Mennonite Faith vs. Mennonite Culture

Henry H. Funk was born in Rosenfeld, Manitoba, a village founded by Mennonites. He and his family considered themselves faithful Mennonites. When the war came, both Henry and his brother, Tony, applied for conscientious objector status. Henry's other brother took a different path.

“My next oldest brother, Bill, waited until his registered letter arrived at the local post office but he did not pick it up. Instead, he went to the Fort Osborne Barracks in Winnipeg and enlisted in the army. This way he was able to choose his outfit and avoid the infantry. Bill was morally and spiritually an upright, honest young man.” [ASM, 138-153]

Henry considers Bill a “powerful role model” and says that he took his stand with “real integrity.” But Bill joined the military. Does this mean that Bill wasn't a Mennonite? Yes and no. The answer depends how you define being Mennonite.

Canadian Mennonites identify themselves as Christians. The Mennonite aspect of their faith is expressed in certain interpretations of the Bible, such as adult baptism and pacifism.

Mennonites used to be easy to identify because they ate similar foods and dressed in similar clothes. Before the Second World War, almost all of them lived in small villages or on farms and spoke German or a Swiss Mennonite dialect. Most of these families had been Mennonites for as long as they could remember, hundreds of years for some of them. In this sense, you can be born a Mennonite. But even if you eat, dress, and speak like a Mennonite, that only makes you a cultural Mennonite. Being Mennonite is more about what you believe and how you act than about how you look or what kind of food you eat.

As of 2003, there were 1,297,716 baptized adult Mennonites in 65 countries around the world. There are more Mennonites in Africa and Asia than in North America. Compared to most Canadian Mennonites before the Second World War, these Mennonites do not have any family tradition of being Mennonite. All the same, they are Mennonites because they follow Mennonite faith teachings. In this sense, being Mennonite is something anyone can do. It is something you believe.

Anyone can make a decision to be a Mennonite. This may sound odd, but it is true. Above all, being a “Mennonite” involves faith and a personal decision. In the days of Menno Simons, after whom Mennonites took their name, a person became a Mennonite by believing what Mennonites believed and acting like Mennonites did.

For a variety of reasons, some young men who came from Mennonite families chose to join the military during the Second World War. In the area of pacifism, they did not follow the centuries-old Mennonite tradition. Their actions showed that they did not necessarily embrace Mennonite peace teaching, even though they were Mennonite in other ways. One could say that these men were not Mennonites, but in some ways they still were.

This web site explores the thoughts and actions of men who followed the traditional Mennonite teaching of pacifism. It should be remembered, though, that the people called “Mennonites” are made up of a number of groups, each of whom interpret Biblical teachings and beliefs in slightly different ways. The Swiss Mennonites, for example, came to Ontario, Canada starting in 1786, from the United States, and before that from Switzerland. The group known as Russian Mennonites came to Canada in the 1870s and the 1920s. These various groups have much in common, but they are not completely identical. Some of the Russian Mennonites, for example, felt that non-combatant service in the medical corps of the army was permissible for COs. Swiss Mennonites and the other Russian Mennonites thought COs should not participate in war in any way, not even as medical workers.

When looking through this site, remember that “Mennonite” can be interpreted in several different ways. The differences, large and small, are what make life so interesting. To learn more about what Mennonites believe, visit Mennonite Church Canada - Beliefs.