Marriage of Mennonites with non-Mennonites was formerly more or less strictly forbidden. In the early period of Anabaptist history there was no thought of such marriage. That was the time of gathering the brotherhood and fortifying it against the pressure and persecution from the outside. The sacredness of marriage was a religious and moral obligation that was taken for granted. With righteous indignation they repudiated the charge of community of wives, which was raised again and again. Their high moral sense in the matter of marriage was obvious in the confessions of the early martyrs.
Not until the brotherhood was well established was there any proscription of mixed marriage. In Menno Simons there was no mention of it. But Dirk Philips speaks of it. Before him Adam Pastor had already concluded from the words of 1 Corinthians 7:39, "only in the Lord," that matrimony should be concluded only with members of the brotherhood. The Brüderliche Vereinigung of Schleitheim stated that one should take in marriage only a member of the "believing people."
Dirk Philips went still further. In his booklet Concerning the Marriage of Christians (Van die Echt der Christenen) he said, "This we indeed confess, that marriage consists first of all in this, that the hearts of both persons are thus inclined, but that they do not marry unless it is pleasing to the Lord and to the brotherhood." By this measure an attempt was made to keep the church pure. By exercising an influence on the choice of a marriage partner the brotherhood could prevent the marriage of a brother or sister with someone in another branch. Not only was marriage with a member of another creed forbidden, but marriage with a member of another Mennonite wing as well.
Dirk Philips was the exponent of the strictest party. "Deuteronomy 7:3 clearly shows how great a sin and danger to souls there is in a union between a believer and a heathen or unbeliever; for here through Moses God Himself says quite expressly that the unbelievers, the heathen daughters, will mislead the believers who have once known and accepted the truth and are inscribed in the number of the saints, so that they will be turned away from the living God to idols. A believer dare not accept any marriage other than the first one, which God instituted in Eden and was later renewed and confirmed, that is, with one man and one woman, two believers, whom God Himself joins. This is a true marriage, and from this each one who fears God can understand how unreasonable, how wrong, yea, how utterly ungodly it is to dare to act contrary to the pure, good, and holy command of the Lord . . . ." This strict concept of marriage was shared by the Mennonites in South Germany and especially of Alsace-Lorraine. The Abred (Agreement) of Strasbourg of 1568 said expressly that those who believed in the Lord shall not marry an unbeliever (Müller, 51; Gem.-Kal. 1906, 136). The Ordnungsbrief (conference decisions) for the Alsatian congregations, agreed upon at Steinselz on 28 April 1752, said in point two, "When a brother or a sister unites himself with or marries a worldly person, but with sorrow and penitence desires to be received, the request shall not be denied, but with the stipulation and on the condition that he bring with him his wife whom he has married contrary to God and His Word; if this could not happen, he must leave her, but provide for her physical needs and separate himself for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and earnestly beseech God that she may be converted and recognize the truth."
Article 8 of the Essingen Ordnungsbrief, of 22 November 1779 says that "marriage shall take place with the foreknowledge and consent of the preachers and elders and when feasible of the parents, in the Lord and not with the world" (Gesch.-Bl., 1938, 53).
In all the Mennonite confessions of faith the religious and moral significance of marriage was stressed beside its divine origin, together with the requirement of agreement of faith. The Olyftacxken of 1627 said that a brother or sister may marry if he will, but only in the Lord. But God has never ordained that a believer should unite with an unbeliever, but that the Lord is angry with such and has declared that they are flesh, who refuse to let His Spirit govern their lives; therefore we discipline all who follow their carnal desire herein like other carnal sinners. The Concept of Cologne of 1591 strictly forbade mixed marriage, saying that the Scripture leaves no liberty to marry anyone except one who has become a member of the body of Christ through faith. No brotherly communion should be held with those who transgress, unless one feels their genuine penitence; they should then be admonished to keep the marriage vow faithfully, and neither to leave the mate nor to incur another marriage (Hege, 151). Also the confession of 1630 (Jan Cents) agreed that "only in the Lord" meant that a believer did not have the liberty to unite himself in marriage with an unbeliever. The Dordrecht Confession of 1632, article 12, dealt with marriage; "in the Lord" meant that marriage may be entered into only with one in the spiritual family of God, who were united first with the church as one heart and one soul, had received one baptism and stood in one faith, doctrine, and life.
This position was still held by the Amish branch of the Mennonite brotherhood in America, as formerly in Switzerland and France. The Mennonite Church (MC) and related groups maintained this rule until into the 20th century.
A more liberal position was taken by Cornelis Ris in his confession of 1766: In order to be happy in marriage we consider it necessary wherever possible to stay within the brotherhood, in order to prevent impurity and many unpleasant consequences which often arise between persons with a different upbringing and manner of life in the training of the children and in other matters. It is therefore not only proper but also beneficial to take the advice of parents and relatives. But only in the fear of the Lord.
This was the standpoint of the Dutch and North German congregations, as well as of the Mennonites of Baden and Hesse. The prohibition of mixed marriage did not exist there. One who married outside the brotherhood remained a member as before and lost none of the rights of membership.
In the West Prussian country congregations marriage outside the church automatically excluded one from the church. Article IX of Glaubensbekenntnis der Mennoniten in Preussen of 1895, "On Christian Marriage," said, "When a member marries outside the brotherhood, the act is regarded as a voluntary parting from the brotherhood."
The Russian Mennonites of all branches and their descendants in North America maintained the prohibition of mixed marriages. The most conservative Russian Mennonite groups in Canada, such as the Old Colony group (but also the Bergthaler in the 1950s), maintained this rule and applied it to intermarriage with other Mennonite groups.
In sociological parlance, intermarriage (alternately, "mixed" marriage or exogamy) refers to the marriage of persons of differing race, religion, or nationality. Among Mennonites, interracial marriages are rare, although their small number has been increasing in recent decades. North American Mennonites mostly share a common Germanic origin, but current nationality (Canada or the United States) appears to be of little concern in the choice of spouses. National or ethnic (tribal) differences may be of some significance among Mennonites in non-Western countries, or even in Europe, but the matter has not been formally investigated.
Among Mennonites, religion appears to be the salient factor in considering intermarriage. They have been very cautious, even quite resistant, to the marriage of their offspring to someone of another faith. Even the marriage of persons from different Mennonite groups has been discouraged at times and places, usually by those of a more conservative stance in respect to those of a more open, less sectarian, identity. Until the 20th century, intermarriage rates apparently were very low, due to a combination of rural isolation and strong attitudes opposing intermarriage (mixed marriage).
Hostetler studied membership gains and losses in the Mennonite Church (MC) in the period from 1942 to 1951 but did not include data on the proportion of all marriages that were mixed. However, he found that intermarriage rates were higher among ex-members than among converts.
The 1972 Kauffman-Harder church member survey (in the United States and Canada) probed rates of intermarriage defined as marriage between persons of differing Mennonite denominations as well as between Mennonites and non-Mennonites. A similar study was done by Kauffman-Driedger in 1989.In 1972 twenty-seven percent of the married church members did not belong to the same denomination at the time of their wedding; this increased to thirty-eight percent in 1989. The proportions in 1972 varied by denomination: Mennonite Church, 18.5 percent (33 percent in 1989); Mennonite Brethren, 24.6 percent; General Conference Mennonite Church, 35 percent; Brethren in Christ, 40.8 percent; and Evangelical Mennonite Church, 64.5 percent (58 percent in 1989). However, only six percent of the married couples were still members of different denominations at the time of the survey, indicating that sometime subsequent to the wedding, in most cases, one spouse joined the other's church. In 1989 this increased to nine percent. The rate of intermarriage between Mennonites of any branch and non-Mennonites was not determined in either survey.
Reflecting chronological trends, younger persons had higher rates of intermarriage than older members. Slightly higher intermarriage rates were observed among urban than rural residents, among women than men, and among lay people than ministers. Farmers had lower rates of intermarriage than other occupational groups.
Substantially higher intermarriage rates were found among those who do not attend church regularly, and among those who are nonresident members of their local congregations. Those of mixed marriage background scored somewhat lower on scales measuring doctrinal orthodoxy, adherence to Anabaptist principles, religious practices, and moral attitudes. Thus intermarriage appears to be associated with weaker support of church doctrines and practices.
Driedger, Vogt, and Reimer (1983) investigated intermarriage among Mennonites in Canada, defining intermarriage more broadly as the marriage of a Mennonite (of any branch) to a non-Mennonite. Among 13 religious groups reported in the 1981 Canadian census, only Jews had lower rates of intermarriage than Mennonites. The rate of endogamy (Mennonites marrying Mennonites) declined from 93 percent in 1921 to 61 percent in 1981. The reported rate may be too low, however, since the census definition of Mennonite includes some persons who are not actually members of a Mennonite church.
Several surveys by Driedger and his associates support several generalizations. (1) In general, the more conservative the Mennonite body, the lower the rate of intermarriage. Hutterites have virtually none. (2) Intermarriage rates were considerably lower in rural than in urban areas. (3) The younger generation is much more accepting of intermarriage than older generations. (4) Whereas Mennonite intermarriage in Manitoba was almost nonexistent prior to the 1950s, by the 1970s one-fourth married outsiders. (5) Although in the past intermarried couples often left the Mennonite church, intermarriage is increasingly a form of recruitment and possible revitalization.
Although there may be some positive aspects associated with the marriage of Mennonites to those of other backgrounds, in terms of recruitment and stimulation, most of the indicators are negative. In the larger society, higher divorce rates are associated with mixed marriage. There is some evidence that this is true among Mennonites, but the question needs further investigation. in general, the empirical evidence assembled thus far tends to support the traditional view that endogamy is best. -- JHK
Driedger, Leo and Jacob Peters. "Ethnic Identity: a Comparison of Mennonite and Other Students." Mennonite Quarterly Review 47 (1973): 225-44.
Driedger, Leo, Roy Vogt and Mavis Reimer. "Mennonite Intermarriage: National, Regional and Intergenerational Trends." Mennonite Quarterly Review 41 (1983): 132-144.
Hege, Christian. Die Taufer in der Kurpfalz. Karlsruhe, 1908.
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon., 4 v. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe; Schneider, 1913-1967: III, 139 f.
Hostetler, John A. The Sociology of Mennonite Evangelism. Scottdale, PA, 1954: 195-197.
Hunzinger, A. Das Religions-, Kirchen- und Schulwesen der Mennoniten oder Taufgesinnten. Speyer, 1830.
Kauffman, J. Howard and Leland Harder, eds. Anabaptists Four Centuries Later: a Profile of Five Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Denominations. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1975: 172-177.
Kauffman, J. Howard and Leo Driedger. The Mennonite Mosaic: Identity and Modernization. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1991: 110-111.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 720-721, 5, pp. 444-445. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Neff, Christian and J. Howard Kauffman. "Intermarriage." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 19 June 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/I587ME.html.
APA style: Neff, Christian and J. Howard Kauffman. (1989). Intermarriage. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 19 June 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/I587ME.html.