The following sections treat by countries the places of meeting for worship used by the Anabaptists-Mennonites through the centuries, the names given to such places, the dates of the first meetinghouses, and any items of particular interest relating to the functions of meetinghouses. See the article Architecture for a treatment of the architectural aspects including style.
During the period of persecution the Anabaptist-Mennonites had no regular place to hold their meetings. They met, as the martyr Claes de Praet says (Offer, 246), "there where Christ and His apostles held their meetings, in the woods, in the fields, on the seashore, and sometimes in homes." In larger towns such as Amsterdam meetings were held in private homes from the beginning. For the sake of safety meeting places were constantly changed and messengers (weetdoeners) visited the members to announce the place and the hour of the next meeting.
From about 1575, when persecution had ceased, the Mennonites gradually began to hold their meetings at fixed places, although as late as 1654, for example at Nijmegen, the magistrates did not allow Mennnonite meetings to be held at regular places; at Deventer no meetinghouses could be built until 1688. About 1600 the smaller congregations usually met in the home of a member, who placed a room at the disposal of the congregation. Larger congregations at this time or even earlier probably rented or bought houses or warehouses, which were then in simple style adapted for use as meetinghouses. Of these first meetinghouses nothing is known and of most congregations it cannot be exactly stated when they acquired a meetinghouse. It is very questionable whether the Mennonites of Amsterdam had a meetinghouse as early as 1578, as is suggested by Brandt, but the Waterlanders as well as the Frisians and the Flemish had meetinghouses here before 1600. More exact dates are available concerning Rotterdam. Here the Old Flemish Mennonites possessed a house in which they held meetings as early as 1580, whereas the Frisian congregation obtained a meetinghouse in 1593, and the Flemish congregation bought a house in 1609, which was remodeled for meetings. The mid-20th century Mennonite church at Amsterdam had its origin in an old meetinghouse which had been used since 1608. Utrecht acquired a meetinghouse about 1610, the Waterlanders at Leiden in 1613, the Middelburg congregation in 1616. The two former meetinghouses of Harlingen, Friesland, no doubt dated from before 1600; the former meetinghouse of the Haarlem Flemish congregation, called "d'Oly-block," was also of about 1600. During the 17th century many meetinghouses were built in the province of Friesland, but it is possible that at least some of these were rebuilt from meetinghouses originally built some decades before. Balk built a meetinghouse in 1629, the Leeuwarden Waterlander congregation in 1631, Hindeloopen 1653, Sneek 1654, Grouw 1659, Warns and Joure both 1664, Akkrum ca. 1667, Irnsum 1684, Surhuisterveen 1685, Holwerd 1692, and Drachten 1693.
By 1700 all the congregations had meetinghouses except the conservative Janjacobsz group, which was opposed to special meetinghouses. Many small congregations of the Groningen Old Flemish branch also had no meetinghouses, but continued to meet in the homes of the members as late as the end of the 18th century. By the 1950s a few newly founded congregations and circles (kringen) did not yet have meetinghouses, but used rented rooms or halls. The Breda congregation held its meetings in the Lutheran church.
Nearly all the Dutch Mennonite churches in the 1950s had one or more rooms for catechetical classes, Sunday schools, ladies' circles, and other church activities. Sometimes the sexton's quarters were a part of the church building, and in a number of congregations, particularly in the country, the parsonage was next to the church, and in a few attached to the church.
Since the 18th century Dutch Mennonite meetinghouses have been called churches (Doopsgezinde kerk). The earlier word vermaning (literally admonition, or place where the people are stimulated to faith and Christian life), formerly very common, especially in the province of Friesland, became obsolete. -- vdZ
The first Mennonite meetinghouse built in Switzerland was that of the Holee Street congregation in Basel, which was then known as the Basel-Binningen Church. Most of its members lived in adjoining Alsace, and the congregation belonged to the Alsatian Mennonite Conference. The church was built in 1847 at 141 Holee Street, and was completely rebuilt in 1932 at the same location. The Ernmental congregation, with its seat at Langnau, built a meetinghouse at Kehr, in the outskirts of Langnau in 1888, and renovated and enlarged it in 1947. In 1899 the Emmental congregation built chapels at Bomatt on the Emme, and at Aebnit, near Bowil, west of Bomatt. The Bomatt church was renovated in 1955.
In 1893 the Kleintal congregation built a church at Moron, which was renovated in 1943. In 1894 the Chaux de Fonds congregation built one at Les Bulks, renovated in 1944. The Sonnenberg congregation bought some of the buildings of an inn on Fürstenberg (Mont Tramelan), and converted a dance hall into a spacious meeting place; it was considerably enlarged in 1947. The Jeangisboden (Sonnenberg) congregation acquired its church in 1900; this meetinghouse became the site of the meetings of the Swiss Mennonite Conference. It was renovated in 1950.
Near the Swiss border in Alsace the Grosslützel (Grand Lucelle) congregation (formerly Delsbergtal) converted a tavern into a church. In 1956 this meetinghouse, which was severely damaged by military occupation in World War II, was renovated. The Schänzli congregation in Basel acquired a chapel on the street from Basel to Muttenz in 1891. A new church was built there in 1903 and renovated in 1954. The spacious Chaux d'Abel meetinghouse on the Jura plateau, which was built in 1905, belonged to the YMCA, of which a number of Mennonites were members.
For the purpose of maintaining a German school the Kleintal congregation in 1921 built a school at Perceux, above the cave called the "Goat Chapel," in which, according to tradition, the Mennonites met for worship in times of persecution. The congregation also built a school on the heights of Montbautier in 1923, in which the Mennonites met for worship. Les Mottes, north of Tramelan, was the third meeting place of the Sonnenberg congregation. In 1928 a spacious room for meetings was built into a home. Also in Tramelan a room in a Mennonite home was rented for this purpose in 1941 and renovated in 1955. The most modern Mennonite meetinghouse in Switzerland was built at Courgenay in 1938 by the Pruntrut (Porrentruy) congregation. In 1956 a room was privately built into a new home at Reconvilier and placed at the disposal of the Mennonites.
The word "church" was not used by the Mennonites of Switzerland for their meeting places in the 1950s, but rather the word "chapel." Before these meetinghouses were built, the Swiss Mennonites met in rotation in barns, usually in the forenoons. A meal of nutritious peasoup was then served the members, many of whom had come on foot from a considerable distance. -- SG
From the time of the Reformation to about the middle of the 17th century the Anabaptists and sometimes the Mennonites had to meet secretly for their worship services. During the severest persecutions they at times met in forests (e.g., at Immelshausen until as late as 1654) or on remote farms (e.g., betweeen Kriegsheim, and Pfeddersheim in 1608), often at night.
With the concession of Charles Ludwig, Elector of the Palatinate, granted in 1664, they were permitted, in villages where four or five families were living, to hold meetings of not more than 20 persons. For this the living room of a home was sufficient. Services were regularly held in rotation among the members.
Very likely, especially in the larger congregations, the need was felt by the first quarter of the 18th century of having a large room of their own for regular use, equipped in the simplest manner possible. Here it is not yet a matter of a building, but merely of parts of residences or other farm buildings which could be remodeled and furnished for the purpose. There are, of course, no records of dates, etc., from this period; nevertheless certain conclusions can be drawn on the basis of evidence in the congregations at Ibersheim, Kriegsheim, Friedelsheim, Weierhof, etc. The hall furnished in 1756 in Erpolzheim, which was still in use in the 1950s, served as an example from this period. In some instances the owners of the estates put rooms at the disposal of the Mennonite renters.
Toward the end of the 18th century meetinghouses were built in many places. They had to be built off the street and in the style of a farmhouse, in order not to be noticeable from the outside. Such buildings arose in 1770 at Weierhof, 1777 at Sembach, 1779 at Eppstein and Friedelsheim, 1783 in Heppenheim an der Wiese. Of these, Eppstein probably, in spite of frequent remodeling, best preserved the type of Mennonite churches of that period (low room, rectangular windows, low pulpit), whereas the only other church remaining from that period which was still in use, namely, the Sembach, was more radically altered.
In the early 19th century, when all legal restrictions were removed from the Mennonites in the Palatinate and Hesse, churches were built in the simple style of the Reformed churches of the vicinity. Churches of this kind were built in Altleiningen in 1811 (abandoned in 1956 because of a dilapidated condition), Monsheim 1820, Uffhofen 1829-30, Kühbörncheshof 1832, Friedelsheim 1836, Weierhof 1837, Deutschhof 1842, Ernstweiler 1843, etc. Of the few Amish congregations of South Germany, only Ixheim built a church, erected in 1847, which was still in use until 1937. In other cases private rooms or rented halls were used. The Branchweilerhof congregation for a long time used the old arched, former Hospitalkirche. The Friedelsheim congregation in 1807 acquired by legal contract the right to the use of the Protestant church (until 1902).
In Baden, Württemberg, and Bavaria, where the congregations were subject to a great deal of change, since many of the members were renters on large estates, few meetinghouses were built. The churches in Baiertal and Streichenberg (Baden), built after 1800, were sold in the past century. Likewise the meetinghouse in Bildhausen near Schweinfurt, and the building intended for both church and school at Maxweiler. Also the attractive little church at Giebelstadt, built in 1867, had to be given up in 1953, because it was too far from Würzburg, the Mennonite center. The only churches left in this area were the one belonging to the Hasselbach congregation, built in 1846, and the one at Eichstock, built in 1856. In 1945, however, the Heilbronn congregation acquired the former Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) "neighborhood home," and in the same year the Ingolstadt congregation built a suitable room for the purpose. Everywhere else private rooms or space belonging to other churches was used.
In Frankfurt a congregational home was acquired in 1955, in which the MCC also had working quarters; in Kaiserslautern, on the other hand, the congregation was the guest of the MCC in the building erected by the Mennonite Central Committee. Modern meetinghouses with additional rooms were built at Backnang in 1955 and in Enkenbach in 1956. They will no doubt point the way for further new meetinghouses, since the old style of building with only the one room which was used for regular worship services was no longer adequate for the manifold needs of congregations. For instance, in 1948 a hall was built at Sembach for worship services as well as youth activities.
As to terminology, the word "church" was not used east of the Rhine before about 1800, but was freely used by the 1950s. The meetinghouse at Weierhof was, however, called a "Lehr." Elder Schmutz of Baden in an article in die Mennonitische Blatter in 1856 called these churches "meetinghouse, congregational house, or house of God." But later the word "Kirche" (church) was also adopted here and there. In the case of rented halls the word "Saal" was used. -- PS
Northwest and Northeast Germany
It is known that the congregations in East Friesland had meetinghouses at least as early as 1600, although they were long required to worship "in private." The earliest known date for a meetinghouse in Emden, Leer, Norden, or Neustadt-Goedens is 1649 for the Ukowallist group in Emden. Emmerich built a meetinghouse about 1676. Krefeld built in 1693; Neuwied not until 1768, Emden in 1769. In Friedrichstadt the Alte Münze, owned by the deacon, was in use before 1652 when it was purchased by the congregation. In Hamburg-Altona the first meetinghouse was in the rear part of a private house purchased about 1619 (public services were not permitted until 1622). The first "real" meetinghouse (as B. C. Roosen called it) was built in 1675.
The degrees of toleration granted to Mennonites in East and West Prussia, Danzig, and the lower Vistula region in Poland varied greatly; as a consequence the first meetinghouses were erected at widely differing times. The first meetinghouse built for that purpose was probably the one of 1586 at Muntau in the Culm-Graudenz area, rebuilt in 1898, which was in a sense the oldest Mennonite meetinghouse anywhere in the world. Its fate after 1945 was unknown in 1957. The meetinghouse of the Schonsee congregation near Culm, built in 1618, was the oldest Mennonite meetinghouse still standing in its original form. It was converted to a private dwelling ca. 1948. The Elbing-Euerwald congregation built its first meetinghouse in 1590. In Danzig the Mennonites were not allowed to build meetinghouses until well into the 17th century, and then they were not to appear like public buildings but private dwellings. The Frisian congregation built first, ca. 1638, the Flemish congregation ca. 1648. The country churches were not allowed to build until a century or more later—Thiensdorf 1728, Orlofferfelde 1751, Rosenort 1754, and in 1768 four meetinghouses with permission of the Bishop of Culm—Furstenwerder, Heubuden, Ladekopp, and Tiegenhagen. Obernessau near Thorn was built in 1778. Before the meetinghouses were built the congregations worshipped in various private homes of members. -- HSB
The early meetinghouses of the Mennonites along the Vistula River in Danzig, Prussia, and Poland were simple structures resembling the homes or schools of that day. Some resemblance to the early Mennonite meetinghouses in the Netherlands can be detected. The smaller meetinghouses were usually one-story buildings like Schonsee. Later two-story buildings were erected where needed to accommodate the growing membership. As a rule, the second story consisted of a balcony similar to the structures in the Netherlands. The main floor was for women and the balcony for men, as in the Singel Church of Amsterdam. The pulpit was located on the long side with an elevated bench for the ministers and deacons. From the outside the meetinghouse could hardly be recognized as a place of worship. The old churches at Ellerwald, Furstenwerder, and Heubuden were of this type. Usually the meetinghouse was a frame building, extremely plain, located in an open field.
The Thiensdorf church, erected in 1728, was thought to have been the first meetinghouse in Prussia. This indicated worship services had previously been held in private homes or public buildings such as schools. Later the meetinghouses were constructed of brick and resembled the surrounding non-Mennonite churches, sometimes having a steeple or a cross. Typical of this change in architecture were the churches of Rosengart and Elbing. Arched windows became common. -- CK
The Mennonite meetinghouses of Poland and Russia were patterned after the early structures in Prussia. A typical structure was the Chortitza church, and for the Mennonite Brethren, the meetinghouse at Einlage. Gradually a new style of meetinghouses evolved. Brick buildings replaced the former frame structure. An adjustment to the Russian environment became noticeable. Heavy brick fences as a rule surrounded the churches. The most extreme adjustment to the Russian environment was found in the Einlage church. The early meetinghouse in Russia closely resembled the school building found in every village. The pattern of the meetinghouse in Russia and Prussia was transplanted to the Great Plains of North America. Some of the churches built after this pattern were the First Mennonite Church of Beatrice, Nebraska; the Hoffnungsau Mennonite Church near Buhler, Kansas; the Kleine Gemeinde Church near Meade, Kansas; and the numerous meetinghouses of the early Mennonites in Manitoba and Saskatchewan as well as Mexico and Paraguay. (See also Architecture, where literature is listed.) -- CK
The Swiss and South German Mennonite immigrants who came to America before the Revolutionary War had never worshiped in meetinghouses in their homelands, nor had the Lower Rhine and Krefeld immigrants of 1683-1695 (the first Krefeld meetinghouse was built in 1695); only the few families from the Hamburg-Altona congregation had had one (the Altona meetinghouse was built in 1675). But with all restrictions removed in free America Mennonites of all kinds except the Amish built meetinghouses apparently as soon as the size of the congregation required it and economic conditions permitted. Meanwhile meetings were held in homes, which were sometimes built with a large room especially built to accommodate church services. An illustration was the Hans Herr house near Lancaster, built in 1719 with such a room, the oldest Mennonite building used for worship still standing in America.
The Amish immigrants, however, elevated the practice of holding meetings in homes into a principle. To this day the Old Order Amish basically forbid the building of meetinghouses for worship purposes. The only Amish meetinghouse built in America before 1830 was the one called Chester Valley, near Malvern, Chester County, PA, built in 1795. The congregation here, however, died out within a generation after this. The next Amish meetinghouse was the Beech church near Louisville, Ohio, about 1830, followed by the Clinton Frame church near Goshen, IN, in 1848. The Rock Creek church, near Danvers, IL, was built in 1853 and the neighboring Partridge (Metamora) church in 1854. Congregations in Ohio which were leaving the "Old Order" Amish began to build meetinghouses, such as Walnut Grove (West Liberty) in 1857, Oak Grove, near Smithville, and Walnut Creek, both in 1862, Central at Archbold and Martens Creek near Millersburg in 1869. The Ontario Amish churches did not begin to build meetinghouses until the 1880's. Sometimes the building of a meetinghouse became the definite sign or cause of a break between the progressive and old order elements.
American Mennonites never in principle opposed meetinghouses. The first one built was in Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1708. The second Germantown meetinghouse, of 1770, was the oldest American Mennonite meetinghouse still used for regular services in the 1950s. The only other meetinghouse built before 1800 and still standing at the original location was built at Landisville, west of Lancaster, PA, in 1740 as a residence, but was used as a meetinghouse long before 1790; it was now used as a dwelling for the sexton. The Byerland meetinghouse, also in Lancaster County, built about 1755, was still standing in the 1950s but had been moved several miles away. In order of erection the oldest meetinghouses in the original settlements in Eastern Pennsylvania were Skippack 1725, Towamencin 1728(?), Hereford 1732, Swamp 1735, Salford 1738(?), and Deep Run 1746, all in the Franconia Conference. Dates of the earliest meetinghouses in the Lancaster district are not known before the first one at Abbeyville, built in 1747 or earlier, and New Danville, built in 1755. Apparently the first Lancaster Mennonites waited a generation before building meetinghouses. Most of their early meetinghouses were built after 1750; by 1800 the Lancaster Conference had at least 27 known meetinghouses. The earliest known meetinghouses in other areas, with dates of erection, were: Western Pennsylvania— Scottdale (Pennsville) 1800, Blough 1837, Masontown 1840; Ontario—Vineland 1810, Kitchener 1813, Markham 1817; Ohio—Fairfield County, two meetinghouses about 1810-1815, Rowland in Canton 1823, North Lima 1824(?), followed by Midway almost at the sametime, Sonnenberg 1834, Bluffton (GCM) 1840; Virginia—Mill Creek near Luray in Page County (a union church) 1800, six erected 1823-28, viz., Trissels 1823, Pike 1825, Brennemans 1826, Weavers 1827, Hildebrand and Springdale; Maryland—Housers, Beaver Creek 1763, Strasburg (in Franklin County, Pennsylvania.) 1812, Millers 1835; Indiana —Clinton Brick 1848, Yellow Creek 1849, Holdeman 1851, Berne (GCM) 1852; Illinois—Union near Washington 1858, Sterling 1859, Summerfield (GCM) 1858.
The immigrants from Russia 1874-1880 had had meetinghouses in their homeland and proceeded to erect them in their new homes very soon after arrival. The first meetinghouses of the General Conference Mennonite Church were immigration houses (Alexanderwohl, Hoffnungsau, etc.) and school-houses; the first Krimmer Mennonite Brethren meetinghouse was Gnadenau near Hillsboro, Kansas, built in 1876; the first Mennonite Brethren meetinghouse was Ebenfeld near Hillsboro, built in 1876.
The first meetinghouses in Pennsylvania were simple, plain, and functional, designed only for an assembly for worship, but often serving a double use as schoolhouses, or with schoolhouses or even sexton's quarters attached. This style was generally followed by the later congregations. Later, when Sunday schools and other activities were introduced, basements were added to accommodate the children's classes, and in the 20th century educational wings or sections with classrooms and other facilities were built. For the most part this was the pattern of the meetinghouse type and development throughout American Mennonite history, except that some of the groups from Russia brought with them a different type of meetinghouse design.
The descendants of the Swiss-South German Mennonites and the Amish from Alsace, Bavaria, and Hesse universally called their buildings meetinghouses (Versammlungshaus), or "Gmeehaus" (Gemeindehaus) in Pennsylvania Dutch, until recent decades, when the term "church" has partially superseded it. (See also Architecture.)
Schowalter, Paul. "Mennonite Churches in South Germany." Mennonite Life 7 (January 1952): 14.
Schowalter, Paul. "Der Kirchenbau in den Mennonitengemeinden von Pfalz-Hessen." Mennonitischer Gemeindekalendar (1953): 36-43.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 557-561. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
©1996-2013 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.
MLA style: van der Zijpp, Nanne, Samuel Geiser, Paul Schowalter, Cornelius Krahn and Harold S. Bender. "Meetinghouses." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1957. Web. 18 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/M4485.html.
APA style: van der Zijpp, Nanne, Samuel Geiser, Paul Schowalter, Cornelius Krahn and Harold S. Bender. (1957). Meetinghouses. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/M4485.html.