The Anabaptist Tradition: Mennonites
Summary and Keywords
Anabaptism and its descendant movement, Mennonitism, came into being through the illegal baptism of believers upon confession of faith. Anabaptist worship was characterized by form and freedom. It included reading and interpreting the Bible by preachers and other worshipers, practicing baptism, the Lord’s Supper, anointing, and other acts while allowing for immediate promptings by the Holy Spirit, as in 1 Corinthians 14. Routinized worship developed gradually by means of leaders internalizing important turns of phrase as well as writing prayers and publishing prayer books. Some streams of Mennonitism, like the Amish, have laid great stress on following the tradition that emerged. At the same time there arose renewal and missionary movements for whom Spirit-led improvisation was essential for true worship that was accessible to seekers. Beginning in the late 19th century, Mennonite churches arose in the Global South. For them the movement between form and freedom was essential to authentic worship. Singing is the central act of the congregation in all types of Mennonite worship. There is a lean sacramentalism in which the visible church is the body of Christ in history. In the practice of ordinances or sacraments, there has been great concern from the beginning that God’s acts of grace be received by the faith of the believer in order for such acts to be true to their intention. The Lord’s Supper emphasizes encountering both Christ and one’s sisters and brothers in a transformative way. Baptism is entering a covenant with Christ and the church. In addition, anointing, discipline, funerals, marriage and celibacy, parent and child dedication, and ordination are practiced.
Anabaptism, the 16th-century movement from which Mennonites, Hutterites, and Amish emerged, began in a liturgical act. Radical followers of the Zurich reformer Ulrich Zwingli became convinced that the ultimate goal of renewal must be the restoration of the church as a community of believers outside the sphere of the state. Baptism upon profession of faith was for them the act by which one entered a church of believers in contrast with infant baptism, which initiated everyone into a Christianized social order. Similarly the Lord’s Supper was the event by means of which believers were united with Christ and one another in covenant renewal. Both of these actions were spontaneously carried out in a farm kitchen near Zurich in January 1525 and constitute the beginning of what was to become the Mennonite Church.1
For Anabaptists the church was a visible community of believers constituted by outward signs. It is worth noting that their ecclesiology distinguished the Anabaptists from both the Spiritualists and Magisterial Reformers. Spiritualists (such as Kaspar Schwenckfeld) simply believed in an invisible church that no longer needed visible signs. The Magisterial Reformers (Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, Thomas Cranmer) held to a visible church that included all the baptized as well as an invisible church of the elect. Although the Anabaptists, like members of movements of the Reformation as a whole, were marked by the spiritualistic impulse of late medieval theology, they were sacramental in their conviction that the body of Christ on earth was a visible, historical entity.2
This sacramentality helps to explain two matters. One of them is the Anabaptists’ preoccupation with discipline: if those gathered in the name of Jesus are his body, then they must appear “without spot or wrinkle” (Eph. 5:27). The other matter is the this-worldly nature of Anabaptist worship: the Spirit was present in the everyday life of discipleship as much as in a set-apart religious sphere. The symbolic words and actions of worship came directly out of everyday life. For example, it was often stipulated that the plate and cup of the Lord’s Supper should be those used in everyday household life. Therefore the symbolic acts and objects of worship need to both embody and inspire just relationships in ordinary life. This is most profoundly true of the breaking of bread: it is an economic act, a sharing of what one has spiritually and materially.3
For most Anabaptists, visible signs, such as baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and footwashing were essential to the life of the church. Three terms were used by different authors to describe them: ordinances (ordained by Christ), ceremonies (outward acts), and sacraments (the dynamic of acts and objects in which God the Spirit acts). The theology of these ceremonies was developed by the radicals in strong reaction to the Catholic belief that a sign accomplished what it signified without regard to the presence of faith. To emphasize the necessity of obedient faith to receive grace, more weight was placed on the human response than the divine initiative. As will be seen below, some Anabaptist leaders had a sense of the Spirit’s presence with the elements of water, bread, and wine. All of them saw the Spirit at work through the church’s words and gestures in worship. For example, it was only through the act of water baptism that a believer was admitted to the universal Church and a particular congregation. In this charismatic society all believers collectively and each believer individually were said to be bearers of the Spirit.4 When they gathered for worship, Bible study, and decision making, believers relied on the immediate promptings of the Spirit in any member to reveal truth from God.5
So central was this conviction about the outward nature of the body of Christ on earth that its protagonists were willing to suffer imprisonment and martyrdom rather than retreat from the world into a spiritualistic conventicle. Unlike the Spiritualists, the Anabaptists were unwilling to make peace with the world by giving up a believer’s baptism: an outward rite of initiation was indispensable to an outward community.
A tension between inward and outward, letter and spirit, order and inspiration, characterizes every religious collective, but usually one side of the tension is allowed to dominate. This was certainly the case with individual Anabaptist fellowships, but in the movement as a whole the goal remained to hold the outwardness of the church’s existence in the world and the inwardness of the Spirit’s work together. This is illustrated by the work of the most liturgical of first-generation Anabaptist leaders, Balthasar Hubmaier. In his “A Form for Christ’s Supper” he severely alters but retains the form of the Roman mass. Within this form he provides, after the sermon, for any worshiper with insight into the preaching text to contribute it, after the manner of I Corinthians 14.6
Anabaptist vitality became routinized in the course of the second and third generations because of persecution and exhaustion. With the exception of Hubmaier, only fragmentary attempts were made to fashion worship forms out of pre-Reformation tradition. At the same time, ancient habits were engraved on the people’s souls. For example, the inquiry by the priest into the holiness of life of Easter communicants at a late medieval preparatory service during Holy Week is carried over with little change into Mennonite eucharistic practice.7 For the most part, liturgy emerged from below: prayers that a presider had led extemporaneously became normative as they were repeated by himself and others and then were set down in manuscript and later in published form.
At the same time, there is a pattern of evidence that these orders were altered and even discarded from one generation to the next. In many Mennonite communities across the centuries, order and inspiration were reconciled by having members, and especially leaders, internalize concepts and turns of phrase so that a predictable liturgical vocabulary was established. Yet because these were not written down, the fiction was preserved that worship was extemporaneous.
Anabaptism never became an established social institution. In the early generations, it was persecuted. Where it survived, it remained marginalized. It did not become a church by means of a political or theological declaration but through a liturgical act, baptism. Its most trenchant criticism of the existing theological and social order was not a document but a ceremony, baptism. Therefore, published records were scant; there were no official orders of service established by law. At the same time, prayers for use in church and home were collected, published, and used across a broad range of Mennonite communities. A few exceptions aside, orders for occasional services (for example, communion, ordination) were hand copied, and their use was limited to the area of origin and migrations therefrom. The order of service for an ordinary Sunday was usually predictable but not written down, even in the minister’s manuals that came into being after 1800, whose concern was occasional services.
Much of the story of Mennonite worship is told by diary entries and the perseverance of ancient customs. In the North German stream, for instance, it was customary to bring along a fine white cloth in which to hold the bread on communion Sundays. Among the Amish there persisted the practice of bending one knee when taking the communion cup. There was not a Mennonite theological rationale for either of these practices, but their devotional meaning continued to make sense after the Reformation.
Because of their emphasis on the congregation as the normative (but not only) manifestation of church and a resistance to central authority, Mennonites have remained an astonishingly diverse body from the time of their origins. It has often been said, and not without justification, that factionalism is the chronic Mennonite illness. Historically, after the dispersal brought about by persecution, there were two loosely geographic centers of Mennonite life. The “Northern” one stretched from The Netherlands, across Northern Germany to Poland and then down to Southern Russia. The “Southern” one stretched across the Alsace, Southern Germany, and Northern Switzerland to Moravia.
Both of these groupings had large migrations to North America. Broadly speaking, three groupings have arisen among the descendants of Anabaptism in North America. The majority tendency is that of the moderates, who try to marry tradition and innovation in worship as well as in theology and lifestyle; in worship they borrow cautiously from evangelical, charismatic, and liturgical sources. Usually one of these directions predominates. The minority at one end is “old order” movements, which arose at the close of the 17th century and again at the close of the 19th to preserve old ways. The Amish are the best known of these. The form of their worship comes from Mennonite practice of the 18th century and early 19th century but continues to change slowly. The growing minority at the other end tends toward independent evangelicalism, increasingly charismatic in nature; the form of its worship is a mixture of revivalistic and contemporary Christian styles.
Apart from the old order groups, the face of Mennonitism has changed markedly in the course of the 20th century. Between 1850 and 1900, most Mennonite bodies in Europe and North America experienced revival and with it the recovery of a missionary vision they had lost in the 17th century. Often the tension between tradition and innovation burst the bounds of communal life, and new Mennonite bodies came into being. Missionary activity led to the encounter with other cultures, both in the North Atlantic world and beyond it. Direct reliance on the Holy Spirit in worship at its origins and the long-standing marginality to mainstream culture should have given Mennonites the flexibility to inculturate their faith and life in other societies. It was, in fact, the evangelical rather than the Anabaptist impulse that inspired Mennonites to sit lightly to their historical forms of worship in missionary settings. Sometimes the translation never moved beyond the transitional phase of Western generic evangelicalism.
But gradually new Mennonite churches in the Global South have taken ownership of their lives and created worship forms that express their soul. Written worship resources in these settings are limited to the informal copying of practices passed on from congregation to congregation. The ecstatic dimension of many societies of color has drawn them to passages like 1 Corinthians 14, much as it once drew the Anabaptists. Alan and Eleanor Kreider, missionaries concerned with NT patterns that can transcend current cultural differences, see I Corinthians 11–14 as a Christian appropriation of Greco-Roman cultural habits that make room for ecstatic gifts, table fellowship, and proclamation.8 Their primary “target” is the rationalism-bound, white Protestant culture of the West.
At the same time that they are at home with immediate experiences of the Spirit, charismatic cultures in the Global South are also more at home with elaborate ritual than is Free Church Protestant culture in the West with its wariness of symbols and gestures. This richness of expression in many non-European cultures leads to elaborate services in which many gifts of the Spirit are exercised. Mennonite communities in the Global South borrow music from their own and popular Western culture as well as composing their own songs. This is strikingly true in Ethiopia, for example, where Coptic chant has been stylized in an evangelical way. In Kenya it is common for the North Atlantic worship pattern to carry the service through the sermon. The second half of the service is characterized by ecstatic gifts of the Spirit. The hymnals produced for the Mennonite World Conferences of 1978 and 1997 illustrate the breadth of these trends.9 In North America, congregations that have emerged out of home missions among Native Americans, Aboriginal Canadians, blacks, Hispanics, and immigrants from around the world have led to similar inculturation.
During the last thirty years of the 20th century, the moderate white Mennonite majority worked prodigiously to renew worship by the judicious borrowing of musical form and style from three sources: church growth/charismatic worship, the liturgical movement (especially Taize), and African worship (especially Western and Southern). As to the spoken parts of worship, the regional conferences have sought to recast the riches of the liturgical movement for a Mennonite ecclesiology. An abundance of pamphlets, many based on the church year, the Revised Common Lectionary, hymnals, and the 1998 Minister’s Manual of the new Mennonite Church USA/Canada have been issued in the hope of preserving the best prayers and hymns of the tradition and blending them with the fruits of liturgical reform in the larger Christian Church. Along with that has been an encouragement to improvise on basic historic patterns in ways that make these resources accessible to people who lift up the charismatic dimension of worship.10
Probably one-third of mainstream Mennonites have a blended worship style. But many go one way or the other: there the liturgical and charismatic movements exist like two solitudes. As congregations break out of old conventions, they look in opposite directions for inspiration. There are fewer and fewer common ways of acting out the root symbols and memories of the community. This is a time of testing for Mennonite community in North America. Will the center hold? Worship in which people of diverse backgrounds and convictions share a common passion and recognize a common core is being lost. New forms of worship that both shape and unify a people are not yet in reach.
Worship on the Lord’s Day
The central rhythm of Anabaptist communities was their gathering to worship and their dispersal to announce and demonstrate “a new humanity” (Eph. 2:15) as a sign of the coming kingdom. An 18th-century hymn that is still beloved expresses this stance.
Since, o Lord, you have demanded that our lives your love should show,
So we wait to be commanded forth into your world to go.
Kindle in us love’s compassion so that everyone may see
In our fellowship the promise of a new humanity.11
When they met, the heart of the matter was interpreting the scriptures and building one another up for mission. Singing, preaching, praying, and prophesying according to the pattern of 1 Corinthians 14 provided an organic pattern for worship.12
Proclamation of biblical texts by preachers, and initially by all with a gift of prophesy, was central to worship. Because Anabaptists did not have formally trained clergy, the service focused less on the competence of a single leader and a single act of proclamation. The guiding thought was the fellowship of believers; the ideal was apostolic church life in Jerusalem and Corinth. In this scheme of things, word and sacrament were not opposites but complements. Initially the Lord’s Supper was frequent but even when it became less so it was the highlight of the year.
Gradually worship assemblies took on the form they were to retain in most settings until the mid-20th century. Fixed texts, like the Aaronic blessing, were more common in the Northern than in the Southern stream of Mennonitism. Although there were regional variations on the theme, the progression was a variation of what follows:
Greeting (“Peace be unto us”)
Opening reflection on a biblical text
Opening prayer (kneeling; often in silence)
Sermon (often begun with “Grace be unto us and peace”)
Pastoral prayer (kneeling; the Lord’s Prayer in unison often concluded this prayer or it was offered by the presider alone just before the blessing)
(Communion, baptism, or a wedding would come here)
Blessing (usually “The Lord bless us” (Num 6:24–26) or “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” (II Cor 13:13))
As part of the routinization, roles were formally assigned in the worship assembly: the unsung parts were more and more reserved to the elder or bishop (preaching and presiding at ceremonies), minister (preaching), and deacon (reading and praying). Inspired commentary on the proclamation became confined to these leaders.
As with Protestantism in general, bringing the Bible close to the people through preaching was central to Mennonite worship. After the short-lived first generation of theologically astute leaders, preaching was carried out by people who made their living as farmers or craftspeople. Later, as Mennonites pursued higher education, in The Netherlands it became common to choose medical doctors as ministers, and in Russia teachers were favored. Starting in the 18th century in The Netherlands, in the 19th century in the United States, and in other countries with a Mennonite community Bible institutes and seminaries were started to train those called to the ministry. These schools were the source of many innovations in worship practice.
In a traditional service there would be at least two preachers. In the Southern stream they would be chosen as all the ordained met only moments before the service began. The first proclamation would be a brief devotional reflection on a text (in some settings from the Lutheran lectionary) to open the service and set its tone. The second proclamation was a major discourse whose theme was often the ways of God with humanity—lessons of God’s interventions in Old and New Testament times or the challenges of discipleship. In the Southern stream there was a second distinctive. After the main sermon any of the ordained present were invited to “give witness.” This meant that they could add affirmation or insight to the preacher’s words. In the course of the 20th century in the Mennonite mainstream, with more and more educated and full-time clergy, there is usually a single sermon presented on the basis of a manuscript or at least notes.
With the modern addition of instruments, choirs, and liturgical responses, these were given a place in worship but seldom a role. In other words, until recently they were not integrated into the action in a way that allowed them to carry worship forward. In the early 21st century the dominant trends have a recognizable order. In liturgically influenced worship, care is taken to sew each act of worship into a common garment. In charismatically shaped worship, there tends to be a half-hour sequence of songs interspersed with short prayers and biblical citations and followed by a half-hour sermon and then a closing hymn and prayer.
Singing was and is the most profound form of self-expression for the congregation.13 But in the first assemblies in the canton of Zurich, this was not the case. Taking their lead from Zwingli, leaders such as Conrad Grebel forbade singing. Garside’s study of liturgical life in 16th-century Zurich sheds light on this extreme reaction. Apparently its Great Minster (or cathedral) was notorious for liturgical extravagance. Because of the musical complexity of mass settings and anthems and their confinement to Latin texts, the Zurich reformers concluded that church music was inaccessible to the congregation and of no value in worship.14
This judgment was not shared by Anabaptism at large.15 Two widely used hymnals were issued in Dutch and two in German in the 1560s alone. The texts were a mixture of ones borrowed from Catholic and Protestant tradition and ones written by Anabaptists. They included psalms, a few patristic texts, and their own contemporary martyr ballads. Their separatism notwithstanding, this uninhibited and voracious borrowing of musical materials has characterized Mennonite worship ever since. In fact few hymn tunes or texts have been written by Mennonites since the 16th century. Psalmody slowly lost ground to the German chorale tradition, which in turn was augmented by the more heartfelt texts and tunes of German Pietism and later English free church hymnody. Thereafter American gospel music, often in German translation, entered the field. A combination of these strands characterizes Canadian and U.S. Mennonite hymn collections of the 20th century; they were carried along into missionary settings. Of late reciprocity is growing in which Third World compositions are sung in North America.16
Since the congregation was to be the only human actor in worship, so it was reasoned, a choir was not needed to sing on its behalf. The same logic was used to banish instruments from worship. But the medieval office of cantor took root in Anabaptist assemblies. Usually there were two or three song leaders who led the congregation with their voices. The first innovation on this pattern came in urban Dutch congregations in the late 18th century when, in imitation of the major churches, organs were introduced. Choirs in worship first arose in Russia in the 1870s as an extension of the development of more sophisticated music instruction in the Mennonite school system there. North American Mennonites of Southern background resisted both innovations until the 1960s. But no sooner had North American Mennonites’ habits assimilated into the middlebrow patterns of mainline Protestantism than social protest songs, music from other cultures, and the charismatic renewal burst upon the scene with a host of different instruments, ensembles, and singing styles.
For Mennonites the break with medieval tradition is the most pronounced in relation to houses of worship and their furnishing. Since the Anabaptists were lawbreakers, they were often on the run; even when they were not, and they were often forbidden to own real estate. To what extent was necessity turned into a virtue? To what extent were Anabaptists opposed to traditional church buildings because they were driven from them? Clearly their circumstances played a role. Yet the Anabaptist concentration on the gathered assembly as the sine qua non of worship makes the setting quite secondary.
In the first and second generations Anabaptists met for worship wherever they could safely do so—in houses, barns, and forests. Thereafter some of them, notably the Amish, continued to meet in houses or barns as a matter of principle. Others, for example, in Switzerland were forbidden to build meetinghouses. Even where this was not the case, house or barn often remained the setting for weddings and, to a lesser extent, funerals until the mid-20th century. Gradually the Mennonites in Europe were permitted to build houses of worship. They were almost always an adaptation of the Dutch Reformed design of a nearly square rectangular church with worshipers on three sides and presiders on the other, without a choir, apse, or long aisle. In the Northern Mennonite pattern there was also a three-sided balcony. The early 17th-century Singel Kirk in Amsterdam is the prototype of this style of meetinghouse. The pulpit was a long, slightly elevated table built in front of the presiders’ bench. In some places the Lord’s table stood permanently before that bench; in others it was brought in only on communion Sundays.
Both the law and fear of intimidation made sure that meetinghouses were so plain on the outside that no one could identify one as a church.17 Such vessels as were used for baptism, the breaking of bread, and footwashing were brought to church only for the occasion. No permanent symbols, such as the cross, were displayed.18
As spiritual and cultural assimilation proceeded, architecture followed suit. In the late 19th century, simple adaptations of neo-Romanesque and neo-Gothic structures were attempted. The long aisle, which made the whole congregation face the preacher rather than one another, worked against fellowship as the central reality of the assembly. With this change in architecture, the custom arose of painting a verse of scripture, such as “Christ the power and wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). Later a large, plain cross was often mounted on the front wall of the church.
In its successive borrowings there has been a singular lack of originality in Mennonite Church architecture; most designs are derivative and betray a lack of awareness of the history of Christian symbolism. Ironically the ecumenical trend to place the Lord’s table in the midst of the assembly—a gesture that fits perfectly with Mennonite theology—has been resisted for two reasons. One reason is because it goes against the pattern of church design that was borrowed a century ago. The other is that in churches recently built on the pattern of a theater, the stage for musicians is so dominant that other symbols become insignificant.
The Lord’s Supper
The eucharistic controversies of the 16th century were among the most impassioned of that passionate age. This was so because in the breaking of bread everything is at stake: eating and drinking with Jesus is the primal act of the church. The following can be said, by way of summary, of Anabaptist views of the supper.19 There were iconoclasts among them with extreme anticlerical and antisacramental views.20 There was never a single voice setting down a systematic eucharistic theology. One aspect of teaching that received special emphasis was a twofold understanding of “body of Christ,” which has patristic roots. The ‘sacramental body of Christ’ is the Church and the “mystical body of Christ” is the eucharist, (though the early Anabaptists would not have used such language). The Anabaptists emphasized that in the breaking of bread the gathered church is re-created; the transformation which takes place is that of people, not of things.21
For the most part Anabaptist views resisted the conclusions (if not always the logic) of Spiritualism. At the same time, in a lingering ambivalence, Mennonite sacramental language has remained guarded. It has been restrained—if not reductionistic—in talking about the meeting of grace and faith in its ordinances. Some would say that bread and wine are signs of an intensified presence of Christ by the power of the Spirit. The movement’s foremost sacramental thinker, Pilgram Marpeck, emphasized the function rather than the nature of the elements. In an examination of 1 Corinthians 10 and 11, he writes:
Damnation, therefore, is not dependent upon what the bread and the wine are in the Lord’s Supper, but rather on the correct use of the bread and wine, and upon the condition of the heart in which the bread and wine are taken. Whoever is worthy to eat of this bread and drink of this cup experiences a participation in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, as Paul testifies.22
How did these claims come to expression in worship? From the beginning there are records indicating that the assembly for worship often climaxed in the breaking of bread. In late medieval Catholicism the priest communicated without a congregation; in 16th-century Anabaptism the congregation communicated without a priest. The whole priesthood of believers was to be the actor in the service of the word and of the table. Ordinary vessels were to be used. Because early Anabaptists were regularly persecuted or engaged in missionary journeys, the Lord’s Supper was usually a gathering of utter simplicity for ease of understanding by converts. But there is an exception to this pattern in Hubmaier’s “A Form of Christ’s Supper” of 1527:23
Confession of sin
Reading and expositing of scripture so that the congregation, “may be set afire in fervent meditation of Christ’s bitter suffering and death in contemplation, love, and thanksgiving”
Response by the congregation with the hymn, “Stay with us, O Christ”
Further teaching on the preaching text, “from one to whom something is revealed”
Self-examination according to 1 Corinthians 11
Pledge of love
Prayer of thanks
Breaking and distribution of bread as the words of institution are spoken
Exclamation of thanks
Passing of the cup as the words of institution are spoken
Call to live out the baptismal covenant
The form of the Lord’s Supper varied from region to region, but by the beginning of the 17th century it exhibited a recognizable pattern. Like other Christians—Protestant and Catholic—Mennonites were unable to overcome the medieval dread of unworthy communion and so, as their life became routinized, they lapsed into the practice of communicating once or twice a year. Confession, often called Umfrage (inquiry), happened the week before communion. At the supper itself the sermon set forth the suffering and sacrifice of Christ. This theme was continued in a general communion prayer. In some prayers the Spirit was invoked to make the breaking of bread into a “communion of the body and blood of Christ.”24 This phrase from 1 Corinthians 10:17 as well as the words of institution from that epistle were preferred to the language of the Synoptic Gospels.
Interestingly language derived from John 6 was common, although its interpretation was more mystical than realist. The prayers of thanks Jesus offered before the bread and cup, as recorded in the Synoptics, were imitated (without knowledge of their Jewish character or their evolution in the early Church into the eucharistic prayer) as simple acts of gratitude for his body and blood before each of the elements was received.25 A prayer of thanksgiving followed. Gradually the rite of footwashing became a common conclusion to the service. In sum, the breaking of bread was an act of covenant renewal, in which believers pledged to lay down their lives for others as Christ had laid down his life for them. This motif is at the heart of the supper in Hubmaier and Marpeck; in both of them it includes enemies as ones for whom we want to be willing to lay down our lives.26 Recent communion prayers have picked up the matter of enemy love, emphasizing its inseparable place in the teaching of Jesus and in his way of dying.
As the missionary fire subsided and congregations lived generation after generation in confined rural settings, the door to the Lord’s table became conformity to community norms as much as sanctity of life.
This pattern continued for two centuries. Then in Germany a church moving out from its isolation renewed itself by the extensive borrowing of liturgical and devotional prayers from Lutheran sources.27 Half a century later in Russia, the borrowing of a reform movement—the Mennonite Brethren—turned to Baptist sources. It simplified the service, emphasized grace and assurance of salvation to counter the dread of unworthy communion, and instituted a monthly celebration. A similar approach gradually took root across the Mennonite mainstream. In the early 21st century in North America this approach is being taken in two directions. One of them is typified by the 1998 Minister’s Manual that seeks to enrich the traditional Mennonite eucharistic pattern with resources from the liturgical movement. The other trend is toward improvisation with a prayer of thanks for the work of Christ and the act of eating and drinking as the only core.
Baptism is to be offered to people, according to the Schleitheim Confession of 1527, “who have been taught repentance and the amendment of life and believe truly that their sins are taken away through Christ and to all those who desire to walk in the resurrection.”28 Initially baptisms took place wherever believers met, in private homes, at village wells, in forests. As settled congregations developed, baptism was preceded by instruction (initially based on the Apostles’ Creed, later on articles of faith, such as the Dordrecht Confession of 1632, as these were composed). In some cases a personal testimony of faith as well as a willingness to give and receive counsel in the congregation were asked for in addition to a confession of Christ as Savior and assent to trinitarian doctrine as expressed in the Apostles Creed. For Mennonites baptism has always been initiation into the body of Christ universal, enacted by means of entry into a local congregation. These characteristics have found expression in a variety of baptismal formulations. A contemporary one and an adaptation of an 18th-century order are illustrative:
Do you renounce the evil powers of this world and turn to Jesus Christ as your
Savior? Do put your trust in his grace and love and promise to obey him as your
Do you believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth; in Jesus
Christ, God’s Son, our Lord; and in the Holy Spirit, the giver of life?
Do you accept the Word of God as guide and authority for your life?
Are you willing to give and receive counsel in the congregation?
Are you ready to participate in the mission of the church?29
Are you sorry for your sins?
Do you believe in God the Father, in Jesus Christ the Son, and in the Holy Spirit the Giver of Life?
Do you promise, by God’s grace, to follow Jesus the Lamb, all the days of your life, ready to love your enemies and suffer wrong nonresistantly?
Do you accept the way of life set forth in our confession of faith?30
What is a Mennonite baptismal service like? This depends on whether it is broadly liturgical or charismatic. In the former baptism is the centerpiece and the theme of the readings and preaching. Until the act of initiation itself, the service follows the normal pattern, though more solemn and festive in spirit. A short description is given of the meaning of baptism. If they have not done so in a previous service, the candidates will usually give a testimony of faith and express their desire to be part of the church. Questions like those above will be asked and answers given. Then the trinitarian formula is spoken as water is added. Often a prayer for the Holy Spirit follows immediately with a laying on of hands. The candidates are received into the congregation. After the service, members informally congratulate them and express a willingness to give and receive counsel with them.
In a more charismatic service of baptism the setting is often informal because immersion is the preferred mode of baptism and happens out of doors. Elements that are part of the more liturgical approach are often included but in brief form because the focus is on assurance of salvation and the drama of dying and rising with Christ.
Surprisingly, in the 16th century the form of baptism seems simply to have followed traditional local practice. Sprinkling and pouring, once or three times, were most common, but immersion was also practiced. The form of baptism did not become a matter of polemics until renewal movements among Mennonites in the 17th and 19th centuries (Dompelaars in Germany and Mennonite Brethren in Russia) associated immersion with a crisis conversion and an intensity of faith lacking in the Mennonite Church of the day. Baptism was and remains a highlight of Mennonite Church life in all branches; the service often culminates in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
What happens, as Mennonites understand it, in baptism? All would agree that the event acts out the preceding response of faith to grace (commonly described as dying and rising with Christ, as in Rom. 6:3–4) and the grafting of the believer into the body of Christ. Some would place the primary weight in baptism on the human response: it is the initial act of obedience which the Christian renders to Christ. Others would also emphasize baptism as the seal of the Holy Spirit (God’s act) and a vouching for the faith of the candidate (the church’s act).31
In a recent book Anthony Siegrist addresses a weakness in Mennonite theology concerning the relationship between divine initiative and human response, especially as it is enacted in baptism. To do so, he invokes Karl Barth’s teaching on believer’s baptism as an ambitious attempt to restore a proper relationship between divine and human action. One of Siegrist’s summary statements is that baptism “renders the effects of grace perceivable, which for creatures reliant on sensual perception is of no mere secondary importance.”32
Although the Lord’s Supper and baptism were always held up as the central actions of the church, there were various lists of additional ordinances among Anabaptists in the 16th century. The most elaborate one is by Dirk Philips. As marks of the church, he lists and describes ordination, sacraments (communion and baptism as a single mark), footwashing, discipline, love, commandment keeping, suffering.33 Other lists appear across the centuries; their common characteristic is the bringing together of ritual acts and moral acts as marks of the church, binding together its worship and mission.
Church discipline was thought of as the necessary complement to baptism: one entered the church with a promise to live a holy life; one was excommunicated if one persistently violated that promise. Matthew 18:15–22 was held up as the model of charitable admonition. Although the motivation was to be one of mutual correction, the process often descended into self-righteousness. There was usually a public declaration of excommunication. Some formularies include a rite for the reception of penitents.34
Conversion and baptism made women and men equal as heirs of grace, as set forth in parts of Paul’s ecclesiology (Gal 3:28, I Cor 12). Both possessed the Spirit, so both were called to witness to Christ at home and work. Almost as many women as men endured martyrdom. In some settings witnessing by women led to their role as interpreters of biblical texts.35 As congregations braced themselves for battle with the world, the setting apart of leaders became more formalized. Only men were chosen for these roles, which generally perpetuated the threefold ministry on the basis of biblical precedent (deacon, minister, bishop). Initially provision was made for prophets who received a direct call from God and had only to be acknowledged by the congregation. Mention of this role ceases after the second generation.
Otherwise choosing leaders seems to have happened by congregational or regional church discernment or by lot. The use of the lot (Acts 1:21–26) was widespread, especially where more than one name for an officeholder had been put forth by members of the congregation. The only formal criterion was evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work in the man’s life. The gifts of shepherding and preaching were especially sought after. The names would be announced and a day of prayer and fasting declared. On the ordination day identical Bibles or hymnals would be given to each candidate; in one of them a slip of paper would be placed. There was a moment of breathtaking drama as each candidate opened his book and one of them discovered the slip of paper. Ordination followed immediately.
In the Southern stream of Mennonites all leaders were ordained. In the Northern stream elders or bishops were always ordained, ministers usually, and deacons often not. Because of the importance of singing, song leaders were elected by the congregation. All of this changed in the last half of the 20th century. In the mainstream few district conferences call bishops but that office is retained in Global South conferences (like Tanzania and Kenya) and by old order groups in the Western Hemisphere. Some have overseers for a smaller number of congregations than traditionally constituted a bishop district. Others appoint conference ministers for that role. Deacons have been replaced or, in some cases, complemented by “elders” in the Reformed understanding of that role, that is, as the pastor’s closest advisors. In 1915 the Dutch Mennonites ordained their first woman minister. This shift happened in North America in the two largest conferences in the late 1970s. Now most of their regional conferences have women at all levels of leadership. The smaller groups range from ordaining women only as assistant ministers to reserving all appointed ministries for men. Of all the Mennonite groups, until recently only the Dutch have ordained homosexuals in a partnership. The first such ordinations took place in Mennonite Church Canada and USA in 2017.
The spiritual and theological formation of ministers happened without educational institutions for most of Mennonite history. New leaders would be taught preaching and presiding by older ones. They would rely on books of sermons as exemplars and, in some settings, as texts that they reread word for word in the Sunday assembly.36
Such limited records of wedding services as there are tell us that into the 19th century the vows were most often celebrated as an appendix to the regular Sunday assembly. The couple came forward to sit in chairs set out for them in order to hear an admonition by the minister concerning the joys and pitfalls of conjugal life. His text was often Tobit 8, the account of the romance and wedding of Tobias and Sarah in the time of diaspora Judaism. The vows for the woman and the man were usually identical and there was no giving away of the bride. Later on weddings were more and more often solemnized domestically in a separate service in the bride’s home or (elaborately decorated) barn. In the course of the 20th century, church weddings became the norm in mainstream Mennonitism. Of all the rituals Mennonites celebrate, their marriage rite differs least from those of other denominations.
Parent and Child Dedication
The practice of baptism on profession of faith left infants without the church’s formal blessing. As part of his theological reflection on children, the 16th-century theologian, Pilgram Marpeck, gives the outline of a service of naming and blessing for newborns.37 This practice did not become widespread until the 20th century because there was an intuitive wariness that it might seem to be a baptism. It is now a widespread practice among mainstream Mennonites in various countries because of the attention given to children today and to more explicitly bring them into the care of the church. There is usually a blessing with the laying on of hands and a promise by the parents and congregation to raise the child toward Christ. The current Dutch Mennonite formulary calls this service “Thanksgiving for a Birth.”38
There is sparse documentation of funeral practices until the 19nth century, when collections of funeral sermons appear. According to oral tradition, congregational singing accompanied the service and the cortege on the way to the graveyard as well as at the burial. The order was that of a regular preaching service, with prayers for the occasion. In some records the weight of the sermon was placed on gratitude for the work of grace in the deceased’s life; in others it was an occasion to warn mourners so to live that they would not be ashamed on the Day of Judgment. There was and is a wariness of a eulogy since it was thought to place the focus on the achievements of the deceased; instead, the weight was to be placed on God’s lifelong provision. There is a growing tension between this focus and the increasing emphasis in the culture at large to make the achievements of the deceased the sole focus of a funeral. Along with Christian circles at large, Mennonites have moved from a predominant emphasis on judgment to one on resurrection. In mainstream Mennonitism there is a place for memorial services, cremation, and acts of committal for miscarriages and stillbirths.39
Anointing for healing is but rarely mentioned in early Mennonite lore.40 It is not often part of prayer formularies or ministers’ manuals until the 20th century, but it has a firm basis in oral tradition: everyone assumes it has always been done. The traditional practice was for a minister, a deacon, and representatives of the congregation to visit a member privately at his or her sickbed. In the early 21st century anointing is increasingly practiced on an occasional basis in public worship not only for physical illness but for healing of relationships.41
Like anointing, celibacy is rarely mentioned but is provided for as an honorable estate. By common prejudice, marriage was the preferred state, but in some settings older women of stature were set aside as deaconesses. With the institutionalization of church life in the 19th century, celibate women were permitted to undertake missionary service at home and abroad, and a few deaconess orders, whose ministry was nursing, emerged. There is a “Blessing of a Life of Celibacy” in one of the early 21st-century worship formularies.42
The Church Year
Aside from the Lord’s Day there is scant reference in Anabaptism to the church year and the lectionary. Formally they were discarded by Anabaptists as part and parcel of their rejection of clericalism and, in their view, religion imprisoned by its outer forms. But informally the use of seasonal scripture readings is in evidence. Much was made of Sunday as the day of worship and of rest. Gradually anecdotal references appear, for example, to the breaking of bread on Good Friday, meeting for worship on Ascension Day, celebrating baptism on Pentecost. Bit by bit the liturgical calendar from Advent through Pentecost makes its way into Mennonite custom. In the widely used 1767 Prussian hymnal, for example, the Lutheran lectionary is included.43 New Year’s Eve and Day were almost universally observed. In the early 19th century, Eternity Sunday, the European Protestant alternative to All Souls’ and All Saints’ Days held on the last Sunday of the church year, was taken up in some circles. In settings influenced by revivalism in the early 20th century and by charismatic renewal in the early 21st century, little is made of the church year.
One of the distinctive features of Anabaptism was its early attempts to marry freedom and order, charismatic utterance and read prayer. This is partly the case because sociologically speaking, Anabaptism was a first-generation movement, one that was entered by a dramatic conversion, embodied in baptism upon confession of faith. This was a similarity it shared with church life recorded in the NT. At the same time it retained a stake in the long tradition of the Western church. This expressed itself in worship by means of trinitarian language, by simplified yet essential rites of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, footwashing, ordination, and anointing among others.
The ecclesial streams that descended from Anabaptism only reluctantly became second generation movements. They continued to win converts but increasingly candidates for baptism were children who came to faith through nurture. For the most part Mennonite worship has veered unevenly between the two poles of charismatic freedom and traditional order. Memorized habits of speech and ritual, both from pre-Reformation usage and immediate experience, were gradually written down. But as if by instinct, there have been groups in every century that broke inherited patterns, made room for spontaneous expression, and created new forms or borrowed them from other traditions. As this cycle moved farther and farther away from the 16th century, the structures of classical worship receded from the Mennonite mindset.
A second distinctive in Mennonite worship is the tension between accessibility and accountability. On the one hand, its missionary vision led to the creation of simple, inviting forms of praise that were accessible to new converts. On the other hand, by the beginning of the 17th century Mennonite congregations tended to become gatherings of covenanted members who could rely on one other amidst discrimination and persecution. The result was that their worship took on the character of private meetings of initiates. Worship forms ceased having an evangelistic flexibility. The assembly’s chief function was to strengthen the covenant of obedience—and conformity. This struggle for balance in worship and congregational life between accessibility and accountability has been taken up in many congregations in the early 21st century. In conservative as well as liberal congregations there is a growing sense of “public” worship as an open event with a recognizable structure in which newcomers can join. Worship planners and leaders often move between a recognized order that characterizes public worship and an intimacy that characterizes small group or individual religious experience.44
A third distinctive is to make worship and obedience inseparable: the gathered and the scattered church are to be a seamless garment. This has often led to leanness in worship forms and words lest one make claims one is not prepared to live out. At different times this has leant integrity to Mennonite communities. It has also made worship very human centered, measuring what is possible not by God’s grace but by our righteousness. On the positive side there is the pledge embedded in the communion service to give oneself for brother, sister, neighbor, and enemy as Christ gave himself for us. The most intimate moment of the Christian life, that of participation in the body of Christ, has within it the counterpoint of sharing what has been received with the world.
Mennonite worship that is true to its vision of the church is improvisional, not in dispensing with form but in holding together form and freedom. To do this it has allowed worship to be created locally. It has held worship and mission in tension. The loftiest liturgical striving of Mennonites is to hold themselves accountable at work on Monday to the words they spoke in worship on Sunday.
Armour, Rollin. Anabaptist Baptism. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1966.Find this resource:
Beachy, Alvin. Worship as Celebration. Newton, KS: Faith & Life, 1968.Find this resource:
Cross, Anthony, and Philip E. Thompson, eds. Baptist Sacramentalism. Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster, 2003.Find this resource:
Ewert, David. Proclaim Salvation: Preaching the Church Year. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1992.Find this resource:
Funk, Henry. A Mirror of Baptism. Orig. publ. 1744, reprint: n.p., Campbell Copy, 1978.Find this resource:
Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia On-line, articles on all aspects of worship.
Jeschke, Marlin. Believers Baptism for Children of the Church. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1983.Find this resource:
Kreider, Eleanor. Communion Shapes Character. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1997.Find this resource:
Stoffer, Dale, ed. The Lord’s Supper: Believers Church Perspectives. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1997.Find this resource:
Yoder, June, Marlene Kropf, and Rebecca Slough. Preparing Sunday Dinner: A Collaborative Approach to Worship and Preaching. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2005.Find this resource:
(1.) Fritz Blanke, Brothers in Christ (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1966), 21–27. For a succinct introduction to the Anabaptist movement, see Walter Klaassen, Anabaptism: Neither Catholic nor Protestant (Waterloo, Ontario: Conrad, 1973). For an extensive bibliography on Mennonite worship, see John D. Rempel, The Lord’s Supper in Anabaptism (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1993), 254–260. For a summary of current worship practices, see The Mennonite Encyclopedia, vol. 5 (Hillsboro, KS: Mennonite Brethren Publishing House, 1990), 943–948.
(2.) John D Rempel, ”Sacraments in the Radical Reformation,” 298–312, in The Oxford Handbook of Sacramental Theology, eds. Hans Boersma and Matthew Levering (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).
(3.) John Howard Yoder, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community before the Watching World (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1992), esp. 16–27.
(4.) In this article the term “charismatic” is used in the broad sense of worship shaped by the immediate inbreaking of the Holy Spirit. When applied to current worship it also includes music and forms not shaped by classical European habits, whether in the North Atlantic world or the Global South. “Liturgical” is another broad term describing ordered worship in the classical European style.
(5.) The most trenchant apology for this unity of inner and outer in the 16th century was that of the South German Anabaptist theologian Pilgram Marpeck. For a compendium of his work, see The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck, eds. William Klassen and Walter Klaassen (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1978). For selections from his sacramental theology, see Later Writings by Pilgram Marpeck and His Circle, vol. 1, trans. Walter Klaassen, Werner Packull, and John Rempel (Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora, 1999).
(6.) Balthasar Hubmaier, Theologian of Anabaptism, eds. H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1989), 395–396. The whole service, which is a mixture of rubrics, the theological rationale for them, and the actual liturgy, is on pages 393–408.
(7.) Eamon Duffy’s description in The Stripping of the Altars (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992), 93–96, is remarkably like that of traditional Mennonite communities in the early 21st century and as the practice is recorded in Valentin Dahlem, Allgemeines und Vollständiges Formularbuch (Neuwied, Germany: J. T. Haupt, 1807), 299–301.
(8.) Alan Kreider and Eleanor Kreider, Worship and Mission after Christendom (Colorado Springs: Paternoster, 2009), 73–120.
(9.) International Songbook (Lombard, IL: Mennonite World Conference, 1978); International Songbook: India 1997 (Calcutta: Mennonite World Conference, 1997); and International Songbook: Africa 2003 (Kitchener, Ontario: Mennonite World Conference, 2003). See also Ross Bender, “Glimpses of Mennonite Worship on Five Continents,” Courier 6 (1991): 5.
(10.) Two worship formularies encouraging improvisation on historic patterns were issued at the same time. The Dutch Mennonite Conference published De Gemeente komt samen, eds. W. Bakker and G. G. Hoekema (Amsterdam: Algemene Doopsgezinde Sociëteit, 1998). The Mennonite Church USA and Canada published Minister’s Manual, ed. John Rempel, in 1998. The former prints rubrics and themes but few prayers so as to not inhibit improvisation, while the latter has a wide range of historic and contemporary Mennonite and ecumenical prayers.
(11.) “Heart with Loving Heart United,” #439, Worship Together, Winnipeg, Canada: General Conference of the Mennonite Brethren Churches, 1995.
(12.) Shem Peachey and Paul Peachy, “Answer of Some Who Are Called (Ana)Baptists: Why They Do Not Attend the Churches,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 45 (1971): 5–32, contains one of the few extant descriptions of a mid-16th-century service.
(13.) Bernie Neufeld, Music in Worship (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1998).
(14.) Charles Garside, Zwingli and the Arts (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966), 17ff.
(15.) In fact, a volume of interviews and reflections on the meaning of congregational singing for Mennonites in worship concludes that congregational song is the Mennonite “sacrament.” See Marlene Kropf and Kenneth Nafziger, Singing: A Mennonite Voice (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2001).
(16.) Worship Together (Winnipeg, Canada: General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, 1995).
(17.) Illustrations of three worship settings in three eras are in Alister Hamilton et al., eds., From Martyr to Muppie (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1994), 12, 27, 144.
(18.) In response to this practice, see Rodney Sawatsky, “A Call for the Recovery of the Visual Arts in Worship,” in Music and the Arts in Christian Worship, ed. Robert E. Webber, bk. 2 (Nashville: Star Song, 1994), 516–518.
(19.) For a detailed portrayal see Michelle Zelinsky Hanson, “Anabaptist Liturgical Practices,” 251–272; and John D Rempel, “Anabaptist Theologies of the Eucharist,” 115–137, in A Companion to the Eucharist in the Reformation, ed. Lee Palmer Wandel (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2014).
(20.) Hans Schlaffer, “A Simple prayer,” 282–283, in Joerg Maler’s Kunstbuch: Writings of the Pilgram Marpeck Circle, ed. John D. Rempel (Kitchener, ON: Pandora, 2010).
(21.) See Rempel, The Lord’s Supper, esp. 197–226.
(22.) Rempel, The Lord’s Supper, 269; see also 129, 263–267 passim. Analogous language is used in Article 12, “The Lord’s Supper,” in Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1995), 50–54.
(23.) Balthasar Hubmaier, 395–396. The service is a list of rubrics and acts that are not separate from each other.
(24.) “O Lord! Through your grace and the gift of the Holy Spirit, grant that our hungering souls may in this meal be fed with the body and blood of your beloved Son,” 101 in Leonard Gross, trans., Prayer Book for Earnest Christians (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1996).
(25.) Leenaerdt Clock, a minister at the beginning of the 17th century, wrote a much-prized set of eighteen prayers that went through many editions as part of a beloved volume of devotional writings. It is preserved in a new translation, An Earnest Christian’s Handbook, ed. and trans. Leonard Gross (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1996). Clock’s contemporary, Hans de Ries, left collections of sermons, prayers, and orders of service behind. Some of his work is preserved in Minister’s Manual, 28, 30, 82–87.
(26.) Balthasar Hubmaier, 403; and Later Writings, 100, 102, 105.
(27.) Dahlem, Formularbuch.
(28.) Walter Klaassen, ed., Anabaptism in Outline (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1981), 168.
(29.) Minister’s Manual, 48.
(30.) Minister’s Manual, 50–51.
(31.) See Jeschke, Believers Baptism for Children of the Church, esp. 42–49.
(32.) Anthony Siegrist, Participating Witness: An Anabaptist Theology of Baptism and the Sacramental Nature of the Church (Eurene, OR: Pickwick, 2013), 42–50, 150–160, esp 160.
(33.) Dirk Philips, The Writings of Dirk Philips, 1504–1568, trans. and eds. Cornelius J. Dyck, William E. Keeney, and Alvin J. Beachey (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1992), 363–374.
(34.) An attempt has been made to reclaim binding and loosing in Minister’s Manual, 225–231.
(35.) See C. Arnold Snyder and Linda Hecht, eds., Profiles in Anabaptist Women, Studies in Women and Religion vol. 3 (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1996).
(36.) From the mid-17th century to the late 19th century the publishing of Mennonite sermons was a flourishing trade, e.g., J. Gerrits, Vijf Stichelijche Predikaten (Amsterdam: Gerrit van Goedesbergh, 1650); and R. Rahusen, Predigten und Reden (Bremen, Germany: G. L. Foerster, 1784). One of the rare books on homiletics itself is Russell L. Mast, Preach the Word (Newton, KS: Faith and Life, 1968).
(37.) “Confession of 1532,” 126–140, in Klassen and Klaassen, Writings of Pilgram Marpeck.
(38.) “Geboortedankzegging,” 110–111, in Bakker and Hoekema, De Gemeente komt samen.
(39.) John D Rempel, ed., Minister’s Manual (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1998), 184–205.
(40.) “Glaubensbekenntnis als auch Formular der Taufbedienung . . . bei Schwetz,” 1787, Ms., 8, Bethel College Historical Library, Newton, KS.
(41.) In Minister’s Manual, 213–214, for example, there is a rite for anointing after divorce.
(42.) Minister’s Manual, 129–132.
(43.) Gesangbuch eine Sammlung geistreicher Lieder, reprint (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1965), XI–XX.
(44.) See the issue of Vision: A Journal for Church and Theology 6, no. 2 (Fall 2005) on contemporary worship.