Reflections on a Half-Century of Mennonite Change

By Meyer, John W. | Mennonite Quarterly Review, April 2003 | Go to article overview

Reflections on a Half-Century of Mennonite Change


Meyer, John W., Mennonite Quarterly Review


As a person of (Old) Mennonite background now functioning in a secular context, I will comment on the Mennonite world I come from and how it has changed over the decades. I will also note the impact of Mennonite themes on my work as a sociologist and reflect on my own departure from the tradition.

Naturally, assessing change over a half-century is difficult. We lack--and I certainly lack--detailed knowledge of the diverse and often opaque Mennonite societies of the 1950s. To a lesser extent, we lack scholarly descriptions of the still-diverse present, too. Because I do not command the literature that does exist, my account is unfortunately somewhat limited.

One can look at the unusually successful survival of the distinctive label "Mennonite" over some centuries from several points of view. An internal perspective, seeing this survival as a product of factors within the tradition itself, calls attention to themes of special religious faith and their roots in some core aspects of Christianity that are left out in most versions of the Christian religion. The internal perspective also notes some special features of Mennonite social history and organization that facilitated survival, most obviously communal disciplinary arrangements that enforced separation from society without employing organizational structures competing too directly with the powerful secular ones of the national state.

An external perspective, which I will emphasize here, notes some features of the wider environment that created and sustained a niche for both Mennonites and their distinctiveness. For example, a background factor permitting the expansions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is the rapid long-term expansion of the world agricultural (especially grain) market, providing economic opportunities for rational and communitarian producers in formerly very distant and unorganized areas (e.g., Ukraine, western Canada). But the most important factor in Mennonite survival is obviously the rise to complete world dominance of the institution of the nation-state. This structure, combining a monopoly over secular power with spiritual (religious and nationalist) claims, rose in its modern form in the sixteenth century and expanded greatly in the centuries since. It now covers the globe and claims penetrative authority over and responsibility for the details of social life (family relationships, education, medicine, economic organization and so on). It has a murderous history of internal and external violence, in part because it combines great secular power with psychological and transcendental motives and legitimations. (1)

The rise of the nation-state in world society, over several centuries, killed off many competitors. Externally, empires collapsed and both the universality and the secular power of the medieval church were undercut. Internal to national societies, decentralized and parcelized feudal sovereignties were destroyed by the expanding authority and power of the state, as were many large-scale tribal and familial powers. But these changes, which eliminated most "near competitors" for power, created or strengthened some new niches for social mobilization at the margins or peripheries of society. Supranationally, the weakening of the medieval church produced many movements celebrating the universality and commonality of the human spirit. Intranationally, the weakening of feudal and tribal authority produced the enormous modern expansion in the authority of the individual person as citizen (and now human).

The Anabaptists and Mennonites--especially as they gave up initially more aggressive postures and learned to disavow entirely claims to secular power and authority--found a niche in this system. In doing so, they paralleled other movements in the peripheries of world society that celebrated, as "far" rather than "near" competitors to the state, both much larger and much smaller solidarities than the nation. …

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