Atlantic History Mennonites
by
Tobin Miller Shearer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0209

Introduction

Mennonites trace their roots to the Anabaptist movement of the early 16th century in Europe. The Anabaptists emerged out of the Protestant Reformation, distinguishing themselves by their rejection of infant baptism and embrace of voluntary church membership, a theological conviction that threatened religious and political leaders of the era in its implicit challenge to state and church authority. Encompassing a host of religious radicals ranging from the Swiss Brethren to the revolutionaries of Münster, Germany, who took over that city in 1534, these Mennonite forebears helped shape a religious community known by the end of the Atlantic world period for their biblicism, quietism, nonconformity, and discipleship. Emerging from the hotbeds of the radical wing of the Reformation in Germany, Switzerland, and the surrounding region, the Anabaptist movement spread throughout Europe and into Russia, the Netherlands, and, by the late 17th century, the United States and Canada as community members sought religious freedom, financial stability, and respite from persecution. Named after the early influential church leader Menno Simons, a former Roman Catholic priest from the Netherlands, Mennonites in North America spread north, west, and south from Pennsylvania to Ontario, Canada, Ohio and Indiana, and Virginia. Like other religious communities who claimed Anabaptist heritage—whether the Amish, Brethren in Christ, Church of the Brethren, or Hutterites—Mennonites distinguished themselves in part by their refusal to bear arms, a theological commitment known within the community as nonresistance. By the mid-19th century, Mennonite missionaries had visited Indonesia, but they had not yet followed other Protestant groups to countries on the African continent, South America, or other parts of Asia. The books and articles featured in this bibliography explore multiple facets of the early Anabaptist movement and the Mennonite community that it birthed, with a particular emphasis on previously underemphasized studies of Russian Mennonites. Readers interested in German- and Dutch-language sources focusing on the Dutch, German, and Swiss Mennonites during the Atlantic period will find direction to additional texts in the European History section. In addition to general overviews, featured entries also include early church and European histories, theological texts, regional accounts, subgroup narratives, and works focused on themes ranging from gender to peacemaking and nonresistance. Readers can also locate texts that address historiographical debates over Mennonite church origins. In particular, those scholars who favor narratives that highlight the diversity of groups contributing to early Anabaptism—polygenesis accounts—argue strenuously against church-based historians who have emphasized monogenesis histories that describe a single, uninterrupted line of theological descent from the Swiss Brethren to present-day Mennonites.

General Overviews

Mennonites do not lack interpreters. These summary accounts aim to relate the Mennonite and early Anabaptist story to broad and general audiences, and they do this well. Ruth 1982, Weaver 1987, Friesen 1994, Goertz 1996, and Loewen and Nolt 1996 all offer capable interpretations of the Anabaptists, each with its own emphasis or perspective, ranging from the theme of separation to that of anticlericalism. Epp 1974 provides an overview of Mennonites in Canada while MacMaster 1985 and Schlabach 1988 does the same for Mennonites in the United States. Transcending national boundaries, Pannabecker 1975 tells the story of the General Conference Mennonite denomination throughout North America.

  • Friesen, Abraham. 1994. History and Renewal in the Anabaptist/Mennonite Tradition. Cornelius H. Wedel Historical Series. North Newton, KS: Bethel College.

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    An extended historical reflection on the theme of renewal among early Anabaptists and Mennonites, Friesen’s work is motivated by a desire to restore a focal point to Mennonite history in the midst of challenges to Harold S. Bender’s monogenesis history of Anabaptist development. Three of the chapters focus on Ludwig Keller, a later nineteenth century German archivist and historian, who influenced Mennonites in Germany, the Netherlands, and the U.S.

  • Goertz, Hans-Jürgen. 1996. The Anabaptists. Translated by Trevor Johnson. New York: Routledge, 1980.

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    A synthesis of theological, ecclesiastical, cultural, and social history that emphasizes the tremendous variety in the early Anabaptist community, highlights the anticlerical motivations of early church leaders, and argues for multiple points of genesis. Includes a chapter focusing on both the men and women in the Anabaptist movement, emphasizing their humanity and foibles throughout. Goertz is ultimately interested in establishing an Anabaptist orthodoxy to serve contemporary religious communities.

  • Loewen, Harry Duerksen, and Steven M. Nolt. 1996. Through Fire and Water: An Overview of Mennonite History. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press.

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    A popular synthesis and overview of Mennonite history designed for congregational study. Features multiple photographs, cartoons, and maps as well as discussion questions. Favors broad summary and dramatic anecdotes in order to appeal to a general audience. Notable for its placement of the Mennonite story in that of the larger Christian community.

  • MacMaster, Richard K. 1985. Land, Piety, Peoplehood: the Establishment of Mennonite Communities in America, 1683–1790. Vol. 1, The Mennonite Experience in America. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press.

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    A masterful account of the development Mennonite communities in North America from the late seventeenth century through to the last decade of the eighteenth century. MacMaster focuses on Mennonites' motive for moving to North America, the land draw for migration in the U.S., and the close connections of Mennonites to the people around them.

  • Pannabecker, Samuel Floyd. 1975. Open Doors: The History of the General Conference Mennonite Church. Newton, KS: Faith & Life Press.

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    A comprehensive history of the General Conference of the Mennonite Church of North America, this 460-page monograph offers a thoroughly researched church narrative of the founding of the denomination in 1860, its antecedents among Pennsylvania Dutch, South German, Swiss, and Russian Mennonites, and the development of its missions and education bodies in the twentieth century.

  • Ruth, John L. 1982. The Believer’s Church Story. Elgin, IL: Brethren Press.

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    This short booklet provides an insider's account of early church history and explains the primary theological convictions that guided the Anabaptists in pursuit of their version of evangelical faithfulness. Written for a general audience, the account is accessible and introductory.

  • Schlabach, Theron F. 1988. The Mennonite Experience in America. Vol. 2, Peace, Faith, Nation: Mennonites and Amish in Nineteenth-Century America. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press.

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    Schlabach emphasizes Mennonite claims of separation even as they became increasingly integrated into society. He also notes the heavy influence of Pietism, and – in the latter part of the nineteenth century – a “quickening” or awakening that led to building institutions, engaging in missions, starting Sunday schools, and becoming somewhat more involved in politics. These connections to progressive Protestant reforms paved the way for closer identification with U.S. citizenship.

  • Weaver, J. Denny. 1987. Becoming Anabaptist: The Origin and Significance of Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1987.

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    A capable interpretation and synthesis of 16th century Anabaptist history centering on Switzerland, South Germany and Moravia, and the Low Countries that argues for the integrity of Anabaptism as its own religious movement. Includes a discussion of the meaning of Anabaptism in contemporary settings.

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