Negotiating with the Modern World

UNDER THE COVER of a dark September night in 1889, three children of Martin W. and Anna Zimmerman crawled into the newly constructed Lichty Mennonite Meetinghouse in Eastern Pennsylvania. Sent by their parents, they quietly tore out a newly installed pulpit and replaced it with a traditional small preacher’s table, constructed by their father. Their mischief remained hidden for nearly nineteen years until Martin’s wife Anna confessed their sins ten years after his death.

Meanwhile, the pro-pulpit and anti-pulpit factions boiled with anger. Traditional Mennonite habits of humility kept the feet of their lay ministers on equal footing with other members. For a number of years, a few Mennonite churches following Protestant patterns had added simple pulpits that raised their preachers six inches or so above the crowd. The three-member building committee in the Lichty congregation installed the innovative pulpit without consulting the congregation, igniting controversy and encouraging conservatives to argue that it was fair play to rip it out without consent.

Tearing the Fabric of Love

The pulpit fiasco was but one of many controversies that strained the love of North American Mennonites in the last quarter of the 19th century. Final ruptures tore the fabric in Indiana (1872), and then Pennsylvania (1893), Ontario (1889), and Virginia (1901), as Old Order Mennonites formed separate communions to protect old practices and protest innovations—Sunday schools, revival meetings, and preaching in English. During the same era, Old Order divisions splintered not only Mennonites, but also Amish, German Baptist Brethren, and Brethren in Christ groups.

Imbibing progressive Protestant emphases of the late 19th century, forward-looking leaders called for mission outreach, publications, institutes of higher education, and a more aggressive pace in the life of the church. The emerging Old Orders clung to the more informal, familial, rural, and community-based patterns of faith that were threatened by the vibrations of industrialization. The key issues were not technological at this stage but ecclesiastical—would Anabaptists and Pietists preserve their meek and mild manners of non-resistance and non-conformity from the world, or would they embody more mainstream Protestant values and styles?

Choosing Sides

The assimilationist voices won the day, as sizable majorities in all the groups stepped up in American society and moved over toward Protestant patterns of piety, leaving the Old Order Amish, the Old Order Mennonites, the Old German Baptists, and the Old Order River Brethren to guard old ways in the face of a rapidly modernizing society.

Despite their conservative bent, the Old Orders soon struggled with changes in their own ranks. In 1927, Bishop Mose Horning was surprised by a boycott of a Holy Communion service that normally celebrated the peace of the congregation in Anabaptist circles. He knew that many members of his Old Order Mennonite congregation were agitating to buy automobiles, which had been strictly forbidden by the church. Trying to flex with the flow of history, he decided to offer the cup of Holy Communion to those who were driving cars. In a dramatic boycott, the majority of members shunned the cup of wine he offered on that October morning, tearing the fabric for a new division—one that lined the horse-and-buggy drivers up on one side of the road and car owners on the other.

As the 20th century unfolded, Old Order groups who worried that the avalanche of technology would tear their communities asunder and connect them too directly with the outside world placed taboos on public electricity, tractors in fields, modern appliances in the kitchen, and of course—when it arrived—television. Meanwhile, the larger and more assimilated Mennonite, Brethren, and Brethren in Christ groups began looking and acting more like other Protestants. Dropping their plain dress, they adopted more Protestant styles of preaching and worship, employed seminary—trained pastors, built steeples onto some meetinghouses, and organized adult choirs.

Underneath the external changes, a seismic occupational shift was underway. By mid-century, swept up by increasing rates of higher education and urbanization, many members had left their plows for professions. A growing interest in missions and service activities marked all of the mainstream Mennonite and Brethren groups in the first half of the 20th century. Pushed into the larger world through alternate service by World War II, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War, many Anabaptists began acting like mainstream citizens.

Not everyone in the mainstream groups, however, welcomed all the changes. Especially disturbing to some were the loss of plain clothing and the women’s prayer veiling, the ordination of women, the growing acceptance of television, and liberal theological views on Scripture. These and other issues prompted numerous plain-dressing groups to withdraw from the mainstream groups in the last half of the 20th century. During this time, the Brethren Revival Fellowship and some two-dozen conservative Mennonite groups formed in protest of various “liberal” trends.

Three Clusters

By the end of the 20th century, some 100 Anabaptist groups spanned a wide social spectrum in North America. Some members read by gaslight, while others surfed on the world wide web. Some shunned credit cards, while others traded stocks on Wall Street. Thousands studied in one-room schools, while others taught at leading universities. Some were recent immigrants from Asia, and others claimed nine generations of German stock. A truly diverse company had gathered under the Anabaptist canopy.

Struggling with the powerful forces of modernization, Anabaptists and Pietists sorted themselves into three clusters. The traditional groups try to preserve religious practices and make little effort to engage the dominant culture. At the other end of the spectrum, transformational groups seek to change—to transform—the larger world. The transitional groups, of course, lie in the middle—trying to preserve their traditions, yet reaching out as well.

The traditional groups emphasize the moral authority of the church over the individual. They are predominately rural, although many are not farmers; most are satisfied with an eighth-grade education, and they do not engage in evangelism. With large families, these groups grow through “biological evangelism” rather than new recruits. They are more interested in preserving religious practices than in changing the larger world. With minimal bureaucracy, traditional groups emphasize informal social relationships—fellowship above policy, oral over written communication, friendship over proper doctrine.

In broad strokes, the transitional groups come from two directions. Some have left Old Order roots, but others have withdrawn from transformational groups. Roughly 13 percent (70,000) of the Anabaptist world straddles transitional ground. The transitional groups speak English and own automobiles, but they require their members, especially women, to wear distinctive clothing. Although transitional groups share a conservative worldview with traditional groups, they generally interact more with the outside world and are more likely to engage in mission activities.

Unlike traditional groups, transitionals have Sunday schools, youth meetings, and formal programs of Christian education. Their church buildings tend to be fairly plain and they rarely use musical instruments in worship. Lay ministers are usually selected from within the local congregation and do not have professional training or receive a salary.

These churches permit new technology but typically forbid television; some limit world wide web access to business uses only. Many members complete high school but higher education is discouraged. Children from these groups typically attend private church schools.

Virtually all of these transitional groups forbid divorce, the ordination of women, military service, and holding political office. Like the more traditional groups, these churches will excommunicate members who violate their standards. They seek to change the world through mission efforts without discarding their distinctive plain dress.

Reaching out

Plain dress creates a big divide in the Anabaptist world. When Anabaptists shed their plain clothing, they trade their public identity as a distinctive group for greater access into the broader society. Transformational groups seek to transform the larger culture in a variety of ways, including personal evangelism, church planting, overseas missions, prison ministries, international relief and development, social justice, peacemaking, and conflict mediation.

Transformers work in a wide array of jobs as surgeons, mechanics, nurses, lawyers, educators, carpenters, therapists, stockbrokers, managers, and business owners. Most of the members of these groups have televisions and use the world wide web as well as other forms of mass media. About two thirds (360,000) of the Anabaptists in the United States are in the transformational camp.

Transformational groups show many different expressions of Christian faith and piety. They usually grant individual conscience priority over the collective authority of the church. Reflecting the plurality of modern culture, these groups differ on a host of issues—the ordination of women, homosexuality, abortion, capital punishment, political involvement, peacemaking, and others. Some groups are ardent evangelicals, while others accent peacemaking and social justice. Still other churches try to weave all these strands together.

Many transforming congregations employ professional staff—pastors, musicians, Christian educators, and youth leaders. Some of them meet in modern facilities with well-appointed sanctuaries, fellowship halls, and multiple-purpose gymnasiums. Transformational groups also operate national programs and organizations with bureaucratic features—publishing houses, mission boards, colleges, and service agencies.

The big divide

There are fundamental differences between traditional and transformational Anabaptist groups—divergent worldviews, different understandings of the self, of salvation, and indeed of the nature of the church itself. The traditionalists accent the past and value tradition as much as change. The transformers welcome change, innovation, and strategic planning. Traditional groups have not absorbed many of the assumptions of modernity that transformational groups often take for granted.

The transforming groups accent the individual-conscience, choice, and freedom. Many of them emphasize personal salvation, personal Bible study, and personal evangelism. By contrast, traditional groups stress the communal dimensions of salvation, place more restrictions on the individual, and grant greater authority to the church.

Different understandings of the mission of the church also stretch across the spectrum. Some transformers seek to change society by evangelizing individuals and bringing them into the church. Other transformers focus on changing social structures that perpetuate economic injustice, racism, sexism, and poverty. Still others seek transformation through creative contributions in the arts, mental health professions, and civic endeavors. Regardless of mode, transformers share the conviction that the gospel’s good news should create change—whether at the individual level, the societal level, or both.

The traditionalists, on the other hand, argue that their communities are beacons on a hill—a light to the world. Their first priority is to live faithfully within their community in ways that give witness to their faith. Although they will reach out to needy neighbors who face disaster, the primary mission of the church, as they see it, is to faithfully practice the gospel in daily life. A pure church, unstained and unspotted by worldly contamination, is the best and most enduring witness to the larger world.

Old Order communities have little interest in trying to be relevant to the world; rather they seek to live faithfully in community, leaving the effectiveness of their witness in the hands of God. One of the interesting ironies is that groups like the Old Order Amish have attracted enormous public attention without any attempts to evangelize. Transformers, of course, might argue that stirring the curiosity of tourists is interesting but does not change the world for Jesus Christ.

Global Growth and Diversity

By the dawn of the 21st century, mission efforts had dramatically transformed the complexion of the Anabaptist face. Within the United States, the monochrome European culture had dissolved into a kaleidoscope of new cultures. Mennonites in Philadelphia or Los Angeles were not driving horses or speaking German; they were commuting to work on subways and worshipping in more than a dozen languages, including Korean, Chinese, Spanish, and Japanese. These urban congregations of color brought not only cultural distinction but also creative and noisy forms of worship that seem centuries away from the somber, slow pace of Old Order singing.

But despite their quiet Germanic ways, the traditional groups are flourishing. The Old Order Amish, for example, doubling every twenty years, grew their small flock of 5,000 in 1900 to some 180,000 today. Indeed, the traditional communities and the new immigrant groups show the most robust rates of growth. In any event, the modernizing experience has dramatically diversified the monocultural German heritage that many Anabaptists had brought to Germantown.

Diversity also thrives beyond the United States, as the mission efforts of the mid-20th century sowed the seeds of Anabaptism in new societies around the world. The degree of Anabaptist identity varies enormously among rapidly growing overseas churches, but one thing is clear—the Anabaptist family of faith stretches far beyond white, sauerkraut-eating Pennsylvania Germans. Indeed, the Mennonite World Conference counts some 1.3 million members in 200 church bodies in sixty-five countries—singing and praying in dozens of languages.

Traits of traditional, transitional, and transformational groups

Traditional

  • Use horse-drawn transportation
  • Speak a German or Swiss dialect
  • Consider themselves Old Order
  • Preserve Old forms of religious ritual
  • Selectively use technology
  • Emphasize informal/communal practices
  • Practice nonresistance
  • Accept the authority of the church
  • Wear plain clothing

Transitional

  • Accept individual religious experience
  • Emphasize rational, formal, written doctrine
  • Engage in evangelism
  • Use technology except television
  • Forbid divorce*
  • Forbid the ordination of women*
  • Discourage higher education*
  • Ordain lay pastors*
  • Practice nonresistance
  • Wear plain clothing

Transformational

  • Support higher education
  • Engage in diverse forms of ministry
  • Hold professional jobs
  • Hire professional, salaried pastors
  • Use all forms of technology
  • Practice peacemaking
  • Accept individualism
  • Participate in mainstream cultural groups
  • Operate large church organizations
  • Participate in local, state, and national politics

Note: A particular group may not necessarily exhibit all the traits of a category. Traits marked with an asterisk apply to both traditional and transitional groups.

By Donald B. Kraybill

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #84 in 2004]

Donald B. Kraybill is distinguished college professor and senior fellow in the Young Center at Elizabethtown College, Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania.
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