How did American Mennonites end up abandoning the early Anabaptist interpretation of Jesus’ exception clause about divorce? When and why did they reject the position that remarriage was permissible after a spouse had committed adultery? Months ago, I left my readers hanging, promising to answer this question.
I am sorry I have not done so. Here is why: As I dug into the question, I discovered there was a wealth of historical evidence to examine. In my first posts on the historical views of Anabaptists about remarriage after sexual immorality, I included virtually all the primary source evidence I could find (as an amateur historian working from home). If I were to do the same for the period beginning in the mid-1800s, however, I would end up with a book. This would require months of study to ensure I was treating the evidence justly.
After weeks digging into the evidence, I became overwhelmed. So, I crawled out of my hole and did other things, like make music and spend time with my family.
Recently, however, I received an email from a reader in the Netherlands. It included these questions: “Could you explain to me what happened that the Anabaptists changed their view about remarriage? When did this happen and what was the cause that made them change their mind?”
This email prodded my conscience, so I will attempt an answer.
I want to be clear that what follows (in future blog posts) is a series of informed propositions, not a publishable thesis. I am quite sure all the factors I will summarize played a role in why American Anabaptists changed their minds about remarriage after sexual immorality, but I do not know which of these factors was most important, and I am sure I am missing some factors I should include.
I will also make little attempt to document my claims here, because doing so would double my writing time. If you want references on a specific point, feel free to let me know, and I’ll see what I can do.
That said, here is what I think I know so far. I’ll address the when question in this post, and hopefully follow it up with one or more posts discussing why.
When did American Mennonites abandon the early Anabaptist position on remarriage after adultery?
It seems clear that this change happened over the period of many decades—probably a century or more. It was finally officially resolved for the Mennonite Church on November 18, 1905, in a General Conference meeting held at Berlin (now Kitchener), Ontario. Here are the relevant lines from the meeting minutes:
Ques. 4. Is it scriptural to receive a person into church fellowship while he lives as husband with another woman before a divorced wife be dead?
Resolved, That in the light of the scriptures (Matt. 5:31, 32; 19:3; Luke 16:18; 1 Cor. 7:10-17:39 [sic]), we hold that a separation between husband and wife is allowable only for the cause of fornication. That a person holding a divorce obtained for the sake of re-marriage, or being married a second time, and continuing to live with a second companion while the first companion is living should not be received into the church. That we pledge ourselves to use all consistent efforts to convince humanity of the sin of divorcement and prevent further propagation of the evil.
This resolution may appear unclear on its own, but the historical context clarifies the intent. The Mennonite church had been publicly debating for decades now whether divorce and remarriage were ever permissible, and some of the most vigorous debate was over whether adultery was justification for remarriage. This resolution clearly stated the official position of the Mennonite Church: No one who was living in a second marriage while a first spouse was still alive could be part of the church. There were no exceptions.
Further, the language implied another conviction that was frequently taught at the time: in cases of sexual immorality (“fornication”), only “separation” was permitted, not divorce.
1905, then, is our end point to the when question. The topic of remarriage after divorce would be debated by Mennonites again in the mid-20th century (as more churches experienced firsthand the difficulties of divorce among their membership and as the fundamentalism of the prior generation came under general review). But, for the more conservative streams of the American Mennonite church, this 1905 resolution staked a position that has been firmly held as gospel truth ever since.
A start point is not possible to pin down, but the September 1867 issue of the Herald of Truth (the quasi-official Mennonite periodical edited by John F. Funk) provides an important window. In this issue, John M. Brenneman, an important bishop from Ohio, raised a question:
[In] Matt 19:9, it is said, “Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery.” Query:—What is forbidden here? putting away one’s wife; or marrying another? or, in case of fornication, is it permitted to do both? An answer is required.
An editorial assistant provided an answer:
“Neither a prohibition nor a permission is expressed here. Simply what constitutes the crime of adultery is here explained… I do not think it can be shown anywhere in the Bible that it is right for a follower of Christ to put away his wife for any cause whatever, be it fornication or faithlessness in any respect.”
Later the same month, Brenneman raised his question at the Virginia Conference, and received a very different answer—one that matched the historic Anabaptist understanding: “It was also decided that for the same reason that a man is allowed to put away his wife, he is allowed to marry again.”
After the Virginia Conference decision was printed in the Herald of Truth, Funk reported, “We have received a large number of letters making inquiries and objections to the decision of the Virginia Conference.” Significantly, Funk himself declined to take a side in the debate. Instead, a flurry of exchanges occurred in the Herald, including a letter from Brenneman where he vigorously defended the Virginia Conference decision. Other writers disagreed, and the Ohio and Indian Conferences adopted resolutions contrary to the Virginia Conference.
Finally, sensing he was losing the argument, Brenneman wrote a short and rather pitiful apology in the July, 1868 issue of the Herald:
It appears, I have given an occasion of offense to many beloved brethren by my awkward article on divorce and marrying again, according to Matt. 19:9… I am very sorry, that I have made known my thoughts on this subject through the Herald; but it is done now, and can not be undone… If the brethren do not esteem me altogether too unworthy, I would desire that they earnestly entreat the Lord to be merciful to me, and to give me understanding in that in which I am yet ignorant, and to enlighten me in that which is yet dark to me. Your humble, weak and unworthy brother, J. M. BRENNEMAN.
Clearly, as of 1867, there was strong disagreement within the Mennonite Church over divorce, including the more specific question of whether divorce and remarriage are permissible after sexual immorality. The strength of the opinions suggests that a variety of teachings may have existed in parallel in different conferences for some time, perhaps for decades or more. There were some church leaders who did not know how to interpret Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:9, some who believed remarriage was permissible after adultery, and others who were equally confident that remarriage was never permitted (and, according to some, not even divorce).
The more restrictive camp won out in this particular exchange, but it is important to note that intermittent discussion and a variety of views continued to be printed in the Herald in coming decades. Multiple examples could be cited. In an article written for the May 1, 1882 issue, we find this defense of the historic Anabaptist view:
Christ says in plain language that fornication is the only reason for which they could separate and marry another. These are not my words but the words of Christ, and the Old Mennonites so understand them. I refer you to the first part of the article on Matrimony in the Confession of Faith in the Martyrs Mirror…
A comment in the August 1, 1883 issue summarized the disagreement well:
“The Congregational ministers of Chicago have unanimously decided not to solemnize marriage where either party has procured a divorce on other than scriptural grounds.” Not only Congregational, but all ministers everywhere ought to occupy the same ground. In fact, the writer [probably editor Funk] doubts the propriety of the re-marriage of those who have been divorced on any grounds, but there is a difference of opinion upon this point. [Emphasis added.]
It was not until the 1905 General Conference that the question was officially settled for the entire Mennonite Church. Some disagreement undoubtedly remained, but official policy was–for the time–clear.
The why question is a little harder to pin down.
“What was the cause that made” American Mennonites “change their mind” and reject the historic Anabaptist understanding of Jesus’ exception clause? I don’t think there was a single cause, but rather a cluster of reasons. I will aim to summarize several of those causes in forthcoming blog posts.
Meanwhile, I invite your responses to this post in the comments below. Thanks for reading!
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