Who are the Mennonites?
Mennonites are a relatively small group of committed believers in Jesus Christ. In our early history we picked up the name of an early Dutch leader, Menno Simons. But we are followers of Christ, not Menno.
The movement began in the 16th century at the time of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. A small group of earnest young believers said that reformers Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli had not gone far enough. Conrad Grebel led this group in an attempt to recover New Testament Christianity when they baptized one another and verbalized their faith in Jesus Christ in Zurich, Switzerland, in January 1525.
Fired by their new faith, the believers began to spread the word to others. The movement rapidly spread to south Germany and the Netherlands. The official churches immediately opposed the movement and scoffed at them as “Anabaptisers,” which literally means RE-baptisers.
The state was intolerant of the movement because it defied the government-run church. Many Anabaptist leaders were martyred. Thousands died gruesome deaths over the next fifty years.
Small groups of Anabaptists lived without the right to own property or to meet publicly for worship. Some fled, many to Russia and North America, seeking freedom to live their faith according to their consciences. From the 16th to the 19th century the movement hardly grew.
Today the Anabaptist-Mennonite family of faith has spread to sixty countries with more than 800,000 members. Due to the expanding missionary efforts of the last century, today nearly half of all Mennonites live in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, which is also where the church is experiencing the most rapid growth.
Many people think “Mennonite” and “Amish” are interchangeable terms, but this is not so. The Amish people are a subset of the Mennonites and most Mennonites do not follow Amish traditions. Visit Houston Mennonite Church and there will not be a buggy, a bonnet, or a head-covering in sight!
What do Mennonites Believe?
Central to Mennonite teachings is the belief in Jesus Christ as the model for life. Mennonites believe Jesus died and rose from the dead so that people can live in union with God. In relating to each other and the world in the same loving, forgiving way that Jesus practiced, we strive to continue the ministry Christ began.
We try to live in simple obedience to the Word of God. God’s spirit helps the community of believers understand that Word. The life and teachings of Jesus as recorded in the Bible help in interpreting the meaning of the “Old Testament” part of the Bible.
We recognize that we all sin — we do wrong, we fail to do good, we lose touch with God. We believe God sent Jesus Christ to the world so that all those who believe in Jesus Christ could receive forgiveness for their sins, as well as the gift of a more whole life today, and the promise of living forever with God.
We practice “believer’s baptism” to symbolize the decision of an adult to make a public commitment to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Mennonites try to follow Jesus’ call to the church to bring good news to all people. We are concerned with both the spiritual and physical needs of the world.
Essential to Mennonites is the strength of community. We gather together for encouragement and growth, and we help each other in times of crisis.
For Mennonites, following Christ means loving the enemy and refusing to use violence. Many of us conscientiously refuse to participate in military service. We strive to live peaceably with others at all levels. We humbly serve the poor and needy, and take risks to work actively for justice and mercy.
For a more detailed look at Mennonite beliefs, please see the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective .
Read this to get a feel for the passion and focus of our namesake, Menno Simons, and early Anabaptist leader:
“True evangelical faith is of such a nature
it cannot lie dormant,
but spreads itself out in all kinds of righteousness
and fruits of love;
it dies to flesh and blood;
it destroys all lusts and forbidden desires;
it seeks, serves and fears God in its inmost soul;
it clothes the naked;
it feeds the hungry;
it comforts the sorrowful;
it shelters the destitute;
it aids and consoles the sad;
it does good to those who do it harm;
it serves those that harm it;
it prays for those who persecute it;
it teaches, admonishes and judges us with the Word of the Lord;
it seeks those who are lost;
it binds up what is wounded;
it heals the sick;
it saves what is strong;
it becomes all things to all people.
The persecution, suffering and anguish that come to it for the sake of the Lord’s truth have become a glorious joy
and comfort to it.”
The most recognized picture in Mennonite culture would, hands down, be a version of this Dirk Willems icon. Dirk is being chased by a would-be captor/executioner who falls through a frozen river. Instead of running to save his own life, Dirk returns over the thin ice to save his pursuer’s life. Dirk is subsequently executed for his deep faith in Jesus Christ as the prince of peace.