Simplicity, a Christian virtue stressed by the Anabaptists and the Mennonites, closely related to sincerity, humility, and forthrightness, and applying to many aspects of life, including the manner of address and communication, forms of worship and type of meetinghouse, character of homes and furniture, costume, etc. It is closely related to the principle of nonconformity, and hence it is at times difficult to distinguish the motivation for simplicity of expression, whether it is grounded in sincerity and opposition to prideful expression, or in the intent to be different from the world. It is also related to such attitudes as oppose materialism and complexity. At times it has been closely related to ruralism and anti-urbanism, since many Mennonites have been farmers, and also to traditionalism as opposed to change. At times it has been strongly identified with simplicity in dress. It is therefore not always easy to assign to the concept of simplicity particular expressions of behavior. Much of what might be referred to here is treated in the articles Nonconformity and Dress.
The earliest testimony to the Anabaptist emphasis on simplicity is found in Kessler's Sabbata, written in 1525, describing the Swiss (St. Gall?) Brethren: "They shun costly clothing, they shun expensive food and drink, clothe themselves with coarse cloth, cover their heads with broad felt hats. Their entire manner of life is completely humble." Sebastian Franck (Chronica, 1531) refers to Anabaptist regulations on simplicity of clothing. Bullinger (1561) wrote: "They reproved sharply covetousness, pride, profanity, the frivolous talking and inordinate life of the world"; and at another place, "They reproved earnestly all vain display, all intemperance in eating and drinking." The Strasbourg Conference of 1568 directed that "tailors and seamstresses shall hold to the plain and simple style and shall make nothing at all for pride's sake" and that "brethren and sisters shall stay by the present form of our regulation concerning apparel and make nothing for pride's sake." The Catholic Franz Agricola, evidently describing the Hutterites, wrote in 1582: "Among the existing heretical sects there is none which in appearance leads a more modest, better, or more pious life than the Anabaptists. As concerns their outward public life they are irreproachable. No lying, deception, swearing, harsh language, no intemperate eating and drinking, no outward personal display is found or discernible among them, but humility, patience, uprightness, meekness, honesty, temperance, straightforwardness in such measure that one would suppose that they have the Holy Spirit of God."
Menno Simons said: "We acknowledge, teach and seek no other kingdom than that of Christ, which shall endure forever, in which there is no pomp, splendor, gold, silver." At another place he said that Christ's kingdom is not one "in which a display is made of gold, silver, pearls, silk, velvet and costly finery, as is done by the proud, wicked world."
It is clear that all early Anabaptists of Swiss, Dutch, or Hutterite type and background stressed simplicity consistently in all aspects of life. It is also clear that growing wealth and acceptance in society became a weighty influence militating against the maintenance of simplicity in certain aspects, especially in housing and clothing. This is clearly revealed in the following article on simplicity in the Netherlands. A similar development took place in North Germany and in West and East Prussia, as the second article below indicates. However, simplicity in worship was retained in all these areas, and ceremonialism and liturgical forms never made their way into Mennonite worship anywhere, unless one would rate the introduction of musical instruments as a violation of the original simplicity of Anabaptist worship.
Anabaptist-Mennonite simplicity was on the whole retained in Europe in the rural Mennonite communities in Switzerland, France, and South Germany, even though any prescribed forms of plain dress have long since disappeared; and there is still a spirit of simplicity and resistance to modern fashions and ornamentation in many areas.
The traditional simplicity of Mennonite meetinghouse architecture in Europe and America has been due in part to sincere insistence upon a modest, functional, and economical character of the meetinghouse. However, the severe restrictions placed upon the "churchly" appearance of Mennonite meetinghouses by the governmental authorities in Holland and elsewhere, as well as the desire by the once persecuted Mennonites to avoid all occasion for calling attention to themselves, and possibly the carryover from the house meetings into the first meetinghouses, have also contributed to keep Mennonites from following prevailing ecclesiastical styles, such as Gothic or ornate later styles, with towers, belfries, stained glass windows, etc. In Pennsylvania the influence of the plain Quaker meetinghouse may have been a factor.
The first Mennonites who came to America in 1683-1756 settled in Pennsylvania and came under Quaker influence, the dominant cultural and political group at that time, who strongly emphasized simplicity in many aspects of life including plain dress. Their later neighbors, the Dunkards, the Moravians, the Schwenckfelders, and the Amish, all emphasized simplicity and plainness. All these groups manifested or developed plainness in garb, somewhat like the Quakers, hence the intensification of the "plain" spirit in this area was natural, and all these groups gradually became thought of and often labeled as "the plain people" or "the plain sects." The Eastern Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia areas of the Mennonite Church (MC) as well as the Old Order Mennonites who broke away from them, as well as the various groups of Amish and Amish Mennonites, have maintained a strong emphasis on simplicity and plainness, including certain aspects of a prescribed "plain" costume. Simplicity at times may have become perhaps too exclusively identified among them with "plain dress," although the spirit of plainness is carried through in other aspects of life as well. It is interesting to note that an early source described the Mennonite immigrants of 1710 to the Lancaster area in the following terms: "The dress of both female and male was domestic, quite plain, and of coarse material, after an old fashion of their own." J. C. Wenger cites Morgan Edwards, a Baptist historian writing in 1770, as describing the Mennonites as people who dressed very plainly and as claiming that some men had been expelled for wearing buckle shoes and outside coat pockets.
But the first Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonites and Amish and their descendants were not the only American Mennonites to emphasize simplicity and to apply it concretely to costume as well as other things. The same was true of the Alsatian Amish immigrants of the first half of the 19th century, and of the Swiss immigrants of the same period who later joined the General Conference Mennonite Church. Such groups as the Church of God in Christ Mennonites, the Evangelical Mennonites (Kleine Gemeinde), and the various conservative Manitoba groups (old Colony, Sommerfelder, etc.) still continue to stress simplicity and plainness.
The increasingly higher level of income, the gradual acculturation to the contemporary manner of life in society in general, and the powerful pressure of clever and materialistic advertising, press hard upon the general Mennonite desire to maintain the simple life. Among the American Mennonites of Swiss-South German background, the principle in general was still maintained in the 1950s, although certain outward forms were changing, particularly in costume, but vigorous action in teaching and discipline will be necessary to maintain to the full any valid expression of simplicity in the contemporary situation. HSB
Simplicity of dress, food, and furniture, if not a doctrine, was nevertheless the style of former Dutch Mennonite life, which was inspired by Matthew 5:19 ff. Though the main groups of the Dutch Mennonites, such as the Waterlanders, (Young) Frisians, and (Young) Flemish, never prescribed what degree of simplicity of life was necessary, various incidental references suggest that simplicity was held to be a desirable Christian virtue. During the 17th century in the prosperous Dutch "Golden age," when particularly Mennonite merchants at Amsterdam, Haarlem, Leiden, and other towns became well-to-do and even wealthy, they began to wear costly dress, to build stately homes and country seats, and to furnish their homes with costly furniture and treasures of art. Preachers like Jacob Cornelisz van Dalen (Waterlander), Tieleman Jansz van Braght (Flemish), and Galenus Abrahamsz de Haan (Lamist) ardently protested against the growing luxury and for the retention of simplicity, but seemingly without much success. In 1647 a large Waterlander delegates' meeting held at Amsterdam resolved to remind the preachers of the resolutions taken in the conference of 1581, "to impress both by their lives and teachings" the members of the church of the dangers of "the great pomp of clothes, wedding parties, funerals, meals, decoration of the homes," and similar things.
At the same time or somewhat before, both Old Frisians and Groningen Old Flemish occupied themselves with the same matter. In 1639 the (Old) Frisian Conference of North Holland drew up twelve articles in some of which simplicity of dress and furniture was emphatically demanded. These articles, expanded in the following years, were always read at the beginning of the yearly meetings of the conference. They are found in Blaupot ten Cate, Holland II, 223-28.
In 1656 the Groningen Old Flemish Conference, meeting at Loppersum, resolved to adopt a number of articles in which the members, on penalty of excommunication, were urged to avoid luxury. These regulations were rather rigorous: forbidden were such things as colored clothing, fashionable shoes, the use of smoothing irons, luxurious bedding, chinaware, silver cups and spoons, colored harness for horses, gaudily painted carriages, long hair for men, paintings or pictures on the walls, fire screens with pictures, Delft tiles on the walls, etc. An incomplete copy of these regulations is found in Blaupot ten Cate, Friesland, 307 f. After the last decades of the 18th century they fell into disuse.
In 1698 H. L. Bentheim, a Lutheran opponent of the Mennonites, wrote: "Although there is need of guarding against the errors of these people, one can learn much from them that is good, namely, humility, contentment, sobriety. . . . Above all, they insist on modesty in respect to clothing, although there are some in Amsterdam who are attracting attention by using periwigs and other indications of worldliness. However, in Friesland and in Groningen one will see them in plain dress, although they also as a class are well-informed and well-to-do."
But still in the 19th century, particularly in some conservative rural congregations like Aalsmeer, Balk, Warns, and Ameland, Mennonites held to simplicity. On the island of Ameland, Mennonite homes were generally not painted red, white, green, but a sober brown. Occasionally mention is made of "Menistblauw" (blue), and in my youth I often heard it said that my grandfather refused to wear a gold watch, always using a simple silver one. vdZ
The practice of simplicity among the Mennonites of Prussia and Russia was very similar to that of the Swiss and the Dutch. Through their isolated life they developed some specific beliefs and practices as to what constitutes a true, consecrated Christian life and what is "worldly." This was noticeable in their manner of life, their clothing, homes, furniture, worship services, entertainment, etc. Through group action, cultural patterns developed which were acceptable and variations became difficult to promote because of church discipline or group pressure. Mannhardt (p. 111) reports in detail the changes that took place in the Danzig Mennonite Church. The baptismal candidates were not accepted during a certain year because of their " worldly" clothing which included such items as wigs and scarves. However, being exposed to the culture of the surrounding cities, they gradually adjusted to their environment, although they retained certain characteristics of simplicity.
In Russia, because of greater isolation, patterns of simplicity could be preserved more readily. With later agricultural and economic progress the enforced "simplicity" of the pioneer days gradually disappeared. Contact with the German and Russian culture changed the pattern in clothing, furniture, and buildings. There is, however, very little reference to disciplinary action along these lines. Such features as clothing and head covering did not assume the religious significance and were not considered prerequisites for a simple Christian life to the same degree as among the Amish and other conservative Pennsylvania-German Mennonite groups, although some of the same problems are noticeable.
Particularly the migration of the Mennonites of 1874 must be viewed in connection with the process of an adjustment of the Mennonites to the higher standards of living and culture in Russia. Some of the more conservative groups, such as the later Old Colony Mennonites who settled in Manitoba, left Russia not only because of the threat of military service but also because they felt that their simple way of life at home and particularly in the schools was threatened. In Manitoba and Mexico they developed very much along the same lines as the Amish and Hutterites in that they "froze" or "petrified" certain forms of culture in their belief and emphasis on the simple Christian life. The traditional head covering for men and women, clothing, and even the leather boots for the ministers, received religious significance. The objection to electricity and motor-driven vehicles and many other modern cultural and religious practices was due to their concept of simplicity and nonconformity.
To some degree some other conservative Mennonite groups from Russia who settled in the United States and Canada, such as the Kleine Gemeinde and smaller congregations, have emphasized simplicity similarly and objected to the introduction of some common American cultural customs and practices. The cutting of women's hair, attendance at motion pictures and other theatrical amusements, and at places the introduction of the radio had in the 1950s in some congregations caused disciplinary action on the basis that they were undermining the simple Christian life. This was the case of some of the congregations of the General Conference Mennonite Mennonite Brethren, Krimmer Mennonite Brethren, Evangelical Mennonite Brethren, and other groups of Russian background. As a rule there have not been great controversies or differences of opinion along these lines which led to separation, with the exception of the conservative Manitoba Mennonites where for instance one division in in the 1940s/1950s was caused in part by a dispute regarding the wearing of white bridal gowns in stead of the traditional black. It is generally emphasized that a stable consecrated Christian life will find an expression in daily living which will be in harmony with the traditional Biblical Mennonite concept of simplicity.
Wenger, J. C. Separated Unto God, a Plea for Christian Simplicity of Life and Scriptural Nonconformity to the World. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1951.
Wenger, J. C. Historical and Biblical Position of Mennonite Church on Attire. Scottdale, PA, 1944.
Horsch, John. Mennonites in Europe. Scottdale, PA, 1942.
Zijpp, N. van der. Geschiedenis der Doopsgezinden in Nederland. Arnhem, 1952: 152-56.
Mannhardt, H. G. Die Danziger Mennonitengemeinde. Danzig, 1919.
Krahn, Cornelius. "Menno and Discipleship," in Studies in Church Discipline. Newton, KS, 1958.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 529-531. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Bender, Harold S., Nanne van der Zijpp and Cornelius Krahn. "Simplicity (1958)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1958. Web. 24 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/S557ME.html.
APA style: Bender, Harold S., Nanne van der Zijpp and Cornelius Krahn. (1958). Simplicity (1958). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 24 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/S557ME.html.