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Named for Menno Simons, the Mennonites are the largest Anabaptist group. Meno Simons was actually rather late in coming to Anabaptism. Simons was a Catholic priest from the Friesland region of the Low Countries. His introduction to Anabaptism came about when an Anabaptist was beheaded for being rebaptized in 1531. Studying the subject, Simons came to the conclusion that infant baptism was not Biblical. He discussed the issue with people he respected, and read Martin Luther. After bring transferred to Witmarsum, he first came into contact with Anabaptists, as well as people from the revolutionary Münsterite group, who had ties to the Anabaptists. Simons regarded the Münsterites as misled and fanatical, but he admired their zeal. In 1535, his brother, who was a Münsteritem, was killed along with several others of their number. Menno Simons rejected Catholicism in 1536, casting his lot with the Anabaptists. Although the group later took his name, Simons was not the sole founder of the Mennonites, even in the Netherlands. Others, like David Joris and Obbe Philips, would have priority, and the majority of those who are called Mennonites today have their roots in the Swiss Brethren, who were formed before Menno Simons' writings had even been translated into their language. Still, Menno Simons provided wise and strong leadership at a time when the movement was on the verge of disintegration. Although today, the Mennonites have split into several denominations, some having more in common with the mainstream Protestant churches, the traditional core beliefs of Mennonites included the necessity of repentance and conversion for salvation, baptism as a public testimony of faith, the Lord's Supper as an expression of common union and fellowship, marriage within the faith, obedience to civil government except in the use of armed force, and exclusion from the church and social ostracism of those who willingly sin, and future reward for the faithful.

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Mennonites in North America


Mennonites

The Mennonites are part of the Anabaptist Movement that came about as a result of the Radical Reformation, occurring simultaneous with the Protestant Reformation. In recent years, some Mennonite congregations have referred to themselves as Protestant, but historically they were separate from, and persecuted by, both the Catholics and the Protestants.

Although differing somewhat, Anabaptist groups formed in Switzerland, Germany, Moravia, and the Netherlands, spreading throughout Europe, with significant numbers in Russia.

In the mid-1600s, they began coming to North America. Although large-scale persecution had all but ended in most parts of Europe, they came to North America to escape the continuing oppression, discrimination, and intolerance that they were experiencing, largely stemming from rising militarism. As pacifists who considered themselves to be separate from earthly governments, most Mennonites would refuse to fight, or even to wear the uniform of the military, a practice that did not endear them to nationalists, particularly in time of war.

Like the Puritans, who were coming to America at the same time, they also came to preserve their faith and to plant the seeds of a new church, fulfilling the mission and the vision for which their parents had suffered, and often died. In concert with nearly everyone else who came to the New World, many also came seeking opportunity and adventure.

Among those who came were two groups of people who were closely related theologically, but culturally divided; one group came from Switzerland and South Germany, the other from the Netherlands, Prussia, and Russia. The latter group came first, but were soon overtaken by the former in numbers, at least until well into the 1800s.

There were Dutch Mennonites in Manhattan as early as 1644, and on Long Island in 1657. In 1663, a settlement of forty-one Mennonites was established on the Delaware River, but the colony was destroyed a year later by British troops.

In 1681, a group of thirty-four Mennonites and Quakers came together to America from Krefeld, Germany, settling in what became Germantown, now a suburb of Philadelphia. It was from this group that the first formal protest against the practice of slavery was filed. Now acknowledged as the birthplace of the American anti-slavery movement, a petition was filed on behalf of the Germantown Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. Due to a firmly held belief in the separation of church and state, Mennonites did not file petitions, but it was clear that the entire settlement was united in opposition to slavery. At first, the Mennonites and Quakers met together for worship, but they later built separate meeting places, although they continued an amiable relationship. The Mennonites soon almost covered what is now Lancaster County, and continued to branch out.

Establishing a base, as it was, new Mennonite arrivals in America nearly always came first to eastern Pennsylvania. They also moved west to Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana. By the time of the American Civil War in 1860, a group of approximately five hundred Mennonites and Amish-Mennonites had come to Ohio and Indiana directly from Switzerland.

Others moved north into Canada, largely to escape the animosity that sometimes resulted from their refusal to participate in the Civil War. But some were already there as, by 1800, several groups of Mennonites had left Pennsylvania for the Niagara area in Ontario. In 1807, Benjamin Eby, a Mennonite, founded Ebytown, which later became Kitchener, Ontario.

The number of South German and Swiss Mennonite and Amish immigrants to the United States probably didn't exceed eight thousand, but the number of Mennonites who came from the Netherlands, Prussia, and Russia was much higher, and most of them came in mass movements of people. Between 1873 and 1884, about eighteen thousand Mennonites came from Russia to the Midwestern part of the United States. Being conservative, they tended to find even the alternative service offered to them, by the Russian government, in lieu of military service to be unacceptable, so they came to North America. They settled in Manitoba, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas. About three hundred from Prussia, and about four hundred from Poland, also came, settling in Kansas and South Dakota. During World Wars I and II, pressures from the surrounding population prompted conservative Mennonites to cross the border into Canada, while other Mennonite groups were more or less assimilated into the Protestant populations.

In the 1920s, more than twenty thousand Mennonites came from the Soviet Union, settling largely in Canada, although a small number of them went to California.

The total number of Dutch-Prussian-Russian Mennonites immigrating to North America was around sixty thousand. Added to the earlier Swiss-South German, and some additional Prussian Mennonites, and Hutterites, who were also Anabaptists, the number of all of these groups was more than seventy thousand.



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