While Mennonite economic activity varies widely over time and space, there are some common economic patterns, many of which follow from the centrality of love, brotherhood, nonresistance, nonconformity, biblicism, and discipleship. To narrow the focus, this article concentrates on the economics of the North American Mennonite Church (MC) and General Conference Mennonites (GCM) during the first half of the 20th century, yet makes reference to other regions and times. Emphasis is on attitudes toward private property, mutual aid, poverty, the "call" to a secular vocation, work, saving money, wealth, and achievement, as well as Mennonite economic characteristics: relative average income, poverty rates and income inequality, and representation in key economic sectors. One case, perhaps an aberration, shows Mennonite class conflict.
The birth of Anabaptism in the early 16th century coincided with the breakup of feudalism and rise of capitalism. But the nonresistant Anabaptists did not oppose capitalism. Even the Hutterite community, which held goods in common within a covenant community, never intended that their economic system be applied to society as a whole.
The 16th-century Swiss Brethren believed owning private property was not for the selfish interest of the possessor but a sacred trust for the benefit of the church. The early Anabaptists practiced mutual aid, voluntarily sharing goods with needy members of the community because the New Testament exhorted believers to bear the burdens of others (Galatians 6:2,5). However, by the early 17th century Dutch Mennonites had lost this emphasis, becoming individualistic, bourgeois, and wealthy. Despite a history of mutual aid, and the worldwide Mennonite Central Committee effort in relief, development, and service work for most of the 20th century, Mennonites have not generally regarded aid as the poor's right. The Anabaptist poor were not to expect or demand assistance. In 1526, according to Klassen, the Swiss Brethren rule was that anyone able to work who refused to do so in the hope of drawing from the relief fund, was "put under the ban and regarded as a heathen." Menno Simons stated that Christians ought to comfort the afflicted, assist the needy, clothe the naked, and feed the hungry, but not permit people to beg for a living.
Many North American Mennonites, influenced by the pro-business, individualistic culture around them, disapproved state attempts to redistribute income to the "undeserving poor." Kauffman and Harder found in 1972 that 30 percent of North American Mennonites agreed, 46 percent disagreed, and 25 percent were not certain that "for the most part, people are poor because they lack discipline and don't put forth the effort needed to rise above poverty." Less than a fifth favored increasing and more than half supported reducing welfare benefits. Raid (1947) even contended that Iowa Mennonites looked on a poor farmer as a poor church member. Moreover, relative income discrepancies increased within the North American church during the last half of the 20th century.
Mennonites have exemplified the asceticism in worldly" activity that Max Weber (1864-1920) considered a part of the Protestant ethic shaping the spirit of capitalism. The ascetic Mennonite, for whom "all of life is for Christ," systematically regulates his whole conduct. For Mennonites, the highest expression of this self-control is not in the monastery, as in medieval Roman Catholicism, but in vigorous daily activity in a secular vocation.
The essence of the Mennonite's Christianity is discipleship, which stresses the place of good works (ethics). Mennonites believe the Bible admonishes them to be stewards of time and talent, work hard, and abstain from idleness and conspicuous consumption. Fretz points out: "The [Mennonite] with wealth or the one who longs to attain it has very few ways of displaying it without invoking upon himself the criticism of the entire group." Work and saving, if dedicated to God, are not just for the purpose of earning a living, but are also a sacred act.
Hard work contributed to prosperity, a dilemma for Mennonites who condemn the pride and materialism often associated with wealth, yet who also regard wealth as a sign of God's blessing. Additionally, the stress on stewardship provided a spiritual motive to accumulate wealth and manage it prudently. J. S. Shoemaker wrote that "Christian stewardship is a divinely appointed office, the duties of which are sacred, because it means to be entrusted with the managing of affairs and disbursing of possessions which belong to the Lord." These attitudes restrict extravagance, leading to greater wealth accumulation (and perhaps giving).
Daniel Kauffman, one of the most influential Mennonite Church (MC) leaders during the early 20th century, reflected the influence of Calvinism on Mennonite economic attitudes when he listed the reasons why "righteousness usually means prosperity"; (1) "it is according to the plan of God, and therefore of unerring wisdom"; (2) "God has promised to care for His own, and never fails to keep His promises"; (3) "industry, economy, and the exercise of good common sense are part of the righteousness which God delights to see in His people. This of necessity promotes material prosperity. For these reasons a community of righteous people is usually a prosperous one."
Prussia's Duke Albert in the second quarter of the 16th century, Philipp of Hesse in the middle of that century, Russia's Empress Catherine II in the 18th century, North American communities in the 18th century and 19th century, and many others have tolerated, indeed welcomed, Mennonites, despite their refusal to bear arms, because of their honesty, diligence, and farming skills. Prosperity was often short-lived, however, as ruling officials shifted to persecution, compelling Mennonites to seek refuge in friendlier lands. Yet Mennonites, when tolerated, have usually had average incomes at least as high as the society around them, and in some instances,such as Russia (before 1917) and Holland, substantially above average. Mennonites in the United States, according to J. Howard Kauffman's 1955 sample, had a much higher median family income than Americans in both farming and non-farming occupations but, because of a disproportional representation in low-income agriculture, only a slightly higher median income overall. The Kauffman-Harder study indicates that U.S. Mennonites in 1971 had a median household income of $9,608 compared to $8,583 for the U.S. generally.
While income inequality and poverty rates have been lower among Mennonites than the population generally, Mennonites have experienced class discrepancies and conflict. For example, in the 1780s Catherine II invited Mennonites to immigrate from Prussia to the Ukrainian steppes to establish colonies, giving them substantial local autonomy. In the 19th century, according to Toews, a village or district ruling council governed and administered day-to-day affairs of each of the Mennonite colonies -- Chortitza, Molotschna, and daughter colonies. The village commune held land title within the colonies, making the individual colonist vulnerable to the economic pressures applied by the Mennonite village elites. Although the village assembly and church congregation were separated organizationally, their interests tended to merge. Since the state granted legal privileges to the Mennonites corporately, church discipline or excommunication could ultimately remove the offender from the protection of Russian colonial law. Those controlling the politics, religion, and economics of the colony created new class stratification within the Mennonite community.
By the mid-19th century, land distribution within the Molotschna community was highly unequal. When the large landless Mennonite proletariat united to exert pressure for reform, ministers, elected partly because they were economically self-supporting, joined other capitalists and landowners in opposing these demands. The landless who protested this inequality were disproportionally represented among the Mennonitische Brüdergemeinde (Mennonite Brethren) in 1860 who sought to replace the sterility and stratification of religious life with a brotherhood church. While Mennonite religious and political authorities cooperated to quell this threat, Russian authorities sided with the dissenters, who formed a new church within the Mennonite colony.
Psychological evidence indicates that a high need for (or inner concern with) achievement produces greater business activity, which brings about faster economic growth. But while Mennonites tried for success in occupations compatible with high Christian standards, their beliefs closed many avenues for achieving economic success. The high task orientation of Mennonites in small businesses and Mennonite farmers who "apply their best efforts to that which they are permitted to do," as Raid indicates, is a far cry from the drive of the dynamic, self-reliant business leader who seeks success for its own sake. The Mennonite emphasis on brotherhood and conformity to in-group values and lack of stress on individualism, innovation, and independent thinking contribute to a low need for achievement, a partial determinant of low Mennonite representation in the industrial corporate sector.
In the early 20th century, U.S. Mennonites pursued their secular occupations vigorously, but primarily within the rural Mennonite community (e.g., in farming and small business), because the Mennonite absolutist ethic was not compatible with the moral ambiguities of the large corporate sector. As the complexity of economic institutions increases, it is more difficult to unite individuals cohesively. Coercion is usually necessary to achieve social cooperation where secondary relations prevail, as within and between large institutions. The Mennonite view on love cannot cope with ethical dilemmas in the largest U.S. industrial corporations, which virtually correspond to the list of the top military contractors. Moreover, despite Horatio Alger stories of upward mobility to success in business, the parents of the U.S. corporate elite tend to have a high socioeconomic status, making it difficult for outsiders like Mennonites to enter. In the U.S., perfectionist Mennonitism has contradictory effects on economic development: encouraging ascetic economic activity, but hindering it in key industrial sectors.
Fretz, J. Winfield. "Mennonite Mutual Aid: a Contribution to the Development of Christian Community." PhD Thesis, U. of Chicago, 1941.
Kauffman, Daniel. "Stewardship.'' Gospel Herald (12 May 1927): 738.
Kauffman, J. Howard. "A Comparative Study of Traditional and Emergent Family Types Among Midwest Mennonites." PhD thesis, U. of Chicago, 1960.
Kauffman, J. Howard and Leland Harder. Anabaptists Four Centuries Later: a Profile of Five Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Denominations. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1975.
Klassen, Peter J. The Economics of Anabaptism 1525-1560. London: Mouton, 1964.
Nafziger, E. Wayne. "The Mennonite Ethic in the Weberian Framework, Explorations in Entrepreneurial History/Second Series, 2 (Spring/Summer, 1965): 187-204, reprinted in Entrepreneurship, Equity, and Economic Development. Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press, 1986.
Raid, Howard D. "Farm Succession Among the Mennonites of Zion Church, Donnellson , Iowa." MA thesis, Iowa State U., 1947.
Shoemaker, J. S. "Christian Stewardship." Gospel Herald (6 April 1922): 29-30.
Toews, John B. Czars, Soviets, and Mennonites. Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1982.
Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 255-256. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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