For much of Mennonite history, to be a Mennonite was to be engaged in farming or a closely related occupation. It was not true in the beginning, and it is no longer true, but agricultural occupations were the norm for centuries for most Mennonites of European origin. The homogeneity and solidarity of Mennonite communities was strengthened by the nearly universal Mennonite dedication to agriculture, at which Mennonites have excelled and for which they are widely recognized.
Early Mennonites, however, were rarely farmers. They were city folk in Switzerland, North Germany, and Holland. As such they dedicated themselves to urban occupations. Many early Mennonite leaders were well educated and some were from prominent families. In Switzerland and South Germany, Michael Sattler had been a monk and Balthasar Hubmaier a theologian and pastor. Pilgram Marpeck was a civil engineer. Menno Simons of Friesland was a former priest. Less prominent and less educated Mennonites were generally artisans such as smiths, hatmakers, basket makers, and weavers, as the names in Martyrs Mirror reveal.
Following the relatively short-lived persecution among the 16th century Dutch Mennonites which ended in 1579, many Mennonites rose to positions of prominence. Dutch and North German Mennonites were often medical doctors, some of whom also led the church as pastors. Others were shipbuilders, owners of fishing and whaling fleets, or lumber and textile merchants. Dutch Mennonites distinguished themselves in the fine arts, also. Carel van Mander was a Haarlem poet and painter. Jan Luiken, a poet, painter, and etcher, did engravings for van Braght's Martyrs mirror. Joost van den Vondel, the Dutch Shakespeare, was a deacon in the church before reverting to Catholicism. A number of Mennonites were personal friends of Rembrandt van Rijn, and may have influenced his painting.
The rise of the Dutch Mennonites to prominence in medicine, business, and the arts, however, was made possible only by the relative religious freedom in The Netherlands from the late 16th century on. In other areas Mennonites experienced more severe and long-lasting persecution which prevented success in prominent urban occupations.
Isolated rural areas in Switzerland and South Germany afforded greater freedom from three centuries of Swiss-German Mennonite persecution than did Zürich and other cities. Mennonites quickly developed skills in both crop production and animal husbandry even when they were employed only as tenants and farmhands. This was frequently the case, since they were usually not allowed to own land.
Wealthy nobles were sometimes willing to offer both limited sanctuary and work for farmers and artisans on their private estates. The Hutterites in particular might not have survived had they not been sheltered on various occasions by sympathetic nobles and princes. In addition to agriculture, they developed notable skills in pottery making (ceramics), smithing, shoemaking, carpentry, and bookbinding.
The Dutch and North German Mennonites who were invited to Prussia and later to Russia included both farmers and artisans. Those in Prussia distinguished themselves by draining and then making productive the lowlands of the Vistula River (water technology). The greatest accomplishments in agriculture and related industries, however, were made by those who accepted Catherine the Great's invitation to form nearly autonomous settlements on formerly unproductive land in the Ukraine and Russia. After initial hardships, they transformed the steppes into productive land, growing grain, introducing adapted varieties of fruit, and raising livestock. Johann Cornies (1789-1848) distinguished himself in upgrading agriculture and education in the Molotschna and Chortitza colonies, as well as serving as something of a Mennonite ambassador to the Russian authorities. Cornies also helped the Hutterites re-establish communal agriculture and industry after they had reached the Ukraine following terrible persecution in areas of what later became Czechoslovakia and Romania.
As their farms prospered and population grew, some Russian Mennonites began agriculturally-related industries, managing prosperous flour mills, creameries, and farm implement factories. The majority, however, remained farmers and farmhands. Some attained fabulous wealth and bought the private estates of impoverished Russian nobles. Some, unable to buy land themselves, worked as day laborers or craftsmen, usually for fellow Mennonites (landless).
Due to their reputation as productive and industrious farmers in Europe, countries such as Canada, the United States, and later Mexico, Paraguay, Brazil, Bolivia, and Belize welcomed various Mennonite groups in the 18th-20th centuries. Virtually all new Mennonite immigrant settlements in the New World were agricultural, so that the first generations of Mennonites in the New World were predominantly farmers or engaged in providing goods and services for fellow Mennonites who were farmers. This was true both for the culturally and religiously conservative groups (Amish, Hutterites, Old Colony, Sommerfeld, and Old Order Mennonites) and initially for the larger and eventually more culturally and religiously progressive groups. (Mennonite Church [MC], General Conference Mennonites, and Mennonite Brethren).
Since the mid-20th century, however, economic and social forces in North America have resulted in marked transformations in the occupations of members of the more progressive Mennonite groups. The mechanization of agriculture, the cost-price squeeze, and the pressure for large-scale agriculture to maximize profits have driven many progressive Mennonites out of agriculture. More notably, their sons and daughters have been attracted to a variety of managerial and professional occupations offering higher and more regular income and higher status than farming. In many cases higher education, often obtained at Mennonite colleges, has facilitated and perhaps even accelerated the transition to nonagricultural occupations.
Recent empirical sociological studies document the North American Mennonite exodus from farming into the professions and business. Comparable studies in both the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church (MC) have revealed that the percentage of farmers was cut in half within 20 years. In General Conference congregations, the percentage of men in farming declined from 32 to 16 percent from 1960 to 1980. In Mennonite Church congregations the percentage declined from 39 to 19 percent from 1963 to 1982.
The exodus from farming was countered by a near doubling in the percentages of Mennonites employed in professional and technical occupations in both groups in the same period. Among General Conference Mennonites of Canada and the United States the percentage of men and women employed in professional occupations increased from 16 to 28. In the Mennonite Church the percentage for men doubled from 8 to 16, and for employed women and men combined it doubled from 10 to 20 percent. The percentages of persons employed as managers, officials, and proprietors increased from 5 to 8 percent in the General Conference from 1960 to 1980, and from 5 to 11 percent in the Mennonite Church from 1963 to 1982. A 1980s study of Mennonite Brethren congregations in Canada and the United States revealed 25 percent of all employed members to be in the professions, 20 percent in business, and only 18 percent in farming, as of 1982.
The trend is clear for North American progressive Mennonites. They are rapidly leaving farming as a livelihood, and taking up business and professional occupations. North American Mennonite women of the progressive groups are now just as likely to be employed outside the home as are their non-Mennonite neighbors. Those employed outside the home are even more likely than Mennonite men to have professional occupations, although many Mennonite women are employed in relatively low-paying service professions such as teaching, nursing, and social work.
While the transformation out of agriculture is clearly evident for the progressive Mennonite groups of North America, the culturally conservative groups (Hutterites, Amish) are not leaving farming as rapidly. Their preference for agriculture is more deeply rooted and often given religious significance. Choice of occupation is less likely to be a matter of individual choice, and is much more heavily influenced by group sanction. Hutterites will permit young men to leave the Bruderhof for a short time to try life in the surrounding "world," but to remain a Hutterite necessitates return to the colony and work in agriculture or a related area. Work choices are not made by the individual, but by the colony boss.
The Amish exercise greater individual freedom than the Hutterites, but farming is still strongly preferred. Yet the high cost and shortage of land and Amish proximity to urban areas and suburban development have forced many Amish, particularly the young, to take off-farm jobs, even if the eventual goal is to get a farm. In some communities less than half the Amish are now engaged in farming. If non-farm work is necessitated, carpentry and factory jobs, preferably among other Amish workmen, are preferred.
Intermediate between the conservative and progressive groups are the Church of God in Christ Mennonite (Holdeman), Old Order Mennonites, and others. They retain a preference for farming and related occupations, but have also had to adapt to economic forces in North American society by taking a variety of off-farm jobs. Preferred are those which allow one to stay in the rural community,
Ethnic Mennonites in Latin America have been able to stay in agriculture somewhat more easily than their North American cousins, due to lower land costs and in some cases greater tolerance of Latin American governments for the nearly autonomous Mennonite colonies. (Colonies are no longer acceptable or possible in North America, except among the Hutterites.) Countries which have permitted Low-German (Dutch-Russian) Mennonite and Amish (Swiss-German) agricultural colonies include Mexico, Paraguay, Brazil, Bolivia, and Belize. These colonies have not prospered to the degree of the earlier colonies in Russia.
Assimilation into the larger North American society among the progressive Mennonite groups has caused a weakening of earlier prohibitions against previously forbidden occupations. Business, legal, medical, and other professional positions requiring extensive interaction with non-Mennonites and even non-Christians, often in urban areas, are now generally socially approved rather than discouraged or forbidden. Whereas a career in law would have been highly suspect among even most progressive Mennonites until at least the mid-20th century, 1987 witnessed a symbolically important event in Mennonite circles, when a practicing attorney, Joseph Lapp, was installed as president of Eastern Mennonite College in Virginia.
Conversely, involvement in the brewing of alcoholic beverages or production or sale of tobacco products is probably more suspect among progressive Mennonites in the 1980s than it was previously, partly due to the early 20th century temperance movement in North America and partly due to modern health concerns.
Military employment or service and careers in government and public service have traditionally been discouraged or forbidden in most Mennonite groups, since they were thought to conflict with the peace position and to necessitate moral compromise. However, toleration of these occupations became somewhat common in The Netherlands as early as 1700 and is growing in recent years in North America. Mennonites of Dutch/Russian origin have been more accepting of government posts than has been true for Swiss-origin Mennonites. Involvement of Mennonites in government in North America has been most visible in Canada.
Firm data about occupations of non-ethnic Mennonites are lacking, but it would appear that they are less likely than ethnic Mennonites to be employed in agriculture, especially in North America, Latin America, and Europe. Given the rural residence of considerable numbers of Mennonites in Africa, Indonesia, and India, it is likely that there are appreciable numbers employed in agriculture there, but with a variety of other occupations also present.
Dyck, Cornelius J. An Introduction to Mennonite History. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1967, 1981.
Epp, Frank H. Mennonites in Canada, 1786-1920: the History of a Separate People. Toronto: Macmillan, 1974.
Harder, Leland. Fact Book of Congregational Membership 1980/81. Newton: General Conference Mennonite Church, 1982.
Hostetler, John A. Hutterite Society. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1974.
Hostetler, John A. Amish Society. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1980.
Yoder, Michael L. "Findings From the 1982 Mennonite Census." Mennonite Quarterly Review 59 (1985): 307-49.
Toews, John E., Abram B. Konrad, Alvin Dueck. "Mennonite Brethren Membership Profile, 1972-1982." Direction 14, no. 2 (1985), sp. issue.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 644-646. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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