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Anabaptist Spectrum Remains Colorful

With the Feb. 1 merger that created Mennonite Church USA, two prominent segments of America’s Anabaptist community have become one.

But what is the variety of other Anabaptist churches like? Where do their priorities lie, and what could the future hold for them?<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
Anabaptist World USA, a recent study by Donald B. Kraybill and C. Nelson Hostetter (Herald Press, 2001), details the Anabaptist presence in the United States, including the many Mennonite and Amish groups, the spectrum of Brethren denominations and the communal, and relatively small, Hutterian Brethren.
Kraybill and Hostetter identify 63 Anabaptist groups in 47 states, with a national population of more than 860,000, of whom 540,000 are baptized members.
Within these groups is found a broad variety, not only in doctrine and practice but language, ethnic heritage and location.
According to revised figures compiled by Hostetter after the book’s publication, the membership of MC <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />USA is about 118,000 – 14 percent of the national Anabaptist total.
Of the nationwide Anabaptist population, Mennonites comprise the greatest share, with 43.1 percent, of which the Mennonite Brethren comprise 9.8 percent. Brethren churches – including the Church of the Brethren and the Brethren in Christ – come next with 39.4 percent, followed by the Amish with 16.2 percent and the Hutterites with 1.3 percent.
Kraybill and Hostetter identified 38 Mennonite groups, 11 Amish groups, 10 Brethren groups and four Hutterite groups. Anabaptist World USA explores the basic doctrines of each group, provides historical context and describes the lifestyle each is leading in modern society.
These range from the horse-drawn, lantern-lit Amish, through a diverse and often splintered conservative spectrum to the mainstream Mennonite and Brethren congregations that differ little in outward appearance and style of worship from most American Protestant churches.
Though Anabaptism has long been reflected in its somber Germanic and eastern European roots, today’s churches are widely diverse, with Hispanic, Asian and other ethnic groups taking their places.
Hostetter said he and Kraybill, because of their Mennonite and Brethren backgrounds, brought a broad “inter-Mennonite, inter-Anabaptist” viewpoint to their work on the book.
This kind of interdenominational sharing and cooperation, Hostetter said, is what laid the groundwork for the uniting that ultimately led to MC USA.
“I was in [Civilian Public Service] for over four years in World War II,” Hostetter said, “and I was MC USA then and didn’t realize it.” Hostetter, a retired sociologist who has worked in a variety of disciplines, believes the exposure various Anabaptists received to one another in CPS led to a new openness in the greater landscape of the church.
“I think especially the fellows and their wives in CPS in World War II are more inter-Mennonite than others,” he said. “I think the seeds were sown there” for the uniting of the General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Church more than 50 years later.
Though Anabaptism also includes many groups that tend to stay apart from the others and seldom associate with people outside their immediate circles – like the Amish, some conservative Mennonite and Brethren groups and the Hutterites – Hostetter believes these groups can still be a vital part of the church.
“I think it serves a purpose in our contemporary world,” he said. “Our motivation in writing this book was to build bridges of respect and understanding, because I think too often the far right and far left, if you can call it that, have lost respect” for one another and their common beliefs and heritage.
Despite the variety and sometimes isolation reflected in his research, Hostetter still sees a basic unity among all Anabaptists.
“We’re one family of faith now,” he said, “but we have many children. And now we have many cousins.”
Of the more remote or isolated groups, Hostetter said: “We do not criticize the extremists. We find what still brings us together” in issues like the peace witness, a strong sense of spiritual kinship among all Anabaptist groups and, most deeply of all, a centeredness in Christian belief.
The Brethren denominations are sometimes not included as part of the Anabaptist circle because of their strong Pietist heritage. But Hostetter believes the peace witness and other common beliefs bring the Brethren groups into close relation with their Mennonite neighbors.
“The Brethren basically are peace people,” Hostetter said. “I see a strong link there.”
After striving to include as broad a base as possible in their study, Hostetter said he and Kraybill have been criticized for including groups others found questionable.
“Don and I have received some concern that we have [some] marginal groups included that are soft on the peace witness,” Hostetter said.
Hostetter contacted the leaders of the groups in question and learned that “older folks and rural churches are still Anabaptist and peacemakers.”
However, younger members, converts and urban congregations among those groups, he said, “were not as strong in that belief.”
Kraybill, an authority on the Amish and dean of scholarship at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., outlined in the book three basic groups among Anabaptists today.
These include the traditional, such as the Old Order Amish and Hutterites; the transitional, such as groups leaving Old Order backgrounds; and the transformational, reflecting more mainstream values and church activities. Kraybill said the three groups “in some ways inhabit separate worlds.”
The Old Order Amish, he said, are not dealing with the same issues as their mainstream counterparts, who in turn “don’t understand the Old Order world view.”
Technology and worship styles are two areas where this diversity is especially keen, Kraybill said – ranging from the Amish, with gas lights and traditional German worship, to mainstream groups where members might own a dot-com business and take part in progressive, even charismatic-style worship.
Kraybill also finds the ethnic diversity among today’s Anabaptists quite significant, noting that in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, Mennonites represent 10 different language groups and cultures.
“A lot of these are immigrant communities,” he said. “I think it will really take root. I see the ethnicity really increasing.”
Still, he sees a common “historical perspective, historical memory” uniting Anabaptists across the spectrum.
Among these churches, he said, are “a common memory, a common commitment and a common theological base,” in spite of the broad variety of lifestyles being embraced.
Often cited among these common threads is the peace witness, which Kraybill said still thrives across the spectrum from mainstream groups to the Old Orders.
Where he sees weakness in maintaining the peace witness is among groups practicing “an evangelical fundamentalism,” which often minimizes Anabaptist views of discipleship.
“In those settings it’s very weak,” Kraybill said. “I think they don’t understand or appreciate the peace witness” like other groups.
Still, among the majority devoted to nonviolence, there is much variety, he said. Among the Old Orders, a hands-off, “two kingdoms” attitude prevails, separating spiritual ethics from worldly involvement. Meanwhile, more progressive groups are often involved in social action and protest.
Overall, however, Kraybill sees “a common theological commitment” to peace among all strata of the Anabaptist population.
Reprinted with permission from the Mennonite Weekly Review.