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Anabaptist Movement Thrives in North America
email this pageprint this pageemail usAnn Rodgers - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
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December 05, 2010

Mennonite children in front of school in Guatemoc, Mexico (Michel Setboun/Corbis)
From horse-and-buggy Mennonites in Mexico to Amish in Arkansas, a new study reveals the variety of Anabaptist culture in North America.

"The biggest surprise was that there was a Mennonite group in the Bahamas," said Donald Kraybill, senior fellow at Elizabethtown College's Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, who did the research.

But that plain-dressing group isn't lounging on the beach in bonnets and suspenders.

"They're doing evangelical mission work and have two congregations. But they also have an industrial training school and are teaching occupational skills to native people there," he said.

Dr. Kraybill, who published his findings in the new "Concise Encyclopedia of Amish, Brethren, Hutterites and Mennonites" from Johns Hopkins University Press, found Anabaptist groups in 17 of the 23 North American nations. It is the first study of all Anabaptist groups. Anabaptists descend from Swiss and German radicals of the Protestant Reformation who insisted on adult baptism, rejected state control of the church and practiced nonresistance despite brutal persecution.

The study found 809,845 Anabaptist adults. Children would raise the total to an estimated 1.3 million. More than two-thirds - 578,195 - live in the United States, with the next largest group of 144,000 in Canada.

Mennonites are the largest group with 509,150. The many Brethren groups are next with 177,520. The Amish have 104,050 adult members, mostly in the U.S., but with 2,450 in Canada. Hutterites are by far the smallest group, with 19,125 adults.

Mennonite lifestyles range from quasi-Amish to fully-assimilated urban dwellers.

"There are Mennonite professors at Harvard and Mennonites who operate software companies. There is a vast spectrum in the Mennonite world, and also in the Brethren world," Dr. Kraybill said.

One Mennonite group in Mexico is actually more traditional than the Amish, he said. These German-speaking Old Colony Mennonites migrated from Russia to Canada in the 1880s, then moved to Mexico in the 1920s after Canadian authorities required them to teach in English rather than German. They kept their schools as they were then, while Amish teachers in the United States incorporated insights from research on childhood development.

"In recent years Old Order Amish teachers from the United States and Canada have gone to Mexico to help upgrade the schools of these Old Colony Mennonites," he said

Another new finding was that about 256,000 Anabaptist children and adults speak the Pennsylvania German dialect as their first language and for worship.

Hutterites, who are just 2 percent of all Anabaptists and live mostly in Canada, are little-known in the United States. They came from Austria and Russia in the 19th century and have about 500 colonies of about 100 people each. Each colony owns 5,000 to 10,000 acres of farmland.

"They have no private property, there are no individual checking accounts. They are the oldest Christian communal group, apart from the monastic orders," Dr. Kraybill said.

"Their dress is somewhat similar to the Amish, but they embrace high technology. A colony might have some vans and a truck, but no one would own a car. They are very big on modern farm equipment, and they use computers to run their farms and businesses."

Dr. Kraybill was familiar with the Anabaptist groups in the U.S. and Canada but hadn't visited any in Latin America for 30 years. He was amazed at some of the growth there. Most is the result of Mennonite missionary efforts since the 1950s.

About 5,000 K'ekch' Indians in Guatemala have formed their own National Evangelical Guatemalan Mennonite Church.

"They have maintained their Indian culture, but they relate to conservative, plain-dressing Mennonites, though not horse-and-buggy Mennonites," Dr. Kraybill said.

The Amish have no communities in Latin America. One that they planted in Honduras in 1969 was gone 30 years later. The Amish and the most conservative Mennonites are leery of missionary efforts.

"If plain-dressing Mennonites go to most of these countries, they first try to impose their dress on the local people. But after 20 or 25 years, that changes. Then [the missionaries] come back and aren't sure that dress matters that much anyway," Dr. Kraybill said. "It's why some of the Amish are skeptical of mission work. The Old Order Amish say that if you go into mission work, it brings changes back home."

Some mission congregations have survived under duress.

"My second big surprise was that there are three groups in Cuba," Dr. Kraybill said. "One was there through the Castro revolution. It went underground but has resurfaced."

The three Mennonite groups have 79 congregations with 3,300 members, in what Dr. Kraybill calls "a sizeable house church movement." All members and leaders are native Cubans.

"Apparently they have not been persecuted. They have been careful about what they say and do," he said.

Haiti has 68 Anabaptist congregations with 4,000 members.

"A lot of those would be involved in social needs having to do with the earthquake, even though their primary interest is evangelical outreach," he said.

Even though the Amish don't travel to Haiti, they support the relief and mission work there.

"Each year in Lancaster County and in Holmes County, Ohio, the Amish have a Haiti Auction to support various ministries in Haiti," Dr. Kraybill said. Through the sale of quilts and other crafts "they contribute significant funds to various conservative Mennonite groups that are active in Haiti."

Ann Rodgers: arodgers(at)

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