Mennonites’ ability to survive for almost five hundred years in the face of many challenges is a remarkable story. During the past half millennium, Mennonites were physically threatened with imprisonment and death, given financial and cultural incentives to join mainstream denominations, challenged by the Enlightenment and modernity to give up their religious beliefs and lifestyles as outdated, condemned by Pietism and evangelicalism as not emphasizing inner, subjective faith sufficiently, and threatened by affluence to exchange conviction for comfort. Despite these challenges, Mennonites have continued, becoming more numerous, more international and multi-ethnic, and stronger as the years go by.
Mennonites have been able to survive because they had a vision. This faith vision was based on the Bible and included seeing the church as free from state control. This vision included the view that faith was formed by, and should be lived in church community. It emphasized that people’s lives could be changed through the power of God’s spirit and the support of the church. This vision affirmed that with God’s help, faith could be lived in daily life – in discipleship, and that peace was something to strive for personally, communally and internationally.This vision emphasized service as a way of life.
Some Mennonites have witnessed to the Anabaptist Mennonite vision by engaging with society, both locally and internationally, through personal evangelism, peace witness, development work, and by providing social and economic services. They have organized themselves into groups or conferences for the purpose of providing greater financial and human resources for the tasks they chose. Even though there are divergent views within this group, they have seen themselves as being different from society in that they believe in God and Jesus Christ, see the Bible as the basis for life and faith, and hold values that are different from those in the larger society.
Other Mennonites, the so-called conservatives, Old Orders, Old Colony, or horse and buggy people, have expressed the Anabaptist Mennonite vision by emphasizing more strongly the biblical admonitions to be separate from, and not be unequally yoked with, the world. Even though this group also has divergent views within it, in general they have expressed separation from the world in a variety of ways, including style of dress and head coverings, mode of transportation, and use of technology. Through these ways of being separate from the world, they have created strong bonds of group identity. They have placed less emphasis on overtly witnessing to, or engaging with, society.
Their focus has been on strengthening primary community relationships. From their perspective, the world around them values individualism rather than community, pride instead of humility, personal aggressive accumulation instead of sharing, a lifestyle of conspicuous consumption instead of simplicity, and living in urban centres rather than in agrarian settings where they believe family, community and church relationships can be more fully nurtured. A significant way in which these conservative, or conserving Mennonites have brought about renewal, either intentionally or unintentionally, is through migration. The migration to Manitoba in the 1870s was one of those opportunities for renewal. In the case of the Bergthaler Church, migration to Manitoba was made possible because the more wealthy assisted those unable to pay their way to Manitoba so that all
could move. This created strong bonds. Migration to Manitoba allowed the landless, who were almost two thirds of the church community, to acquire land and provide a better financial base for their families. Migration and the availability of large tracts of land allowed the Reinländer Church (later called the Old Colony) to create strong village communities, in which the schools, municipal organizations, the Waisenamt (which provided social and financial services for church members), and the fire insurance system could be placed under the direction of the church. Migration allowed the Kleine Gemeinde leaders to envision a new start in which they could achieve the unity and spiritual renewal that had eluded them in Russia.
Successful settlement on the open prairie in Manitoba required that people cooperated in starting homes and farms, establishing schools, and building the many organizations required to form a successful community. Through it all, they established patterns of extending warm hospitality to family and friends, and went visiting often throughout the Mennonite settlements. Strong bonds were created that transcended church divisions, and sustained the communities for decades.
The migration to Manitoba in the 1870s became a model for renewal during the migrations to Mexico and Paraguay in the 1920s. After the migration to Mexico, the Old Colony bishop commented that this move had provided a renewal in his community. This model of renewal has been repeated many times in subsequent years through the various migrations from Mexico and Paraguay to other countries in South and Central America. Not all migrations were, however, successful, nor did they always bring about the hoped for renewal. These two ways in which the Anabaptist Mennonite vision has been expressed have their strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures. It is not clear that one is better than the other, or more faithful to the original Anabaptist Mennonite vision than the other. Unfortunately, that part of the Mennonite community that has been more engaged with society, has also been aggressive in proselytizing those who are less engaged, and in effect labelling them as non-Christian, and not being faithful to the Anabaptist Mennonite vision. Both groups can learn from each other without denigrating the other, or trying to convert the other to its views.