Psychology and Psychiatry

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The field of psychological investigation and treatment of mental disorders was not something that was of specific concern to Mennonites until the early 20th century Nevertheless there is evidence of concern about psychological principles in education and childrearing even though we can only call it that in retrospect. Christopher Dock's "School management," written in 1750, gives such documentation. In the next century, Johann Cornies, the Russian Mennonite economic and educational reformer, introduced a set of "General rules concerning instruction and treatment of school children," which is sensitive to psychological issues. There is good evidence that the first generation of Russian Mennonite immigrants to the United States carried with them the same concern about good educational psychology. The German Teachers Institute of Kansas formed in 1894 conducted an annual two-week course of studies with a three-year curriculum that had a heavy emphasis on psychology. It is reported that Johann Cornies also set up a program of special education for mentally retarded children. He sent teachers to be trained in Germany, so that they could establish such programs in the Mennonite colonies in the Ukraine.

In 1910 the first Mennonite residential facility for the mentally ill, Bethania, was built by the Chortitza colony in Russia. Bethania was modeled after Bethel at Bielefeld in Germany, and the first staff members were trained there. Doctor I. Thiessen, who joined the staff soon after its opening, stayed with Bethania until it was closed on 9 May 1927.

When Mennonite young people entered higher education in greater numbers in the 20th century, they also became interested in psychology as a field of scientific investigation and as an academic discipline. Some returned to teach in Mennonite colleges. They were objects of particular scrutiny by those who upheld traditional Anabaptist beliefs because of the widespread assumption that the Christian worldview was at odds with the scientific disciplines, especially in the areas of the origin of life and the nature of human mental functioning. Rational explanations of behavior were sometimes considered to be in conflict with the understanding that Mennonites shared with orthodox, and in North America, fundamentalist Christian thinking which considered all humankind to be fallen since the Garden of Eden experience. The only manner in which this nature could be changed was by a confession of faith in Jesus Christ who redeems humans, thereby allowing them to cast off their old sinful nature. To raise questions of causation beyond this theological answer could be interpreted as questioning the doctrinal assertion that the Scriptures were the sole authority on matters of faith.

Psychological investigators of the 19th century were looking into the determinants of intelligence as well as the behaviors exhibited by the mentally ill. Questions asked by scientific investigators did not take at face value the assumptions made by biblical literalists about human nature and instead looked for other, natural determinants of behavior. Studying the works of those who openly challenged the traditional view that behavior is the result of the individual's choice to follow either Christ or Satan was of itself a challenge to the religious establishment and marked the questioner as being at odds with Christian thinking.

Some of the first Mennonite scholars entering the field of psychology left the Mennonite church, thus re-enforcing the concern about the fundamental incompatibility of being a Christian and scholar in a secular field. Others worked at integrating the information gathered about human behavior in a scientific manner into a Christian frame of reference, and returned to teach psychology at Mennonite schools.

With the advent of World War II and alternative service for conscientious objectors a fortuitous decision was made to place thousands of young men in government-run mental hospitals in the United States and Canada. They learned first-hand about mental illness and about the deplorable conditions in the hospitals for the mentally ill. Some of these men returned home to go into careers related to caring for the mentally ill and helped to create the Mennonite Mental Health Services network of hospitals across the United Slates and Canada.

Others entered the fields of psychiatry and clinical psychology because these disciplines were taking on new visibility and respectability in society. Many saw in these fields an opportunity to address the call to Christian service in a new way. Usually they worked alongside professionals of different persuasions and did not necessarily see a uniquely Christian dimension to their work. Some who did work in avowedly Christian settings had difficulty in establishing their credentials as Christians and left. Overall, Mennonites working in the mental health care field have found ways of being true to the traditions derived from their heritage, namely to provide help to those who are needy and unloved.


Friesen, Peter M. The Mennonite Brotherhood in Russia (1789-1910), trans. J. B. Toews and others. Fresno, CA: Board of Christian Literature [M.B.], 1978, rev. 1980.

Harder, Menno S. "The Origin, Philosophy and Development of Education Among the Mennonites. PhD diss., U. of Southern California, 1949.

Neufeld, Vernon H., ed. If We Can Love: the Mennonite Mental Health Story. Newton, Mennonite Press, 1983.

Dick, Bill W. "Psychology and Mennonite Studies." Journal of Mennonite Studies 1 (1983): 149-60.

Author(s) George Dyck
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Dyck, George. "Psychology and Psychiatry." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 17 Nov 2018.

APA style

Dyck, George. (1989). Psychology and Psychiatry. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 17 November 2018, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 730-731. All rights reserved.

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