Ordnungsbriefe (Church Disciplines). The strict Biblicism of the Mennonites logically led to a strict exercise of discipline. In private and family life the fathers sought to regulate matters in such a way as to maintain, to the highest degree possible, the "pure church." For the purpose of formulating their church regulations the elders and preachers of the congregations in Alsace-Lorraine and South Germany met in conference a number of times. (See Strasbourg Conferences and Essingen). A record was kept of these meetings and the resolutions passed were announced to the brotherhood as Ordnungsbriefe, understood as the norm to be followed as conscientiously as possible. They dealt mostly with matters of congregational life, ministerial service, and church discipline, but reached into the private life of the members. These Ordnungsbriefe were never published but were handed down by the elders in writing. Copies of most of them have been preserved in the Mennonite Historical Library, Goshen, IN. The list of known Ordnungsbriefe follows:
1. Abrede und Verordnung der Diener und Aeltesten in der Versammlung zu Strassburg, im ]ahr Anno 1568 and 1607 (with appendix and supplement of Obersülzen and Offstein in 1688). (See Strasbourg Conferences).
2. Ordnungsbrief of 28 April 1752 at Steinselz. (See Alsace.)
3. Ordnungsbrief of 1 May 1759 at Essingen near Landau in the Palatinate. This is a supplement to the Steinselz Ordnungsbrief. By way of introduction it says, "Today 1 May 1759, we the undersigned have been together at Essingen in order to see how we agree in faith and other opinions, because in the conference at Steinselz on 19 April 1752, we agreed on certain points and have found them offensive to the brotherhood."
4. Ordnungsbrief of 21 November 1779 at Essingen. (See Alsace.) This Ordnungsbrief (and the previous one of 1759) is printed in full in Mennonitische Geschichtsblätter 3 (1938): 52-55. The document has the title, Abrede der Diener und Aeltesten aus vielen Orten und Ländern in der Versammlung zu Essingen bet Landau, den 21. Wintermonat 1779 Jahres. The sixteen articles of this discipline borrow much from the Strasbourg discipline of 1568. It is in part a repetition of these articles, though in a different order. An addition is the reference to the confession of faith contained in the Martyrs Mirror and also Article six, which says, "The preachers and elders shall faithfully perform the service laid upon them by the Lord and His church, not in pride or haughtiness, but in lowliness and humility, according to the content of the holy Gospel and shall introduce nothing new or unusual, that they may not be moved aside from the simplicity in Christ."
Also the prescriptions concerning costume and coiffure, from Article 13 on, are not found in the Strasbourg discipline. Responsible preachers and elders were especially admonished in the final article, "to be more careful in preaching and admonition, in baptism and communion in Christian order according to the content of the Gospel." Thirty-nine preachers from 19 congregations signed the document. The Swiss congregations were not represented in these Essingen conferences, but held rather closely to these decisions, including the regulations on dress, etc., until the end of the 19th century. The Ibersheim (Rheinhessen) Conference of 1803 had much the same character for the Mennonites of the Palatinate as did the Essingen Conference of 1779 for the Amish.
The European conferences to establish similar regulations (Ordnungen) were essentially continued by the Amish in the United States, and the resolutions passed were treated as the Ordnungsbriefe had been though not so called. The Amish conferences of 1809 (held in Lancaster County, PA.), 1837 (Somerset County, PA.), and 1865 (Holmes County, Ohio), minutes of all of which have been preserved (in the Mennonite Historical Library, Goshen, Indiana, USA), are illustrations. The resolutions are almost identical in form and concern with the earlier Ordnungsbriefe, though oriented to the problems of the 19th century in America. To some extent the Mennonite (Mennonite Church) conferences of the 18th and 19th centuries were essentially the same; their concerns were more in the line of church discipline than theology or church activity. The 20th century broadened the concerns of the conferences when new life and progress came in.
All the Ordnungsbriefe and later conference resolutions were conceived basically as guides for the elders to follow in their administration of the congregations and maintenance of the faith and practice handed down from the past. Though not formally binding they had great weight and contributed much to stability, uniformity, unity, and somewhat to rigidity in the congregations. The Offenthal Amish Conference of 1867, by its decision to relax or even discard the older Ordnung, was a symbol of the disintegration of the Amish congregations in Hesse and the adjoining territory.
Bender, H. S. "An Amish Church Discipline of 1779." Mennonite Quarterly Review 11 (1937): 163-168.
Bender, H. S. "Discipline Adopted by the Strasburg Conference of 1568." Mennonite Quarterly Review 1 (January 1927): 57-66.
Bender, H. S. "Some Early American Amish Mennonite Disciplines." Mennonite Quarterly Review 8 (1934): 90-98.
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon., 4 v. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe; Schneider, 1913-1967: v. III, 308.
Schowalter, Paul. "Die Essinger Konferenzen 1759 und 1779." Mennonitische Geschichtsblätter 3 (1938): 49-55.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 73-74. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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