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Recreation is usually defined as the voluntary participation in an activity during leisure time by an individual because of immediate satisfactions or pleasure. One has a choice of the activities to be participated in because they occur during that time period not required by the individual to earn a living or perform tasks essential to the sustenance of life. Some argue that the term recreation implies that the activity be re-creative in nature and socially acceptable. For the purposes of this article we will assume that recreation is participation in a leisure-time activity without making a moral evaluation of the specific activity. Historically the Christian church has struggled to determine which activities are acceptable and which ones should he shunned (amusements). This article deals with Mennonite recreation in North America.

Anabaptists found themselves in difficult times immediately upon their formation in Holland and Switzerland where they were persecuted and frequently were forced to migrate from one area to another. Life was not easy and demanded all of one's time and resources to maintain life. Coming to North America did not ease the demands on time as the work establishing homes in the new land demanded all of their time and energies.

Mennonites satisfied their recreational needs through their participation in church activities, visiting neighbors and relatives, working together in productive social events (husking bees, barn raisings, butcherings, quiltings). Times spent in these activities provided for social needs as well as being productive. (Even in the late 20th century many prefer to participate in combination service and social activities, e.g., Mennonite Disaster Service, canning meat for Mennonite Central Committee, or spending hours in preparation for a relief sale.) Hunting and fishing were acceptable activities that also produced food for the table. Sunday afternoons and evenings were spent reading, writing letters, visiting friends and relatives, or in other edifying activities, e.g., Bible study. Participation in arts and crafts (folk arts) again was primarily determined by utilitarian factors. Singing and music were seen as important components of worship. Women gave creative expression through needlework such as crocheting, knitting, and in the making of quilts.

There were three major forces that played vital roles in the determination of Mennonite recreation. These were Scriptures, separatism (nonconformity), and economics.

Mennonites have always looked to the Scriptures as their primary source of guidance and have placed a high value on searching the Scriptures, particularly the New Testament, for guidance in making decisions in all aspects of life. Therefore, much of the free time of people was used to read the Bible and in the attendance of church and Bible study nights. The use of leisure time and leisure activities needed to be in accord with their interpretation of the Scriptures.

Acceptance of Jesus Christ as savior and Lord implies that one becomes a new creature who is now interested in spiritual things and removes herself from participation in "worldly" activities. Traditionally, this has meant that Christians should not participate in socially accepted "worldly" activities such as dancing, drinking (alcohol), card-playing, and pool (billiards) playing (amusements).

As long as the Mennonites were able to maintain their identity by living in agricultural communities separate from the "world" they were able to reduce, if not eliminate, the pressures from the outside world. Considering the industriousness of the Mennonites and the hardships that they endured as pioneers one can surmise that play was thought of as suitable for children but not for adults. If adults had leisure time it should be spent in a more productive manner. Mennonite concern about participation in questionable amusements is evident from the more than 120 conference resolutions defining and condemning worldly amusements passed by the various Mennonite district conferences after 1865.

Before 1900 survival made such demands on Mennonites' time and energy that there was very little time for recreational activities. Work on the farms started early in the morning and was continued on into the dark of night. Sundays were taken up with church activities and was a time for visiting relatives and friends. Families were large, and each child was an asset to the family labor force.

Probably because of the many migrations and the difficulties of pioneer life, the owning of good farmland became increasingly important. So, even though the family needs were met, there was this continuous drive to earn more so that one could buy more land. It has been said that Mennonite recreation was focused on making money and purchasing farmland.

The growth of population and the Industrial Revolution made a major impact on the Mennonites and their attitudes toward recreational activities. Farm machinery made larger farms possible. Mennonite families were large, and it was soon evident that there was not enough land available for all of the children to stay on the farm. Compulsory education also brought the Mennonites into contact with others and soon the walls that once protected the Mennonites in their rural colonies began to evaporate.

Mennonites began to accept jobs in the factories and in the cities. The industrial revolution brought with it leisure time as they now worked a 40-hour week and had free time evenings and weekends. Contact with people of other backgrounds presented them with many different views of and opportunities for recreation. The automobile made it possible to go into a neighboring city to see a movie or to participate in some other questionable form of recreation without fear that someone in the home church would know about it. Thus a new freedom came quickly upon Mennonites. With this freedom came a defensive posture about leisure time with strong feelings that it was no one's business as to how they spent their leisure time because they had earned it (discipline).

Just as the Industrial Revolution transformed the agricultural society into an urban factory production society, the communication revolution described by John Naisbitt in his book Megatrends (1982) is again changing society. Through the use of communication satellites we now are able to witness almost any event anywhere in the world as it is occurring. Just as the Industrial Revolution moved people from the rural farm life into urban factory life, so the communication revolution is moving people from factory jobs into communication and information jobs. In 1790, 98 percent of the population lived in rural areas and only 3 percent in the cities. "Farmers, who as recently as the turn of the century constituted more than one-third of the total labor force, now are about 3 percent of the workforce. In fact, today there are more people employed full-time in our universities than in agriculture" (Naisbitt, Megatrends, 14). In the 1980s only 13 percent of the labor force was employed in manufacturing.

The challenge facing Mennonites is how they will be able to adapt to these rapid changes. Television brings violence and corruption into our homes as well as religious programs. Computers bring knowledge into our homes and give us access to information that was only dreamed of a few years ago. Our children are exposed to the ways of the world as never before. Toys, games, and cereals are brought to their attention in graphic and appealing ways. Living a life separate or apart from the world is becoming increasingly difficult.

The future will bring increased amounts of leisure time. Not only is the work week getting shorter, but we are retiring at an earlier age. This together with an increasing life expectancy will provide us with large blocks of leisure time. With better salaries, faster transportation, increased marriages to non-Mennonites, and greater availability of recreation opportunities it remains to be seen if the Mennonites will take advantage of these opportunities to become creative Christians or if they will be absorbed and become one with the "world" that they once rejected so vigorously.


Hostetler, John A. Amish Society. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1980: 166-67, 218-20.

Lehman, Harold D. In Praise of Leisure. Scottdale, PA, 1974.

Oswald, Charles Evan. "A History of Sports in the Mennonite Church of North America Since 1900."  MA, U. of Illinois, 1956.

Clemens, Frances, Robert Tully, and Edward Grill. Recreation and the Local Church. Elgin: Brethren Publishing House, 1956.

Kraus, Richard. Recreation Leader's Handbook. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1955.

Meyer, Harold D. and Charles K. Brightbill. Community Recreation. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1956.

Naisbitt, John. Megatrends. New York: Warner Books, 1982.

Author(s) Oswald H Goering
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Goering, Oswald H. "Recreation." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 22 Apr 2019.

APA style

Goering, Oswald H. (1989). Recreation. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 22 April 2019, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, p. 747-748. All rights reserved.

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