Why did Mennonites Abandon the Early Anabaptist View of Jesus’ Exception Clause? (Transition from German to English)

A third background factor that may have paved the way for a new Mennonite interpretation of Jesus’ exception clause was the transition from German to English. The transition from German Bibles to the King James Version, which most Mennonites adopted as they switched to English,1 may have directly shaped their biblical interpretation on the topic of divorce and remarriage. Less directly, the transition to English brought increased interaction with Christians in other denominations, which led to both increased imitation of these denominations and new expressions of the Mennonite separatist impulse.

This post is part of a rambling series investigating Anabaptist understandings of Jesus’ exception clause about divorce and remarriage, recorded in Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9. Here, in order, are the most important posts so far in this series:

Anabaptists Now: Taking Exception to Jesus’ Exception Clause

Anabaptists Then (1500s): An “Unchangeable Plain Word of Christ”

Anabaptists Then (1600-1860s): “It Is Clearly to Be Seen”

Why Did Early Anabaptists Believe Jesus Allowed Divorce and Remarriage in Cases of Adultery?

When did Mennonites Discard the Early Anabaptist Interpretation of Jesus’ Exception Clause about Divorce?

Why did Mennonites Abandon the Early Anabaptist View of Jesus’ Exception Clause? (Separatism and Confessional Statements)

BENJAMIN EBY ON SEPARATISM AND CONFESSIONS

Before we continue, I want to summarize my last post in this series by sharing a quote from Benjamin Eby, an influential pioneer Mennonite farmer, bishop, school teacher, author, and printer. Several of his writings were republished in coming decades not only in his home province of Ontario, but also in other Mennonite centers such as Lancaster, Pennsylvania and Elkhart, Indiana. One such writing was his 1841 book on the history and doctrine of the Mennonites, Kurzgefasste Kirchen-Geschichte.2

In my last post I suggested two background factors that made it easier for Mennonites to lose their original teaching affirming that Jesus permitted divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery: (1) their separatist mindset, which sometimes encouraged increasingly rigid doctrines and practices, and (2) the historical accident that their most popular doctrinal statements did not preserve the historical Anabaptist position on Jesus’ exception clause. Both factors are evident in the following quote from Eby’s Kurzgefasste Kirchen-Geschichte, which explicitly mentions divorce:

Whoever examines the doctrine of the Mennonites in a consistent and impartial manner will soon see that it in no way conflicts with the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ, and that the other Protestants’ teachings on war, swearing of an oath, and divorce, were allowed by the Lord because of the hardness of their hearts, so that some greater evil would not come of it, as was allowed with the Jews. But we will refrain from accusing them too harshly, because the Lord has dealt with them and us with much patience, and his mercy and longsuffering is shown daily, so let us withhold all harsh judgment against the thinking of others. We are, by the positive Hope and according to the Word of Promise, convinced that the time will come when all the Christians will know that going to war, swearing an oath, and divorce, are issues that are impossible to find a place in the kingdom of God; but that they are from the evil, and that furthermore all those in authority must be willing to remove these distortions, and remain steadfast in the teachings of Jesus.

We contend that it is proper and clear to present the complete foundation and teachings, which are explained in the attached Articles of Faith, so that every impartial person may judge for himself, and by this we from our heart desire and plead the light of the Holy Spirit to be upon each one.3

Several quick observations are in order:

  • It appears likely that Eby believed divorce was wrong without exception, as surely as he believed the same about going to war and swearing oaths. This suggests that some prominent Mennonite Church leaders taught this at least as early as 1841 (even while others did not).
  • Eby shows a separatist mindset—gracious but unapologetic—and names the rejection of divorce as a point of denominational distinction for Mennonites.
  • Eby ends this excerpt with a paragraph that leads directly to the next section of his book: a reprinting of the complete Dordrecht Confession. Significantly, he seems to believe this confession will show impartial readers that the Mennonite stance on divorce is correct. In other words, it is likely Eby read the Dordrecht’s silence about divorce and remarriage after adultery as prohibition; the confession didn’t mention an adultery exception, so therefore, he concluded, it does not exist.4

THE TRANSITION TO ENGLISH

The transition to the English language is another background factor that may have enabled the gradual Mennonite abandonment of early Anabaptist teaching on Jesus’ exception clause. (See this post for a discussion of how an earlier transition from Latin to German may have shaped early Anabaptist interpretation.)

Mennonites in Virginia led the transition to English preaching, beginning before the mid-1800s. In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, “the first Mennonite minister… who was able and willing to preach in the English language” was ordained in 1850.5 Western states such as Ohio and Indiana were slower to transition but soon followed. The English-language Herald of Truth was first published in 1864 and quickly gained a larger readership than its German counterpart. In 1880 John F. Funk also began publishing Sunday school helps in English, and “the Sunday school no doubt contributed greatly to the use of English.”6 By the last third of the 1800s, it was common for visiting speakers (such as revivalist John S. Coffman) to preach in English in Mennonite churches throughout North America. “In the transition period 1875-1900 preachers were often ordained specifically to preach English alongside of the regular German preaching of the older ministers.” 7

As the new century drew near, most of the young movers and shakers who increasingly shaped the Mennonite church “were a generation of youths who spoke and thought in English more than German,”8 and some preachers didn’t know German at all. “The real change to English came with authors who wrote only in that language, the first of these being Daniel Kauffman (Mennonite Church), with his first book in 1898, A Manual of Bible Doctrines.” 7 At the fall conference in Pennsylvania in 1900, “everything was now done in English,”10 and German was fast fading from the pulpits of the Mennonite Church across United States and Canada.

(Click here for an image of a 1793 KJV New Testament that was owned by a Mennonite couple in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.)

The Mennonite transition from German to English coincided with increased debate about divorce (more about the latter in a future post). And in 1905, as German was clearly on the wane, the Mennonite Church officially withheld membership from all remarried persons who had a former spouse still living, without exception.

THE GERMAN JESUS VS. THE ENGLISH JESUS

Did the switch to English help trigger a change in divorce doctrine? If so, how? One possible answer is found in the switch from German Bibles to English Bibles.

In Greek, the same exception is cited by Jesus in both Matthew 5 and 19: “except for porneia (πορνεία).” This Greek word has multiple potential meanings, and German and English Bibles went in different directions with their translation choices. Further, in the German Bibles—both Luther’s Bible and the similar “Froschauer Bible” more popular with Anabaptists—Jesus’ exception clause is translated differently in Matthew 5 and 19.

In Matthew 5:32, the German Jesus says “except for Ehebruch.” Ehebruch is a standard German term referring to adultery, but it is more graphic than the English word adultery. Ehebruch is a compound word that more woodenly means “breach of marriage” or “marriage-break.” This word can suggest that adultery breaks a marriage, bringing it to an end. In this potential reading, if your spouse commits Ehebruch, your marriage is broken and you are free to remarry.

In Matthew 19:9, the German Jesus says “except for Hurerei.” This term refers to sexual promiscuity. Both German words express ideas which can be included within the broad range of meaning of the Greek term porneia.

In the KJV, in contrast, the English Jesus says “except for fornication” in both passages. This term carries different implications than the German ones. Unlike Ehebruch, it does not suggest that porneia breaks a marriage. And, while it can mean exactly the same thing as Hurerei, it is also often used more narrowly to refer only to pre-marital sin.

Both of these differences foreshadow the new ways that American Mennonites would interpret Jesus’ exception clause. First, they would deny that adultery ends a marriage, asserting that it is impossible for anything but death to end a marriage bond. Second, some Mennonites eventually (at least by 1950) began teaching that Jesus’ exception clause refers only to fornication during a Jewish betrothal period.

The transition to English affected the relationship of Mennonites not only to the Bible itself, but also to their own history of biblical interpretation. I have noticed, for example, that English translations of old German Anabaptist catechisms and statements of faith tend to use the KJV “fornication” when referring to Jesus’ exception clause, even when the original German documents used words such as Ehebruch (“adultery”). Similarly, they sometimes use the English term separate when the German original specified divorce (scheiden).

This excerpt from one of the most popular catechisms, “The Shorter Catechism” (first published in English in 1857, I believe), illustrates both translation problems:

The persons united by such marriage are so closely bound to each other, that they can in no wise separate [scheiden; “divorce”], except in case of “fornication [Ehebruch; “adultery”].

Mennonites of the late 1800s did not maintain a clear distinction between the English separate and the German scheiden (“divorce”).11 But a distinction was certainly made between the English terms separate and divorce as the century ended, and already in the mid-1800s some were teaching that separation was permitted in cases of adultery, but never divorce.

Virtually no one in the Mennonite Church read NT Greek. (Were there any exceptions?) Unlike many biblical scholars today, their only access to Jesus’ words was through either German or English. Of these two, English was increasingly seen as the language of the educated. Quite literally, the terms of the debate were changing.

ASSESSING THE EVIDENCE

I want to be clear that I have not found explicit evidence in primary sources about how the move from German to English shaped the interpretation of Jesus’ words about divorce. The circumstantial evidence still appears compelling to me, however. I find it hard to imagine that these changes in terminology had no effect at all on Mennonite understandings, even if it is hard to weigh their likely influence.

I am not the only person to suggest such an influence. In a recent article in the Mennonite Quarterly Review, Andrew V. Ste. Marie reflected on some of the same differences between German and English terminology:

[A] fruitful avenue of research would be to investigate how the shift from German to English may have affected views on divorce and remarriage… We have ripe ground for understandings of divorce and remarriage to shift as the heart language of Mennonites shifted from German to English.12

Further, the transition to English did directly shape Mennonite theology and practice in other areas.13 One example is the newly-defined doctrine of “ordinances,” which developed during the time of John S. Coffman and was standardized under his convert, Daniel Kauffman.14 The key verse here is 1 Corinthians 11:2, which reads thus in the KJV: “Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.” The Greek word translated as ordinance (paradosis, παράδοσις) is used four other times by Paul. It is always translated elsewhere in the KJV as tradition(s), which captures the Greek sense much better.15

Coffman and Kauffman regularly cited 1 Corinthians 11:2 when they presented their new list of seven Mennonite ordinances. They brought their English-language definitions of ordinance to this verse—definitions cited from Webster or borrowed from systematic theologians rather than Greek scholars. Kauffman himself defined ordinance as “a religious ceremony with a heavenward meaning.” With these definitions in hand, Kauffman reflected on 1 Corinthians 11:2 in his book Manual of Bible Doctrines (1898): “This reference on the part of the apostle, to these things [‘the head-covering and the communion’] as ordinances, forever settles the question as to whether the subject under consideration is or is not an ordinance.” Kauffman, doubtless with the best of intentions, brought his own definitions of ordinance to the Bible, found the word ordinance in 1 Corinthians 11, and assumed it matched and buttressed his theology of ordinances.16

Did the change from German terms to English terms similarly help shape the new, more stringent teaching about divorce? I don’t know for sure. I can also think of several arguments why the change in language perhaps made little difference:

  • Only a minority of the English-speaking non-Mennonite denominations of the time adopted teachings as strict as those of the Mennonite Church.
  • Funk used German and English Bible quotations in parallel in the German and English versions of his periodicals, as if interchangeable.17
  • The Virginia Conference was perhaps the first Mennonite group to transition to English preaching, yet they came out most strongly in 1867 in favor of the historic Anabaptist position approving remarriage after adultery.
  • Many Anabaptists who retained the German language longer (Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonite) nevertheless adopted very strict no-divorce policies.

In response to the last argument, it should be noted that even those Amish and Mennonite churches that retained the German language were influenced by trends in the English-speaking church.18 German-speaking and English-speaking Anabaptists were not sealed off from each other. It is very likely that the progressive leaders in the English-speaking Mennonite Church (who ran the publishing companies and eventually ushered in a new fundamentalist church culture) also influenced how the German-speaking Anabaptist churches taught about divorce.

But what shaped the beliefs of these activist English leaders? The English Bible, or something else?

RESPONSES TO ENGLISH PROTESTANT INFLUENCES

The example of ordinances reminds us that the transition to English could shape doctrinal beliefs both directly (from the English Bible) and indirectly (from exposure to other English-language sources). I’ll end this post by briefly discussing such indirect effects.

Increased exposure to English Protestants probably encouraged the growing tendency toward a stricter stance against all divorce in at least two contrasting ways: through separatism and imitation.

First, as Mennonites lost the German language, they looked for other factors that could mark them as a separate people. Some scholars think, for example, that this was one motivation behind the growing standardization of uniform attire and the prayer veiling.19 The Mennonite stance against divorce was another marker of separation—recall both the 1841 Benjamin Eby quote at the beginning of this post (which lumped divorce with war and oaths as three topics separating Mennonites from other Protestants) and also the 1895 testimony quoted in my last post of two men who joined the Mennonites in part because of their stance against divorce (which was lumped again with nonresistance as a marker). It is probable that the loss of German provided extra motivation to strengthen Mennonite teachings against divorce.

Second, Mennonites increasingly imitated Protestant doctrine and practice in the late nineteenth century. John Funk is only the most obvious example: he was converted in a Presbyterian church in Chicago, was a personal friend of D. L. Moody and a partner with him in Sunday school work in Chicago, and during his long “reign” as a Mennonite patriarch tried to graft some of the best of what he saw in the Protestant world to strong Anabaptist roots. During this time, Mennonites were certainly aware of what other denominations were teaching about divorce. I hope to discuss this more in a future post on Mennonite periodicals, but here I’ll give an example not mentioned (to my knowledge) in periodicals of the time.

Zeal for holy living was in the air during the revival era at the turning of the century. The “Mennonite Church, particularly in the western United States, began grappling with some of the holiness and sanctification debates” that were happening within the Methodist world.20 These debates birthed several new holiness denominations (such as the Church of the Nazarenes) which taught, among other things, “a holy living style that rejected worldly dress, divorce, musical instruments, and membership in secret societies.”21 In 1903, for example, a radical branch of the holiness movement in Chicago adopted some “new teachings” on divorce which were especially rigid.22 The next year, 1904, leaders from this Chicago holiness group made divorce the central topic of a Los Angeles revival effort. They sternly rebuked the Nazarenes there for “allowing the remarriage of the so-called ‘innocent party’ in a divorce” and for offering church membership for those who were divorced and remarried.23 These new, firmer teachings on divorce and remarriage then became “prominent features of the Azusa Street Revival” in 1906 which helped trigger the birth of the Pentecostal movement.24

Daniel Kauffman, from Missouri, and George R. Brunk, from Kansas, were among the new English-language Mennonite leaders who directly interacted with the topics raised by these new Methodist holiness debates.25 It is very likely that they were aware of the strict divorce teachings of the more separatist holiness groups and that they were favorably impressed. The dots are all there, even if I can’t quite connect them. At any rate, it was at precisely this time (1905) that the Mennonite Church officially adopted its own firm stance against remarriage in cases of adultery.

CONCLUSIONS

So then, did the transition to English help prompt the new Mennonite stance against divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery? In theory, it seems to me that it should have made a difference, both through the effect of English Bible translations and through increased exposure to English sources. I find it hard to imagine that the transition to English had no effect on the divorce debate.

I want to end on a cautious note, however, particularly regarding the direct effect of the KJV. I am not sure whether the adoption of English Bibles was indeed a supporting cause for the adoption of stricter teachings on Jesus’ exception clause, or whether the KJV just made it easier afterward for English-speaking Mennonites to justify and retain their new interpretation. The latter is almost certainly true. The former deserves more study.26


In my next post or two, I hope to move from background factors (separatist mindset, confessional documents, language transition) to factors more directly involved in the renewed Mennonite debate over divorce: (1) the growing social concern in America over rising divorce rates and (2) the birth of Mennonite periodicals which encouraged and enabled increased debate on a wide range of topics.

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your responses in the comments below. Particularly, if you have any more puzzle pieces to add to this discussion about the transition from German to English and how it impacted divorce debates, I’m all ears. And someone who knows German needs to finish this puzzle so we can see the picture it makes!


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  1. The Revised Bible was also used. For example, I found a parallel KJV-RV Bible for sale online that the Mennonite Publishing Company published in 1891. Like the KJV, the RV uses the word “fornication” in Jesus’ exception clause.
  2. This book has been republished in English translation as recently as 1999 by the car-driving Old Order Markham-Waterloo Mennonite Conference of Ontario. See here.
  3. Benjamin Eby, Kurzgefasste Kirchen-Geschichte, English text adapted from rough translations provided by several of my friends (Berlin, ON: published by author’s son, Heinrich Eby, 1841), pp. 162-64. Emphasis added. German text: https://archive.org/details/cihm_35039/page/n169/mode/2up
  4. Another reading is possible: Eby, like the authors of the Dordrecht Confession, affirmed an adultery exception which permitted divorce and remarriage, but did not mention it. He may have been contrasting this narrow exception of the Mennonite Church with those Protestants who permitted divorce for multiple causes. This reading appears less likely to me, given how he groups divorce with going to war and swearing oaths, which were traditionally prohibited without exception by Mennonites.
  5. John Landis Ruth, The Earth Is the Lord’s: A Narrative History of the Lancaster Mennonite Conference (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001), 529
  6. Harold S. Bender, “English language,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Accessed April 6, 2021. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=English_language&oldid=129549
  7. Bender, Ibid.
  8. Theron F. Schlabach, Peace, Faith, Nation: Mennonites and Amish in Nineteenth-Century America (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1988), 299.
  9. Bender, Ibid.
  10. Ruth, Ibid., 761.
  11. See footnotes 14 and 35 in this post.
  12. Here is the full comment from Ste. Marie’s article about changing views on divorce: “Rather than attributing this shift to the influence of one or a few leaders, perhaps a more fruitful avenue of research would be to investigate how the shift from German to English may have affected views on divorce and remarriage. Luther’s rendition of Matthew 19:9 says that the man who divorces his wife and remarries “der bricht die Ehe,” “breaks the marriage,” while the King James Version says he “committeth adultery.” The German word for “adultery” is Ehebruch, a compound word which literally means “marriage-break.” (The verb form is ehebrechen, “to marriage-break.”) To a mind at home in German, Jesus could be easily understood, not as charging a remarried man with committing a sexual sin per se, but with breaking his first marriage. If, however, the wife’s “fornication” or adultery is itself understood to be an act of Ehebruch, then the marriage could be understood as “broken” already, before the man has remarried. In English, with “adultery” being understood as the act of illicit extramarital sexual activity, with no necessary connotation of breaking the bonds of marriage, we have ripe ground for understandings of divorce and remarriage to shift as the heart language of Mennonites shifted from German to English. I’m grateful to Mike Atnip for this insight.” (Andrew V. Ste. Marie, “Research Note: Nineteenth-Century Mennonites Deal with Divorce and Remarriage,” MQR 94, April 2020, p. 248-49, n. 51.
  13. Here are several less significant examples: (1) While the German word Bischof was rarely used by eighteenth-century Mennonites and Amish, they did adopt the English word bishop in the nineteenth century, after they began to use more English (Richard K. MacMaster, Land, Piety, Peoplehood: The Establishment of Mennonite Communities in America 1683-1790 {Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1985}, 200). The practice of powerful church leaders, of course, long preceded the use of the English term. (2) Mennonite writings in English have tended to refer to devils rather than demons, “likely due to the influence of the King James Version” (Swartley, Willard M. “Exorcism.” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 3 Mar 2021. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Exorcism&oldid=162903).
  14. For a fuller discussion of this topic, see my essay draft “125 Years of Seven Ordinances: An Historical and Biblical Review,” available here: https://dwightgingrich.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/125-Years-of-Seven-Ordinances-DGO-Preview-2015.pdf.
  15. Cf. esp. 2 Thess. 2:15; 3:6 for close parallel usage. This KJV inconsistency in translating παράδοσις is paralleled by its indiscriminate use of the English word ordinance. In the KJV NT the term ordinance(s) is found nine times. These nine occurrences translate six different Greek words, and they reflect a wide variety of meanings. 1 Corinthians 11:2 is the only instance where the word ordinance refers to Christian teaching.
  16. Would the Mennonite Church have ended up with a similar focus on a list of seven ordinances even if they had never adopted the KJV? The impetus for a list of seven is hard to pin on the English language and may have been shaped more by the Roman Catholic list of seven sacraments or by the symbolic perfection of the number seven. On the other hand, the KJV use of ordinance in 1 Corinthians 11 helped the prayer veiling achieve the status of an ordinance and helped raise the whole topic of ordinances to a higher prominence in Mennonite thought. Perhaps this was reinforced by the fact that the preferred term of the Dutch Mennonite theologian Dirk Philips (1504-68) for sacraments was a Dutch word normally translated as “ordinances”? The “Froschauer Bible” of Zwingli, the most popular Bible for the early Anabaptists, used the word satzungen (“statutes” or “rules”) in 1 Corinthians 11:2 (see here), following Luther’s initial 1522 translation (see here). Luther’s final 1545 translation used the word Weise (“ways”; see here), which is probably closer to the sense of the Greek.
  17. Cf. the initial question about Matt. 19 in the September, 1867 issues of the Herald of Truth and its German counterpart, both of which quote the Matthew text (German text; English text) and also the parallel presentation of Matt 5:32 in Brenneman’s long article in February 1868 (German text; English text). In the May, 1877 issue of the Herald of Truth a letter mentions someone excommunicated for “fornication”; the German parallel used is hurerei (German text; English text). My impression is that the Herald of Truth uses “fornication” as a general, multi-purpose term, as the KJV does, without the implication that it is restricted to pre-marital sin.
  18. As early as the late 1700s many Amish were actively listening to (non-Mennonite) English revivalist preachers, and by the 1870s many Amish had subscribed to the Mennonite periodical Herald of Truth or its German counterpart. In fact, in the 1890s so many Amish were reading this paper that for a time it was billed as the “Organ of 14 Mennonite and Amish Conferences” (Steven M. Nolt, A History of the Amish {Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 1992}, 162). During the second half of the 1800s about two-thirds of the Amish transitioned to become “Amish-Mennonites” (Nolt, 188), and most of these eventually merged with the Mennonite Church.
  19. Examples: “Distinctive dress provided an acceptable alternate form of separation for these assimilated Mennonites at a time when they were losing the German language and the social isolation of small rural communities” (Samuel J. Steiner, In Search of Promised Lands: A Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario {Kitchener, ON: Herald Press, 2015}, 214). “The people of God were to be a separate people… Sometimes it was by maintaining a geographic isolation, sometimes by means of the German language, and then also by distinctive, simple clothing or by a combination of all of these… When the language barrier was surrendered and geographic isolation was lost, a final effort was made to strengthen the third separation device, that of simple dress” (Melvin Gingerich, Mennonite Attire through Four Centuries {Breinigsville, PA: The Pennsylvania German Society, 1970}, 148).
  20. Samuel J. Steiner, In Search of Promised Lands: A Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2015), 214.
  21. Ibid., 214.
  22. William Kostlevy, Holy Jumpers: Evangelicals and Radicals in Progressive Era America (United States: Oxford University Press, USA, 2010), 190.
  23. Ibid., 129.
  24. Ibid., 133.
  25. Steiner, Ibid., 214.
  26. The whole topic of how the transition from German to English has affected and continues to affect Amish and Mennonites in America is much debated, as this book review clearly demonstrates: https://dev.plainnews.org/2018/11/21/book-review-of-german-language-cradle-of-our-heritage/.

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“Worshiping and Imitating Our Servant King” (Sermon)

I was invited to preach a Palm Sunday sermon today. It was a blessing to meditate on the example of our Servant King. Perhaps if I share this here now, some of you will find it in time to watch it this evening–or sometime later during this special week of remembering our Lord’s suffering and death.

Sermon Title: Worshiping and Imitating Our Servant King

Main Text: Matthew 21:1-11 (Jesus’ Triumphal Entry)

Supporting Texts: Psalm 118; Isaiah 53; Daniel 7; Zechariah 9:9; Matthew 16:21; 17:22-23; 20:17-34

Teaser: Our world is full of images of power-hunger leaders, leaders who are willing to use even violence to hold onto power. Today we are going to see a King whose example sharply contrasts with such worldly rulers. His way of ruling should inspire both our worship and our imitation.

I was blessed by the responses after the sermon, including someone who shared an impromptu performance of Michael Card’s song Ride On to Die.

I’ve excluded those responses here, to preserve privacy, but your responses are welcome in the comments below!


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Why did Mennonites Abandon the Early Anabaptist View of Jesus’ Exception Clause? (Separatism and Confessional Statements)

American Mennonites gradually abandoned the early Anabaptist interpretation of Jesus’ words, “except for porneia(Matt. 5:32; 19:9). They eventually resolved, instead, to exclude from the church any remarried person whose former spouse was still alive, even if their divorce had been triggered by adultery.

In my last post, I shared when this change took place. It began no later than the mid-1800s (likely decades before) and was finalized in a General Conference of the Mennonite Church in 1905.

But why did this change happen, and why at this time? This why question is a little harder to pin down. I don’t think there was a single cause, but rather a cluster of reasons. I’ll begin discussing these reasons in this post.

Brief aside: To avoid (or create!) confusion, I should clarify that I am telling the story here primarily of the “Mennonite Church,” not of all Mennonites in America, let alone of all Amish, too. The Mennonite Church was the oldest and largest branch of Anabaptists in America, composed of primarily Swiss-Germans, both Mennonites and some former Amish. It gave birth over time to many other groups, including Old Order Mennonites and, later, various conservative “fellowships” and “conferences” (including, indirectly, the Midwest Mennonite Fellowship of the church of my youth). Those who remained (along with others who joined) are now known as Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church CanadaThe Mennonite Church has been the most influential branch of American Anabaptists, partly because of its many publications, some of which strongly shape conservative Anabaptists even to this day.

Click here to see a timeline of Amish and Mennonite separations and mergers, created by my friend Ernest Eby. The branch I’m focusing on is  the “Old” Mennonite Church, as well as the Amish-Mennonites who joined them.

Why did the Mennonite Church step away from early Anabaptist teachings permitting divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery? Several background historical conditions played a supporting role. In this post I’ll discuss two: the separatist mindset of Anabaptists, and the role of confessions and catechisms.

In a subsequent post I plan to discuss a possible third: the transition to the English language.

Again, I want to be clear that what follows is a series of informed propositions, not a publishable thesis. I am not sure how heavily to weigh each of these factors, and I’m sure I’m missing other factors worthy of discussion.

A SEPARATIST MINDSET

A first historical factor that probably helped nudge Mennonites toward a stricter divorce theology was their long tradition of seeing themselves as a people apart. Their two-kingdom theology separated them not only from “the world,” but also from most other Christians, who were seen as participating in the world through political involvement and moral compromise. “Their worldview pitted the faithful remnant of true Christians in hard struggle against the established churches and against the vast majority of ‘Christians’ who did not live righteously.” 1

It is important to remember that even on the topic of divorce and remarriage early Anabaptists were mostly2 “conservative” in comparison to Reformers such as Luther and Zwingli, who permitted divorce for more reasons that just adultery. (See this post for more about Zwingli and divorce. See here for relevant quotes from Luther.)

When Anabaptists moved to America, this sense of being a people apart evolved, but continued. On the one hand, these American Anabaptists no longer had the evangelistic zeal of their ancestors, which meant the church was now mostly composed of biological descendants rather than converts. This reinforced their isolation. On the other hand, they were no longer hiding for their lives, facing persecution from fellow “Christians.” This led to some increased assimilation within the surrounding culture. Mennonites engaged in business deals with non-Mennonite neighbors, shared church buildings, attended each other’s services, and even sometimes intermarried.

But before complete assimilation could occur, events such as the Revolutionary War reminded this nonresistant people of their identity:

The greatest result of the whole revolutionary experience for Mennonites and Amish was to heighten their sense of separation from their neighbors. Rather suddenly, they had found themselves to be a people somewhat apart from the new people the patriots were forming. So they… emerged from the American revolution to be, more than before, “the quiet in the land.”3

The Civil War (1861-65) found Mennonites and Amish less united in their response, but “unlike Protestants in major denominations… [they] had not put politics and sectionalism above faith to the point of dividing the church into northern and southern branches”4 Whatever their wartime choices, American Anabaptists experienced renewed debate about how to live as a separate people. Leaders such as Brenneman and Funk—the same leaders who played lead roles in the Herald of Truth divorce debate I summarized in my last post—published new booklets promoting nonresistance.

Separation over military participation reinforced separation over marriage. Almost all Mennonite and Amish groups in the 1800s tried to prevent interdenominational marriages. Many churches excommunicated members who married outside the church; others placed such members on probation. A few churches gave reluctant permission, and one prominent Lancaster minister (1890) mourned the fact that Mennonite youth who were not yet members were forced to get conduct their interdenominational marriages elsewhere:

Why must our menonite [sic] children when they are united in the bonds of matrimony, be sent to those least esteemed in the church? We try to raise them up in the nonresistent [sic] doctrine in our Sunday schools, but when they get married, we must send them to those war ministers to get married.5

Such a strong separatist mindset probably also shaped how American Anabaptists felt about divorce and remarriage.

To be clear, Anabaptists had always warned strongly against (wrongful) divorce. It appears that American Anabaptists even pushed against the traditional practice of calling church members to shun spouses who were under church discipline; when Amish leaders in the 1860s tried to force a wife to shun her husband, church members called her an adulteress when she reluctantly complied! This suggests that, among American Anabaptists, the marriage bond was seen as even more binding than it had been seen by some early Anabaptists (such as Dutch Mennonites and Hutterites).

As divorce and remarriage gradually became more frequent in the surrounding culture and churches (more on this in a future post), Mennonite leaders were keen to observe the rulings of other denominations and to urge a strict course for their own churches. Though I have not found any record of actual church decisions on the matter from the 1700s or early 1800s, I suspect that as churches around them veered “left” on divorce, Amish and Mennonites gradually pulled harder to the “right.”

An author in the Herald of Truth put it this way (1883): “Instead of divine law, to regulate it [marriage and divorce], the civil law is made the criterion by many Christian churches.”6 Similarly, the Herald reported in 1895 that two men, “neither of them having been born in a Mennonite family,” gave a presentation titled, “Why am I a Mennonite?” Their sixth reason was summarized thus:

6. Nonresistance. Also that adulterers (divorced persons remarrying) cannot enter the kingdom of God. Virtuous life required of every member…7

A strong stance against divorce and remarriage was part of the “brand” of American Mennonites, part of their identity as a people apart. Their separatist mindset tied them to their Anabaptist ancestors, even though they had come to embrace a somewhat more stringent doctrine about divorce and remarriage than what their ancestors had taught.

CONFESSIONS AND CATECHISMS

Confessions of faith have been one important way Anabaptists have remained rooted in the theology of their ancestors. Significantly, however, the confession of faith that became most popular and authoritative for both Amish and Mennonites in America, the Dordrecht Confession of Faith (1632), does not mention divorce or remarriage at all. (Here is the Dordrecht Confession’s article about marriage.)

This is surely an historical accident, in the sense that the authors of this confession almost certainly did, with all other Anabaptists of their time, permit divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery. It is also an accident in the sense that the popularity of this confession had nothing to do with its silence on this topic. Historical accidents, nevertheless, can produce real results.

American Anabaptists did use some other documents that preserved the historic Anabaptist teaching. For example, the “long” confession (c. 1600) included in the Martyr’s Mirror did explicitly affirm remarriage after adultery (as noted by the 1882 Herald of Truth article quoted in my last post). Menno Simon’s writings, republished in America, taught the same. But most people probably had to go digging through long texts to find those witnesses. The Dordrecht confession, by contrast, was used alongside several catechisms for instructing candidates for baptism and membership. Virtually every Mennonite encountered it.

Did the catechisms clarify the historic Anabaptist affirmation of remarriage in cases of adultery? No, they did not. While many Anabaptist catechisms and confessions from 1600 to the 1860s affirm divorce in cases of adultery, I have not found any documents from this period that mention the question of remarriage in such cases. They certainly do not forbid remarriage, but neither do they explicitly affirm it. They are silent. Many of these post-1600 documents probably assumed the historic Anabaptist teaching without repeating it.8

The Church of God in Christ Mennonite denomination (started in 1859 by John Holdeman) offers an informative contrast. This was a restorationist group, so they intentionally reached back to early Anabaptist writings to shape their own theology and practice. This excerpt from their 1896 confession cites both the “long” confession (c. 1600) and the writings of Menno Simons as it affirms, mostly intact,9 the historic Anabaptist teaching on remarriage after adultery:

We do believe that the Lord prohibited divorcing excepting in case of adultery. Yet we do not believe that a brother or sister should apply for a divorce. We understand the Savior’s expression in Matthew 19:9, as did the Martyr brethren in their 33 articles of faith as we read in “Martyr’s Mirror,” page 387, article 25, when they expressed themselves as follows: “And thus re-establishing marriage between one man and one woman, and so inseparably and firmly binding the bond of matrimony, that they might not, on any account, separate and marry another, except in case of adultery or death.” Also read in Menno Simon part 2, page 311.

But the confession considered most authoritative by most early American Mennonites (Dordrecht) did not mention the question of divorce and remarriage after adultery. Many other documents they used most often addressed only the first half of the question.

Given this situation, it isn’t surprising that American Mennonites gradually lost clarity and agreement about what they believed on the topic. This lack of teaching set the stage for renewed debate, eventually leading to a new (and different) consensus.

CONCLUSION

The separatist mindset of American Mennonites probably pushed them to become even more rigorous than their Anabaptist ancestors in their interpretation of Jesus’ exception clause. This “push” factor was not counterbalanced with any “pull” in their most popular Anabaptist confession and catechisms, which did not address the topic of remarriage after adultery. Together, these historical factors helped set the stage for the Mennonite Church to retreat from early Anabaptist views about valid grounds for divorce and remarriage.


In my next post I hope to wrestle with the question of whether the language transition from German to English shaped Mennonite views on divorce and remarriage.

Meanwhile, I invite your responses to this post in the comments below. Thanks for reading!


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  1. Theron F. Schlabach, Peace, Faith, Nation: Mennonites and Amish in Nineteenth-Century America, The Mennonite Experience in America, V. 2 (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1988), 20. In this quote, Schlabach is discussing early Anabaptists in Europe.
  2. I say “mostly” because some early Anabaptists affirmed the practice of converts divorcing their unbelieving (non-Anabaptist) spouses and remarrying; a practice which the magisterial Reformers strongly opposed. Except for the Hutterites, and except for the Dutch Mennonite who advocated shunning spouses who were under discipline, within a generation or so almost all Anabaptists had rejected this additional ground for divorce, limiting it only to one: adultery.
  3. Richard K. MacMaster, Land, Piety, Peoplehood: The Establishment of Mennonite Communities in America 1683-1790, The Mennonite Experience in America, V. 1 (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 19850, 279.
  4. Schlabach, 199.
  5. Schlabach, 83.
  6. A. K. Zook, “Matrimony,” original article for The Herald of Truth, Vol. 20, No. 14 (published July 15, 1883), 212; https://archive.org/details/heraldoftruth20unse/page/n111/mode/1up.
  7. “Proceedings of the Mennonite S. S. Conference of Indiana and Michigan,” Herald of Truth, Vol. 32, No. 22 (Nov. 15, 1895), 346; https://archive.org/details/heraldoftruth32unse/page/n176/mode/1up.
  8. See the conclusion to this post, including footnote 36, for more analysis of this documentary evidence.
  9. I say “mostly intact” because of the statement that Christians should not apply for a divorce. This may be based on the idea of some early Anabaptists that marriages initiated outside the church are not particularly valid or binding. The Holdemans seem to have concluded that, in contrast, marriages between church members cannot be broken. Most early Anabaptist writings, however do not appear to restrict believers from divorcing spouses who commit adultery.

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