Sciences, Natural

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From its origins, Mennonite thought has given scant attention to either the doctrine of creation, natural theology, or the natural sciences. Scientific pursuits among Mennonites typically have reflected the ambient culture rather than elements intrinsic to the Anabaptist or Mennonite tradition (acculturation). The history of Mennonite scientific pursuits thus parallels the vicissitudes of Mennonite involvement in other aspects of high culture, for example, the fine arts.

The magisterial reformers of the 16th century did not count the natural sciences among their primary concerns, and the lack of interest in science among the early Anabaptist leaders is not unusual when viewed in that light. The Anabaptist movement labored under exceptional circumstances, however. Whatever incipient interest in scientific pursuits existed among Anabaptists was undermined by the rapid demise of the first generation of highly-educated leaders, the appeal of Anabaptism predominantly to peasants and artisans, and intensive persecution. The free city of Strasbourg, a context in which such interests might have flourished, illustrates the problems peculiar to Anabaptism. Strasbourg initially served as a haven for dissenters of every stripe. During the tumultuous years of the 1520s, scientific activity (as gauged by publications and university enrollments) declined. By the time it eventually resumed in the 1530s and 1540s, however, the city had banished all Anabaptists, including Pilgram Marpeck, the only first-generation Anabaptist leader with highly-developed "scientific" (engineering) skills. Thanks to the demand for his expertise, Marpeck lived to a ripe old age despite his Anabaptist faith. The extensive knowledge of natural phenomena presupposed by his work in mining, metallurgy, and city water works has, however, left scarcely a trace in his writings. The radical biblicism that characterizes the Anabaptist movement is illustrated by Menno Simons's theory of the incarnation. Wrongly linked with Aristotelianism, Menno's understanding of conception rejected all contemporary naturalistic explanations in favor of the only view he considered biblical, namely that the mother contributed no flesh to the fetus.

In the tolerant and prosperous atmosphere of the northern Netherlands of the 17th century, Mennonite interest in the natural sciences blossomed, at the level of reflection as well as in practice. The first article of the Dordrecht Confession (1632) opens with God and creation, in contrast to the Schleitheim Confession (1527), which omits these topics altogether. During this period, many Dutch Mennonites entered the medical profession (medicine). To conclude their formal training, these physicians often wrote Latin dissertations on physiological or anatomical topics. The Bidloo family stands out with special prominence. Govert Bidloo wrote a splendid book of human anatomy and served as personal physician to William III, first in Holland and later in England, where he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London. His nephew Nicolaas Bidloo founded the first medical school in Moscow under Tsar Peter the Great. In the physical sciences, the cobbler Dirk Rembrandtz van Nierop published books on navigation, mathematics, and astronomy. In addition to his technical interests, he sought to reconcile the sun-centered Copernican system of the universe with Scripture, and defended the new Cartesian natural philosophy.

In the 18th century, several Dutch Mennonites gave institutional form to their intellectual interests. Founded in 1735 to train preachers, the Amsterdam Mennonite Theological Seminary also offered courses in physics, mathematics, and natural philosophy taught by Klaas de Vries, Heere Oosterbaan, and Gerrit Hesselink. English natural theology also left an imprint on Mennonite circles. The Harlingen preachers Johannes Stinstra and Jan Boelaart translated into Dutch the works of Samuel Clarke, a prominent exponent of Newtonian natural theology in England. The wealthy merchant Pieter Teyler endowed the Teyler Foundation to encourage work in both science and religion. The Mennonite pastor Jan Nieuwenhuizen and his son Martin founded the Maatschappij tot Nut van 't Algemeen to make education accessible to the poor. Characterized by a strong Christian Enlightenment flavor, the society published many introductory works on a wide variety of topics, including physical geography, geology, and natural history. Both societies remain active in the late 1980s. The most prominent Dutch scientist of Mennonite descent was the geneticist Hugo de Vries (d. 1935), who proposed the "mutation theory" that laid the foundations of modern genetics.

In contrast to acculturation in The Netherlands, the cultural isolation of the Alsatian Mennonites of the late 18th and 19th centuries not only preserved a sympathetic-magical worldview rooted in popular culture, traditional botanical lore, and folk medicine, but also stimulated a highly-developed empirical science of agriculture. Similar successes characterize the Mennonite colonies of Russia, where the Agricultural Association promoted scientific cattle breeding.

Outside The Netherlands before the late 19th century, Mennonites rarely studied beyond grammar and secondary school, and seldom had the leisure to teach themselves science. In this respect, the Philadelphia astronomer and clock-maker David Rittenhouse, who came from a Mennonite background, was the exception rather than the rule. He not only made the best American calculation of solar parallax based on the transit of Venus for 1769, but also was active in Pennsylvania politics.

Outside The Netherlands and northern Germany, it was not until the turn of the 20th century that Mennonites took a significant interest in higher education. The Halstead (Ks.) School, founded in 1883 as a teacher-training and college preparatory school, included several science courses in its four-year curriculum. Bethel College (Ks.) was founded in 1887-88; the Elkhart (Ind.) Institute of Science, Industry and the Arts (later Goshen College) in 1894. During the following decades, North American Mennonite higher education felt the influence of Fundamentalism. Leaders like H. P. Krehbiel (GCM) and George R. Brunk (MC) sought to preserve their church conferences from the scientific outlook they saw embodied in the twin dangers of Darwinian evolution and critical methods of biblical scholarship. The Articles of Faith adopted by the Mennonite Church (MC) General Conference at Garden City, Missouri. (1921), asserted the historicity and literal truth of Genesis 1. Although related tensions closed Goshen College, 1923-24, such problems evidently had little long-term effect on the intellectual orientation of Mennonite students. At Bluffton College, for example, one fourth to one fifth of the students majored in science between the 1920s and 1960s. For most other Mennonite institutions, the growth of interest in science was a post-World War II phenomenon. Increases in the number of majors did not always translate into PhD degrees, however, for the service motif of Mennonite ethics channeled many students with scientific interests into secondary education and medical practice rather than research. Around 1960, one third to one half of Mennonites involved in non-theological graduate work were studying medicine.

In recent years, science programs in Mennonite colleges have given more emphasis to basic research. Although science majors represent a small proportion of the total number of graduates, the quality is high. Research-oriented professors in Mennonite undergraduate colleges have inspired "schools" of PhD students in such fields as plant pathology and solid state physics.

Although theological pluralism, urbanization, a decentralized church polity, and opportunities for studying science at non-Mennonite schools make reliable figures difficult to obtain, scientists of Mennonite background have made their way onto the faculties and research staffs of major universities and scientific laboratories, and have served in the leadership of major scientific societies.

At the level of policy implications, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) has been involved in matters of scientific import in at least two ways. Since the 1950s, the MCC Peace Section has coordinated efforts to think about the consequences of nuclear weapons. Between 1962 and 1976, the Teachers Abroad Program of MCC sent many science teachers to secondary schools in sub-Sahara Africa.


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Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol. 14. New York, 1979: 95-105 (De Vries); vol. 15 1980: 28-30 (Bidloo).

Hiebert, Erwin. The Impact of Atomic Energy. Newton, KS: Faith and Life, 1961.

Hindle, Brooke. David Rittenhouse. Princeton, 1964.

Juhnke, James. People of Two Kingdoms. Newton, KS: Faith and Life, 1975.

Krahn, Cornelius. "Anabaptism and the Culture of the Netherlands." Recovery: 219-36.

Mijnhardt, W. W. "Veertig Jaar Cultuurbevordering: Teylers Stichting 1778-1815," in 'Teyler' 1778-1978: Studies en bijdragen over Teylers Stichting naar aanleiding van het tweede eeuwfest. Haarlem/Antwerpen: Schuyt, 1978.

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Additional Information

Pieter Teyler (web site for Teyler Museum)

Schleitheim Confession

Author(s) Michael H Shank
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Shank, Michael H. "Sciences, Natural." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 24 Mar 2019.,_Natural&oldid=162898.

APA style

Shank, Michael H. (1989). Sciences, Natural. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 24 March 2019, from,_Natural&oldid=162898.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 802-803. All rights reserved.

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