Does the term Mennonite refer to a religion or to an ethnicity? This question regarding religion versus culture assumes greater significance as those who self-identify as Mennonite increasingly move away from their traditional clusters of farms, congregations, and colonies. People have coined many terms to deal with this question -- Patrick Friesen, the noted poet and teacher of Mennonite descent, refers to himself as a “Recovering Mennonite.” Many of my fellow Mennonite students at Georgetown University, a well-known Jesuit university of the Catholic faith, referred to themselves not as Mennonites but as having Mennonite grandparents -- in the same manner that Philip Landis, the controversial “Mennonite” cyclist, would later identify himself not as Mennonite but as of Mennonite descent. In a former Mennonite Brethren church in Minneapolis, Minnesota -- we all celebrated one communion and a single fellowship, but identified ourselves as Bruderthaler-Mennonite, Old Mennonite, General Conference Mennonite, Hutterite, and Mennonite Brethren -- all the same, but all different. Obviously, we retained distinct cultural differences -- the proverbial alphabet soup of Mennonite identities, that had no affect whatsoever on our shared spiritual understanding. In an informal conversation, Carolyn Fauth, a Mennonite journalist and historian from Lustre, Montana, shared in conversation that until the 1940s, you could tell the Mennonite groups of Lustre-Volt apart by the pattern of ribbons on the bonnets worn by the women -- the Bruderthaler, the Mennonite Brethren, and the General Conference women all ascribed to a distinct style. Furthermore, you use the same criteria to distinguish between the Old Mennonite churches, the Amish Mennonites, and the Hutterites. Yet, I am aware of no written understanding that any of the Mennonites ever believed that God preferred or mandated a specific pattern for bonnets in His Church (though I am aware of stories where certain hairstyles and clothing fasteners are mandated by formal church instruction). Though originally grounded in a religious understanding, many of these practices would seem to have become cultural norms and traditions rather than religious dogma.
Similarly, Mennonites from Canada, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United States, Belize, Mexico, and Paraguay have always shared a common cultural understanding, sharing a common, unique language, a unique blend of food traditions, and a specific historical experience that is also unique to those communities. In fact, until the 1990s, many Mennonites would often state that they feel closer culturally to their fellow Mennonites from around the world than they do to their non-Mennonite friends and neighbors in their home states or provinces. [Note: in 1989, the former Bruderthaler or EMB churches chose to disaffiliate themselves from the greater Mennonite diaspora, and within a decade, the Mennonite Brethren chose to separate their united North American body into separate organizations based on nation-of-origin. After 500 years of shared experiences, and sheltered living away from their former cultural identities, a unique ethnicity has developed -- perhaps it has already developed to the point of fracturing into four or five further, also distinct cultural units (Swiss Amish-Mennonite, Hutterite, General Conference, and Evangelical), all of which are equally Mennonite or Anabaptist.
Nor is this a question that affects only those involved in the Post-Modern urban lifestyles. Drawing from the contextual biographical information posted on her blog, Ms. Linda May Shirley, an adult Mennonite woman from Rosthern, Saskatchewan, expressed her own frustrations with this question, “As I have come to do some surveys in the recent days and have been asked by some others about my ethnic background I notice they give German, Polish, Russian, etc but none of them ever mention Mennonite. It is strange that after all these years people do not relate to the Mennonites or Amish as their own ethnic group, even though that is what they are. It is not just a religion as many would like to think or have [been] led to believe… Strange after all these years, and after all what the Mennonites have contributed to Canada that we are still not recognized. Rosthern was/is a large community of Mennonites and in the early 1900s was the largest exporter of flax. We brought with us winter wheat, apple trees, lilacs, and many other things that many do not know about. Back in Russia it was the Mennonites that first built a harvesting machine. Still we are not known for our contributions rather many are ridiculed as a religion.” (http://Canadian roots.ning.com/profiles/blogs/Mennonite-a-people (21 June, 2010).
In the past, Mennonites often tried to identify themselves by establishing series of confessions and manifestos that defined them by their beliefs. The Schleitheim Confession and the Dordrecht Confession were early attempts to unify the multi-national group of believers.
In 1888, Daniel K. Cassel noted the close affinity between Quakers and Mennonites. In his History of the Mennonites, he notes, “The Quakers may be called the Mennonites of England, or English Mennonites.” He goes on to quote Professor Oswald Seidensticker, “an eminent German-American authority,” “The affinity between the religious principles of the Friends and the Mennonites is so obvious, and in many respects so striking, that an actual descent of the former from the latter has been hinted at as highly probably.” And he quotes Barkley (no note), “So clearly do their views (I.e., those of the Mennonites) correspond with those of George Fox, that we are compelled to view him as the unconscious exponent of the doctrine, practice and discipline of the ancient and stricter parties of the Dutch Mennonites.” Yet despite such close agreement in principle and subsequent centuries of close cooperation as fellow Peace Churches, both sects retain distinct and easily differentiated identities. Despite the proximity of belief between Mennonites and many other churches, the Mennonites and Mennonite-Amish retain a distinct identity not only in their own eyes, but in the eyes of others.
Again, it is difficult to qualify the Mennonite or Anabaptist identity. In his book, Leaving Anabaptism, Calvin Redekop treats the question of Mennonite identity. Redekop correctly identifies and traces growing differences between the Bruderthaler-Evangelical Mennonite Brethren and the traditional Mennonite creeds over the 20th Century. Having grown up Bruderthaler, I am in a position to agree with him -- as time wore on, religious principles did in fact diverge, Yet, despite no longer endorsing traditional Mennonite beliefs such as Pacifism, nonparticipation in the Magistry, and adoption of myriad opinions regarding the proper form of baptism -- most rejecting the “Pouring” method experienced by their parents in favor of “Dunking” or “Full Immersion,” many members of the now renamed Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches no longer self-identified as Mennonite, but continue to participate in cultural festivities such as the annual Saengerfest and Schmeckfest. Most retain traditional spellings and pronunciations of their traditional surnames, and it is still common to find twiebach, pfefferneusse, and verenika at church suppers, funerals, and holiday celebrations. Nor is it insignificant that many churches such as the Lustre EMB-FEBC and the Wolf Point FEBC church (Community Bible Church) have chosen to continue in the Mennonite-oriented Lustre Ministerial Association rather than forming a distinct body or joining with local non-Mennonite Evangelical church associations. In fact, as an alumni of the local “non-denominational” private Christian high school, though the student body continually attempted to reach out to co-religionists or Evangelicals of other cultural backgrounds, our closest ties remained within the greater Mennonite community, nor does it seem that other local Evangelical churches and families felt highly motivated to identify with and support the “non-denominational” Evangelical high school. So again, there is circumstantial evidence of both a self-selected cultural identity and an identity enforced by non-Mennonites that was based in concerns and definitions other than religious belief and affiliation.
Early Anabaptists were concerned with the problem of uniting the various nationalities of Anabaptists into a single fellowship, the unique history, cultural proclivities, and languages maintained by those Anabaptists served over the period of several centuries to establish distinctly identifiable and unique cultural units within the diaspora. Today, the descendants of those early disparate national groups often find that they have more in common with each other than they do with other persons of their original ethnicity. While I enjoy my visits to Amsterdam, I do not feel a close affiliation with the Dutch people per se, nor do they identify me as someone who “belongs” to their culture. We have become distinct from each other.
In conclusion, like Ms. Shirley of Rosthern, Saskatchewan, I too feel that treating the Mennonite identity as a culture or ethnicity rather than as a religion is both correct and beneficial. All people benefit from a clearer understanding of history -- as long as we insist that we are merely a religion, the great cultural, industrial and agronomic contributions of our people to world culture will be ignored simply because they are difficult to define and qualify. How can one discuss the Mennonite’s role in modernizing Russian industry if there is no place to insert that story? How can we share the tragic fate of our colonies in Molotschnaya and Chortitza and contribute our story to the truth that is the human experience if there is no organized history to which one is able to attach the individual experiences?
Perhaps most importantly, we have developed many great organizations through our unique historical experience and perspective, including the Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) and the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). For the most part, our congregations are in decline due to the movement of young persons from the farms and colonies to the cities and due to greater and greater pressures to conform our individual religious beliefs to those of our mates in mixed marriages or to congregations located near our homes. If we are to continue our cultural memory and continue to effectively support and preserve bodies such as the MDS and MCC, we will need to find ways to incorporate those of Mennonite or Anabaptist descent but no longer members of traditional Anabaptist churches. It should bother us that too many self-identified Mennonites and non-religious Mennonites are unable to participate fully in the MCC because they are not members of a participating church nor able to join in the mutual aid and insurance societies because our identity is maintained through religious and not cultural channels. For those who are bothered by this, perhaps separating our religion from our culture will enable others who share our religious ideals, but not our cultural traditions, to join with us in effective fellowship. Maybe the Quakers really are not English Mennonites, but they are valuable allies in the effort to promote peace. Many American Evangelicals are also looking for fellow Evangelicals who oppose participation in the political system. Perhaps our churches, schools, and religious clubs might prove more attractive if we didn’t require non-Mennonites to also sing hymns in German or change their palate to appreciate verenika and liverwurst.