When many people hear of Mennonite Brethren, they may picture Christians in conservative, old-fashioned clothes with head coverings and worshiping in German. While some Mennonite Brethren do retain a strong connection to their ethnic heritage and history in Europe, most look exactly like every-day people in your community. Our worship style is independent and varies in each congregation, but church services are likely to be very similar to what you would find in many other Protestant churches in the United States.
The history of the Mennonite Brethren is a story of revolution, persecution, and perseverance. When Martin Luther famously posted his 95 Theses in 1517, he ignited a widespread movement throughout Europe of people eager to reform Church practice. Several new church denominations were formed out of this revolution, including the Lutheran Church and Swiss Reformed Church. At the time, these churches were controlled by their respective national governments.
A group arose who believed that the church should not be run by the state, and began meeting outside the officially-sanctioned services. They also disagreed with other Protestants on the role of baptism: they felt that only adults who had put faith in Jesus Christ should be baptized, not infants. They believed Jesus taught that baptism signified a person’s commitment to turn away from sin. Thus they were called “Anabaptists” (literally, to baptize again), since new believers would become re-baptized even if they had been baptized by the Catholic Church as an infant.
The Anabaptists also believed strongly in Jesus’ teachings about peacemaking. Reacting against the brutal wars in Europe in the 1800’s, they taught that Christians should not be forced to kill for their government. This often made the Anabaptists appear subversive and even traitorous to their countrymen.
Seen as a rogue group, the Anabaptists were fiercely persecuted by the mainline Protestant churches and were forced to move to other parts of Europe. Despite oppression, the Anabaptists grew in number due to their eagerness to share their faith. Some fled north to the Netherlands, where they were led by a prolific thinker and writer named Menno Simmons, a former Catholic priest. This group was first called the Mennonites (“little Mennos”). When persecution reached the Mennonites in Netherlands, many fled to Russia (now modern-day Ukraine) where Catherine the Great promised them land for farming, religious liberty and exemption from military service.
The Mennonites thrived in Russia. About one hundred years ago, the “Mennonite Brethren” movement sprang from within the Mennonites, a revival that studied the Bible together in homes, emphasizing virtue and personal transformation. Called “brethren” (brother) because of their regard for the church as a family, the Mennonite Brethren eventually started their own church.
When Russia retracted their freedom of religion and persecution once again hit the community, many Mennonites and Mennonite Brethren began to emigrate to the United States and Canada, where hundreds of flourishing churches can be found today, including many Hispanic congregations.