A Brief History of the Mennonite Church
Around the year 1526, a young Catholic priest in the town of Pingjum , Holland did something strange, something he had rarely done prior out of fear that his Medieval Catholic beliefs might be shaken. The priest’s name was Menno Simons, and what he did was read the Bible. His action carried him on a course out of the Catholic church and into the company of faithful Christians who referred to themselves simply as “the brethren.” Opponents would later name these brethren “Menists”, “Mennonists”, or “Mennonites,” and like all the best nicknames, it stuck—for 481 years, and counting.
Menno and others taught that only adults who voluntarily committed their lives to following Christ should be baptized, so they baptized again those who had received baptism as infants in the state church. Thus they earned a second name: “Anabaptists” (“ana” meaning “re” in Greek, as in “re-baptizers”). This group included the communal Hutterites and later the Amish (who split off from the Mennonites in Switzerland to practice more rigorous church discipline), as well as many other groups that would later spring up independently in Europe and North America (like the Church of the Brethren and the Brethren in Christ).
Anabaptists taught that followers of Christ should live simply and follow the commands of Jesus in the New Testament—even the hard stuff, like turning the other cheek and loving enemies. Church and State were one, so rebaptism was looked upon as treason. Not to mention that those so rebaptized refused to participate in warfare. Nor did they believe that the State should get involved with the affairs of the Church. These Anabaptists faced persecution from both Protestant and Catholic authorities.
In spite of persecution, Mennonites sought to help others. Menno taught that “true evangelical faith cannot lie dormant. It clothes the naked, it feeds the hungry, it comforts the sorrowful, it shelters the destitute, it serves those that harm it, it binds up that which is wounded, it has become all things to all people.” He meant what he said. When a ship-load of English Calvinists (the forerunners of the Pilgrims), fleeing persecution in Queen Mary’s Catholic England, got stuck in the ice off the coast of Germany, it was the small community led by Menno that dared to aid them; this though the Mennonites were themselves in hiding.
Mennonites traveled widely seeking to spread their faith and find religious freedom. Because of persecution, Mennonites were often forced to eek out a living from difficult lands, and they became farmers of renown. When William Penn founded Pennsylvania, Mennonites began to cross the Atlantic at Penn’s invitation. They would continue to come to America , settling in rural communities across the continent. As irrigation made land arable around Warden, Mennonite families migrated from Kansas and Oregon to start a new life in eastern Washington. The Warden Mennonite Church was founded in 1957.
Today, there are over a million Mennonites world-wide. The greatest concentrations of Mennonites can be found in Congo and Ethiopia. Both countries have larger Mennonite populations than the US, which has around 240,000 members spread across a number of denominations.
-written by a former pastor of our church, Brad Roth.