mennonitische Geschichtsblätter (MGB), 26. Jg. 1969, S.12-26.

Horst Penner, ‘Kunst und Religion bei Wilhelm und Isaac von dem Block‘, in: MGB 27.Jg. 1970, S. 48-50.

Rainer Kolbe, ‘Wie mennonitisch war die Danziger Künstlerfamilie von Block?‘, in: MGB 66. Jg. 2009, S.71-84.

Rainer Kolbe, ‘Die Vermeulen-Bibel des Wilhelm von den Blocke von 1607‘, in: MGB 67. Jg. 2010, S.69-75. Nachtrag zu dem Artikel “Wie mennonitisch war die Danziger Künstlerfamilie von Block?“, in: MGB 66 (2009).

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.

 

Work

Author: Svietlana Bobileva
Translator: Katerina Revunenko

Mennonite colonies in the Russian Empire were situated in a zone of risky agriculture. Lack of rains and extreme droughts sometimes converted fields into a pitiful sight. In good  years however, rye and wheat reached waist height. The Mennonites harvested with minimal losses. They carefully prepared agricultural tools and machines. All the equipment had to be ready by Midsummer Day (June, 24). On that day lobogreykas (mowers), wagons loaded with pitchforks, rakes, food and water moved to the fields. The Mennonites and their employees approached the sloping wheat in rows and folded it into big piles. The work required some skill and physical strength because the machines worked non-stop with only a meal break.

 

Camping in the fields

Harvesting took the whole day. To avoid wasting time, the Mennonites camped in the field. However, some wagons returned to the village for the night. They took some water and food for the next day. Such schedules made sure  that harvesting took only about 6–8 days.

 

Threshing

Meanwhile, other people stayed in the village to prepare for threshing. They  used ‘garbos’ – big wagons. These were used to take compressed wheat to a place where threshing stones were moved by two horses walking in circles. Short sticks (‘langvids’), connecting the front and rear wheels, were replaced with long ones. The Mennonites also fixed 1.5 metre high ladders on the both sides. Grain-cleaning machines were turned by hand. Threshing took 8–10 days and always had the risk of the weather turning bad hanging over it.

 

‘One day feeds a year’

Gradually, technological progress influenced the Mennonite colonies. Over time the Mennonites started using threshing machines. These were quite expensive, so the Mennonites often rented them for 1–2 days. In order to cope with a large amount of work in a short time, the owners hired 10–15 employees. They were the Ukrainians from nearby villages. They had to work hard: from 3– 4 am until 10–11 pm. However, the work was well paid and the Mennonites fed their employees properly. So there were no conflicts because everybody understood that ‘a day feeds a year’. Harvest time was a difficult but important time of the year. It gave the Mennonites hope for the next year and filled their lives with great joy.

 

Photo: John A. Lapp, C. Arnold Snyder eds.: Testing Faith and Tradition. Global Mennonite History Series: Europe. (Good Books, PA, 2006).