The Mennonite story begins during the years of the Reformation. Two years after Martin Luther posted his “95 Theses” on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Ulrich Zwingli, in the Swiss town of Zurich, began to preach reformation to the German Swiss. Several of his students became impatient with the pace of reform. Where Zwingli was willing to work with the Zurich town council in the timing of reforms, Zwingli's students felt there could be no delay in bringing in what they saw as biblical truth. These former priests, monks, and university students were especially concerned about the Lord's supper and baptism. Some of the more well-known ones were Conrad Grebel, Felix Mantz and George Blaurock
Regarding the Lord's supper, Zwingli's students wanted to see all people gathered equally around the table taking both bread and wine, rather than the then common priestly practice of serving only the bread to all and that rarely, making the supper primarily a distant spectacle rather than a meal of fellowship.
Baptism, however, became the most inflammatory point of difference between Zwingli and his students. The students began to pursue the idea of adult baptism, arguing that babies cannot profess faith and therefore should not receive the mark of faith. The goal was to affirm a renewed and heartfelt faith among thoughtful believers, rather than the automatic religiosity of the empire. Therefore, in 1525, Zwingli's students began to re-baptize, affirming a conscious and chosen faith. Thus they were named Anabaptists which means “re-baptizers.”
Eventually, the reformers work addressed other biblical issues as well, including ethical reform of church leadership and rejection of violence for followers of Christ.
For their efforts, the Anabaptists were harshly persecuted. Burned and drowned, 5,000 died in the first few generations. This story is chronicled in the Martyr’s Mirror. But the movement spread throughout Europe. By 1535, a priest named Menno Simons turned to the Anabaptist reform. In the Netherlands, he began the work of encouraging and organizing the persecuted church. Due to his vigorous work, the movement came to be called by his name, Mennonite.
Over the years, the Mennonites have been known as hard-working farmers who refuse to fight in nations' wars but who make a contribution through honesty and industry. In the 21st century, Mennonites are present all over the world, with Africa as the fastest growing area of the church.
Mennonites share Anabaptist roots with the Amish, Church of the Brethren, and Brethren in Christ. Modern expressions of Anabaptist church life range all the way from rejection of modern clothing and technology and a life of separate simplicity to full participation in the complex professions of contemporary society; from a Midwest farmer, to an European architect; from the African chieftain, to the South American sociologist. There are about one million Mennonites in 61 countries around the world.
The Contemporary Mennonite Church in North America
In 2001 at a denominational convention in Nashville, TN, the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church merged to form the new “Mennonite Church U.S.” This ended a 120-year division between these groups. Denominational conventions are held every two years in conjunction with youth and children’s conventions.
Prior to this merger, in 1995 in Wichita, KS, these two bodies adopted a new “Confession of faith in a Mennonite perspective” which is a summary of Mennonite theology, spirituality, and ethics.
In the beginning of this new century there are more Mennonites in Africa, Asia, and South America than in North America. In this changing relationship, Mennonites increasingly confront questions of nationalism, racism, and economic inequities. Mennonites continue to stress peacemaking and faith-community building.
Some Mennonite organizations you may hear about include:
Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), the relief and development arm of the church.
Mennonite Mission Network (MMN), "Mennonite Mission Network exists to lead, mobilize and equip the church to participate in holistic witness to Jesus Christ in a broken world."
Everence, working with financial management and insurance.
Mennonite Economic Development Association (MEDA), a business and leaders’ group dedicated to encouraging financial growth in areas of need around the world.
Mennonite World Conference, the global Mennonite network that organizes a world-wide conference every six years.