Nonconformity- When Did it Start? (part 1)

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.

Itmenno dress 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

 

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15 thoughts on “Nonconformity- When Did it Start? (part 1)

  1. It is with some interest I read this newest post. I have just come out of 15 years in conservative Mennonite circles. (I know – there perhaps may be some well-meaning conservative Mennonite brothers and sisters who might be thinking I have ” lost out” or perhaps “apostasy”, a term that is sadly very loosely used among Mennonites. (Apostasy means departing from the faith, not choosing to worship in a non-Mennonite Christian setting).

    I am now part of a growing, unique, home fellowship church of about 10-12 couples/families. Only three of us have any Mennonite background – the rest Lutheran, Baptist, among other things. Through their OWN reading of the Bible, they have felt convicted, outside of any rules/decrees, for women to start covering for prayer and worship (minimally), to stop cutting hair, get rid of their televisions, dress modestly (leader giving out to each couple/family a great book by BMA publishing called Feminine Beauty) and practice true “hands-off” courtship dating, by the desire of both dating couples, and their families. It is actually really fresh, inspiring to be part of a non-Mennonite church with these inner convictions by all those attending. In fact, one of the recent sermons was entitled “Why We Have No Rules Here'”.

    Our Mennonite church in the state I lived in a few years ago was the only conservative one for a 1 1/2 hour radius. Now, the state I live in within the Midwest has literally hundreds of Mennonites of all stripes in our new area. It has been an eye-opening experience, to say the least, and pretty depressing. Instead of feeling like we had so much instant camaraderie when you’d see other “plain people” out and about, very little interchange ever takes place. Many look stern, joyless, and only seem to talk to others from within their own church circle. If we can’t be happy to even see others in our same “boat”, so to speak, what do we have to offer those from non-plain settings that would even make them want to join us? Certainly not just a desire to dress like a plain person.

    Being totally raw and honest here, dressing this way for 15 years did nothing to make me a more spiritual woman. Instead I morphed into one who constantly measured up each professing Christian woman to my own decrees’ yardstick. They might say it’s not all about the dress, but let’s be brutally honest- much of it IS. As my husband often says, as long as you stay within their guidelines, all is good – or at least on the outside.

    I have befriended two Christian woman in this area – one is an AOG pastor’s wife, another a newer Christian in her 40’s, who has been saved maybe 4 years. I asked them both, in their 15+ years of living in this area, if a single Mennonite woman of any type has ever befriended them. The pastor’s wife said no, none have even spoken to her. The other said if she is in Wal-Mart and asks them a friendly question they will politely answer, and turn back around. That is all. How could we expect any of these people to want what we supposedly “have” if we don’t even take the time to befriend them in the least? It ends up being like a woman at the bank told me when we first moved to the area -( mentioning that I seemed a bit different than the other Mennonite people she’d dealt with over the years, in actually trying to befriend her). She said when it comes down to it, it’s basically “us”(non-plain community people) and “them” (all the plain people) in this area.

    I will leave you with a story that might make you smile, if hopefully my comment has made you stop, and think, even just a little bit, it was worth the time it took to type it. In case you are curious, for the time being, I still dress in a cape dress and cap style covering, even though I am not attending a Mennonite church. My husband p/t teaches a class at a new area Mennonite community school, in addition to his other regular job, and was asked in doing so if he (and obviously me, as part of the “package) would continue to abide by the dress code of the school. The people at my new church do not mind, just as I do not mind their various styles of modest dress and differing kinds of coverings).

    I was at a store in another city some weeks ago, standing in a long line. I felt a tap on the shoulder.
    “Oh no”, I thought, “here we go again”:-)
    ‘Can I ask you a question?”
    “You certainly can – what can i help you with?”
    “Are you Amish or Mennonite?”
    Long pause – so much so, that she mentioned perhaps she shouldn’t have asked:-).
    “No, that’s fine -Neither- I am a Christian woman who loves Jesus that just happens to dress this way.”
    ‘You mean you CHOOSE to dress this way, even if you don’t have to?”
    Sigh. I am thinking “Woman, there is no way to adequately explain the situation to you:-).”
    Instead, I asked, “So tell me about yourself – are you from this area?”

    Conservative Christians, especially women, all over the globe, have very unique and interesting ways of dressing modestly. This style only one of them.

    One parting thought – isn’t it great to know in Heaven someday we will all be wearing the exact same thing? None of this obsession with our modest clothing vs. another’s will even matter anymore.
    Maranatha;-)

    Like

    • P.S. On proofreading this again, once submitted/posted, I see that after my last word “Maranatha” I wanted to just have typed a simple smile face:-) – sorry for my typo that I typed instead, since I cannot go back and fix that. Thank you -Jonna

      Liked by 1 person

    • I cannot even begin to explain what a blessing you are to me, Jonna!! You sum up EXACTLY how I feel about living a “Plain” lifestyle. It is like you reached inside my heart/ brain and pulled all my thoughts on this matter out. Thank you SO much for sharing. If ever in the central Kansas area, PLEASE look me up. I would love to share my heart with you.

      Melodie Barton

      Like

  2. Years ago, as I was preparing a meditation to preceed a SS lesson on “non-conformity” the realization struck me that the “doctrine” of “non-conformity” is not taught in the Bible – rather Rom. 12: 1 confirms the biblical teaching of transfomation by the renewing of the mind (the core of the Christian faith). We have built a “doctrine” about what we “should not be” while tragically overlooking the foundational reality that our minds need to be renewed in order to please God! The cart has been put before the horse so neither the cart or the horse are moving! If our hearts are truly renewed and our passion is to please the Saviour Whom we now love we cannot conform to a world estranged from Him! It is absolutely no wonder that our churches are in chaos – we are teaching “another gospel”.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Thanks for digging into this. I greatly admire much of Anabaptist history and theology, but I cannot bring myself to abide by these strict dress codes. It is too much of a burden for me. I see nothing like this mandated in the New Testament; it is a massive barrier.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I read the quote below recently and wondered about the present day:

    “The Anabaptists spread so rapidly that their teaching soon covered the land as it were. They soon gained a large following, and baptized thousands, drawing to themselves many sincere souls who had a zeal for God…. They increased so rapidly that the world feared an uprising by them though I have learned that this fear had no justification whatsoever.”

    Today, this same sincerity can be found in Anabaptist churches by people like me who were not born into it… I have found so much refreshment there that I could not find anywhere else. I just wonder if too much focus is placed sometimes on establishing “fence rules” than growing disciples by the conviction of the Spirit. The intent may be good but the methods may sometimes be misplaced.

    Always encouraged by your writing! Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

    • That quote stirs something in me. I yearn to see this happening among our people today. If the Great Commission were as important to us as the “fence rules”, we might still see this happening.

      Thanks for your input, Ryan.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I can concur with Rachel above. For us the outward appearance non-conformity seems as much intended as a barrier to newcomers as it is true non-conformity. It is the primary reason that after years of trying to fit in with a nice conservative group we have given up. I don’t mind modifying how we dress to an extent but it is such an all-or-nothing stance with no room for people to grow that it seems like we would not be fully accepted for a generation at least. It seems there should be a place for modest dress that doesn’t conform to the world’s fashion instead of a rigid authoritarian dress code that can mean the difference between fellowship and denial of fellowship (i.e. the Lord’s Supper).

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Art,
      Good to hear from you. When maintaining culture becomes more of a barrier that keeps others out, something is very wrong. I hear you. Sometimes the smallest detail in clothing can keep people from being allowed to participate in Communion. It’s not right. Those little details are often confusing unless you grow up in it. And even then, the “why” for it doesn’t always make sense.

      I think we need to look at what Romans 12:2 actually means—not just assuming that the way we do it is right because we’ve been doing it this way for more than a century.

      Liked by 1 person

    • . . . “an all-or-nothing stance with no room for people to grow” in the matter of appearance is an accurate commentary on the state of things in conservative Mennonite circles, and nothing like the spirit of New Testament teaching. You have to go to Judaism for that.

      One comment on something that both amazes me and amuses me about dress trends in conservative Mennonite church: We left a Midwest Fellowship church almost 30 years ago (over doctrine, not rules), and it was the practice then that women, including my wife, would wear “mid-calf” length dresses, and wearing your skirt to the floor would have been highly frowned upon. Lo and behold, somewhere along the way over time, the skirts got much longer, and I haven’t seen a perfectly modest “mid-calf” length dress on a lady under 50 for years. It would be interesting to me if someone could explain that change.

      John Kulp

      Liked by 1 person

      • There are “unspoken” trends within the Mennonites, depending on group/conference, just like anywhere else- shoes, jackets, glasses styles, popular prints, colors. One daughter, who for a time attended a Mennonite school in PA, was even expelled for a time because her dress skirt lengths would exceed the 7″ off floor rule. They would make her stand on a stool and measure her dresses with a ruler each day! I kid you not! We asked our bishop once how a dress longer than that can not be acceptable, and were told it was a sign of worldly trends, while his wife gently chided him that even her and their daughter’s dresses were getting longer in recent years. Now I hear from a younger Mennonite friend in Arkansas that the trend is for shorter cape dresses again, among the “youth” girls/young women!

        Liked by 2 people

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