If you identify as a conservative Mennonite, what is it exactly that makes you a conservative Mennonite? Maybe you don’t like the term Mennonite and prefer to call yourself Anabaptist, so what is it that makes you Anabaptist? Denominations are usually set apart from each other because of some belief that they hold to strongly or some belief that they refuse to have part of.
Mennonites have had so many different church splits and schisms through the centuries and the number of groups and subgroups that are out there are often hard to keep track of—even when you grow up in it. But what is it that makes them keep identifying as Anabaptists or Mennonite rather than some other denomination?
When someone says they aren’t going to be Mennonite anymore, what does that mean to us?
In asking some of these questions, I have found that most Mennonites generally will either answer something about the way one looks, or about nonresistance, or both.
In reading about our more recent history, nonconformity and nonresistance seem to be the key issues that Mennonites tend to focus on. To most of us, it is a normal part of being Mennonite. Members meetings, business meetings, and conferences often revolve around our dress and outward appearance. Nonresistance is important but isn’t focused on as much as it once was when America was directly involved in specific wars.
Nonresistance seems to have always been a part of the Anabaptist movement, but rules and regulations about dress and clothing were not always what our people focused on.
When did we become so focused on our outward appearance?
If most of our identity as a denomination is in how we look, doesn’t that sound like a rather shallow identity?
Of course, that isn’t our only deeply held belief, but since it is the one that is often focused on more than others, that is what my next series will be on.
A Brief History
Mennonites today get our term “nonconformity” from Romans 12:2, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” (NKJV)
Another verse that is often used in correlation with this is 2Cor. 6:17, “Therefore, come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you.” (NKJV)
If you were raised in a conservative Mennonite home, these verses are most likely very familiar. Most of us, if questioned, would tell you that these verses are the reason we are to dress and live differently than the world.
The earliest Anabaptists also spoke about clothing, but their focus in their teaching was not the same as ours today. “Nonconformity”—in regard to dress—was not something spoken of much. Rather, admonition about clothing was focused more on simplicity, and guarding against pride.
When the Anabaptist movement began, the upper classes liked to display their wealth in the kind of clothing and ornamentation they wore. Menno Simons and some of the other earlier Anabaptist writers wrote against this practice, calling for modest, simple apparel that was not “prideful and pompous”.1
Through the centuries, Anabaptists were not the only Christians speaking out against this. Leaders such as Adoniram Judson, Charles Finney, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and others also spoke against costly display in dress and wrote in support of simplicity of dress rather than extravagance and display.2
For four centuries, Mennonites did not teach about nonconformity or separatism from the world in dress. The Amish were the only ones within the Anabaptist movement who had very specific clothing rules. Jacob Ammon made his rules about dress much like the world at that time did and he conformed to the world’s view of how the poor class should be clothed. His rules were not about being “nonconformed”, but rather focused on conforming to the lowest worldly class of people. You can read more about this here.
Clothing styles did not change as rapidly during those four centuries and Mennonites did not look much different than those around them–other than keeping their clothing simpler and not having as many frills, etc. However, they were often somewhat slower in acclimating to the styles of those around them.
In the 1800’s, mass production of clothing during the industrial revolution brought a more simple, cheap, and utilitarian style of clothing. As clothing became cheaper, and much of the extravagant and outlandish styles were dropped, society began to dress more alike with less distinction between the classes. With cheaper dress, however, the styles began to change more rapidly.
This brought concern to Mennonite leaders for several reasons. Since clothing was made more cheaply with less frills, Mennonites didn’t really look different than others around them. Transportation and communication had become easier and Mennonites came into more contact with urban society. Mennonite leaders became concerned that their people would lose their distinctiveness. They had already lost much of their distinctiveness in language and geographic isolation. With the rest of the world no longer dressing with as many frills and ornamentation on their clothing, they worried that would no longer be set apart from others.3
It was at this point in the late 1800’s that Mennonites began to speak of nonconformity, uniformity, and being separated from the world in dress. Romans 12:2 and 2 Corinthians 6:17 became key verses for Mennonite living. Between the years 1865 to 1950, more resolutions were passed regarding nonconformity than any other subject. At least 230 resolutions were passed during that time.
Nonconformity or just wanting to hold on to cultural distinctiveness?
As I read the history of Mennonite nonconformity, I found myself questioning if it really was nonconformity to the world that they were desiring, or if they were just attempting to “be different” in order to preserve their culture.
Each group of Mennonites that came to America brought with them their own language and culture. They tended to live together in their own communities and speak their own language. But as transportation became easier and they had more contact with the outside world, they lost that distinction.
It is not an unusual phenomenon to want your children to keep the culture that you grew up in. It happens in most cultures of people who come to America. Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, etc., want their children to remember who they were and where they come from. Sometimes there are particular traits and traditions that they are able to keep, or a language they still speak at home, but most of the time the children assimilate to the culture around them as they integrate into society.
While it’s not wrong to want to safeguard your culture, should a people group’s main objective be to keep their culture and do this by calling things pertaining to other cultures a sin? Is it right to call things sin that God does not?
Is Nonconformity important?
Does that mean that I think nonconformity does not matter? Should we just give up our culture and join the world around us?
Not at all! What I would like to do is take a deeper look at biblical nonconformity, worldliness, and being in separation from the world. I want to study what it is and what it is not. My next couple posts will be on that subject.
1. Gingerich, Melvin, Mennonite Attire through Four Centuries, pg. 14
2. Ibid, pg.145
3. Ibid, pg.28 and 148