Elementary Education

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Elementary Education is a term commonly used in North America for the training given to children during the first eight years of their attendance at school. The term is in contrast to secondary education, which refers to the work in grades 9-12 inclusive.


During the early days of Anabaptism in Switzerland and Holland conditions were not favorable for the establishment of church or parochial schools. In the days of persecution such institutions would not have been permitted. Lacking relatively permanent and closely knit communities the Anabaptists of these areas would have found it difficult to establish their own schools. The Hutterites, on the other hand, living in colonies, were able to establish their own schools, which they did as early as 1533. School attendance was compulsory and their schools were good enough to attract non-Hutterite children. M. S. Harder explains, "The Hutterian schools were divided into three departments. The first accepted the children when they were one-and-a-half years old. It was like a Kindergarten in modern education. It was concerned chiefly with the physical care of the children. The little children were taught to speak, and received their first instruction in religion and social living. At the age of 5 or 6 the children entered the next department, not unlike an elementary school. Here they were under the supervision of a schoolmaster who taught them how to read and write. The religious training was greatly emphasized. Prayers, the catechism, and religious hymns occupied the center of the curriculum. . . . The children remained in this department until they were old enough to learn to work."

After the persecution of the Dutch Mennonites ended, they became absorbed in the urban life of their country, not living in closed communities. They sent their children both to secular schools and to church schools maintained by other Christian groups. Only in Haarlem did they have their own institutions, where they owned and supported two elementary schools, one of which was still in existence in 1954, both of which however were essentially schools for poor children and not conceived as parochial church schools.

After the Swiss government organized its national school system, the Mennonites organized elementary schools in their homes to comply with the new law. During the last half of the 19th century there were at least 20 such schools among the Mennonites in the Jura Mountains. When the financial burden of these schools became almost too heavy for the Mennonites to bear, they were given state financial aid. The Chaux d'Abel elementary school was the first to be granted equal status with other state schools and therefore to be declared eligible for state aid. A few years later, in 1899, the Mont-Tramelan school was granted similar recognition. In 1949 there were seven one-teacher Mennonite schools in Switzerland, offering nine grades of work, and all complying with the educational requirements of Swiss law. The schools at Chaux d'Abel, Montbautier, and Perceux had their own buildings. The Moron and Jeangisboden schools were held in churches and the Mont-Tramelan and the Perceux schools met in private homes.

In Germany the Realanstalt am Donnersberg, later known as the Weierhof Real- und Erziehungs-Anstalt, a private secondary boarding school founded by Michael Löwenberg, and patronized by Mennonites, was opened in 1867. A ruling of the Bavarian state compelled it to operate on the elementary level from 1878 to 1884. In 1869 an elementary school was opened in the French village of Etupes for the Mennonite children of this area. Later the school was moved to an estate near the village of Exincourt, where it was operated successfully for seven years. The Mennonites of Altona operated an elementary school in 1723-1795 with interruptions (Dollinger, 169 f.). The Mennonites of Neustadt-Goedens, East Friesland, maintained an elementary school for some time in conjunction with the Reformed (archives at Aurich). The Deutschhof, Palatinate, congregation also operated its own elementary school for a time.

When the Mennonites moved to South Russia in 1789 ff., they soon established their own elementary schools, although during the first 50 years they were inadequate because of the poverty of the colonies. In 1820 a movement to improve elementary education was begun in the Molotschna Mennonite colony by planning for secondary schools to train teachers. Such a school was the Ohrloff Zentralschule opened in 1822. Johann Cornies as leader of the Agricultural Union in these Mennonite settlements brought about changes in the educational standards which greatly improved the quality of their elementary schools in the years following 1843. By 1910, the number of elementary schools in the Mennonite villages had grown to 400, taught by 500 teachers, mostly men. After 1880 the Mennonite educational system increasingly came under the control of the state. Following the Russian Revolution, the Mennonites lost their control over their schools, which then were used to destroy rather than to maintain Mennonite ideals, and their educational autonomy which had lasted a century was completely destroyed.

North America

In colonial Pennsylvania, the Mennonites established schools in their communities, although these were not parochial but rather private subscription schools. It was a common practice of the Mennonites to use their churches for school purposes. Sometimes their school was built on the same grounds as the church. J. E. Hartzler mentions more than a dozen Mennonite churches of eastern Pennsylvania prior to 1800 that were used as buildings for elementary schools. Silas Hertzler states that by 1776 at least 16 schools were being conducted by the Mennonites of Pennsylvania. The noted Mennonite schoolteacher Christopher Dock taught two such schools in Eastern Pennsylvania, at Skippack and at Salford, in the first half of the 18th century. His Schulordnung (1770) was a pioneer book on pedagogy in colonial America. During the second half of the 18th century the public school system replaced the private schools in that state, but not without opposition from the Mennonites and other sectarian groups who wished to maintain the former system.

By the last half of the 19th century the Pennsylvania Mennonites and their daughter colonies to the west had accepted the public school system and were no longer maintaining private schools. Later immigrants, however, such as those who came to Lee County, Iowa, from Germany, established their own school in 1853. The subjects taught in the seven-month term included the catechism, singing, reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and nature study. Instruction was given in both English and German. At one time there were three of these parochial schools in Lee County and one in Washington County. One of these was continued until shortly before World War I.

Another pioneering experiment in elementary parochial education was launched by the Amish in Iowa when they organized the German School Association of the Old Order Amish in 1890. Although their schools placed much emphasis upon learning German and the catechism, several of the elementary subjects were taught both in the summer and in the winter terms.

When the Mennonites from Russia settled on the western plains in the 1870s they established the kind of elementary schools that they had been accustomed to in Europe. This was possible because there were well-trained teachers among the immigrants. Their first schoolhouse in Kansas was a sod house in Gnadenau, in which Johann Harder taught during the winter of 1874-1875. Besides teaching the usual elementary subjects, these early instructors taught German, Bible history, and the Mennonite catechism. Although the public schools soon began to offer competition to their church elementary schools, their numbers increased down to the time of World War I. In the 1898 meeting of the Western District Conference (General Conference Mennonite), it was reported that their committee on education had received reports from 42 schools. There were seven others from which reports were not received. In the conference of 1915 it was reported that questionnaires had been sent to 60 schools in the district. The demand for trained teachers led to the development of preparatory schools and eventually colleges among the General Conference Mennonites. The German Teachers' Association and the German Teachers' Institute were outgrowths of this educational program. The 1903 Institute, for example, had an attendance of 57. Eventually the competition of the public schools and the dropping of the German language brought about the abandonment of the system of private elementary schools, so that by 1954 only a very few remained.

Soon after most of the General Conference Mennonite elementary schools had been discontinued, the Mennonite Church (MC) and the Conservative Amish Mennonites launched a program of building elementary schools. The first of these was the Mennonite Private School, started at Dover, Delaware, in 1925. From there the movement spread to Pennsylvania (1938), Virginia (1941), Ohio (1944), Arkansas (1944), Tennessee (1944), Idaho (1945), Florida (1946), New York (1948), Oregon (1948), Arizona (1949), Illinois (1950), Indiana (1950), and Michigan (1953). In the school year 1955-56 there were 86 of these elementary schools, in which nearly 5,000 children were enrolled in the first eight grades. The disappearance of the isolation which Mennonite communities had earlier enjoyed, the tendency of public schools to become completely secular, the realization that certain standards, such as nonresistance and nonconformity to the patterns of a worldly society, were endangered by the public schools, and in some instances a reactionary approach that tried to stop all changes, were in part responsible for this vigorous new movement that was still advancing in 1954.

When Pennsylvania Mennonites migrated to Ontario in the early 19th century, they took the private school pattern with them. Benjamin Eby, leader and bishop in the early Waterloo County settlement, not only taught such a school but wrote his own Neues Buchstabir- und Lesebuch, first published in 1839 and often reprinted, also a Fibel.

One of the chief reasons why Mennonites from Russia settled in Manitoba in 1874 ff. was that here they were granted complete school autonomy, a privilege which they enjoyed without interruption until 1883. During those years they established their own German private elementary schools, supported by village taxes. They regarded these schools as the "nursery of Christianity" and guarded their privileges zealously. Although at first these Mennonite schools were as good as or better than the public schools of the province, in time they became stagnant because of the growing shortage of well-trained teachers. Progressive elements in the settlements wanted the better schools which public tax money could afford. As a result the school problem became a most serious one in the Mennonite settlements, producing not only intragroup conflict but also conflicts with the provincial regulations designed not only to improve the quality of education but also to impose an English-Canadian culture upon the Mennonites. In the end the Mennonites lost their battle and those conservative groups, the Old Colony Mennonites, who refused to surrender, retreated to Mexico and Paraguay, where they were privileged to establish their own elementary school system. In 1922-1924 some 5,000 Manitoba Mennonites settled in Mexico and in 1926-1927 some 1,700 in Paraguay. Some of them, however, solved their problem for the time being by moving into Canada's Far North, where public schools have not been organized, and where they are again allowed to carry on their own elementary schools.

The thousands of Mennonite refugees from communist Russia who also settled in Paraguay after World War I and again after World War II established their own schools. Twelve thousand Mennonites in Paraguay were living in 138 villages in 1950. In these villages 2,330 Mennonite children were enrolled in 94 elementary schools. In 1951 the Mennonites in Brazil had at least one elementary school and in 1950 the Mennonite refugees recently settled in Uruguay had one such school.

See also Education Among the Mennonites in Russia; Education, Mennonite


Dollinger, R. Geschichte der Mennoniten in Schleswig-Holstein . . . Neumünster i. H., 1930.

Francis, E. K. Tradition and Progress Among the Mennonites in Manitoba (reprint from Mennonite Quarterly Review 24, October 1950)

Francis, E. K. The Mennonite School Problem in Manitoba 1874-1919 (reprint from Mennonite Quarterly Review 27, July 1953)

Fretz, J. Winfield. Pilgrims in Paraguay. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1953.

Froese, L. "Das pädagogische Kultursystem der mennonitischen Siedlungsgruppe in Russland." Doctoral dissertation, University of Göttingen, 1949.

Harder, M. "Disadvantages of the Parochial System." Proceedings of the Seventh Annual Conference on Mennonite Cultural Problems. North Newton. 1949.

Harder, M. S. "The Origin, Philosophy, and Development of Education Among the Mennonites." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Southern California, 1949.

Hartzler, J. E. Education Among the Mennonites of America. Danvers, Illinois, 1925.

Hertzler, S. "Mennonite Parochial Schools: Why Established and What They Have Achieved." Proceedings of the Seventh Annual Conference on Mennonite Cultural Problems. North Newton. 1949.

Peters, H. P. History and Development of Education Among the Mennonites in Kansas. Hillsboro, 1925.

Author(s) Melvin Gingerich
Date Published 1956

Cite This Article

MLA style

Gingerich, Melvin. "Elementary Education." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. 20 Oct 2019. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Elementary_Education&oldid=113779.

APA style

Gingerich, Melvin. (1956). Elementary Education. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 20 October 2019, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Elementary_Education&oldid=113779.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 181-183. All rights reserved.

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