Mennonites - History and Cultural Relations

Anabaptist historians have in the past tended to view Zurich, Switzerland, as the epicenter from which the movement extended to the Swiss Confederation, the Netherlands, Austria, Bavaria, Wurttemberg, and the Palatinate. Today, it is argued that this view oversimplifies an otherwise socially, politically, and ideologically diverse movement. Mennonite Anabaptism was a product of both the sixteenth-century Protestant reforms and the fundamental changes taking place in politics and economics across Europe. Thus, like other Reformation religions, they were contending not only with the Roman church but also with changing and discontinuous feudal forces. Unlike mainstream reformers, however, they rejected infant baptism and called for a community of believers or "rebaptizers" (thus, anabaptists)—those who subscribed to the practice of adult baptism upon the confession of faith. The rejection of infant baptism was more than symbolic; it was a challenge to both church and civil authority—a violation of ecclesiastical and civil law. Baptism signified the voluntary commitment of the adult believer not only to the church but also to the closed community of believers, or Gemeinde. Adult baptism symbolized a contract or covenant with God and community—an agreement to respect the Gemeinde and its binding authority. Unlike the more radical contingents of the Anabaptist movement (especially the Hutterian Brethren), the Mennonites embraced the emerging ideology of private property. The ideological roots of contemporary Mennonites can be traced to the Swiss Brethren (in Switzerland and South Germany) and the North German and Netherlands Mennonites.

Interaction with non-Mennonites varies with the group in question. For example, the Holdeman strictly limit interaction not only with non-Mennonites but with members of other Mennonite groups. The General Conference Mennonite Church or the Mennonite Brethren are less concerned, if at all, with limiting interaction with outsiders. Relations with governments and non-Mennonites have frequently been strained during wartime as most are conscientious objectors. During World War I, they were severely treated by the United States government and their neighbors who often perceived them as German sympathizers. In some cases, they were forbidden the use of the German language, their parochial schools were closed, and their barns or homes painted yellow. Still today, most refuse military service and others refuse to take oaths, vote, or serve in public office.

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