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

This is the second of several historical posts surveying how Anabaptists have interpreted Jesus’ exception clauses (Matt. 5:32; 19:9) regarding divorce and remarriage in cases of porneia (“sexual immorality”). The first post presented the views of the earliest Anabaptists, in the 1500s. This current post continues our survey up to the 1860s.

After this post, I’d like to pause my historical survey to attempt a summary of how Anabaptists approached the task of interpreting Jesus’ exception clauses. After that summary, a third historical survey post is in the works, examining how Anabaptist interpretations evolved in the late 1800s to result in an inflexible stance against all divorce and remarriage, with no exceptions.

This series of historical posts springs from an earlier post summarizing how conservative Anabaptists today handle Jesus’ exception clauses.

Introductions aside, let’s resume our historical survey. I have found less evidence for the years 1600 through the 1860s than for the 1500s—probably in part because churches in these centuries sometimes relied on existing documents rather than producing new ones and also partly because historians have tended to focus on the first generations of Anabaptists. But the evidence I’ve found reveals the general pattern of belief quite clearly: Anabaptists in these centuries did not contradict the interpretation of the earliest Anabaptists. Rather, they repeatedly affirmed that Jesus’ exception clauses allow a believer to divorce a spouse who has committed adultery.

About the year 1600 a “Confession of Faith, According to the Holy Word of God” was written, which was later included by Thieleman J. van Braght in his 1660 compilation Bloody Theatre or Martyrs Mirror. The original authors may have been “two Old Frisian preachers, Sijwaert Pietersz and Peter J. Twisck,” but it “is primarily composed of sentences borrowed from the works of Menno Simons.”1 Its inclusion in the Martyrs Mirror has made it influential. Article XXV of this confession, “Of Marriage,” includes the following excerpt:

Christ as a perfect Lawgiver, rejected and abolished the writing of divorcement and permission of Moses, together with all abuses thereof, referring all that heard and believed Him to the original ordinance of His heavenly Father, instituted with Adam and Eve in Paradise; and thus re-establishing marriage between one man and one woman, and so irreparably and firmly binding the bond of matrimony, that they might not, on any account, separate and marry another, except in the case of adultery or death.2

The title page of my maternal grandfather Edwin Gingrich’s copy of the Martyr’s Mirror. Few other books have shaped Anabaptist self-identity so powerfully.

In 1618 the Dutch Mennonite Hans de Ries, who helped author a couple Waterlanderer confessions I quoted in my last post, wrote another short confession. This one was designed to forge unity with a non-Anabaptist group of Christians who had arrived in Amsterdam after being persecuted as Independents in England. This confession’s brief article on marriage opens with these lines:

We hold marriage to be an ordinance of God, instituted in such manner that every husband shall have his own wife and every wife her own husband. These may not be separated except for reasons of adultery.3

About 1625, Pieter Pietersz of the Waterlander branch of the Dutch Mennonites wrote The Way to the City of Peace, a treatise or allegory written in conversation form which became a sort of statement of faith for the Waterlanderers. In one passage Pietersz rebukes those who taught “that a wife must leave her husband if he has fallen into sin”:

Here they ban innocent women who have not overstepped the law of the Lord, God having commanded that they should not leave their husband, except for adultery, Matt. 19:9; 5:32.4

In 1627 in Amsterdam a confession called “Scriptural Instruction” was drawn up and sent as an “olive branch” to congregations in over half a dozen nearby provinces. This confession was designed to imitate and join the example of Hans de Ries, “who had given much thought and effort to reuniting the discordant and divided body of the Mennonite church in Holland.”5 Evidently the four preachers who drafted this confession thought the following statement on marriage could be affirmed by all Dutch Mennonites:

The marriage of the Children of God… must be… kept inviolate, so that each man shall have his own, only wife, and each wife her own husband; and nothing shall separate them, save adultery. Lev. 18; 20; 1 Cor. 5:1; Matt. 19; Rom. 7:2; 1 Cor. 7:2; Matt. 5:32; 1 Cor. 9:5.6

The Dordrecht Confession of Faith (1632) is the most famous and influential of the old Anabaptist confessions. It includes Article XII, “Of the State of Matrimony.” This article does not mention divorce or remarriage, saying only that “the Lord Christ did away and set aside all the abuses of marriage which had meanwhile crept in.” 7 This language (“abuses,” etc.) mirrors the confession from c. 1600 printed in the Martyrs Mirror (which in turn mirrors earlier Anabaptist writings on the topic) and thus should not be misunderstood as a claim that Christ forbade all divorce.8

The Dordrecht Confession of Faith was included in the Martyrs Mirror (1660). Theileman J. van Braght, the compiler of that volume, shows by his editorial comments that he, too, affirms the historic Anabaptist understanding of Jesus’ exception clause. After describing the martyr John Schut’s belief that a marriage “may not be dissolved, save on account of adultery,” van Braght comments that Schut was “following herein the teaching of Christ. Matt. 19.”9 His inclusion of the c. 1600 confession cited above is additional evidence of his beliefs.

In 1702 Gerhard Roosen, a minister in Hamburg, Germany, produced the first comprehensive Anabaptist catechism in the German language, called Christian Spiritual Conversation on Saving Faith. This became “one of the most popular catechisms among the Mennonites of Europe and America,” with at least twenty-two editions published by 1950.10 The article “On Matrimony” discusses Malachi 2:14-15, Matthew 19:4-9, and 1 Corinthians 7:39 in support of the following conclusion:

Concerning the state of matrimony, Christ made amends for the abuses and decline which had crept into it… Christ also again brought the first state of matrimony to its primitive order…  From this [Matt. 19:4-9] it is clearly to be seen, that Christ teaches all christians [sic], that a man (except in case of fornication [Hureren; “whoring”11],) is bound to his wife by the band of matrimony, as long as she lives, and that the wife is also bound to her husband by the same tie as long as he lives.12

Roosen’s book also includes a document called “Brief Instruction: From Holy Scripture, in Questions and Answers, for the Young.” This is actually a reprint of the very first German Anabaptist catechism, which appeared in Danzig, Prussia, in 1690.13 This brief catechism became widely known in English as “The Shorter Catechism.” There the following is found:

Quest. 27. Can also a lawful marriage, for any cause, be divorced [getrennet; “separated”]? Ans. No. For 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”].” Matt. 19, 9.14

Also in 1702, the Swiss Brethren published an adapted version of the Dordrecht Confession of Faith in their compilation Golden Apples in Silver Bowls. For this book they added the underlined clause below to the article on marriage:

The Lord Christ, too, renounced and swept away all the abuses within marriage which meanwhile had crept in, such as separation, divorce, and entering into another marriage while the original spouse is still living. He referred everything back to the original precept and left it at that (Mt. 19:4-6).15

Does this represent a new, firmer line, rejecting divorce and remarriage even in cases of adultery? It is hard to know. On the one hand, the additional clause certainly strengthens this confession’s stance against the “abuses” of marriage by listing them explicitly. In particular, the rejection of “entering into another marriage while the original spouse is still living” a very clear warning. It is noteworthy that, when these Swiss Brethren chose to add to the original confession, they chose to strengthen the warnings against abuses rather than add a reference to Jesus’ exception clause.

On the other hand, previous confessions had already spoken explicitly against separation and divorce, so such language is not new. Warnings against wrongful remarriage were also previously given, including in the earliest Swiss document on divorce.16 The mere inclusion of these additional comments, then, does not prove the Swiss Brethren had abandoned their understanding of Jesus’ exception clause. After all, the original Dordrecht Confession likewise fails to mention Jesus’ exception clause, yet the historical context of its Dutch Mennonite authors makes it virtually certain that they nevertheless recognized an exception for adultery. For us to confidently state that this adapted confession represents a change in Swiss Brethren thinking, a clear alternative explanation of Jesus’ exception clause would need to be present.

In short, the most we can say for sure is that the Swiss Brethren felt a need to specify what sort of abuses Christ renounced, rather than feeling a need to mention Jesus’ exception clause. Several possibilities could explain this choice, including (a) that they were growing less confident in their historic interpretation of the exception clause or (b) that their historic consensus affirmation of the exception clause was still strong enough that they felt no need to mention it. In support of option (b) is the fact that Roosen’s catechism book (see above) and the Elbing catechism (see below), which both clearly permit divorce in cases of adultery, became very popular from the later eighteenth century on among the Swiss Brethren and their descendants in American (the “Mennonite Church” or “Old Mennonite Church”).17 Given the lack of any similar supporting evidence for option (a), I think option (b) is the better reading of the Swiss Brethren adaptation of the Dordrecht Confession.18

In 1766 a Dutch Mennonite preacher named Cornelis Ris compiled several previous confessions into his own in an attempt to unify the congregations of his time on the “old foundation of the recognized confessions.” His confession, “like the Dordrecht Confession, had only temporary significance in the Netherlands, but attained a true and wide significance outside its home” and was published by the General Conference Mennonite Church as recently as 1906 as its recognized confession.19 The 1904 English printing contains the following excerpt:

The will of God concerning this state is clearly expressed, viz., that only two persons free from all others and not of too close blood relationship may enter into it, to be united and bound together without any reserve even unto death. Matthew 19:5; Ephesians 5:28. The separation of such is moreover, altogether prohibited except for the cause of fornication. Matthew 5:31, 32; 19:7-10; 1 Corinthians 7:10, 11.20

In 1778 a catechism was published at Elbing, Prussia. It is hard to overstate how popular this catechism became among diverse groups of Anabaptists in both Europe and North America, continuing to be used even as recently as the mid-twentieth century.21 It was first translated into English in 1848 and the General Conference authorized a revision of the English translation in 1896. The 1904 printing of this document includes the following question and answer:

May married persons be divorced? No: they shall not be divorced, save for the cause of fornication [Ehebruch; “adultery”]. – Matt. 19:3-9, Matt. 5:22.22

I have not been able to find any early North American Mennonite writings that discuss Jesus’ exception clauses. There is good reason, however, not to read this silence as a rejection of the historic Anabaptist position.  

In 1804 a small book was published in Pennsylvania by a bishop named Christian Burkholder. An enlarged reprint published later that year carried the signatures of twenty-seven ministers of the Lancaster Mennonite Conference and “was probably adopted as an official church edition.”23 The book went through at least eight German and five English editions during the nineteenth century. It was first translated into English in 1857, with title “Useful and Edifying Address to the Youth,” when it was included as Part IV in Roosen’s Christian Spiritual Conversation on Saving Faith.

This book includes a brief discussion of marriage. There is no mention of Jesus’ exception clause, but near the end of the discussion we read this: “Further I would recommend you to consider the 12th article in our small Confession of Faith, and the 25th in the large one.” The references are almost certainly to the Dordrecht Confession of Faith (“small”) and the confession from c. 1600 (“large”; see above).24 The Dordrecht Confession was “the first Mennonite book printed in America” (in 1727),25 and both of these confessions were included in the Martyrs Mirror, which was translated into German and published in the Ephrata Colony in 1748.

What is important for our discussion here is that Burkholder’s book demonstrates that American Mennonites in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century were directing their members to the large confession of c. 1600, which states that a husband and wife may “not, on any account, separate and marry another, except in the case of adultery or death.”

Even apart from this explicit comment in Burkholder’s book, we know from publication data that from early colonial times up through the nineteenth century and beyond North American Mennonites were actively publishing, translating, and using multiple European Mennonite documents that taught the historic Anabaptist interpretation of Jesus’ exception clauses. For example, here are some North American republication dates for some relevant documents:26

  • Menno Simon’s Foundation of Christian Doctrine: In German: 1794, 1835, 1849, 1851, 1853, and 1876. In English: 1835, 1863, 1869.
  • Martyrs Mirror: In German: 1748, 1814; 1848-49; 1849; 1870; 1915. In English: 1748-49; 1837; 1886; 1938.
  • Roosen’s catechism, Christian Spiritual Conversation on Saving Faith: In German: 11 editions (1769-1950). In English: 5 editions (1857-1950).
  • Elbing catechism: In German: 1824, etc. In English: 1848, etc.
  • Confession of Cornelis Ris: In German, 1904, 1906. In English: 1850, 1895, 1902, 1904.

It is also true, of course, that Mennonite immigrants brought European copies of these documents to American and used them there long before they republished them. The fact that they republished them shows that these documents, and the teachings they contained, were important to early Mennonite generations in North America.

Our chronological journey takes us next to 1853 in South Russia, where the Church in Rudnerweide in Odessa published a “Confession or Short and Simple Statement of Faith of Those Who are Called the United Flemish, Frisian, and High German Anabaptist-Mennonite Church.” This confession quotes emphasizes the strength of the marriage covenant or “bond of matrimony”:

In matrimony man and wife are so bound together and mutually obligated that for no reason and for no cause whatever may they be parted from each other, except for fornication and adultery, even as we read concerning this in the evangelist Matthew, where the Pharisees and Sadducees came to Christ, tempted Him and said, “Is it right that a man should be divorced from His wife for any cause?” …He said to them, “…Whoever divorces his wife, except for causes of fornication, and marries another, he breaks the marriage bond and he who marries a person who has been divorced also breaks the marriage bond.” From this it may be clearly seen and understood that the bond of matrimony is a firm indissoluble bond which may not be broken nor may the parties be divorced from each other except for cause of fornication, even as the Lord Christ said.27

The previous confession raises the question of what Bible translations were used by early Anabaptists. Where our English versions quote Jesus as saying that the one who wrongfully divorces and remarries “commits adultery,” this confession says “breaks the marriage bond.” This phrase probably means “violates the marriage covenant,”28 which accurately expresses the central idea of what it means to “commit adultery.” This wording almost certainly is borrowed from Luther’s translation.29 I will return to this question of Bible translations later.

1864 marked the beginning of a new era for the Mennonite Church in North America.30 In January of that year, John F. Funk published the first issue of a new periodical that would track and shape the thinking of Mennonites for nearly half a century: the Herald of Truth. Funk was not the first Mennonite publisher in America,31 but his publishing efforts were so prolific and his influence so large that he has been called “more than any one leader the founder of the publication and mission work of the Mennonite Church” and “the most important figure in the life of the Mennonite Church in the nineteenth century.”32 Funk’s paper would document and enable many important conversations among Mennonites, including debates about divorce and remarriage.

The first clear evidence that I have found of Mennonites who disagreed with the historic Anabaptist interpretation of Jesus’ exception clause comes from an 1867 issue of Herald of Truth.33 I plan to begin my next historical survey post with that story.

I’ll end this post, however, with the earliest reference to divorce that I found in this periodical, from February, 1865:

I cannot find anywhere in the Scriptures that husband and wife are permitted to separate from [scheiden; “divorce”] each other, except in case of fornication [Hurerei; “whoring”]; and even then they are at liberty to do as they choose, to separate [scheiden; “divorce”], or not…34

The way that this author expresses his interpretation of Jesus’ exception clause is telling. His offhand manner suggests that he was confident his interpretation was shared by many of his readers; if a spouse was sexually promiscuous, their husband or wife was permitted to divorce.35

How should we summarize the evidence from 1600 to the 1860s? Did Anabaptists in these centuries continue to understand Jesus’ exception clauses as their forebears did?

In support of a Yes answer are the following facts:

  1. I have not found any Anabaptist writing from this period that explicitly contradicts the early Anabaptist interpretation of Jesus’ exception clauses. Some speak against divorce without mentioning Jesus’ exception clause at all, but none offers an alternative interpretation of Jesus’ words.
  2. Anabaptist writings from the 1500s that affirmed both divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery or fornication continued to be republished without revision and used widely during this period.
  3. Multiple new writings from this period (at least ten quoted above) explicitly mention an exception for divorce in cases of adultery or fornication, including several catechisms which gained wide usage.

Three facts should be considered in support of a No answer, however:

  1. The latest document quoted above that explicitly affirms that remarriage is permitted in cases of adultery is the oldest one quoted in this post—the confession from c. 1600 that was included in the Martyrs Mirror. Probably many (all?) of the authors of these documents assumed that remarriage was permitted alongside divorce.36 But, except for the c. 1600 confession, the documents above explicitly mention only divorce when citing Jesus’ exception clause.
  2. The confession that was most widely used during this period, the Dordrecht Confession, makes no mention of Jesus’ exception clause, and thus did not reinforce the historic Anabaptist interpretation of his words for the generations of Anabaptists who used it.
  3. As I mentioned above, there is explicit evidence that in the 1860s some members of the Mennonite Church thought remarriage was wrong in cases of adultery and, further, that they affirmed separation but not actual divorce. Such views may have begun decades or more before Funk’s paper preserved them for our discovery.

Despite these important qualifications, the following reality remains highly significant:

From what I can discover, no extant Anabaptist writings from 1600 until the 1860s deny that Jesus’ exception clause permits both divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery. All documents either affirm this historic Anabaptist interpretation as part of what is “clearly to be seen” or do not address the question at all.37

This is very striking because, within fifty years, it would be commonplace for North American Mennonite writings to deny that Jesus’ exception clause permits either remarriage or divorce.

It often takes time for theological beliefs to change, and changes in official church positions take even longer. I hope to explore the contours and possible causes of these changes in a future post.

But first, I’d like to consider how early Anabaptists went about the task of interpreting Jesus’ exception clauses. Where did they begin? How did they synthesize these clauses with other biblical texts? Did they do this well? Did they make mistakes? Do they have things to teach us? I welcome your prayers as I ponder these questions.


What strikes you most about the evidence from the period 1600 through the 1860s? How should we assess both the continuity of belief and the subtle hints of change? Are you aware of historical evidence or dynamics that I should add to my evaluation? I welcome your comments below—and thanks for reading!


If you want to support more writing like this, please leave a gift:

  1. “The Confession of Faith (P.J. Twisck, 1617),” Global Anabaptist Wiki, “initiated by the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College,” last modified March 24, 2016. https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=The_Confession_of_Faith_(P.J._Twisck,_1617)
  2. “Confession of Faith, According to the Holy Word of God,” The Bloody Theater of Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians, ed. Theileman J. van Braght, trans. Joseph. F. Sohm (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1951), 401. Emphasis added. Available online: https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=The_Confession_of_Faith_(P.J._Twisck,_1617)
  3. Hans de Ries, “Short Confession of Faith and the Essential Elements of Christian Doctrine,” 1618; “A Short Confession of Faith by Hans de Ries (1618),” trans. Cornelius J. Dyck, Global Anabaptist Wiki, “initiated by the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College,” last modified March 24, 2016. https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=A_Short_Confession_of_Faith_by_Hans_de_Ries_(1618). Emphasis added. From Cornelius J. Dyck, “A Short Confession of Faith by Hans de Ries,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 38 (January 1964): 5-19.
  4. Pieter Pietersz, The Way to the City of Peace, Spiritual Life in Anabaptism, trans. and ed. by Cornelius J. Dyck (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1995), 267. Emphasis added.
  5. Christian Neff and Nanne van der Zijpp, “Olive Branch Confession (1627),” Global Anabaptist Wiki, “initiated by the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College,” last modified March 24, 2016. https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Olive_Branch_Confession_(1627)
  6. “Scriptural Instruction,” The Bloody Theater of Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians, ed. Theileman J. van Braght, trans. Joseph. F. Sohm (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1951), 32; also 27. Emphasis added. Available online: https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Olive_Branch_Confession_(1627)
  7. Here is the entire Article XII: “We confess that there is in the church of God an honorable state of matrimony, of two free, believing persons, in accordance with the manner after which God originally ordained the same in Paradise, and instituted it Himself with Adam and Eve, and that the Lord Christ did away and set aside all the abuses of marriage which had meanwhile crept in, and referred all to the original order, and thus left it. Genesis 1:27; Mark 10:4. In this manner the Apostle Paul also taught and permitted matrimony in the church, and left it free for every one to be married, according to the original order, in the Lord, to whomsoever one may get to consent. By these words, in the Lord, there is to be understood, we think, that even as the patriarchs had to marry among their kindred or generation, so the believers of the New Testament have likewise no other liberty than to marry among the chosen generation and spiritual kindred of Christ, namely, such, and no others, who have previously become united with the church as one heart and soul, have received one baptism, and stand in one communion, faith, doctrine and practice, before they may unite with one another by marriage. Such are then joined by God in His church according to the original order; and this is called, marrying in the Lord. 2 Corinthians 7:2; 1 Corinthians 9:5; Genesis 24:4; Genesis 28:2; 1 Corinthians 7:39.” “Dordrecht Confession of Faith (Mennonite, 1632),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1632. Accessed June 17, 2020.  https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Dordrecht_Confession_of_Faith_(Mennonite,_1632)#XII._Of_the_State_of_Matrimony
  8. Over two-thirds of this brief article focuses on a primary concern of early Anabaptists, that an “honorable state of matrimony” consists of “two free, believing persons” (emphasis added) and that Christians must marry only “in the Lord.” Another confession from 1630 that is included in Martyrs Mirror likewise devotes over half of the space of its marriage article to the importance of marrying only a believer, without any mention of divorce. In addition, it contains another lengthy portion (about three times the length of its marriage article) that discusses church discipline in cases when a believer marries an unbeliever (“Confession of Faith,” The Bloody Theater of Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians, ed. Theileman J. van Braght, trans. Joseph. F. Sohm (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1951), 36-37). The 1627 confession cited above also devotes nearly its marriage article to marrying “only in the Lord.” Such evidence illustrates how, for early Anabaptists, marriage between a believer and an unbeliever was a much more urgent point of debate and concern than the topic of divorce after adultery.
  9. “John Schut, A.D. 1651,” The Bloody Theater of Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians, ed. Theileman J. van Braght, trans. Joseph. F. Sohm (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1951), 654.
  10. Robert Friedmann, “Christliches Gemütsgespräch (Monograph),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. July 12, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Christliches_Gem%C3%BCtsgespr%C3%A4ch_(Monograph)&oldid=155562
  11. The English translations of some of these documents appear to be rather loose. I will add alternative translations in brackets for some key words, also providing the original German word. (I used this online dictionary to help me understand the German terms and also ran phrases through Google Translate.) In this case, I am not certain of the part of speech of Hureren, but the family of words clearly refers to “whoring,” not premarital sex. The German original for this passage can be found on page 124 of this scanned book: https://www.google.com/books/edition/_/397qR_AMjOQC?hl=en&gbpv=1
  12. Gerhard Roosen, Christian Spiritual Conversation on Saving Faith, for the Young, in Questions and Answers, and a Confession of Faith of the Mennonites (Lancaster, PA: John Baer and Sons, 1857), 108-109. Emphasis added. Available online: https://archive.org/details/christianspiritu01menn/page/108/mode/2up
  13. Christian Neff and Harold S. Bender, “Catechism,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. July, 2 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Catechism&oldid=162939
  14. Roosen, ibid., 147. Emphasis added. Bontrager says that “a rigid view” of divorce and remarriage “was taken from 1690 to 1800” (G. Edwin Bontrager, Divorce and the Faithful Church (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1978), 104). He gives no evidence or additional comment for this assertion, but it seems likely that his starting date is an allusion to this “Shorter Catechism.” Does this catechism present a “rigid view”? The English translation could suggest so; after all, the question is about whether “divorce” is permitted, the answer is “no,” and the follow-up statement only offers permission to “separate.” However, the original German question asks about whether a marriage can wiederum getrennet werden, and the answer uses the word scheiden. While both terms can mean “separate,” it appears that the former term is a more general reference to separation (or “splitting up”), while the latter term is more often explicitly a reference to divorce. Further, the word translated “fornication” above is Ehebruch, which is more accurately translated “adultery” (or, in a translation that reflects etymology, “marriage-breaking”).  In summary, it appears to me that a more careful translation of the original German would read like this: “Can also a lawful marriage, for all sorts of reasons, be separated? Ans. No. For the persons united by such marriage are so closely bound to each other, that they can in no wise divorce, except in case of adultery.” This reading hardly indicates a more “rigid view” than that of the early Anabaptists. (Note: I found the original German catechism question here: https://www.google.com/books/edition/_/397qR_AMjOQC?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=eine%20ordentliche.
  15. “Christian Confession of Faith Of the Peace-Loving And Distinguished Christians Who are called Mennonites,” trans. Elizabeth Bender and Leonard Gross, Golden Apples in Silver Bowls, ed. Gross (Lancaster, Pa.: Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, 1999), 252.
  16. “And he who separates or permits to separate except for the one cause of fornication, and changes {companions}, commits adultery. And he who marries the one divorced causeth her to commit adultery… We declare that when a man or woman separates except for fornication (that is, adultery), and takes another wife or husband, we consider this as adultery and the participants as not members of the body of Christ, yea, he who marries the separated one we consider a fornicator” (“Concerning Divorce,” c. 1525-1533). This document explicitly mentions all three abuses listed in the 1702 expanded confession: separation, divorce, and marrying another.
  17. Christian Neff and Harold S. Bender, “Catechism,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. July 10, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Catechism&oldid=162939
  18. In a recent article, Andrew V. Ste. Marie cites this adapted confession as evidence that a firm stance against all divorce and remarriage (no exceptions) was not a new idea in the time of Daniel Kauffman: “Among the Mennonites whose origins could be traced to the Swiss Brethren Anabaptist tradition, the roots of the diversity in the discussion on divorce and remarriage go all the way back to the sixteenth century. A tract from the first generation of Swiss Brethren titled On Divorce argues that adultery is grounds for divorce and the innocent party may remarry. The Swiss Anabaptist Short Simple Confession from 1572 argues for the same position. However, even in Europe, there is evidence of another view. The modified version of the Dordrecht Confession printed in the Swiss Brethren devotional book Golden Apples in Silver Bowls in 1702 teaches… {The same quote I provided above.} Jacob Stauffer, founder of the “Stauffer” or Pike Mennonites, also expressed a stricter view, writing c. 1850 that ‘the covenant of marriage cannot and dare not be broken to marry another except through natural death.’ Thus, the roots of the multiple views on divorce and remarriage go all the way back to Europe in the Swiss Brethren experience.” (“Research Note: Nineteenth-Century Mennonites Deal With Divorce and Remarriage,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 94 (April 2020), 249.) It seems to me that Ste. Marie overstates his evidence here in two ways. First, he does not consider other possible ways to understand the Swiss Brethren additions to the Dordrecht Confession, as I have done above. (In fact, he is somewhat misleading in failing to clarify that most of quotation he provides was actually part of the original document.) Second, even if this adapted confession should be understood to outlaw all divorce and remarriage, with no exceptions, this still provides evidence of “diversity in the discussion on divorce and remarriage” only as early as the eighteenth century, not “the sixteenth century.” Despite my disagreements on these points, I found much of the rest of Ste. Marie’s article helpful and am grateful he mentioned it to me.
  19. “Mennonite Articles of Faith by Cornelis Ris (1766),” Global Anabaptist Wiki, “initiated by the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College,” last modified March 24, 2016. https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Mennonite_Articles_of_Faith_by_Cornelis_Ris_(1766)
  20. Cornelis Ris, Mennonite Articles of Faith as Set Forth in Public Confession of the Church: a Translation (Berne, IN: Mennonite Book Concern, 1904). Emphasis added. Available online: https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Mennonite_Articles_of_Faith_by_Cornelis_Ris_(1766)#XXXI._Of_Marriage
  21. “This catechism… became not only the catechism of the Amish in America, but also of the Mennonite Church (MC), the General Conference Mennonite Church, the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren (now Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches), and the Kleine Gemeinde (now called Evangelical Mennonites). It is nothing short of astounding to discover that the Elbing-Waldeck catechism became the standard source of doctrinal, prebaptismal instruction for such widespread groups as the American groups just listed, the Mennonites of Russia (except the Mennonite Brethren group 1860ff.), those of West Prussia, and those of France; further that it is still in widespread use in North America wherever catechisms are used, in both English and German; and finally, that no other catechism, except the much larger and somewhat different Gemüthsgespräch — and that only among the Mennonite Church (MC) of Eastern Pennsylvania — has ever successfully competed with it in any language in these countries” (Christian Neff and Harold S. Bender, “Catechism,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Accessed June 17, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Catechism&oldid=162939).
  22. The Catechism or Simple Instruction From the Sacred Scriptures, as Taught by the Mennonite Church (Berne, IN: Mennonite Book Concern, 1904). Emphasis added. Available online with an introduction: https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Elbing_Catechism_(Mennonite,_1778). German version available here: https://archive.org/details/katechismusoderk00elbi_7/page/48/mode/2up
  23. Ira D. Landis, and Robert Friedmann, “Burkholder, Christian (1746-1809),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. July 12, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Burkholder,_Christian_(1746-1809)&oldid=143506
  24. I did not find any other confession that has a 25th article on marriage, and the only other one I found having a 12th article on marriage is the Strasbourg Discipline from 1568 (https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Strasbourg_Discipline_(South_German_Anabaptist,_1568)), a document with far less historical importance.
  25. John A. Hostetler, God Uses Ink: The Heritage and Mission of the Mennonite Publishing House After Fifty Years (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1958), 9.
  26. I have made no attempt to be exhaustive. Documentation for these dates can be found on GAMEO.com or in God Uses Ink (Hostetler, ibid.).
  27. “Confession, or Short and Simple Statement of Faith (Rudnerweide, Russia, 1853),” trans. Peter J. Klassen, Global Anabaptist Wiki, “initiated by the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College,” last modified March 24, 2016. https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Confession,_or_Short_and_Simple_Statement_of_Faith_(Rudnerweide,_Russia,_1853). Emphasis added. Quotation marks and spelling of “Sadducees” corrected for clarity. This confession was adopted by a congregation in Oregon in 1878 and also reprinted a couple times in the late 1800s in Elkhard, Indiana–once for use by a church in Turner County, South Dakota and once by an elder of the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren.
  28. It may be incorrect to interpret the phrase as “ends the marriage” although violating the marriage covenant certainly puts the marriage itself in question.
  29. It is probable that the other confessions I have quoted in my historical survey likewise used Bible versions shaped by Luther’s translation. It is common for English translators of historical documents to simply use a common English translation such as the KJV whenever Bible quotations occur, rather than directly translating from the historical document. This can make it difficult to trace how the authors of historical documents were influenced by the translations they used. In this case of this confession, it appears Klassen translated biblical quotations directly from the German text of the confession, rather than substituting any existing English translation.
  30. For an historical overview of this largest of the American Mennonite groups, see: Harold S. Bender and Beulah Stauffer Hostetler, “Mennonite Church (MC),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. January 2013. Web. July 13, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Mennonite_Church_(MC)&oldid=167350
  31. Henry Funk in Pennsylvania (d. 1760), Joseph Funk in Virginia (1778-1862), and Benjamin Eby in Ontario (1785-1853) were important predecessors—two of them being relatives! None of these, to my limited knowledge, published anything on divorce that I have not mentioned in this post.
  32. Cornelius J. Dyck, An Introduction to Mennonite History, 2nd ed. (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981), 220, 217.
  33. Andrew V. Ste. Marie writes that “Jacob Stauffer, founder of the “Stauffer” or Pike Mennonites, also expressed a stricter view, writing c. 1850 that ‘the covenant of marriage cannot and dare not be broken to marry another except through natural death’” (Ste. Marie, Ibid., 249, quoting from A Chronicle or History Booklet About the So-Called Mennonite Church, trans. Amos Hoover (Lancaster, PA: Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, 1992), 186). Ste. Marie may be correct that Jacob Stauffer did not understand Jesus’ exception clause to provide any permission for divorce or remarriage; I have not been able to check the context of this quote to get a clearer sense of what Stauffer may have meant. At any rate, Stauffer’s statement is less than twenty years older than the 1867 Herald of Truth article, so the historical picture is similar either way.
  34. “Answer to ‘A Brother’s Question,’” Herald of Truth, Vol. 2, No. 2, 11, https://archive.org/details/heraldoftruth02unse/page/n6/mode/1up  This sentence occurs in the context of the writer arguing against a husband and wife shunning each other in cases of church discipline.
  35. In coming decades Mennonites would increasingly draw a distinction between divorce and mere separation, but I don’t think such a distinction is intended here. In this sentence the word translated “separate” (twice) appears in the German (in Der Herold der Wahrheit, the German twin publication to Herald of Truth; see here) as scheiden, which is a word that is regularly used to refer to divorce, not merely informal separation. (See footnote to “Shorter Catechism” above for more discussion of this word.) In place of the word “fornication,” the German text has Hurerei; “whoring,” thus referring not to premarital sex but to sexual promiscuity.
  36. Some arguably imply as much, given the way they cite or quote Jesus’ exception clauses and given the prior Anabaptist interpretation of those clauses. For example, Roosen’s 1702 catechism quotes Jesus’ words about both divorce and remarriage (Matt. 19:9) immediately before offering the following commentary: “From this it is clearly to be seen, that Christ teaches all christians, that a man (except in case of fornication,) is bound to his wife by the band of matrimony, as long as she lives…” This suggests that “bound to his wife” means “not free to divorce and remarry,” which suggests that “in case of fornication” a man would be free to do both.
  37. Of course, it is possible I have missed important evidence, for (a) I am not formally trained in Anabaptist historical study, (b) I do not have physical access to any Mennonite archives, and (c) I do not read German. If I have missed evidence, I am eager to update my post and adjust my conclusions as needed. That said, I have seen nothing in primary or secondary literature to suggest that my conclusions here are inaccurate. It appears to me that, even if contradictory evidence were found, it would only offer an exception to the rule, which would still stand.

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