Anabaptist-Mennonite historical diversity has generated a theological spectrum that is equally as diverse. As a general rule though, a Mennonite theological perspective grows out of a Christ-centred interpretation of Scripture that places the New Testament above the Old Testament and elevates Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as the pinnacle of theological inquiry. Although several Anabaptists appealed to the Church fathers and affirmed both the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed, Mennonites have generally placed more of an accent on the ethical features of the church than on correct doctrine. In this sense, it is accurate to say that a historical Anabaptist-Mennonite perspective is more ecclesiologically-driven than it is a theologically motivated. That said, the Christocentric and ethical foundation of what it means to be the church has much to contribute to the wider theological imagination, particularly in the area of faith and learning.
Therefore, the integration of faith and learning from an Anabaptist-Mennonite perspective means adapting and applying their unique set of “repeated patterns” of belief and practice and their emphasis on the difficult teachings of Christ and their ethical implications for the church to the enumerable contentious issues in various academic disciplines, increasingly complex cultural and social shifts, today’s many political and economic challenges, and the difficult questions of scholars, students, pastors, and laypeople. These challenges might include questions related to evolution and intelligent design, bio-ethics and health sciences, climate change and environmental responsibility, peace and conflict, sectarian violence and interreligious dialogue, cross-cultural sensitivity and multiculturalism, race relations, consumerism and economic class distinction, sexuality and gender issues, the nature and level of political involvement, and biblical interpretation and problems in historical interpretation, among many others.
The Anabaptists—a pejorative from the Greek for “to baptize again” or “re-baptizers” used by their opponents—began as an early 16th-century movement within the religious reformations of Europe and more specifically within what’s been called the “Radical Reformation.” This Radical Reformation included Spiritualists, Rationalists, and Anabaptists who rejected any alliance with civil authorities in contrast to the state protection that Magisterial Reformers such as Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and Thomas Cranmer enjoyed. Anabaptists were particularly influenced by the debates of the Protestant Reformation, the return to ancient sources and critique of abuses in the Catholic Church by such Christian humanists as Desiderius Erasmus and Beatus Rhenanus, and various medieval lay movements and mystical strands including the devotion moderna and German Mysticism. Geographically, Anabaptists operated mainly in Switzerland, the Netherlands, South Germany-Austria, and Moravia, and included influential leaders such as Conrad Grebel, Felix Mantz, Michael Sattler, Wilhelm Reublin, Balthasar Hubmaier, Hans Denck, Pilgram Marpeck, Melchior Hoffman, Dirk Philips, Menno Simons, Jacob Wiedemann, Peter Riedemann, and Peter Walpot.
Despite significant diversity among the early Anabaptists, some “repeated patterns,” emerged among many Anabaptist groups. Many of these patterns were enshrined in the Schleitheim Confession (1527), and include believers’ (or adult) baptism, memorial view of the Lord’s Supper, belief that Scripture is the final authority on matters of faith and practice, emphasis on the New Testament and the Sermon on the Mount, interpretation of Scripture in community, separation from the world and a two-kingdom theology, pacifism and nonresistance, communalism and economic sharing, belief in the freedom of the will, non-swearing of oaths, “yieldedness” (Gelassenheit) to one’s community and to God, the ban, salvation through divinization (Vergöttung) and ethical living, and discipleship (Nachfolge Christi). Although an emphasis on religious reforms characterized the early Anabaptists, these were nonetheless shaped and refined within the social, political, and economic context of the time, including periods of intense persecution resulting in numerous forced migrations and at least 4,000 executions of Anabaptists in the 16th century alone; political isolation after Swiss Anabaptists accused the Zürich city council and Reformed theologian, Ulrich Zwingli, of not enacting reforms quickly or thoroughly enough; the protection and shared socio-economic goals of the German commoners who participated in the very disruptive German Peasants War (1524–25); and the jarringly violent behaviour of the Münsterite radicals who inspired Menno Simons and his followers to reject the sword and follow non-violence as the means to express one’s love of enemies.
Today, the various Mennonite denominations—notably the Mennonite Brethren Church and Mennonite Church—as well as the Brethren in Christ Church, “Old Order” Mennonites, Hutterites, and Amish claim Anabaptist heritage. Moreover, any Evangelical or “free church” denomination that currently practices believers’ baptism—often referred to as “believers churches”—can also be considered the legacy of Anabaptism. This is especially true of Baptists, whose early history includes notable contacts between the early English Baptist minister, John Smyth, and Mennonites in the Netherlands.
Although Menno Simons (1496–1561) was the eponymous leader of the early 16th-century Dutch Mennonites, he didn’t initiate this new sect but instead lent his name to a group of Anabaptists who already existed in the Dutch province of Friesland. As the village priest in Punjum near his birthplace of Witmarsum, Menno was responsible for organizing these Anabaptists and elevated 1 Cor. 3:11—“For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ”—to encourage his followers to reject the sword in obedience to Christ during an era of social unrest and religious tension. After enduring bouts of persecution and a number of splits—including between the followers of Menno and the Waterlanders (a branch of Mennonites from the Waterland region of North Holland who rejected the stricter application of the ban and avoidance by the colleague of Menno, Leenaert Bouwens), and between Frisian and Flemish Anabaptists—Mennonites eventually flourished in the Netherlands, especially during the “Dutch Golden Age” in the 17th century. With their new prosperity and resulting willingness to preserve their affluent lifestyle through military protection in contravention of an earlier Privilegium granting them military exemption, new prophetic Mennonite voices like that of Hans de Ries (1553–1638) sought to reign in extravagance and remind the Dutch Mennonite community of their earlier commitment to pacifism and simple living.
When persecution eventually recommenced in the Netherlands, the Mennonites resumed the pattern that was to become a common feature throughout their history: persecution leading to forced migrations and re-settlement in new territories under the regulations and provisions that granted religious freedom and military exemption due to the recognized economic benefits of their proficiency especially in farming (and land reclamation in particular). This pattern resumed when King Władysław IV of Poland issued an edict in 1642 encouraging Mennonite settlement of West Prussia, creating a Mennonite migration route from the Netherlands to the Schleswig-Holstein region in northern Germany and the Vistula Delta in West Prussia (present-day Poland). Then, upon the recommendation of two Mennonite delegates named Jakob Hoeppner and Johann Bartsch who negotiated a new Privilegium with the empress, Catherine the Great, this migration pattern extended into the Steppes of southern Russia just north of the Black Sea (present-day Ukraine) with the establishment of the Chortitza colony (1789) and later the Molotschna (1804), Am Trakt (1853), and Alexanderthal (1859) colonies. Previous to this, Swiss-German Anabaptists also settled in Germantown, Pennsylvania and other Eastern and Midwestern states in the late 17th century; eventually, Dutch-German-Russian Mennonites followed them to North America, immigrating in waves mainly to the prairies in the 1870s and 80s, after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution due to the resulting Russian Civil War (1917–22) and debilitating Soviet collectivization policies, and finally in the Great Trek during WWII and the Stalinist era. Mennonites first settled in BC in the early 20th century, establishing the village of Yarrow in 1928 after purchasing territory in the Sumas Prairie from the land developer, Chauncey Eckert.