Separated at Birth?

How the origins of the Mennonite Brethren and the General Conference Mennonite Churches account for their differences

The year 1860 was a momentous year for Mennonites. The fires of revival had permeated the insular Mennonite settlements, and there was an appetite for change among some members of the old Mennonite churches. Desiring to follow God’s commands more closely, wishing to keep fellowship with like-minded brothers and sisters in the faith, and being thwarted in these desires by the intransigence of existing church structures, documents were drawn up and signed which established a new body of believers, within the Mennonite tradition but clearly distinct from the churches from whence they came.

The reader of the description above, if not tipped off by the title of this piece, might be forgiven for thinking that the text describes a single movement. In fact, it applies to two church bodies: the Mennonite Brethren (MB’s), formed in Russia, and the General Conference of Mennonite Churches (GC’s), formed in North America. Yet despite the historical parallels between the two groups, they have not been famous for their unity and collegiality. Rather, they have been known to identify themselves in opposition to one another in the North American context. This can be traced to various factors surrounding the birth of the two movements. Specifically, the Mennonite Brethren were born of a separatist impulse in an autocratic political context, whereas the General Conference was the fruit of an ecumenical impulse in a democratic political context.

A comparison of two early accounts of the origins of the two movements will begin to illustrate this point. H. P. Krehbiel, an eminent figure in the General Conference, published a two-volume history of the General Conference in 1898. This account was only 38 years removed from the founding of the conference, and was partially the product of the recollections of its founders as recounted to the author.[1]

The origins of the conference system in North America in Krehbiel’s account were in a trio of local conferences of Mennonite ministers in Pennsylvania, the first being the Franconia conference, founded in 1760. He described them as “local in nature … their deliberations also were of but local interest.”[2] Krehbiel was critical of these early conferences, saying that “In character these conferences were not progressive but conservative, not constructive but purifying, not tolerant but exclusive … Erroneously it was held that union must rest on an absolute likeness in doctrine and customs.”[3] Factionalism wrested many Mennonite churches apart, and drove many Mennonites into other faith traditions. Such conditions persisted up until the mid-nineteenth century.[4]

However, 1855 saw the formation of the Conference Council of the United Mennonite Community of Canada West and Ohio for the purpose of facilitating coordinated evangelical work. Though it was still a regional body, the Canada-Ohio Conference was born out of an inter-Mennonite ecumenical influence.[5] Moreover, while Krehbiel didn’t mention it, the timing of the event coupled with its being driven by evangelism suggests that it may well have been influenced by the Second Great Awakening of ten years earlier. Mission work also drove the formation of a similar conference among Mennonites in Iowa in 1859.[6] These groups would be the nucleus of the later General Conference.

Indeed, it was the Iowans who hosted the first General Conference of the Mennonite Church of North America on May 28-29, 1860. The resolutions of that first conference addressed two general principles. Six resolutions addressed the ecumenical nature of the conference, allowing for “minor” differences between member congregations, setting up demanding scriptural standards for heresy charges and excommunications, and allowing members of individual congregations at odds with that congregation’s beliefs and customs to transfer their membership without hindrance to another congregation within the conference. A second set of resolutions established co-operation regarding missionary and publishing activity, as well as provisions for establishing a denominational school.[7]

Krehbiel’s summary of the particular nature of the General Conference provides an early example of the self-conception of the General Conference church. His six point list includes admission to all churches who follow the teachings of Menno Simons; opposing divisions among Mennonites; and that the conference not rule over individual congregations, but rather coordinate missionary work.[8]

The origins of the Mennonite Brethren share a revivalist history with the General Conference, but otherwise the two stories are rather different. Jacob P. Bekker, one of the eighteen signers of the Document of Secession that marked the beginning of the Mennonite Brethren, began recording his recollections of the secession and founding of the denomination in 1890, eight years before Krehbiel’s account was published.[9] These were translated and published as Origins of the Mennonite Brethren Church in 1973.

Bekker described the Mennonites in the settlements in Russia as particularly dissolute, especially in their opposition to bible societies and tolerance for alcohol production and consumption. However, they came into contact with the Lutheran minister Eduard Wüst, a minister to a group of separatist, millennialist Lutherans who had settled near the Mennonites in Württemberg. Wüst’s preaching drove various heterodox beliefs out of the Württembergers, and he proceeded to begin preaching among the neighbouring Mennonites, where he taught repentance and conversion.[10] (Wüst himself was influenced by the American Methodist minister Wilhelm Nast in the mid-1840’s,[11] thereby connecting him with the Second Great Awakening.) Wüst’s preaching led to various conversions, as well as revived church leadership in the village of Gnadenfeld. Many converts concluded in light of their experiences with Wüst and the ministers from Gnadenfeld that the ministers elsewhere were “spiritually blind.”[12]

After Wüst died in 1859, a group of people influenced by his teaching, including Bekker and some other Mennonites, concluded that “[w]e could no longer feel justified in observing communion with an apostate church membership. By the breaking of bread together, we were testifying that we were one body with the unconverted and godless”.[13] This went beyond Wüst’s teaching; in fact, Bekker criticized Wüst himself for administering communion to the reprobate. They therefore practiced communion separately from the larger church. This led to persecution; Bekker describes converted wives being beaten by unconverted husbands, and people being put out of the church for practicing separate communion. Several leaders of the converted group then met at Elisabethtal and signed a letter of secession on January 6, 1860. This is considered the founding date of the Mennonite Brethren church.[14]

Bekker went on to describe that the first response of the elders of the Mennonite church was to turn the seceded members over to the Russian government for prosecution under a law banning secret societies. Thirty-two men were imprisoned.[15]

The Mennonite Brethren also adopted the practice of baptism by immersion, seeing the alternative as invalid and thus submitting to rebaptism by immersion.[16] Bekker recounted facing violent opposition from both Mennonite civil authorities and local mobs.[17] Consequently, the Mennonite Brethren, though they lived among other Mennonites, were alienated from the Mennonite church, and cooperated with the Baptists in the area in such concerns as missionary work.[18]

A comparison of the accounts of Krehbiel and Bekker of the origins of the General Conference and Mennonite Brethren illuminates several similarities between the two groups, but also a good many differences. Both groups were the product of revivals, were critical of perceived faults and deadness in the pre-existing Mennonite churches, and were in some way connected with the Second Great Awakening. However, at that point the similarities of the two accounts end. Krehbiel saw the uniting nature of the General Conference as a solution to the undue fractiousness and factionalism of the Mennonite churches. Bekker understood separation, rather than unity, to be the appropriate response to the problems in the then-united Mennonite church (the Kleine Gemeinde notably excepted). Where Krehbiel saw churches being unreasonably strict in matters of doctrine, Bekker saw the church being unacceptably lax in tolerating unrighteous living among its members.

It is also worth noting that these two accounts illustrate that the institutional choices made by the two reforming groups mirrored the political systems of their host countries. The General Conference arose in the democratic contexts of the United States of America and Canada West, where religious toleration was the norm and the state did not regulate religious practice. In the same way, the General Conference explicitly promised to tolerate any particular or unique practices that might be present among its constituent congregations. The Mennonite Brethren, in contrast, arose in the last years of feudalism in Russia; the state regulated and restricted the exercise of minority religions such as the Mennonites. This, coupled with legal difficulties in establishing a government-approved church and resistance from neighbouring Mennonites, is likely to have contributed to the Mennonite Brethren’s adoption of relatively rigorous institutional forms from their very beginning.

The ecclesial contexts of the two movements should also be distinguished. The Mennonites in Russia appeared to be organized and united, even if only through state-mandated bodies existing to govern the Mennonite colonies. In North America, the Mennonites were known for their atomization and lack of cooperation between congregations. As a result, the two bodies pushed in opposite directions on the question of church unity. Advocates of the General Conference wished to refrain from passing judgment on the practices of other congregations in order to foster unity. Contrariwise, it was disgust with the practices of existing churches that led to the founding of the Mennonite Brethren as a protest against an institutional unity that tolerated unacceptable conduct.

The distinctions outlined above are not merely factors in the history of the two groups. The historiography of the two denominations has reinforced the postures present at the foundings of the two movements. An article dating to 1956 included in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online’s entry on the General Conference states in its evaluation of the contemporary state of the conference that

A … characteristic of the conference was the emphasis on freedom and autonomy—Christian freedom, not license, for the individual, and autonomy for the congregation. Each believer stood before God Himself in faith as a free individual, uncoerced by other believers.[19]

Elsewhere, the same article describes the polity of the General Conference as resembling that of the Baptists and the Congregationalists more than any other non-Mennonite group – that is, General Conference polity was essentially congregationalist.[20] This may well be a reflection of the influence of American religion in general. It also offers a contrast with the Mennonite Brethren, whose style of church governance was more presbyterian.

Some years later, in 1975, Samuel Floyd Pannabecker’s Open Doors: A History of the General Conference Mennonite Church captured in its title the continuing emphasis on openness within the self-understanding of the General Conference. He described “broad powers of local congregational control and hearty cooperation in matters of mutual concern.”[21] Pannabecker went on to describe the contemporary characteristics of the General Conference as consisting of cooperation, congregational independence, wide diversity, free borrowing from the outside (in terms of things like Sunday schools and evangelistic meetings), relative freedom from disruptive controversies, inter-Mennonite activities, and laxity in the exercise of discipline.[22] With the exception of the last point, these characteristics have all been deliberately present since the beginning of the conference. The original Mennonite Brethren were concerned with something like Pannabecker’s last point in their own context, namely that the preservation of the form of unity might serve to obscure un-Christian practices and beliefs within the church.

Rodney J. Sawatsky delivered a series of lectures in 1985, since published, on the occasion of discussions regarding the potential union of the General Conference and the (Old) Mennonite Church, which eventually came to fruition a decade and a half later. Sawatsky therefore engaged in a deliberate comparison of the General Conference with its future partner, and in so doing spelled out many of the distinctives of the conference in its last years. He saw the General Conference being defined by its rejection of the authority of bishops who enforced a sectarian separation from the world, its embrace of the American evangelical activist impulse, a form of unity without uniformity, and “the authority of individual religious experience over against the authority of traditional religious communal conformity”[23] – something he saw as a common thread between the General Conference and the Mennonite Brethren.

The authority of religious experience, however, clearly worked in one primary direction in the General Conference. Specifically, it worked against the principle of the authority of bishops, as was made manifest by the limited powers given to the conference itself. The Mennonite Brethren, however, did not abandon the eldership model they inherited. Rather, they saw the authority of religious experience as a test of the legitimacy of individual elders.

The Mennonite Brethren, like the General Conference, have retained many of the perspectives that launched the denomination in the nineteenth century. Writing in 1987, Peter M. Hamm said of Canadian Mennonite Brethren that they had maintained their original doctrinal beliefs exceptionally well, though their commitment to Anabaptist principles was not so robust. Perhaps most notably for the purpose of this study, Hamm wrote that “empirical measures of ethics [among Canadian Mennonite Brethren] indicate a more restrictive life-style in personal issues than the General Conference Mennonites from whom they seceded”.[24] (Strictly speaking the Mennonite Brethren did not secede from the General Conference, but most members of the Mennonite church from which the Mennonite Brethren originated joined the General Conference after immigrating to North America.) This may indicate that the Mennonite Brethren insistence on purity in ethics was rather persistent, or that General Conference teachings about personal autonomy and accountability took precedence over cultivating particular ethical behaviours.

Hamm also found that “widespread involvement in leadership roles guarded against hierarchy; yet distinctly local and national leaders give its [the Mennonite Brethren’s] many organizational structures needed directives.”[25] This suggests that rather than adopting the congregationalist polity of the General Conference, Mennonite Brethren have cultivated a broad-based but presbyterian polity, one that in that respect resembles that of the original Mennonite Brethren as well as the antecedent Mennonite churches in Russia.

Somewhat earlier, in 1975, John A. Toews’ A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church noted that the Mennonite Brethren viewed themselves as a whole as a church, rather than seeing individual congregations as churches. This was, he said, the result of “brotherhood-consciousness,” as reflected by the use of the term “brethren” in the name of the denomination. Toews saw this phenomenon receding when he wrote, and blamed “American individualism” as one of the factors causing this decay.[26] That the General Conference, with its American origins, practiced the congregationalism Toews decried might reasonably be thought to be more than coincidental.

One particularly illuminating historical look at the Mennonite Brethren can be found in Richard Kyle’s 1985 doctoral dissertation, entitled From Sect to Denomination: Church Types and Their Implications for Mennonite Brethren History. Kyle analyzes the Mennonite Brethren in terms of Ernst Troeltsch’s sect-church-denomination typology. In this system, a church is a kind of totalizing, geographically bound social institution along the lines of the Catholic Church in pre-Reformation Europe, a sect is a voluntaristic breakaway group with an emphasis on purity in its distinctives among its members and a denunciation of outsiders as inferior, and a denomination considers itself to be one of many ecclesial vehicles bearing God’s truth. Kyle found that the Mennonite Brethren arose as a sect reacting against a church, evolved into a church themselves, and eventually transformed into a denomination. However, even in their early sectarian period they exhibited qualities of a denomination, in that they were not as exclusivist as a true sect. As a denomination in later years, the Mennonite Brethren still exhibited some sectarian qualities, particularly in their demands for purity in the lives of members.[27]

While Kyle’s evaluation pertained directly to the Mennonite Brethren, the typology he uses invites comparison with the General Conference, if some anachronism may be permitted in matters of classification. The General Conference, with its policies regarding tolerance and internal diversity, always lacked the rigor to be labelled a sect. Similarly, its insistence on the autonomy of individual congregations indicates that it was not a church, either. The General Conference was therefore clearly and intentionally a denomination from the start, one that deliberately resisted the forms of the church and the sect. Given that denominationalism arose as a distinctly English phenomenon that became the standard mode of North American religion,[28] this is hardly surprising and further reinforces the essentially North American nature of the General Conference. The sectarian roots of the Mennonite Brethren, which still coloured Mennonite Brethren experience long after denominational traits became predominant, might explain the more robust doctrinal and ethical unity of the Mennonite Brethren, along with their more vigorous practice of church discipline.

From this study it is then apparent that although the General Conference and the Mennonite Brethren both share certain influences from the Mennonite heritage and nineteenth-century revivalism, their origins and continuing practices placed them on different paths in a number of areas. The General Conference always practiced a congregational polity, taught the importance of autonomy for the Christian, cooperated primarily in ministry and mission, and believed that churches should be united on the basis of an ecumenical principle. These qualities are reflections of the North American democratic and individualist context in which the General Conference was formed. In contrast, the Mennonite Brethren have been effectively presbyterian, taught Christian brotherhood, were united to establish doctrine as well as do mission and ministry, and believed churches were united by like practices. These stronger mechanisms of control bear the marks of the authoritarian Russian environment in which the Mennonite Brethren came into being. To put it more pithily, the General Conference practiced unity through tolerance, while the Mennonite Brethren practiced unity through consensus. Perhaps these differences might help to explain why the two denominations have been pitted against each other, rhetorically or otherwise, in the past.


[1] Henry Peter Krehbiel, History of the Mennonite General Conference (St. Louis: A. Wiebusch & Son, 1898): vii.

[2] Ibid: 7.

[3] Ibid: 7-8.

[4] Ibid: 8-10.

[5] Ibid: 18-19.

[6] Ibid: 30-32.

[7] Ibid: 56-60.

[8] Ibid; 68-69.

[9] Jacob P. Bekker, Origin of the Mennonite Brethren Church, trans. D. E. Pauls and A. E. Janzen (Hillsboro, KS: Mennonite Brethren Historical Society of the Midwest, 1973): v.

[10] Ibid: 18-25.

[11] Cornelius Krahn, “Wüst, Eduard (1818-1859),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/contents/ wust_eduard_1818_1859 (accessed January 25, 2011).

[12] Jacob P. Bekker, Origin of the Mennonite Brethren Church: 27.

[13] Ibid: 31.

[14] Ibid: 36-41.

[15] Ibid: 48-65, 79.

[16] Ibid: 73.

[17] Ibid: 102-03.

[18] Ibid: 175.

[19] Edmund G. Kaufman and Henry Poettcker, “General Conference Mennonite Church (GCM),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/G4647ME.html (accessed January 25, 2010).

[20] Ibid.

[21] Samuel Floyd Pannabecker, Open Doors: A History of the General Conference Mennonite Church (Newton, KS: Faith in Life Press, 1975): 185.

[22] Ibid: 382-85.

[23] Rodney J. Sawatsky, Authority and Identity: The Dynamics of the General Conference Mennonite Church (North Newton, KS: Bethel College, 1987): 6-7.

[24] Peter M. Hamm, Continuity & Change Among Canadian Mennonite Brethren (Waterloo, ON: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1987): 247-48.

[25] Ibid: 248.

[26] John A. Toews, A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church (Hillsboro, KS: Mennonite Brethren Publishing House, 1975): 372.

[27] Richard G. Kyle, From Sect To Denomination: Church Types and Their Implications for Mennonite Brethren History (Hillsboro, KS: Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 1985): 92.

[28] Ibid: 15.

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One comment on “Separated at Birth?

  1. Andrew says:

    Fascinating. A treat to read.

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