Preaching has always been the center of Anabaptist-Mennonite public worship, hence the presence of the pulpit in the center of the Mennonite meetinghouse and the total absence of the altar. Very soon after the founding of the Anabaptist movement in 1525 the congregations chose individuals as leaders who were then ordained. The major office, called shepherd (Hirt) in the Schleitheim Confession of 1527, was that of preacher; one or more were in every congregation. From among a plurality of preachers one was chosen to be elder (or bishop), who was responsible for general oversight, administration of the ordinances and discipline, and provision of ministers. However, elders were also, and still are, chiefly preachers. The Schleitheim Confession defines the office of shepherd as follows: "This office shall be to read, to admonish and teach, to warn, to discipline, to ban in the church, lead out in prayer for the advancement of all the brethren and sisters, to lift up the bread when it is to be broken, and in all things to care for the body of Christ, in order that it may be built up and developed, and the mouth of the slanderer be stopped."
The character of the preaching was indicated by the early titles used for this office: "Minister of the Word" or "of the Book" (Diener zum Wort) was intended to emphasize the function of the preacher to proclaim the message of the Bible. The Amish later preferred to use "Minister of the Book" (Diener zum Buch) for the same concept. The most common term, however, in Holland, North Germany, and Prussia was "teacher" (leeraar, Lehrer), or "admonisher" (vermaner, Vermahner). Both of these terms emphasize the function of the preacher to bring to the congregation the message of the Bible as something to be accepted and followed. The term "preacher" (preeker, prediker, predikant, Prediger) is neutral so far as indicating the character of his message, and was probably borrowed from Protestantism.
The early Anabaptist sermons were without doubt conceived as simple forthright declarations of a hortatory and devotional character, except when used for evangelistic purposes. They were certainly not expected to be rhetorical orations prepared and finished according to the practice of learned men. It was assumed that any member of the church could admonish the congregation out of his general knowledge of the Scriptures, his experience in life, and the help of the Holy Spirit. Sermons were not written and read but given ex tempore. The tradition from the early times took two directions however. On the one hand the tradition of completely ex tempore preaching persisted in some groups of the Swiss-South German type, with the strict understanding that no written text, not even outlines or notes, should be used at preaching time. On the other hand, the tradition of writing and reading sermons developed in the Prussian-Russian line, as was the practice of the Conservative (fijne) Mennonites in the Netherlands up to the end of the 18th century, and occasionally even until ca. 1855, climaxing finally in the strict requirement that one should not even write his own sermons but only recopy and read the sermons of the past, with ultimately some minor modifications allowed; to preach ex tempore was condemned as pride. This was once the tradition among all the Mennonites in Manitoba and is still the case among all groups of Old Colony Mennonites. It is clear that few if any sermons of the ex tempore type would be preserved. Exceptions are noted for a few 19th-century preachers of this type who did write down sermons that have been preserved (or were they written to be memorized and not read perhaps?). In West Prussia and some descendant groups the concept of preacher hardened into the idea that the preacher's office was only to preach from the pulpit and not to do any pastoral work. A similar idea developed among the Mennonites of Eastern Pennsylvania and elsewhere, with the plural ministry, namely, that the preachers were to do nothing but preach, leaving the pastoral work to the bishop and deacons.
The publication of sermons, as distinct from tracts and treatises, though common among other Protestant groups from the early days of the Reformation, was almost unknown among the Anabaptists. One anonymous sermon by a South German Anabaptist was identified by Ludwig Keller in Eitelhans Langenmantel's Exposition of the Lord's Prayer published at Augsburg in 1527. No published sermons by Swiss Brethren or their direct descendants to the present day are known, in Switzerland, France, or Austria, although a few sermons by South German Mennonites of the 19th century have appeared. The writing out of sermons (which precedes their printing) was not done by the lay-preachers of these areas, nor did the Anabaptists and their descendants of the first two hundred years have much interest in printed, theological sermons in any case. It was only later, largely after they had begun to read Lutheran and Reformed books of sermons, particularly under the influence of Pietism in the 18th century, and especially after they had begun to use trained ministers, that Mennonites had a real place for printed sermons. Here they followed pietistic influences. Popular sermon writers were Bogatzky, Hollaz, Hübner, and Funck.
The Dutch were the first among the Mennonites to publish sermons, and the most prolific. Van der Zijpp is of the opinion that parts of the first (1539) edition of Menno Simons' Foundation-Book go back to sermons preached earlier by Menno. Beginning with Pieter Pietersz (1624) and Joost Hendricksz (1647), an almost endless stream of printed sermon collections appeared. The Amsterdam Catalogus lists to 1919 almost 400 titles in Dutch, of which almost 200 were printed before 1800. This includes single sermons as well as collections. The first printed sermons by a German preacher were also in Dutch, those of Willem Wynantsz of Hamburg-Altona (1660). The first printed sermon in German was by Peter Verhelle of the same place (1702). The Hamburg Dompelaar Jacob Denner's tremendous sermon collection (1730, 1718 pages) was not only the largest but probably most influential collection of Mennonite sermons ever printed. Most numerous of the sermon authors were the preachers of Hamburg-Altona, Krefeld, and Danzig. Mennonite sermons printed in Russia appeared mostly in yearbooks and periodicals after the close of the 19th century.
Why were sermons printed? To be read from the pulpits by other preachers? Hardly. To be used as models? Probably. To be read in family worship? Certainly this was the case in later times. The two volumes of West Prussian sermons Predigten aus Mennoniten-Gemeinden 1891-99 (1906) and Predigten vorgetragen in den Mennoniten Gemeinden Westpreussens 1906-09 (1909), were expressly printed for this purpose according to the title page, "Zum Gebrauch für Hausgottesdienst." Perhaps such books were also to be used as private devotional books. The reprints of Wynantsz, Deknatel, and Denner in the 19th century in America no doubt had this as their primary purpose. In 1773 Pennsylvania Mennonites were using "many other books which our old preachers published and left behind for us, as Joost Hendricks, Willern Wynands, Jacob Denner, and many others" (Mennonite Quarterly Review III, 1929, 231). The translation of Wynantsz in 1830 was made by the Amishman David Zug, and all three American editions of this book were for the Amish. Festival sermons had historical value, such as funeral, ordination, beginning of service (Antrittspredigt), retirement (Abschiedspredigt). Baptismal sermons may have been printed as souvenirs for the families involved.
Apart from reprints of European sermon collections (1830, 1835, 1852, 1860, 1871) and the curious sermons of the sleeping-preacher Noah Troyer, printed after his death (1879, 1880), the only original American Mennonite printed sermons before 1900 were: the sermon on "Christianity and War" (1863) by John M. Brenneman (Mennonite Church) and a collection of New Year's sermons (1885) by the noted S. F. Sprunger (General Conference Mennonite Church [GCM] ) of Berne, Indiana. Sprunger also published a unique international Mennonite sermon collection in 1891, Festklänge, with selections from preachers of the United States, Russia, Switzerland, and Germany. The 20th century in North America has produced a representative series of sermon books: J. E. Hartzler (1908), J. A. Huffman (1915), G. P. Schultz (1924), A. H. Unruh (1935), J. H. Janzen (1942, 1945), Wm. G. Detweiler (1943, 1949, 1951, 1952), George R. Brunk (1953), and a collection of Mennonite Brethren sermons. The radio, with its weekly sermon hour, has led to the printing of many Mennonite sermons in recent years.
H. S. Bender and N. D. Springer published in Mennonite Quarterly Review XXVII (1953), 143-57, under the title "An Annotated Bibliography of Published Mennonite Sermons," an extensive list of separately printed Mennonite sermons, whether in collections or as single sermons. Full titles are given, with bibliographical data and locations in the Mennonite Library and Archives (North Newton, Kansas), Mennonite Historical Library (Goshen, Indiana), Amsterdam Mennonite Library, and Hamburg Mennonite Library. Sermons printed as parts of conference proceedings, church bulletins, periodicals, biographical volumes, etc, are not reported. The list is in three parts, (1) Europe, aside from Holland, (2) North America, (3) Holland, of which only the first two parts have appeared.
The only known published discussion of the history of Mennonite preaching outside of Holland is that by H. G. Mannhardt in Mennonitische Blätter XXXVIII (1891), 18 f., 22 f., 28 f., 37 f. (1891), entitled "Geschichte der Predigt in den deutschen Mennoniten-Gemeinden." Roy Umble's doctoral dissertation, Mennonite Preaching, 1864-1944 (Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, 1949), is a study of the preaching of eleven leading American Mennonite (MC) ministers of that period. It has not been published. But see his article, "Characteristics of Mennonite Preaching," Mennonite Quarterly Review XXVII (1953) 137-42.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 503-504, 1148. 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: Bender, Harold S. "Sermons." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 23 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/sermons.
APA style: Bender, Harold S. (1959). Sermons. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/sermons.