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January 1981 · Vol. 10 No. 1 · pp. 10–20 

Mennonite Brethren Worship: Word and Sacrament

John Rempel

We were gathered in the living room of fellow members of the Berlin Mennonite Church to see a documentary prepared by West German television on the Mennonite in Paraguay. It was entitled, “Im Chaco spricht man west Preussisch” (“In the Chaco people speak German”). The first scene was of the beginning of a church service. To my astonishment, the opening prayer was one I had heard throughout my life: its way of addressing God, its heartfelt gratitude for freedom of assembly—everything was familiar. How could a minister with no prayer book before him, living on the opposite side of the world, pray a prayer so like those I had heard every Sunday of my childhood?

The answer may be sought in oral tradition. Without recourse to it, our investigation will yield few secrets. While written accounts are the most accessible record of the life of a people, they do not give us the heartbeat of their everyday life. Free prayer and leadership of worship without written formulations has characterized most periods of Mennonite worship. This is especially true of the Mennonite Brethren Church because of its passion for personal religious experience as the validation of everything in the Christian life.

The examination of liturgical practice throughout church history reveals that freedom for formulation does not mean that an individual creates new words and categories for each prayer. The difference between free and fixed worship is that in the former the individual chooses from the tradition what is appropriate for his present setting. This allows him to speak with a greater personalness than a fixed text permits. His prayers are not, therefore, less grounded in particular spiritual patterns. But neither those prayers nor many other of their expressions were written down. And so I have tried to balance the record by adding the memories of older people (and my own) to the written sources. The unwritten side of the story, however, can best be glimpsed if we see that behind what was written was the irrepressible joy of salvation that found expression in their public gatherings.

This essay can do no more than outline Mennonite Brethren worship. {11} Three limitations will be observed. It will conclude about 1960 when the transition in Canada to the English language and to trained ministers brought a new spirit and new form to worship. In the second place, this survey will deal with the practice of worship only among Mennonite Brethren of European extraction. This is an unfair limitation except for the fact that the original tradition is that against which all subsequent ones are measured. Finally, the present work will confine itself to public worship. This is a significant limitation, as private devotion and study by individuals, families, or village groups had a formative influence on the spirituality of the Brethren.

The larger history of Mennonite worship lies outside the scope of this essay. It will come into play only as a reference point for the development of Mennonite Brethren liturgy. The reformers of Mennonite society in mid-nineteenth century Russia protested that their church no longer conformed to the ecclesiology of its sixteenth century forbears. They sought the abolition of a mass church and the restoration of a believers’ church. The Mennonite Brethren Confession of 1902 asserted that the confessional fellowship with the old church remained untouched; it was the practice of that confession, especially as regards baptism and church discipline, which demanded reform. 1

One other background factor should be mentioned. Mennonitism in Russia was the heir of German piety as it had been shaped over the centuries. At its best, this expression of religiosity was characterized by a sober and inward spirituality. Its focus was the suffering of Jesus on the cross—both as our Saviour and our example. The most awesome worship assembly of the year was Good Friday. The Lord’s Supper was above all the representation and contemplation of Christ’s anguish for human kind. It is this almost mystical piety rather than the more dogmatic Anglo-Saxon kind which defined the spirituality of the old and new Mennonite communities in Russia.


The Mennonite Brethren Church came into being when believers gathered for the breaking of bread. They were drawn together by the common experience of the forgiving grace of God in a church where many had only a “memorized faith.” They were in anguish about participating in the Holy Supper with people whose “openly godless living and their wickedness cries to God in heaven.” 2 The relationship between the sign and what it signified had been broken. The meaning of baptism was lost, the founding document of the new movement proclaimed, if it was not “the seal of genuine living faith effected by the Spirit of God.” Holy Communion was “a sign of the covenant” only if it was a fellowship of believers. Footwashing was an ordinance whose “blessing is in the deed.” 3 The later insistence on immersion must be {12} understood in this light: the radicality involved in conversion—dying and rising with Christ—was adequately acted out only by the submersion of the person in water.

Most striking about the worship life of the Brethren were its charismatic character and the participation of the congregation in all aspects of the service. Jacob Bekker’s diary preserves accounts known to typify the early years of the movement. Several Church Mennonites reported on a Brethren meeting they attended in mid-1861. The service began and ended with a chorale. But for the other hymns “cheerful melodies” were used accompanied by flutes or drums. Clapping and ecstatic utterances arose periodically. Bekker preached in Low German, the language of the people in their everyday life. Members of the congregation offered their own intercessions. 4 Holy Communion was often the climax of these gatherings. 5

Of the many innovations introduced into Russian Mennonite spirituality, the excited reception given to new music was among the most far-reaching. Heinrich Franz’s Choralbuch was first published in 1960 to teach part-singing in schools. Within fifteen years it had created a new style of congregational singing and had opened the door for choirs to sing in worship assemblies. The ponderous chant form in which chorales had come to be sung resisted the liveliness with which the Brethren wanted to witness to their faith. As contacts with Pietist and Baptist circles increased, their gospel songs became the idiom of the day.


The least noted aspect of the restoration of primitive Christianity sought by the Brethren is their renewal of sacramental life. In the early years of shifting sands, baptism and the Lord’s Supper were rocks of objectivity which withstood waves of emotion and of persecution.

All the early confessional documents attest to this. The Confession of 1876 lists the (preached) Word, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper as “means of grace.” Just as the Holy Spirit works through the Word to convert someone, He also works through baptism to make the convert a member of Christ’s body. 6 In the Supper, “Christ gives the believers his body and blood to enjoy (geniessen) in a spiritual manner.” 7 The answer of the Chortitz-Einlage brethren to their detractors claims that communion is not only a commemorative meal, “but in truth the flesh and blood of Christ.” 8

The 1876 Confession contains a formulation for the observance of each ordinance. Baptism is to be given in the name of the Trinity with one immersion. 9 The essence of Holy Communion is the words of institution plus prayers of thanksgiving over the bread and wine. Both {13} may be administered by elders or ministers. 10

Another change in understanding the ordinances of the church concerned the nature of marriage. Among the Church Mennonites, marriage could be performed only after baptism. In order to offer a “Christian” wedding to their unbaptized children without forcing them to join either church for the wrong reasons, the Mennonite Brethren Conference decided to offer a Christian wedding to unbelievers who sought it. 11 According to J.A. Toews, the Brethren “taught that marriage belongs to the ‘creation order’ and not the ‘church order’.” 12

Settled patterns of worship evolved to meet the needs of an ongoing community of faith. Lectures and sermons replaced accounts of personal experience. The Sunday worship assembly took on a character which was to typify Mennonite Brethren worship until the 1940’s—and even longer in Russia and South America. It is set forth in the Appendix. The prayer meeting at the beginning of the service was introduced in the early 1870’s by the German Baptist, August Liebig, beloved mentor of the Brethren. 13 It was also he who proposed having Sunday School in addition to the religious instruction given in public school. This was usually held during the time of the worship service or on Sunday afternoons. Christian education for adults took the form of Sunday evening Bible discussion and weekend Bible Conferences in which several preachers gave addresses after which they could be questioned by the congregation.

Perhaps in reaction to their excessive use in the opening years of the brotherhood, musical instruments fell into disuse in worship. B.B. Janz wrote that no Mennonite Church of either group allowed instruments in worship before the migration of the 1920’s. 14 This seems to have been the general case, though after 1900 there were exceptions. One of them is the acquisition of a reed organ by the Mennonite Brethren congregation in Waldheim.

As has been observed, choirs rapidly won their way into the public worship of the Brethren. At first choir members simply introduced what they were learning in village or youth choral societies into congregational singing. The most revolutionary change they initiated was four-part harmony. In his description of Abraham Schellenberg’s ministry (elected elder in Rueckenau in 1975), Harms quoted him, “It was something entirely new to sing in parts. We had just taken account of four part singing as set down by Franz’s Choralbuch and suddenly we had choral music.” 15

Even though the Choralbuch introduced a new musical style, its tunes were largely those of the Geistreiches Gesangbuch, the only Russian Mennonite hymnal of the time. A variety of German hymnals, usually a combination of new pietistic songs, English gospel songs, and {14} a smattering of chorales, won wide acceptance. Eventually three books, Heimatklaenge, Glaubensstimme, and Frohe Botschaft were collected into a Dreiband and became the standard hymnal.

A new choral repertoire, which was to become the staple for half a century in Canada, consisted of early twentieth century melodies set to devotional or psalm texts. “Der Friedefuerst” and “Mache mich selig, O Jesu” are examples of the former; “Wer unter dem Schirm . . .” (Ps. 91) and “Schaff in mir Gott . . .” (Ps. 51) of the latter. Despite the novelty of choral singing, and especially of this repertoire, both are thought in the popular mind to typify long standing Mennonite liturgical tradition. 16

The participation of many teachers in the ministry of the church resulted in more systematic proclamation than had characterized the first charismatic years. Sermons were prepared in advance though seldom written out. Following the custom of the mother church, most meetings had two addresses.

Evangelistic preaching was a first love of the church. “The people that wanted to make a commitment, were asked to stay after the meeting. Never have I seen them, in the old country, being asked to come forward.” 17

Describing the aspects of worship among the Brethren does not capture all its characteristics. Most unusual was the free and full participation of the congregation in prayer, testimony, admonition, and in an audible “Amen” at the close of sermons and prayers.


There seem to have been two “styles” in which the same services were celebrated. One of them relied on the more inward piety and customs of the older Mennonite pattern; the other prized an extroverted religious expression and the corresponding freedom from consciously fixed forms. In some congregations the leader wore the traditional frock coat and opened the service with a greeting each week (usually “Peace be with you”). Occasionally the “Our Father” was used at the end of the prayer after the second sermon. Some congregations had appointed song leaders. Kneeling in prayer was common though not universal. 18 In Waldheim a popular way of distinguishing “Church” and “Brethren” worship was that the former kneeled facing the rear of the church, the latter facing the front.

The collection was taken, without an accompanying prayer, during the last hymn. Announcements were made either at the beginning or end of the service. In some congregations either the Aaronic (“the Lord bless you . . .”) or Pauline (“the grace of our Lord . . .”) blessing concluded the meeting; in others such formalized prayers were avoided. 19 {15}

The old church pattern of a preparatory service before Communion and a thanksgiving service after it fell away because the breaking of bread was no longer a rare and awesome event but the frequent celebration of divine forgiveness and fraternal oneness. The order of admonition, words of institution, and prayer of thanksgiving separately for bread and wine was retained. But the “great thanksgiving” at the end of the service, usually the reading of a psalm (most commonly 103), was replaced by the testimonies and prayers of all the people.

The church year, to the extent that it had been taken over from Lutheranism by Mennonites in Russia, was followed in the new church. It consisted of Advent (the only season in which candles were permitted in the service), Christmas (two days), Sylvester (New Year’s Eve), Lent (only to the extent of devotional preaching on the suffering of Christ), Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter (two days), Ascension, and Pentecost (two days). The last Sunday of the church year (Sunday of the Dead) seems not to have been widely observed in Brethren circles though it remained a solemn day for Church Mennonites.

In outlying areas simpler services, focused on the reading of a sermon from the collections of Ludwig Hofacker or Friedrich Starkes, were held in homes or schools. 20 Sometimes these small groups without leaders would join a larger service monthly or semi-monthly for “the Great Service” (Hauptgottesdienst). This pattern was re-created in Latin America, where members from all three conferences met together in villages except for the “great services” held monthly with their own conference.


Heinrich Neufeld’s Handbuechlein fuer Prediger and Gemeindeglieder (1927) sets down Mennonite Brethren worship practice as it had developed to that time. No doubt the disjointed church life and the exile or death of many ministers brought about by the revolution and emigration threatened oral tradition to the extent that it needed written codification.

Neufeld’s manual includes an order for baptism. The candidates are read the church rules. 21 After they assent to them a single baptismal question is asked: “If you believe with your whole heart, that Jesus Christ is God’s Son, then answer.” Baptism in the name of the Trinity follows. The most significant liturgical aspect is the subsequent laying on of hands with the words of blessing taken from 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24. 22 It preserves the ancient pattern of following baptism with the laying on of hands as a petition for the Holy Spirit. The service was customarily concluded by the presentation to the candidate of a Scripture verse chosen by the efficient to commemorate the day of covenant. {16}

The 1927 formulary gives no outline for the Lord’s Supper. It does add a vigorous five page defence of the literal observance of footwashing. 23

The prominent aspect of the ordination of elders, ministers, and deacons is the laying on of hands at the time of a prayer of consecration. This is concluded with the blessing in Hebrews 13:20-21. 24

Orders are included for the excommunication of members and the reception of penitents as well as for the transfer of members.

A wedding service is given in full detail. It is to be preceded on two previous Sundays by an engagement announcement. Not included here, but typical of that era, was an engagement service in the bride’s home after the first announcement. There the couple was admonished and commended to the care of the families and God.

The wedding service loosely parallels that of the Church Mennonites. 25 Its questions, however, are more concisely formulated and, of interest to a later generation, the identical questions are asked of each partner. A laying on of hands while quoting Numbers 6:24 concludes the rite.


W.C. Bishop’s description of the development of the African rite in the fourth century is applicable to the unfolding of worship forms at this point in our study as well.

Services were traditional but subject to free modification. There was nothing like a deliberate and intentional alteration of character. Modifications which took place (no doubt continually) appeared to the men who made them as natural improvements which made no difference in the essential nature of the service. 26

As the Brethren adjusted to their new environment, their forms of worship were affected by further change. Though the pattern which emerged is similar in the United States and Canada, the forces of assimilation were at work earlier in the United States. This can be seen from the inclusion of responsive readings and other worship aids in the United States Mennonite Brethren Church Hymnal (1953) before they were acceptable in Canada.

The following is a profile of that next stage of development, according to the order each element has in the service. Gradually the congregational singing before and while the minister entered was replaced by an organ prelude. Invocations replaced greetings (either with a fixed verse or one chosen for each Sunday). The congregational prayer {17} meeting followed—sometimes by means of a transitional phase in which two of the brothers were asked to offer opening prayers. The first sermon became a devotional Scripture reading with prayer but without any commentary. A pastoral prayer early in the service replaced intercessions by the preacher or the whole congregation near the beginning or end of the service. The announcements were moved to the middle of the service as was the collection. It was usually gathered during an instrumental offertory rather than a hymn and was introduced or concluded with a prayer. The posture for praying changed from kneeling to standing and in some congregations to sitting. Singing, which was traditionally done sitting, increasingly came to be done standing. At the end of the service was added an instrumental postlude and time of meditation. The ministers began to greet the congregation at the rear of the church. The gowning of choirs (but, inconsistently, not of ministers) came into fashion.

During this period the practice of footwashing became uncommon, especially in Canada.

It is not without significance that the name of the Sunday assembly also changed during this period. The earlier “meeting” (Versammlung) with its focus on the gathering of the community was replaced by “divine service” (Gottesdienst). The reasons for the latter choice were the desire for more reverence in worship and a different kind of concern for the religious experience of the individual with God. The more extensive use of instrumental music at the opening and closing of worship focused on individual rather than corporate experience.

The influence of other denominations also led to the omission in some churches of congregational singing at weddings, funerals, and musical performances in the church. One of the few fixed “liturgical norms” for Mennonites, aside from prayer and Scripture, has been the framing of every assembly for worship with congregational singing. The reason for this was an intuitive concern to keep a service from becoming a performance and a congregation from becoming an audience.

The final and most subtle change in the theology and practice of worship in this period had to do with the sacraments. In the first half century of their existence, the Brethren restored the relationship between the sign and what it signified. With an enviable sense of theological balance, they affirmed the institutions of Christ as means of grace to be received in faith. They avoided mechanical or magical views of the work of the ordinances unrelated to personal faith. They also carefully defined the partaking of Christ’s body and blood as a spiritual, not a material, eating.

It can only be speculated that later fears of imbalance in favour of “mechanical” sacraments prompted an identification with low-church {18} Protestant views of the ordinances as only human acts of obedience, as mere symbols. That this was a popular interpretation is suggested by A. H. Unruh’s argument in favour of the “two sides” of the sacraments, subjective and objective. His point is that baptism is not only something I do but something I receive. 27


Two characteristics stand out as distinctive of Mennonite Brethren worship. One is its sacramental theology, developed from experience rather than imposition. The seeds are present, in the early Mennonite Brethren confessions, of a sacramental theology which interprets Scripture texts like Romans 6 literally and at the same time makes God’s work in the sacraments inseparable from our response of faith. The debates over baptism by immersion have kept the essential sacramental question—the relationship between the sign and that which is signified—alive. That question holds the promise of helping Mennonite theology as a whole to a deeper understanding of sacramental life.

The second distinctive is the role of the congregation in worship. Behind the renewal of preaching and singing among the Brethren was the more important recognition that the people of God themselves were the agents of worship. Their intense experience of faith gave them boldness to find and speak their own words in the assemblies of the church.

The period after 1960 in North America has brought liturgical changes almost equal in effect to those which followed 1860. Their nature and direction requires a separate study.

Were I allowed a moment of hopeful speculation about future trends, I would wish—and pray—that these distinctives of Brethren worship would be brought together with the inwardness of the best of traditional Mennonite piety and with the golden age of Christian worship in the patristic period as it is being recovered in our day.

Deo Volente (God willing)!


A Typical Mennonite Brethren Service
(ca. 1875-ca. 1940)

  • Congregational Singing
    (as people assembled and led simply by “older brethren”) {19}
  • [Greeting]
  • Prayer Meeting
    (led by an appointed brother who introduced the prayer time with Scripture and brief commentary)
    The people knelt or stood.
  • Choir Song(s)
  • Sermon
  • Choir Song
  • Sermon
  • [Choir Song]
  • Closing Prayer
  • [Benediction]
  • Congregational Hymn
Brackets indicate uncertainty about how typical such practices were.
Sources: Primarily, J. B. Toews, taped lecture of February 6, 1980, on Mennonite Brethren History; Isaac Tiessen, letter of January 11, 1980.


  1. Glaubensbekenntnis der Vereinigten Christlichen Taufgesinnten Mennonitischen Bruedergemeinde in Russland (Halbstadt: P. Neufeld, 1902), p. 5
  2. J. A. Toews. A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church (Fresno: Mennonite Brethren Board of Christian Literature 1975), p. 34.
  3. Ibid., pp. 34, 35.
  4. J. Bekker, The Origin of the Mennonite Brethren Church (Hillsboro: Mennonite Brethren Historical Society of the Mid-West, 1973), pp. 90ff.
  5. P. M. Friesen, Die Alt-Evangelische Mennonitische Bruederschaft in Russland (Halbstadt: Raduga, 1911), p. 383; J. Harms, Geschichte der Mennoniten Bruedergemeinde (Hillsboro: Mennonite Brethren Publishing House, 1924), p. 21.
  6. Glaubensbekenntnis and Verfassung der glaeubiggetauften and vereinigten Mennoniten Bruedergemeinde in suedlichen Russland (Einlage: Alliuger, 1876), p. 13.
  7. Ibid., p. 22; the more irenic confession of 1902 softens this language but retains it (p. 37 on baptism, p. 40 on the eucharist).
  8. Friesen, p. 270. According to the protocol of the 1878 gathering of Mennonite Brethren settlers in the United States midwest, worry was expressed about profaning the bread and wine which remained after communion (Harms, p. 82.).
  9. Glaubensbekenntnis (1876), pp. 17, 21, 29.
  10. No mention is made of an early formulary alluded to by the Lutheran Dobbert. It asks if the candidate is willing for the sake of his faith to endure everything and if it must be, to forsake everything, respecting neither possessions nor ties of blood. In an added note, comment is made that the candidates are baptized in white. F. Isaac, Die Molotschnaer Mennoniten (Halbstadt: H.J. Braun, 1908), p. 205.
  11. Friesen, p. 397.
  12. Toews, p. 102.
  13. Harms, p. 40. {20}
  14. B. B. Jantz, “Choir Singing among the Mennonite Brethren in Russia.” Mennonite Encyclopedia, I, 564.
  15. Harms, p. 116.
  16. It is worth noting that this revolution in the music, and with it the spirit of worship, came to the Church Mennonites a generation later. In fact, the participation of choirs in worship did not begin until after the Revolution of 1917.
  17. Letter from Isaac Tiessen, January 11, 1980, p. 2.
  18. Apparently, by the 1920’s kneeling for prayer was less common among Mennonite Brethren in Russia than it was in the United States or Canada.
  19. It is extremely difficult to judge from scattered references whether these memories of usage reflect a typical diversity in the evolution of Mennonite Brethren spirituality or exceptions to it. The writer would be grateful for response from his readers!
  20. Letter from Gerhard Lorenz, December 17, 1979, p. 2.
  21. They consist of a commitment to missions, admonition, household devotions, abstinence from spirits and tobacco, marriage within the brotherhood, confidentiality about church dealings, Sunday observance, regular participation in worship. A ninth rule, on nonresistance, is written in on my copy. H. Neufeld, Handbuechlein fuer Prediger and Gemeindeglieder (Winnipeg: Rundschau, 1927), pp. 22-23.
  22. Ibid., p. 8.
  23. Ibid., pp. 9-13.
  24. Ibid., p. 14.
  25. Handbuch zum Gebrauch bei gottesdienstlichen Handlungen (Berdyansk: H. A. Ediger, 1911), pp. 24-26.
  26. W. C. Bishop, “The African Rite,” Journal of Theological Studies 13 (1912): 250.
  27. A. H. Unruh, Die Geschichte der Mennoniten Bruedergemeinde (Winnipeg: Christian Press, 1955), pp. 69-70).
John Rempel is Dean of Students at Conrad Grebel College in Waterloo, Ontario, and is completing a doctorate in Theology at Trinity College, University of Toronto. His thesis work is on Mennonite worship.

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