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Spring 1988 · Vol. 17 No. 1 · pp. 17–29 

Social Science Theory and A People Apart: Some Considerations

Miriam E. Warner

The Mennonite Brethren are an enduring people. They have endured, not only in rural communities in Russia and the United States, but in urban centers of contemporary North America. They have endured, not only as a persecuted religious minority in the past, but now in the twentieth century as an integral part of the larger Mennonite family. They have endured, not only as a group, scattered in forced enclaves on the Russian steppes, but now as a more cohesive group living in voluntary enclaves and searching for knowledge of who they are as ethnics.

. . .ethnicity is an integral part of Mennonite Brethren peoplehood. . .

This endurance, rooted in their history as a distinct people, has given them a rich ethnic and religious heritage. Both parts of this heritage need to be understood and acknowledged. The religious and the ethnic are complementary, for Mennonite Brethren peoplehood is not just one or the other—it is a synthesis of the two.

Most Mennonite Brethren scholars emphasize the religious heritage and identity of the group; this may be a natural consequence of the events of 1860, for the initial separation between Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren was religious, {18} not ethnic. However, dissension also created a social division and the larger ethnic group was split—each part considering itself a unique, separated group.

Ethnicity is family, and family includes all people born into the group. Although family and kinship ties have always been important in Mennonite Brethren society (Peters 1972), ethnicity has not been emphasized until recently. However, the days of taking it for granted seem to be over. Ethnic affiliation is being examined; ethnic and religious affiliation are being compared. This whole process, a process of searching for identity, is unsettling. In fact, Katie Funk Wiebe (17) uses the word “traumatic” to describe it. This uneasiness is understandable. Since ethnicity is family, an analysis of family is also an analysis of self.

This search may be disturbing but it need not be disruptive. It does imply crisis, but it is a crisis which can be resolved positively. This resolution depends on acquiring knowledge about who one is and internalizing that knowledge so identity is achieved in a positive manner (Erikson 1950).

Ethnicity is a social phenomenon, one which needs to be examined by using social and psychological analysis. Just as the Bible is used for answers to religious questions, so social and psychological research needs to be used for answering questions of ethnicity. It is within such a framework that I will differentiate between ethnic and religious affiliation and explore some of the social and psychological reasons ethnicity has persisted in Mennonite Brethren life.

Both Mennonite and non-Mennonite scholars agree that the Mennonite Brethren are a religious ethnic group. Objectively, members of the group share a cultural and religious heritage. Subjectively, there is a sense of peoplehood, the development of a consciousness of kind.


Ethnic affiliation is ascribed; it is a status determined by birth into a kinship group. Thus, membership is involuntary because a person is a member of the group from birth until death. An ethnic group, like an extended family, includes everyone born into the group. And, like an extended family, members identify with the group for they believe it to be special and unique. {19}

The Mennonite Brethren consider themselves an ethnic brotherhood. Many of them choose to live near enough to each other to share personal and collective information about group members. This shared information together with ethnic humor, ethnic jokes, and ethnic “insider” information form the basis for a communication satisfying to group members. As one ethnic said to me:

I have lived away from other Mennonite Brethren but I have come back to stay. I belong here. The other Mennonite Brethren understand me, they know my background, my family and my interests. I’ve decided that for me and my family it is best to live near those who have the same life style and religious beliefs that I do.

Members of an ethnic group are acknowledged and accepted, not for their actions, but because of family connections. This acceptance is unconditional; one’s behavior may be inappropriate at times, but one is still a member of the group. For example, being a member of a family does not mean that parents always approve of a child’s conduct; it does mean, however, that a person is always family and acceptance, if not approval, is present.

Ethnicity is oriented to special past heritage. George De Vos (1982:19) has noted that “ethnicity is primarily a sense of belonging to a particular ancestry and origin and of sharing a specific religion or language.” Every ethnic group has a rich historical heritage.

The historical experiences of the Mennonite Brethren include life in the Russian colonies, the triumphs and rejection of the 1860 division, the persecution in Russia between 1860-1874, and the experiences as immigrants to the United States.

This historical heritage also includes a concept of peoplehood, that is, people of “our kind.” Although the origin of peoplehood is in the past, the ideas and feelings of peoplehood remain alive in the present through ethnic interaction. The sense of peoplehood encourages ethnic exclusivity, for the group dichotomizes the world into categories of “us” versus “them.” This creates social and psychological distance necessary for the formation and maintenance of group identity. {20}


In contradistinction to ethnic affiliation, religious affiliation is an achieved status, a status one attains by a conscious decision to join a religious group. Prior to 1860, religious and ethnic membership were synonymous in the Russian Mennonite colonies. The founders of the Mennonite Brethren were against this practice for they believed a decision to join the church should be based on a voluntary decision of each individual.

The Mennonite Brethren have an active mission emphasis; as a result of this emphasis, non-ethnic converts may join the church. Because of this, many churches today have two categories of members: ethnic and non-ethnic. Religious membership is shared but a clear distinction is made, by individuals in both groups, between ethnic and non-ethnic Mennonite Brethren.

Leaders of the Mennonite Brethren view this “double standard” of membership as a problem and suggest various solutions. One of the themes in most solutions is the need to emphasize religion more than ethnicity. But solutions have problems too and one of the problems in these solutions is a hesitancy to analyze ethnicity with the same intensity as is applied to religion. In spite of efforts to minimize ethnicity, it has persisted and can no longer be ignored.


The persistence of ethnicity is well documented in social science research. Many writers, such as Nathan Glazer and Daniel Moynihan (1970) or Michael Novak (1972) and Andrew Greeley (1972), while noting changes in ethnic life styles, have commented on the persistence of ethnic values and norms.

Mennonite social scientists, such as Leo Driedger (1980), Calvin Redekop (1984), and John Redekop (1987) have documented the persistence of Mennonite ethnicity. John Redekop, in his book, A People Apart: Ethnicity and the Mennonite Brethren views this persistence as a “problem.” According to Redekop, the term “Mennonite” has a double meaning, ethnic and religious, and these meanings seem to contradict each other. By this he means that the current {21} expression of Mennonite Brethren ethnicity is hindering the religious mission of the church. I would suggest that some of these seeming contradictions exist because of two factors: 1) there is confusion in defining the two parts of Mennonite Brethren identity, and 2) there is no exploration of the social and/or psychological reasons for the persistence of ethnicity among the Mennonite Brethren.

I have already suggested some main differences between ethnic and religious affiliation. Now I wish to explore the social and psychological reasons this phenomenon has persisted.

Social Reasons for Ethnic Persistence

The Dutch-North German Mennonites have been a migratory people living, at times, a tenuous existence on the margins of Prussian and Russian societies. Persecuted for their religious beliefs and excluded from full participation in the wider society, they lived in an unsafe social environment. The few privileges they had could be taken away at any time. Because of this social and psychological insecurity and because of their perceived superiority to their Slavic neighbors, the Mennonites in Russia turned inward, relying on themselves for their social, religious and psychological security. This created what Edward Spicer (1971) has called an oppositional process—a process clearly defining the boundaries of each group and keeping each group separate. This separation, in turn, strengthened the Mennonite sense of identity as a distinct people.

Following the 1860 division between Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren, the oppositional process changed these boundaries. Now the boundaries between the two Mennonite groups were just as important, if not more important, than the boundaries between the Mennonites and the surrounding Slavic society.

This oppositional process continued after the Mennonite Brethren migrated to the United States in the 1870s. Though free to live anywhere, the patterns of social separation continued. The majority elected to live in what Cornelius Janzen (1926) called “compact communities” in the Mid-West.

Why did the Mennonite Brethren choose to live close to each other? Their cultural patterns, their language, their religion—all these were different, not only from the wider American society, but from other Mennonite groups as well. It {22} made no sense to scatter out across the Mid-Western states. Why live in the midst of foreigners when you could live with people you personally knew, those who were like yourself? Thus, the establishment of voluntary enclaves.

These living conditions must have been satisfactory, for the pattern was duplicated repeatedly as the Mennonite Brethren moved to Oklahoma, to rural California and finally to the urban areas of the state. For example, Nachtigall (1972) discovered that 88 percent of the Mennonites living in Fresno and Tulare Counties in California settled there because other Mennonites were already in the area.

As rural occupational opportunities dwindled in the 1930s, a few Mennonite Brethren tentatively explored selected urban centers, such as Fresno and Harrison, California. (Harrison is the pseudonym for the city in which I did my field work. The church I called Lakewood.) Here again, the pattern of voluntary enslavement continued, this time in urban settings.

So, the first reason ethnicity has persisted is because of the practice of voluntary enslavement. The Mennonite Brethren made, and continue to make, decisions to live near each other. They made, and continue to make, conscious efforts to stay in contact. And so social boundaries are established and maintained between the Mennonite Brethren and the wider society. These boundaries are called “outer” boundaries by sociologists because they control interaction between “insiders” and “outsiders” (Banks and Gay 1978). Many groups practice this type of enslavement—Jews, Mormons, Italians, Hutterites, Amish and all groups of Mennonites. This is graphically illustrated in the map of Harrison which hangs in the Lakewood Church offices, the residence of each member indicated by a pin. Most of these are concentrated within easy commuting distance to each other and to the church.

The second reason ethnicity has persisted is because of the socialization process, that is, the process of learning behavior considered appropriate in Mennonite Brethren life. This transmission of cultural and religious values from parents to children begins in the home and is essential if a people is to endure. As Spicer has noted:

Every people has accumulated experiences which they pass on as tradition from generation to generation. These {23} experiences are associated with specific places, with specific persons, with triumphs and defeats, with sufferings, with friendly alliances, with persecutions and betrayals. These events are known to a given people from the inside as they are told by parents to children and transmitted with the feelings about them that have moved previous generations (Spicer 1980:347).

Among things which Mennonite Brethren socialization includes are ways of thinking, ways of acting, ways of feeling, value systems, the importance of kinship ties and the differences between “insider” Mennonite Brethren and “outsider” non-Mennonite Brethren.

Just as the practice of voluntary enclavement establishes “outer” boundaries, so the socialization practices of a group create “inner” boundaries (Isajiw 1974). These inner boundaries define Mennonite Brethren values, clarify what behavior is acceptable and instill intellectual and emotional guidelines which preserve the integrity of Mennonite Brethren life. Socialization is effective if Mennonite Brethren values and acceptable conduct are transmitted successfully to the younger generation. In this way, the outer boundaries of the group remain firm because the inner boundaries are internalized by the younger generation. Even though there are secondary contacts with the “outside,” the “inner” group, Mennonite Brethren, is the preferred group for social contacts and discourse.

The third reason for the persistence of Mennonite Brethren ethnicity is the establishment of church-sponsored educational institutions such as schools, high schools and colleges. As noted above, the Mennonite Brethren settlements in the United States had no boundaries imposed upon them externally. This absence of external opposition is a critical factor, for members of a group may be absorbed into the wider society when there is no clear distinction between ethnics and nonethnics. In such situations inner boundaries are not kept firm and this, in turn, weakens the outer boundaries. It was this weakening of outer boundaries and the loss of Mennonite Brethren identity that church leaders feared in the nineteenth century and still fear today—thus the establishment and continued operation of church-sponsored institutions. {24}

Psychological Reasons for Ethnic Persistence

A discussion of the persistence of ethnicity among the Mennonite Brethren is not complete unless we also take into account some of the psychological reasons ethnicity has persisted. The following conclusions are based on my field research among Mennonite Brethren.

The first psychological reason for the persistence of ethnicity is that it provides a framework for the social and psychological placement of individuals. Group members feel comfortable if they can place a person either inside or outside the group. The following examples illustrate this principle in ethnic life. First, the placement of an “unknown” insider.

In a committee meeting at the Lakewood Church, prayer was requested for a sick man in the Central Valley. A committee member, originally from the Mid-West, asked the identity of the sick man. The explanation took 5-7 minutes to complete because in the process, other kinship relationships were also explored. When everyone understood the identity of the individual in the broader kinship network, people were satisfied and prayer could begin.

Another example from my fieldwork—the placement of an “outsider” or rather, the non-placement of an outsider.

When I was at the Lakewood Church doing research, some ethnic church members became uncomfortable with my presence. They couldn’t place me in their Mennonite Brethren frame of reference. I was an outsider, yet I was a Mennonite. I was not a church member yet I was participating in church activities.

Another brief example: John Redekop, in his book, A People Apart places two social scientists who have done fieldwork among the Mennonites. He notes that E.K. Francis is the “outside” sociologist; I am the anthropologist “from (Old) Mennonite background.”

This preoccupation with placement is a manifestation of what sociologists and psychologists call “social distance.” This refers not to lineal distance but to the subjective sense of nearness felt to other individuals. According to Shibutani and Kwan (1965), ethnic groups have a low degree of social distance. People know each other well for they share an ethnic {25} heritage, an ethnic and religious socialization, and a similar view of themselves and the wider society. These factors help create a sense of cohesiveness, a sense of being an integral part of a closely-knit family.

A second psychological reason for the persistence of ethnicity is a lingering ambivalence toward urban life. Historically, the Mennonite Brethren enclaved in rural settings. However, in twentieth century America, society is no longer rural, and many occupations require people to live in cities. In spite of these factors, there is persistence of a modified rural ethos. The assumption still lingers that urban life and Mennonite Brethren values are not totally compatible. Perhaps this is one of the reasons the Mennonite Brethren choose to live in voluntary enclaves. By choice, they continue to have their most meaningful relationships with other ethnics. By choice, many do not wholeheartedly embrace urban life because their primary allegiance is to their natal group. This Mennonite Brethren stance in the urban environment was succinctly stated by a long-time urban ethnic in the comment, “These MBs may physically live in the city, but they still act as they would in the countryside.”

A third psychological reason for the persistence of ethnicity could be called a crisis of confidence. Although the Mennonite Brethren know who they are ethnically, they don’t value this identity. They have not internalized it positively, they hesitate to make it known to outsiders and they are surprised when outsiders are interested in their group. The roots of this crisis are not in the present but are found in the historical record of the Mennonite Brethren. Let me summarize that history using a psychological perspective.

The Mennonites who joined the Mennonite Brethren in 1860 suffered persecution, ostracism, excommunication and sometimes expulsion from the wider Mennonite society (Friesen 1978; Bekker 1973). All these were forms of social and psychological rejection. Furthermore, it came from those considered “family.” Psychologists have noted that rejection from family has long-lasting, adverse psychological effects on individuals; once rejection is experienced, people become mistrustful because they are afraid it may be repeated (Erikson 1950). This happened to the Mennonite Brethren; they internalized this rejection and developed mistrust toward other groups. {26}

Migration to the United States promised religious and economic freedom, but the feeling of mistrust toward “outsiders” and the fear of rejection did not diminish. Other Mennonite groups were outsiders and the Mennonite Brethren preferred not to associate with them. They achieved economic success but, in contrast to their Russian experience, they felt culturally inferior to their American neighbors. Furthermore, relationships with the wider society “ran hot and cold” (Hiebert 1977). For example, the Mennonite Brethren extended genuine acceptance only to other ethnics and this cliquishness, according to Hiebert, was at times regarded with suspicion.

The psychological implications of these experiences would have been only minor if the Mennonite Brethren had felt secure in their identity, but they were not. The ambivalence of American society, their perceived cultural inferiority and the reciprocal avoidance between them and other Mennonite groups—all these reinforced their fear of rejection, their feelings of mistrust.

Lack of self-confidence and a lack of positive individual and group identity were two of the psychological results of these experiences. Situations in which rejection might be repeated were avoided. The resulting lack of intimate interaction with outsiders prevented individuals from comparing themselves favorably, and competing on an equal basis, with people in the wider society. The less they associated with non-Mennonites, the more fearful the possibility became.

These living patterns of voluntary enslavement were ideal for the perpetuation of ethnicity; they were also ideal for the perpetuation of psychological insecurity.

Results of the Persistence of Ethnicity

The fact that ethnicity has persisted is evidence of the importance of kinship in Mennonite Brethren society. Ethnic affiliation, as a link with the past, is a basis for present-day community. A network of personal relationships, a sense of past-oriented community and a feeling of belonging—these are just a few of the benefits of ethnic membership.

In spite of these positive factors, however, the Mennonite Brethren do not think highly of their ethnic identity. This lack of self-confidence and self-affirmation is a logical consequence of their heritage and socialization. That is to say, the history of {27} group rejection coupled with the socialization emphases on humility, on self-abasement, on the sinfulness of pride—all these have contributed to this lack of {28} self-confidence and lack of pride in the group.

This lack of self-confidence has an effect on the missionary program of the church in twentieth century America. Psychologically, two things seem to happen because the Mennonite Brethren lack self-confidence: 1) they try to hide their ethnicity, and 2) they over-emphasize ethnicity without being aware they are doing so. In both situations, the outer boundaries between “insiders” and “outsiders” continue because, as I have noted previously, the outer boundaries remain intact so long as the inner boundaries of the group remain consistent.

The attempt to hide ethnicity is illustrated in Redekop’s study. He notes the large number of churches who have taken the words “Mennonite Brethren” out of their name. I noticed this at the Lakewood Church in Harrison. The sign in front of the church had the words, “Lakewood Church” in large letters. Lower on the sign in smaller letters, were the words, “Mennonite Brethren.” When I asked about the lettering, the response was:

We want newcomers to the church to see us, not as a Mennonite Brethren church, but as a Christian church. No one knows who the Mennonite Brethren are and they might not come if they knew who we were.

Secondly, it is a human characteristic that people tend to over-emphasize parts of their identity they feel insecure about. This is largely an unconscious act. People are seeking affirmation from others, affirmation they need from external sources because they are not confident of who they are and if it is all right to be who they are. So there is a need to emphasize the ethnic and to be with other ethnics, not because they want to exclude other people, but because of the need for psychological security.

The opposite of the lack of self-confidence is not pride! First of all, it is self-acceptance and from this self-acceptance comes self-confidence. Such self-confidence is not arrogance; it is not an unhealthy degree of ethnocentrism. Instead, it is an inner assurance which translates into an outer confidence that one’s identity is good and that one does not have to minimize, apologize for or defend one’s identity. This kind of self-confidence acts as a magnet, for people are attracted to a group with confidence in their identity. This draws people because they want to find out what it is that makes that group so self-assured.


Despite the persistence of ethnic identity among the Mennonite Brethren, the questioning of such an identity is natural. Adolescents search for who they are, adults doubt their identity at times, and ethnic groups also go through similar periods of soul-searching. Part of this process is a questioning of the relevance of past group experiences; another part concerns the validity of remaining ethnic in the present day.

The Mennonite Brethren are fortunate to have a rich historical heritage, one recent enough that historical records are extant, and that individuals can still remember stories grandparents told about life in Russia and the early days of settlement in the United States. The establishment of historical archives and the production of films like And When They Shall Ask are ways of keeping this heritage alive and vibrant. It is a heritage of which the Mennonite Brethren can be proud.

The Mennonite Brethren are a unique religious ethnic group, a group with distinct religious beliefs and a strong ethnic heritage. Ethnic affiliation cannot be changed, for it is an ascribed status. Furthermore, ethnicity is an integral part of Mennonite Brethren peoplehood in the 1980s. The Mennonite Brethren may decide to modify some expressions of their ethnicity. However, the drastic step Redekop suggests, that of changing the group’s name, is neither necessary nor beneficial. Such action would only exacerbate the Mennonite Brethren identity crisis. If the Mennonite Brethren are more confident about who they are, that is, if they can resolve, in a positive way, their identity crisis, they can bring non-ethnics into the church and still be known as Mennonite Brethren.

The questioning of ethnic identity is healthy although the process of challenging prior assumptions is unsettling at times. The end result, however, will be positive. With a secure identity, the Mennonite Brethren can acknowledge their many strengths and use these strengths to further their destiny as a religious ethnic group in a multi-cultural society.


  • Banks, James A., and Geneva Gay. “Ethnicity in Contemporary American Society: Toward the Development of a Typology” Ethnicity 5 (1978): 238-251.
  • Bekker, Jacob P. Origin of the Mennonite Brethren Church. (English Translation by D.E. Pauls and A.E. Janzen). Hillsboro, Kansas: Mennonite Brethren Publishing House, 1973.
  • De Vos, George A. Ethnic Identity. 2nd. ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
  • Driedger, Leo. “Fifty Years of Mennonite Identity in Winnipeg: A Sacred Canopy in a Changing Laboratory.” Mennonite Images, ed. Harry Loewen. Winnipeg: Hyperion, 1980.
  • Erikson, Erik. Childhood and Society. New York: W.W. Norton, 1980.
  • Friesen, P. M. The Mennonite Brotherhood in Russia (1789-1910). Ed. and Trans. J. B. Toews, Abraham Friesen, Peter J. Klassen, Harry Loewen. Winnipeg: Christian Press, 1978.
  • Glazer, Nathan, and Daniel P. Moynihan. Beyond the Melting Pot. 2nd. ed. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1970.
  • Greeley, Andrew. Why Can’t They Be Like Us? America’s White Ethnic Groups. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1972.
  • Hiebert, Clarence. “The Development of Mennonite Brethren Churches in North America—Some Reflections, Interpretations, and Viewpoints.” Pilgrims and Strangers: Essays in Mennonite Brethren History. Fresno, CA: Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, 1977: 111-132.
  • Isajiw, W. W. “Definitions of Ethnicity.” Ethnicity 1 (1979): 111-124.
  • Janzen, Cornelius C. “A Social Study of the Mennonite Settlement in the counties of Marion, McPherson, Harvey, Reno, and Butler, Kansas.” (Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Chicago), 1926.
  • Nachtigall, Gary B. “Mennonite Migration and Settlements in California.” M.A. Thesis Submitted to the Department of Geography, California State University, Fresno. June 1972.
  • Novak, Michael. The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics. New York: Macmillan, 1972.
  • Peters, Alan. “The Impact of the Family in Mennonite History: Some Preliminary Observations.” Direction 1 (1972): 74-81.
  • Redekop, Calvin. “The Mennonite Identity Crisis.” Journal of Mennonite Studies (1978): 87-103.
  • Redekop, John H. A People Apart: Ethnicity and the Mennonite Brethren. Winnipeg: Kindred Press, 1987.
  • Shibutani, Tamotsu and Kian Kwan. Ethnic Stratification: A Comparative Approach. New York: Macmillan. 1965.
  • Spicer, Edward. “Persistent Cultural Systems: A Comparative Study of Identity Systems that can Adapt to Contrastive Environments.” Science 174 (1971): 795-800.
  • The Yaquis: A Cultural History. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1980.
  • Warner, Miriam E. “Mennonite Brethren: The Maintenance of Continuity in a Religious Ethnic Group.” Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, 1985.
  • Wiebe, Katie Funk. “The Trauma of Self-Identity.” Christian Leader 50 (1987): 17.
Miriam Warner teaches in the Department of Anthropology, San Jose State University, San Jose, California.

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