World History from a Mennonite Perspective

This post was published first in February, 2015.

MennoHistoryEvery people has its own way of viewing the past. British punsters recently came up with a world history timeline replete with both puns and anglocentrism; anyone who worked their way through the Canadian school system understands that as of the 20th century, world history became uniquely dominated by Canadian statesmen and soldiers. Americans — well, Americans may be excluded from this pattern as they are, of course, famous for not even knowing their own history, let alone making it the central thread in a rich tapestry of the human past. If, however, you have been fortunate enough to have been shown world history through a Mennonite lens, you’ll have an image of the past that’s just a little bit different from that of your neighbour.

As a special treat, I’ve prepared a handy dandy Mennonite Timeline of World History  that you can download and hang on your wall or use as wallpaper (note that you’ll need 11 x 17 paper and a lot of it if you opt for wallpaper for your walls rather than for your computer). Or you could just fold it up into a square and use it as a coaster for when you pause in your drinking to ponder the contours of world history and the way of the Menno within it.

Most world histories begin with prehistory and follow that up with the earliest civilizations known. We don’t much care about that. It’s not that we spend our time fighting about creationism vs evolution. We really just don’t care.  We care about the Ancient history that’s in the Old Testament and the New Testament, with scholarly context added to give flavour when needed or helpful. This way, we learn a bit about Ancient Egypt, the Israelites and the Romans. We have a vague notion that people and civilizations were also in existence outside of the Middle East in ancient times but it always kind of surprises us just the same.

It goes without saying that Jesus’ ministry on earth was the single most important event in human history.  The second most important event was, of course, the Radical Reformation and the birth of Anabaptism. It is one of the great travesties of our time that standard texts of World history frequently omit this entirely or gloss over it with but a sentence or two. Between these two momentous events, there were about 1400 years of ignorance and backward thinking. A few of the bad things that happened during those 1400 years include: the joining of the Church and the State under Constantine, the introduction of infant baptism, the cult of the saints and veneration of the Virgin Mary, the building of big expensive Churches, monasticism, transubstantiation, and the Papacy.  A number of other things happened too both in Europe and in other parts of the world, but never mind about those.

Before the Radical Reformation, there was the not-so-radical Protestant Reformation. We think of that, and a few of the late medieval thinkers and doers, as precursors to Anabaptism. It is only sad that people like Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli weren’t brave or smart enough to see the necessity of adult baptism etc. and in fact joined the worldly powers in persecuting Anabaptists. Some, we suspect, knew better themselves but caved in the face of pressure from the worldly governments around them.

Lucky for us a small group of smart young men emerged in Zurich in the year 1525 to speak the Truth and get us back to the purity of the Early Church. Of particular note were Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz and Georg Blaurock. After breaking with the degenerate authorities, these men preached to the people in the Netherlands, Switzerland and South Germany and gained many followers. Some Anabaptists misunderstood the message and started an uprising centered in Munster. (We’re not that kind of Anabaptist.) Many Anabaptists were arrested, tortured and executed. Around 1540, Menno Simons emerged as a leader among Anabaptists and drew together the peaceful, good and pious ones. People around them started to call these people Mennonites. They fled persecution and formed little communities, doing their best to live godly lives in peace despite recurring persecution. Quite a few moved to America, others moved to Prussia and later Russia.

Mennonites continued to hold fast to their godly lifestyle even as the rest of the world deteriorated further, each generation successively worse than the one before it. While the Enlightenment embraced the voluntarism that Anabaptists had earlier demanded and favoured a separation of the Church and the state, it also tended towards secularism and even flirted with atheism. The sole exception to the downward spiral of world civilizations after the sixteenth century lay in the realm of Church music where, it must be admitted, a number of fine pieces were composed. Nonetheless, this scarcely made up for the depravity of the modern world. Governments never ceased in their fighting of wars, the wars also getting worse with each iteration. For Mennonites, these wars often resulted in governments reneging or threatening to renege on their promise of exemption from military service. Mennonites were such good farmers and citizens, however, that governments were eager to have them as immigrants and hated to see them leave.  Mennonites in the US suffered greatly in the American Revolution and the Civil War; Mennonites in Russia suffered terribly in WWI and the Russian Revolution. Those who remained suffered more under Stalin. Many fled to Canada, the US and South America.

Within Mennonite communities, the people continued to live very much like they had in the seventeenth century, managing to put the lie to the dictum of change being the only constant (one Mennonite writer claims their patterns went back to pre-Christian times). Recent historians have suggested that Mennonites in Russia were not in fact timeless (or perfect, either) but this is not the dominant view. Late nineteenth century religious movements in the US and Europe did have something of an influence on some Mennonites and this period saw a rise in Church schisms that sometimes necessitated migration, and the development of Mennonite evangelism to Asia and Africa. However, even as they split and expanded their scope, they remained essentially the same.

In the second half of the 20th century, a number of Mennonites decided that the world had become so degenerate that something needed to be done. Living as the quiet in the land as an example of purity to the world had not, it appeared, made it any better. Also, it was getting harder to make a living on a family farm. At this point, hordes of Mennonites began moving to cities in earnest, infiltrating the media and the institutions of higher education. Here they hoped to serve better as a beacon of light to a world of darkness. Many of the Churches also began to alter their internal politics and practices. With globalization, the spread of Mennonite churches in Africa and Asia, and the growth of neo-anabaptism, the Mennonite identity came to see ethnicity and religion slowly being wrest asunder.

And so we come to today. How was that for a whirlwind ride through a nice Menno understanding  of the past?  We understand that there might have been other things happening at various times in the world beyond the Mennosphere but – wait, no, we don’t really understand that.

To celebrate World History from a Mennonite Perspective, I present to you a timeless little cocktail with Dutch origins. It’s a relative of the Genever Cocktail with a couple dashes of rhubarb bitters thrown in just to make it ours.

The AnabaptistAnabaptist

1 1/2 oz Dutch Ginever Gin
1/2 oz simple syrup
3 hefty dashes of rhubarb bitters

1.  fill a short glass with ice.
2. pour in the ginever and simple syrup
3. shake in a few dashes of rhubarb bitters
4. garnish with a cocktail cherry

Sit back and enjoy your cocktail as you reflect on simpler times before the world was such a mess.

Disclaimer: there are a great many excellent Mennonite historians who take a nuanced view to the past. This post isn’t about them. I do, however, think that all of these historians should print off the primer included in this post and hang it on their office doors, just above the Pontius Puddle and Piled Higher and Deeper comics. Their students are smart enough to get the humour.

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