Mennonite experience of prayer has been shaped by the ethical imperative to follow Jesus at all costs. Prayer sustained the persecuted Anabaptists who cried out to God in praise and triumph as they lingered in prison or were led to execution. As they yielded themselves to God in humble trust (Gelassenheit) they prayed for strength to remain faithful rather than to be delivered from their fate.
Although Mennonites became known as the "quiet in the land" when they sought ways to avoid the sword of the state, their prayers continued to be an expression of their concern to remain faithful to God as they continued to be accountable to one another in covenant community. In their search for a faithful life-style, Mennonites rejected elaborate liturgy and dogmatic theology in favor of practices that were more simple and quiet. Initially Mennonites (Dutch) prayed silently during worship. They knelt to send up their prayers to the Almighty God as "everyone called upon the Lord without confusion or indecent noise" (Friedmann, Piety, 177). In time they prayed silently twice during each service, a practice some maintained until the end of the 18th century. At home also their prayers were in silence before and after meals.
Their silent prayer was enhanced by kneeling during worship, a custom many Mennonites continued into the 20th century. From Switzerland and South Germany the custom was brought to Pennsylvania. Mennonites in Russia practiced the kneeling posture as did their descendants in Canada and the United States until recent times. Kneeling is still practiced by such groups as the Amish and the Old Colony Mennonites.
As the religious life of the Mennonites became more settled they began to experience some changes. Late in the 16th century Hans de Ries a Dutch pastor, initiated audible prayers during worship. Soon others also began praying audibly and no longer kneeling in worship, a change that brought some discord. In time some also began to embrace pietistic elements and to attend primarily to the salvation of the soul (Gottseligkeit) rather than also to following Jesus faithfully even to the cross.
Soon there were collections of prayers written by Mennonite authors for use by Mennonite preachers, in public worship or in private devotions. By the late 16th century and the 17th century the works of Dutch authors such as Leenaert Clock were being collected; some of these were made part of the Swiss Brethren devotional literature. The outstanding German Mennonite prayer book, Die ernsthafte Christenpflicht (The Committed Christian Life), published in 1739, was followed by at least 10 more editions in Europe to 1852, and at least 24 editions (to 1940) in America where it became the prayer book of the Amish. A Swiss prayer book, Kleines Handbüchlein (Little Manual) had six European editions from 1786 to 1867 and two American imprints, 1835 and 1872. Dutch and German prayer collections have never been translated into English, except for excerpts from Die ernsthafte Christenpflicht (1982). English-speaking American Mennonites did not produce or use prayer books in public worship and seldom in private and family worship until recent times. Since 1925 daily prayer guides have been printed primarily to undergird mission and relief activities of the church.
Mennonite practice of prayer has been shaped by Mennonite understandings of the gospel which includes obedience (faithful following) and Gelassenheit (yieldedness, humility). Prayer is the grateful expression of it trusting heart to the One who enables right living in the Christian community and in the world. Mennonites have reflected an "alternate understanding of the gospel -- one that was more lived than spoken, more relational than dogmatic, one seeking peace rather than conquest" (Hostetler, 327). Mennonite prayer has been rooted in Mennonite life-style, a prayer of simple trust in the presence and care of God in all things.
Without the inherent formative power and continuity provided by liturgy and dogmatics, Mennonite practice of prayer has been both vulnerable and flexible as Mennonites have encountered different times and cultures. The ethical imperative to follow Jesus in simple faith has remained in Mennonite thought throughout Mennonite history. However Mennonite understanding of this ethic and its outworking in their practice of prayer has been influenced by rationalism and pietism in 17th century Europe, pietism in 18th century North America, various strands of revivalism in 19th century Russia and North America, missions and revivalism in 20th century North America, and more recently in a variety of expressions of Christianity among Mennonites throughout the world.
Although these changes often brought tension and sometimes schism in the Mennonite churches, on the whole Mennonites have been able to absorb different expressions of worship and prayer based upon their sense of need at the time. Today there is no uniform practice in prayer among Mennonites but rather a kaleidoscope of expressions of members in a vast array of cultures and circumstances seeking to follow Jesus faithfully in their own setting.
In the Western world some Mennonites remain more quiet and private in their expressions; some have embraced the more emotionally expressive patterns of charismatic renewal; some are turning to more liturgical forms of prayer and worship and to more use of symbolic expressions to aid in their prayers. Currently there is a renewed interest among North American Mennonites in the practice of meditation and reflection as part of prayer.
The practice of prayer among Mennonites in Asia, Africa, and South America has developed into some unique forms and expressions which have emerged from cross fertilization of the gospel, as brought by the missionaries, with non-Western cultures and experience. On the whole non-Western Mennonite experience of prayer is much more spontaneous and rigorous than that of their western brothers and sisters.
Friedmann, Robert. Mennonite Piety Through the Centuries. Goshen, IN.: Mennonite Historical Society, 1949.
Hostetler, Beulah S. American Mennonites and Protestant Movements. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1987.
Schlabach, Theron F. Gospel Versus Gospel: Mission and the Mennonite Church, 1963-1944. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1980.
MacMaster, Richard K. Land, Piety, Peoplehood: the Establishment of Mennonite Communities in America, 1683-1790. The Mennonite Experience in America (MEA), vol. 1. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1985.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 717-718. 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: Smucker, Marcus G. "Prayer." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 24 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/P7365ME.html.
APA style: Smucker, Marcus G. (1989). Prayer. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 24 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/P7365ME.html.