“We are almost like the Baptists.” Mennonite Brethren often use this comment when describing themselves to people who are not familiar with Mennonites. Is it a good comparison?
When most people think of Mennonites, they think of a “peace church,” a “radical reformation” styled Christianity that emphasizes pacifism, non-violence and social justice. In the South, Mennonites might be confused with Amish, or at least stereotyped for their conservative dress and simple lifestyles.
A few Baptists have promoted non-violence and pacifism (Martin Luther King Jr.), but these beliefs won’t ever be confused with Baptist distinctives. Neither will simple lifestyles. At the same time, both Mennonites and Baptists have been classified as part of the “Free Church tradition” and have used the phrase “Believer’s Church.”
The Mennonite and Baptist traditions have intersected at various points throughout their history. Historians still debate Mennonite influence on Baptist origins. The “Baptist pathfinder,” John Smyth, formed the first Baptist Church in 1609 in the Netherlands, and many from his group eventually joined the Waterlander Mennonites.
Scholars such as William Estep (The Anabaptist Story) promoted the “Anabaptist Kinship Theory” and highlighted Mennonite influence upon early Baptists’ adoption of immersion. The majority of historians, however, see the earliest Baptists—Smyth and Thomas Helwys—as products of Puritan Separatism.
Mennonite scholars also debate Baptist impact on Mennonite history. German Baptists nurtured the nascent Mennonite Brethren (now 25 percent of the worldwide Mennonite population) movement in 19th-century Russia.
In America, Mennonite Brethren and Baptists developed relationships in immigrant German-speaking communities. Many Mennonites interested in theological education and missions in the late 19th century attended Rochester Theological Seminary. The theology of an American Baptist, Augustus Strong, was taught in the early 20th century at Mennonite Brethren Biblical College. American Baptists actually sponsored the first Mennonite Brethren missionaries.
Missionary and theological interaction tapered off during the 20th century. Some Mennonites feared that Baptists would absorb them, and a more intentional Mennonite theological approach prevailed.
Interaction never ceased, however. Tabor College, a Mennonite institution established in 1908, consistently attracted some German Baptists. From 1971 to 1991, up to 20 percent of the student body was Baptist affiliated. At the same time, several Mennonite Brethren graduate students have attended Central Baptist Theological Seminary (the most popular at mid-century) and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
In 1992 a “re-energized conversation” among Mennonites and Baptists was initiated at a conference co-sponsored by the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) and the Mennonite World Conference. One of the contributors, James McClendon Jr., said that his life was changed after reading John H. Yoder’s Politics of Jesus.
McClendon’s theology emphasized the commonalities of the Baptist and Anabaptist traditions. He advocated a “baptist” vision for the Christian faith that joined liberty with community. Some Baptists, however, have been uncomfortable with McClendon’s criticisms of the Baptist focus on soul competency.
Baptist-Mennonite conversation (again, outside the South) was renewed in January 2002. The BWA and the Mennonite World Conference again co-sponsored an academic meeting held at Eastern College, an American Baptist institution. Almost two-thirds of the 85 in attendance were Mennonites. Baptist speakers focused on personal conversion and baptism; Mennonite participants highlighted peace and reconciliation. “Baptists have been good obstetricians but bad pediatricians,” admitted Denton Lotz, general secretary of the BWA.
On the other hand, one Mennonite speaker said he was “touched” by the personal conversion stories of Baptists. But then he asked why did people and groups who eagerly profess life-altering conversions “turn out to be the most hostile as Christians to our concerns for peace and justice?”
Conference attendees agreed that Baptists and Mennonites have closer relationships in countries where they are both minorities—a sobering thought for those of us in America.
Doug Weaver is professor of Christianity and chair of the religion and philosophy division at Brewton-Parker College in Mt. Vernon, Ga.