Abstinence is a voluntary or self-imposed effort to refrain from indulging in certain harmful practices, especially the use of alcohol or tobacco. Many North American Mennonite groups historically believed that it was sinful to indulge in these practices (see Romans 12:1), and as late as the mid-twentieth century, several groups made the use of tobacco or strong drink a test of church membership.
Mennonites, however, have not always had a conscience against the use of these items. Some Mennonites in the 1950s, including the Amish, raised tobacco as a cash crop. Lancaster County (Pennsylvania) was the center of the tobacco-growing region, as far as Mennonites were concerned, but other counties of the state, as well as Maryland, southern Ontario, and other regions were involved. Many Mennonites, including some women and ministers, used tobacco extensively in the nineteenth century.
The coming of the Russian Mennonites to North America in the 1870s (many of whom were abstainers), the Sunday school movement, the temperance movement, and the anti-tobacco efforts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries helped to change this attitude of acceptance to one of general abstinence. As this conscience developed, many individuals wrote John F. Funk chiding him for his failure to take a stand on drinking and smoking in the Herald of Truth. The following excerpt on smoking, taken from the March 1878 issue of this paper, reveals the intensity of this pressure. "We stand between two fires. . . . Among our American Mennonites the use of tobacco prevails. . . . Some are so wedded to the habit that they are offended if anyone speaks against it. . . . Among our Russian Mennonite brethren there are those who stand on the contrary side of this question. . . . They have made it a rule of their church . . . and it is an offense to them when they see anyone use it. . . and there are even among our American Mennonites, members here and there who hold the same views." Many of the (old) Mennonite and Amish congregations gradually developed a conscience against the use of tobacco and alcoholic beverages; however, there were still some within these circles who grew and used tobacco.
The attitude of the Mennonites on abstinence, both in America and in Europe, was influenced to a considerable extent by the nineteenth and early twentieth-century abstinence movements on one hand and on the other by the prevailing mores of the larger community that to a greater or lesser degree have infiltrated them. Some of the more conservative groups, particularly the Old Colony Mennonites of Mexico, have never experienced the impact of the abstinence movement, and among them smoking is more prevalent.
By the late twentieth century, most North American Mennonite groups no longer held such a strong position on abstinence, and few made it a test of membership.
Fretz, J. W. "The Growth and Use of Tobacco Among Mennonites," in Proceedings of the Seventh Annual Conference on Cultural Problems (1949): 87-100
Stucky, H. J. "Cultural Interaction Among the Mennonites Since 1870." M.A. thesis, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, 1947: 40 ff.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 8-9. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Stuckey, Harley J and Kevin Enns-Rempel. "Abstinence." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 2006. Web. 23 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/A2457.html.
APA style: Stuckey, Harley J and Kevin Enns-Rempel. (2006). Abstinence. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/A2457.html.