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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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