In the early 1500s Martin Luther, a German priest, began studying the Bible in a way that critiqued some of the problems in the established church at the time. He became convinced that God offered the divine gift of righteousness to believers in God. He also was blocked in his efforts to reform the established church, so in 1517 he went public with 95 theses, which were indictments of church abuses. That started the Reformation movement that touched many countries and regions simultaneously in Europe.
In Switzerland, two other reformers reached similar conclusions. In Geneva, John Calvin, a former lawyer, reacted much the same way as Luther. In Zurich, Ulrich Zwingli also preached reform. Known as “the People’s Priest”, Zwingli was flamboyant, energetic and a powerful preacher.
The Radical Reformation – Anabaptists
Zwingli attracted a group of young radicals who wanted even more reform. Conrad Grebel was a bright but rebellious son of high society. His decadent life had been transformed through new birth in Christ. His colleague, Felix Manz, and he disagreed with Zwingli on the issue of baptism, arguing for believers’ baptism rather than infant baptism. They also advocated the separation of church and state. The Zurich Council ordered Grebel and Manz to stop their home Bible studies and so the group broke completely with the established church. On January 21, 1525 this group met to pray about their critical situation. Moved by the Spirit and with great fear, every person present was baptized and pledged to live in separation from the world. Anabaptism – to be baptized again – was born.
Because of the break with the established church the Anabaptists experienced persecution and martyrdom. Many fled from Switzerland to various points of Europe including Holland. In Holland lived a Catholic priest named Menno Simons. He was a typical priest of the time, performing the formal religious rituals but otherwise occupying himself with frivolous activity and maintaining a low spiritual vitality.
Menno was already having serious personal doubts about some aspects of his religious tradition, but then he heard the news about a simple tailor who had been beheaded for his rebaptism. He turned to the New Testament and concluded that infant baptism had no Scriptural basis and advocated adult baptism upon confession of faith. At this point, in 1531, Menno was convinced that the Anabaptists were correct regarding three truths: 1) that the Bible, not church tradition, was the authority in matters of faith; 2) that the Lord’s Supper was a memorial commemorating Christ’s redemptive act, not a sacrifice of his flesh and blood; and 3) that baptism was an act of faithful adult discipleship, not a christening event to make children Christians.
Menno remained in the Catholic church for a few more years until his brother was killed in a revolutionary battle for an error in teaching that developed in a segment of the Anabaptist movement. Menno felt that he should have taught more openly – that perhaps it might have prevented this disaster. Thus he went public with his convictions, was rebaptized and officially joined the Anabaptist movement in 1537. He became the overseer of several congregations in Holland and Germany. He traveled constantly, partly to encourage people in the movement and partly to stay ahead of his persecutors. By 1542 the price of 100 gold guilders was placed on his head.
The Mennonite Church bears his name not because he was the founder but because he was a church leader who rallied a scattered people and led them through a time of great tribulation. He wrote over two dozen books and pamphlets – on the run! – and defined the theology which was to become the Mennonite church.
Interestingly Menno Simons died (in 1561) peacefully in Denmark. He placed 1 Corinthians 3:11 on the title page of all his writings: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
Migration to Poland
In the mid-1500s persecution and evangelistic impulses pushed the frontier of the Mennonite church from Holland to the Vistula Delta of Poland near Danzig. Polish nobles welcomed the newcomers to their estates as farm laborers. The Mennonite immigrants drained swampy lowlands, built farms and, despite restrictions, established churches. For 250 years (1540–1790), Mennonites lived in religious and cultural isolation. They developed a lifestyle of religious tradition, cultural conservatism and lack of missionary vision that caused them to be known as “The Quiet in the Land.”
The area came under Prussian rule in 1772. The pressure of Prussian militarism under Frederich the Great made it increasingly difficult for the non-resistant Mennonites. Mennonites’ refusal to pay taxes to support the state church and the military establishment together with government restrictions on the purchase of more land for their growing families forced them to look for a new home.
Mennonite Colonies in Russia
Many Prussian Mennonites saw the land settlement policy announced in 1763 by Catherine the Great of Russia as providential. Russia was looking for industrious settlers for new territories acquired north of the Black Sea. Mennonites and other German immigrants were promised freedom of faith, nonparticipation in the military, land ownership and self-government. Starting in 1788, the Mennonites established German-speaking colonies of small villages with farmlands, church buildings, schools and homes. The early years on the Ukrainian steppes were difficult, but the industrious Mennonites eventually established themselves and by 1860 reached a population of 30,000.
Ironically, by the mid 1800s the Russian Mennonite church had taken on many of the characteristics of the European state church of the 1500s. Church membership was a prerequisite for civic privileges such as voting, land ownership and marriage. Baptism was extended to those who completed a catechism class without insistence on personal commitment to Jesus Christ. Church elders began to act as civic authorities. Many elders showed no evidence of discipleship themselves. Church discipline, pastoral counseling and mutual care were often neglected. Divisions between wealthy members and the impoverished landless class deepened. Public drunkenness, gambling and moral decadence went undisciplined. The ordinances of the Lord’s Supper and baptism took on a sacramental character, a sense that the rite itself replaced a need for disciplined Christian living. The Russian Mennonites faced social, economic, intellectual and spiritual stagnation. They were in need of renewal.
The greatest catalyst for renewal among Russian Mennonites in the mid-19th century was Eduard Wuest, a Lutheran Pietist pastor. After a personal conversion experience, he developed into a powerful preacher. Gifted with a commanding physique, melodious voice and attractive personality, Wuest was frequently a guest speaker. Many who were weary of lifeless formalism were drawn by his message into a vibrant spiritual relationship with God and each other.
A clash between Wuest’s followers and the established Mennonite Church seemed inevitable, but before the renewal could organize into a formal movement Wuest himself died in 1859 at the age of 42. Wuest was an important catalyst, but with his death the renewal movement turned to its Anabaptist roots for a New Testament concept of church.
Birth of the Mennonite Brethren
Many people had been converted to personal faith in Jesus in several villages of the Molotschna Mennonite colony in the Ukraine. The “brethren,” as they called themselves, met regularly in homes for Bible study and prayer. These home Bible studies were the cradle for the birth of the Mennonite Brethren Church. Two developments brought about a break with the old church.
First, several small groups of the brethren (which also included sisters) requested a sympathetic elder of the Mennonite church to serve them the Lord’s Supper in their own home, according to Acts 2:46-47. They wanted to celebrate communion more frequently, but their request was also a reaction to taking communion with people who had made no open profession of faith. The elder refused their request on the basis that private communion was without historical precedent, would foster spiritual pride and could cause disunity in the church. In November of 1859 the brethren decided to take the Lord’s Supper in a home without the elders’ sanction.
Second, church meetings were held to decide how to discipline the renegade revivalists. It appeared that reconciliation would be possible. Unfortunately a few unsympathetic opponents verbally attacked the leaders of the house Bible study movement. More shouts followed. About 25 members were lost to the house church movement.
On Epiphany, January 6, 1860, a group of brethren met in a home for a “brotherhood” meeting. This gathering proved to be the charter meeting of the Mennonite Brethren Church. They examined a letter of secession that explained their differences with the mother church. The letter affirmed their agreement with the teaching of Menno Simons and addressed abuses they saw in baptism, the Lord’s Supper, church discipline, pastoral leadership and lifestyle. Eighteen men signed the document. Within two weeks an additional nine men signed the letter of secession. Since each signature stood for a household, the charter membership of the Mennonite Brethren Church consisted of more than 50 people.
At this point we can identify several distinctive Mennonite Brethren emphases true to the early MB Church as well as today. (1) The need for systematic Bible teaching is primary. Rejection of lifeless formalism leads to joyous expression, but this must be directed by thorough biblical instruction. (2) Because religious ferment is subject to powerful emotional expression with shallow intellectual consideration, there is a keen need for spiritual discernment. Emotion and personal experience are servants not masters; obedience borne of biblical study is to be our guide. (3) Leadership is to be entrusted to members with integrity and spiritual balance. (4) While strong and wise leaders are needed, dictatorship is suspect and to be rejected. Congregational participation and action are necessary for a strong church polity. (5) A strong ethical emphasis is needed. Happiness divorced from holiness leads to false freedom. Faith and practice must be kept in proper balance. (6) Meaningful church worship is essential. Lukewarm worship opens the door to hyper-emotional expressions. Radical renewal demands appropriate worship forms.
Migrations to North America – 1870’s
The Mennonite Brethren Church in Russia grew rapidly. By 1872, 12 years after it’s founding, the Mennonite Brethren church numbered about 600 members. Representatives met for the first MB Church family gathering, a time of inspirational meetings and planning for evangelistic church extension. Participation in foreign missions began with financial support of mission societies and quickly moved beyond it, with the first MB mission field established in India.
From 1874 to 1880, some 18,000 Mennonites migrated from Russia to North America prompted by the Russian government’s plans to introduce universal military service and economic factors. Among the immigrants were many Mennonite Brethren.
The new settlers experienced all the hardships of pioneer life, including primitive sod houses, grasshopper plagues, lack of markets for their produce and limited educational opportunities.
In 1878, the first interstate meeting of Mennonite Brethren leaders was held near Henderson, Neb., where the primary issue was uniting Mennonite Brethren congregations for mission purposes. An interest in evangelism and mission has continued to bind Mennonite Brethren congregations together through the years.
By the turn of the century, Mennonite Brethren congregations had been established in Kansas, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Oklahoma, Colorado, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and soon after in California, Montana, Texas, Oregon and Washington.
In 1954, North American Mennonite Brethren organized into two national conferences. Prior to this, they had worked together as the General Conference, a binational body that was organized into four regional districts. This new structure made church growth and evangelism, youth work, Christian education concerns, stewardship, and Bible and liberal arts colleges the responsibility of the national conference.
In 2000, Canadian and U.S. Mennonite Brethren voted to divest the General Conference ministries to the two national conferences. The two national conferences continue to work together as the owners of MB Biblical Seminary and MBMS International and conference leaders meet regularly to consider ministry opportunities in North America and to support one another.
U.S. Mennonite Brethren Today
Since the U.S. Conference was established in 1954, it has grown beyond its original European beginnings. We are a unique denomination—one of the most diverse in the country. Today half of our 200-plus congregations worship in a language other than English on Sunday morning.
U.S. Mennonite Brethren congregations are located in Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota (Central District Conference); Arizona, California, Oregon, Utah and Washington (Pacific District Conference); in Texas (Latin American District Conference); in Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado (Southern District Conference); in North Carolina (North Carolina District Conference); and in New York and Georgia.
Although methods have changed, we have remained committed to bringing people into the Kingdom of God and nurturing them as disciples of Christ. Our story continues to unfold as we follow God’s leading and seek to make disciples of all people.