Mennonites are named after the 16th century Dutch Reformer, Menno Simons (1496-1561), who left his position as a priest in the Catholic Church in 1536 and became a prominent leader within the Anabaptist movement. Distinct from the other Reformers, the Anabaptists rejected infant baptism and emphasized a strict separation of church and state. The Mennonites quickly became the largest group within Anabaptism and have since spread around the world. By 2006, there were an estimated 1.3 million Mennonites worldwide on six continents in about 65 different countries. They are perhaps most well known today for their peace witness and their close-knit communities.
Despite the fact that their name and history unite them, the Mennonite church worldwide is certainly not an organized or unified whole. There are numerous branches among those who call themselves by this name, and there is also a great variety of practice from one congregation to another. That said, Mennonites generally agree on several key points – adult baptism, personal repentance and discipleship, the centrality of the Scriptures, especially the New Testament, the free gathering together of believers, refusal to bear arms and to take oaths, and the commitment to a simple lifestyle.
Although Mennonites originate in Europe, they spread to South Asia as early as the late 1800s. It was the missionary outlook among the Mennonite Brethren in the Ukraine that led the church there to send Abraham and Miriam Friesen as missionaries to South India, in what is now Andhra Pradesh. Although the Friesens worked initially under the auspices of the American Baptist Missionary Society, by 1898 their work was linked to the American Mennonite Brethren Mission. By 2006, the Mennonite Brethren in South India have become the largest Mennonite conference in Asia with over 100,000 members.
Mennonites have traditionally placed a strong emphasis on voluntary service and have earned an international distinction among Christian denominations in disaster relief. This emphasis among Mennonites in America led to an involvement in various relief projects in South Asia. In 1896-97, American Mennonites responded to a widespread famine in India and sent aid. A couple years later, in 1899, the Emergency Relief Commission of the General Conference Mennonite Church also carried on a similar work in India. These projects resulted in the founding of two India Mennonite missions, the Mennonite Church in 1899 and the General Conference Mennonite Church in 1900.
According to current statistics provided by the Mennonite World Conference (MWC), there are nine organized bodies of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches in India with a total of 1217 congregations and 146,095 members. In addition, there are 594 members in 24 congregations in Nepal.
Efforts to unite all Mennonites around the world have largely been unsuccessful, though the MWC has formed a global community of 95 Mennonite and Brethren in Christ church conferences from 51 countries on six continents. As well, the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) has enabled various branches of the Mennonite church worldwide to cooperate in a variety of relief and development activities around the world, including projects in South Asia. MCC is currently working in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
1) Bender, Harold S. and C. H. Smith, ed., The Mennonite Encyclopedia. vol. I—IV
(1955—59); Pennsylvania: Herald Press. 2) Driedger, Leo. 2000. Mennonites in the Global Village. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 3) Dyck, Cornelius J. ed. 1981. An Introduction to Mennonite History. Pennsylvania: Herald Press.
Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. http://www.gameo.org/
Mennonite Central Committee. http://www.mcc.org/
Mennonite World Conference. http://www.mwc-cmm.org/
Third Way Café. http://www.thirdway.com/