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April 1978 · Vol. 7 No. 2 · pp. 3–14 

Economic Ascendancy and the Mission of the Church

Peter M. Hamm

The description of the typical Mennonite Brethren immigrant of the 1920’s stands in marked contrast with that of a Canadian Mennonite Brethren today. He was known then for his few earthly possessions and frequently, sizeable Reiseschuld. The average Mennonite Brethren of the 1920’s was economically deprived and, because his immigrant status compelled him to be a farmer, was cast into a lower-class structure. He also belonged to a religious movement with an introverted sectarian 1 stance which had little appeal to the outsider. Fifty years later, the average Mennonite Brethren has gained an impressive record of respectability. There is no question that with the rapid economic ascendancy, there has been an accompanying upward social movement. Such economic prosperity and vertical mobility have, no doubt, affected not only the sectarian stance of the Canadian Mennonite Brethren, but also their mission. The following study assesses the impact that material prosperity has had upon the religious vitality of the Canadian Mennonite Brethren and the resultant options that lie before us.


The rise to economic prosperity of Canadian Mennonite Brethren is not a unique phenomenon. The impact of environmental change upon religion and, in turn, the influence of religion in shaping the economy has been a frequent subject of analysis among sociologists. Most popular is Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. To counteract the economic determinists of his day Weber called attention to the spirit of dedication and commitment to work {4} which marked Protestantism generally and Calvinism and Puritanism in particular. 2 While Weber dealt with the influence of religion upon economics, Richard Niebuhr (The Social Sources of Denominationalism) treated the change that environment places upon a religious movement. He maintained that a pure, sect-type religion is always transient, in part because of the upward social mobility to which sectarianism contributes with a resultant loss of hostility to the world. 3 The present study challenges Niebuhr’s hypothesis that upward mobility causes loss of sectarianism and results in conformity to the church-type denomination from which the sect once separated. The findings of this study are more in agreement with Gerhard Lenski’s thesis that when men who have been trained from early childhood in different social systems and have internalized differing sets of values are exposed to common stimuli, the result does not have to be convergence in attitudes, values, or behavior. 4 Thus the environmentalist position which explains economic behavior solely in terms of the social situation of the individual and the group is seen to be untenable. This study suggests that in spite of the economic ascendancy and vertical mobility and the accompanying secularization, Mennonite Brethren have retained their vitality as a sectarian group and can be faithful to the mission which God has entrusted to them.

If the contrast between the typical Mennonite Brethren of the 1920’s and today is in fact true, then the context in which this radical change has occurred needs to be explained. Several factors have contributed to the rise of the economic well-being of Canadian Mennonite Brethren.

The Frontier Spirit. It would appear that the base for the attitudes to economics among Canadian Mennonite Brethren was established by the settlers prior to the large-scale immigration of the mid-1920’s. A minority of the early settlers of the West Reserve in Manitoba became Mennonite Brethren at the turn of the century. Yet these Mennonite Brethren had never assumed a rigorous stance against modernity as had other more conservative groups among Manitoba’s Mennonites. Instead, Mennonite Brethren became the urbanizers in the Winkler area and were forerunners in establishing an “outpost” in Winnipeg. 5 On the other hand, American Mennonite Brethren settled in Saskatchewan early in this century. No doubt, the frontier spirit, characterized by freedom, egalitarianism, individualism and selectivity (as depicted by Richard Niebuhr), helped to shape the economic attitudes of these settlers. As early as 1915, for example, the Conference was alerted to the need to reserve suitable land for Mennonite settlements for immigrants expected after the war. 6 A significant economic base had already been established for these immigrants of the mid-1920’s. {5}

The Immigrant Incentive. The economic motive was certainly prominent among the immigrants who settled in Canada in the 1920’s. Unlike the Mennonite migrations of 1874 to 1878, this migration did not consist of wholesale transfers of compact colonies. Immigrants came from many settlements and walks of life and required mutual assistance and radical adjustment among themselves in order to survive economically. While for many immigrants, the initial social status was lower than what they held in Russia, the economic opportunities provided the incentive for rapid upward movement. The depression, however, provided a severe test for many of the Russian immigrants, and their failure to achieve their economic goal increased the tensions of their social integration. Nonetheless from the outset, the industry, honesty, and dependability of these immigrants were lauded. The Nordwesten, a German periodical favorably disposed to the Mennonites, commended the immigrants for their work habits, ambition, frugality and honesty. 7 Thus, the immigration of the mid-twenties added significantly to the economic incentive. The immigration of Mennonites from Europe after World War II and more recently from South America brought about a similar industry and incentive for economic prosperity.

The Work Ethic. The Protestant ethic which characterized Mennonites in their settlement in Prussia 8 continues to shape their approach to business. The stereotype of hard work and dependability has characterized both the offspring of the early settlers who emigrated from Russia to Kansas as well as the recent waves of immigrants. A Kansas pastor relates the following incident:

An industrialist from Buhler told me that if a person looking for a job in New York says he’s a Mennonite from a farm in Kansas, he’s hired on the spot. That’s the stereotype of dependability and hard work. Now he (the industrialist) wishes he hadn’t left the Mennonite church. 9

A descendant of this earlier migration, P. C. Schroeder, who lived in Grande Prairie, Alberta, capitalized on this work ethic when he appealed to the immigrants coming into Canada in the mid-twenties to accept the challenge of frontier settlement. He lured the Mennonites through such appeals as; “With God’s help, industry, and frugality one can make a good living, for the earth is the Lord’s here as well, and His blessings extend to this place, for His mercy has no end.” 10

Such an ethic is not innate to Mennonites. It is, in fact, taught and fostered through the series of migrations which Mennonites have experienced. There has been the constant incentive to be faithful in the tedious tasks of life. 11 On the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of one of the most successful businesses among Canadian Mennonite Brethren, William DeFehr, son of the founder, acknowledged, {6}

Honest, hard toil does pay off in the long run. Laying ground-work in a business takes time, not instant success. Integrity and fair play have combined to establish a business fairly well insulated against the ups and downs of the economy. 12

At the same time, a biblical understanding of work has been called for. F. C. Peters explained to the readers of the Mennonite Brethren Herald,

Our secular occupations are to be regarded not as ends in themselves but as means to the service of the Kingdom. They have Christian value only in so far as they can be made means to the end of the gospel. It is in this way that a Christian man, having regard to the challenge of his divine vocation, must consider his position as lawyer, mechanic, or surgeon. 13

In a subsequent article, Peters justified the capitalistic spirit.

God has commanded man to “subdue the earth.” Industry and business, the production and distribution of goods, comes under this command. Therefore, the manufacturing and distribution of goods is right in principle. 14

The Acquisitive Motif. The independence and freedom which were nurtured by frontier settlement, the economic deprivation experienced by immigrant refugees, and the persistent industry fostered among a God-fearing people all contributed to a cult of acquisitiveness for which Canadian Mennonite Brethren have become known. Few were satisfied with renting farms or houses; they bought their own. 15 Few became factory workers or laborers; they preferred to establish their own businesses. Many who began as carpenters or laborers have, in recent years, developed their own construction firms and entered the development and real estate businesses. Others demonstrated the acquisitive spirit by pursuing professional and graduate training. Their ambition (Strebsamkeit) coupled with industry has led to a materialism and affluence quite in contrast with their sixteenth-century Anabaptist ancestors or their twentieth-century forebears. In a research study of value judgments and attitudes of Mennonite young people, Frank C. Peters discovered that among the three largest Mennonite denominations, Mennonite Brethren young people manifested the greatest appreciation for material possessions and values. 16 The cult of acquisitiveness has, no doubt, significantly enhanced Mennonite Brethren economic ascendancy. What effect this has had upon their religiosity needs now to be examined.


What follows is an attempt to determine whether or not affluence results in a loss of religious vitality. Measures of religiosity used here are similar to those employed in the Kauffman and Harder study of {7} 1972. The questions used to measure the components of religiosity are abbreviated to single words or phrases. 17

Table 1
Levels of Income and the Practice of Religion for Canadian Mennonite Brethren

SOURCE: Church Member Profile, 1972.

Table 1 shows the cross-tabulations for the primary levels of income and measures of devotionalism and associationalism—referred to here as the practice of religion. The degree of differences in response for people of various income levels are minimal in items measuring devotionalism. The greatest differences between the low and high levels of income appear in “closeness to God” and “seeking God’s will”, where the affluent rate lower. The differences would suggest that the affluent tend to rank lower in measures of devotionalism. However, in the measures of associationalism, the affluent rank higher in three of the four items, particularly in “church attendance” and in “leadership”. Looking at the measures separately, one would conclude that the economically deprived are {8} the more religious in devotionalism, while the affluent appear more religious in associationalism. 18

Table 2
Levels of Income and Religious Beliefs for Canadian Mennonite Brethren

SOURCE: Church Member Profile, 1972.

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Table 2 indicates the cross-tabulations for levels of income and measures of religious beliefs. In the items measuring general orthodoxy the differences are too minimal to be significant. What differences occur would suggest that the middle range income group is the most orthodox, with the affluent possibly a little more so than the less affluent. In the items measuring fundamentalist orthodoxy, 19 there is a similar response with the middle range income group as the most orthodox, but with the affluent a little less orthodox, especially on measures which relate to questions of the Bible and science. In {9} Anabaptism, the differences are more significant, with the highest levels of income responding most favorably and the middle group responding least favorably. One would conclude that in orthodox beliefs, the middle income group ranks a little higher, while in Anabaptism the most affluent rank a little higher.

Table 3
Levels of Income and Ethics for Canadian Mennonite Brethren

SOURCE: Church Member Profile, 1972.

Table 3 shows the correlations between levels of income and measures of personal, moral issues and social ethics. In the questions pertaining to personal, moral issues traditionally held as taboo, the respondents with the highest levels of income were least conformist. Yet in the area of social ethics, those with least income rated the lowest. This table does suggest the influence of wealth in shaping both personal and social ethics. Wealth tends to liberalize one’s stand in {10} personal, moral issues as well as make one more open to social issues.

In summary, then, the analysis of Canadian Mennonite Brethren church membership in terms of income reveals that one cannot readily generalize about the religiosity of different income groups. At best, one can isolate the lower response of the more affluent in devotionalism, fundamentalist orthodoxy, and personal moral issues. In this respect they tend to be more secularized. At the same time, in associationalism, in Anabaptism, and in social ethics the more affluent have the stronger response and appear to be more religious. Hence economic ascendancy does not necessarily mean increased secularization.

Niebuhr’s hypothesis—that upward mobility brings a loss of sectarianism—cannot be upheld on the basis of the data examined. Nor does economic depravity necessarily correlate with greater religiosity. Despite the above findings, however, it is the contention of this author that economic ascendancy and the concomitant vertical mobility can rather significantly affect the mission of the church, either favorably or adversely.


The analysis of the empirical findings thus far has described where Mennonite Brethren are in the differential attitudes resulting from varying levels of wealth. The historical perspectives have provided some clues to explain the setting of how we got to where we are. What remains, then, is the more prophetic task of suggesting some alternatives of what to do with our wealth. These concluding implications will be both predictive and exhortatory. Where will Mennonite Brethren go from here?

Sectarian Stance: Introversionist or Conversionist? In his rather exhaustive sectarian typology, Bryan Wilson has identified seven types—conversionist, revolutionist, introversionist, manipulationist, thaumaturgical (magical), reformist, and utopian. 20 According to this typology, Mennonite Brethren today would be primarily conversionist in which “salvation is seen not as available through objective agencies but only by a profoundly felt, supernaturally wrought transformation of the self.” To the degree that we tend to withdraw from the world, we fit the introversionist type. If, however, our affluence makes us self-sufficient and the new interest in our roots preoccupies us with our heritage and history, then there is the danger of once again becoming “die Stillen im Lande”. Such introversion, strengthened by economic security and ethnic homogeneity, would result in a smugness and petrifaction which would stifle the mission of the church. If, on the other hand, our affluence is mobilized to reach out and penetrate society both at home and abroad and we remain {11} ideologically rather than ethnically homogeneous (however pluralistic our cultural environments may be) then Mennonite Brethren will retain their conversionist stance and achieve the mission for which we allegedly stand.

Value Orientation: This-worldly or Other-worldly? Mennonite Brethren could readily, like many other sectarian groups, conform to the dominant values of society—indeed, in many respects we already have. On the other hand, we could recapture the “innerworldly asceticism” (innerweltliche Askese) of which Max Weber speaks, 21 retaining a measure of our “avoidance mentality” while remaining active in the world. As Gerhard Lenski discovered, it is possible for religious groups to resist the dominant values of society by the deliberate socialization that occurs in Christian homes, the church setting, and Christian schools. Such effective socialization will require even more pointed preaching, more didactic teaching, and more exemplary modeling. Homes, churches, and schools will need to collaborate in promoting a life-style which develops the “inner-worldly asceticism”. The mission of the church must include not only aggressive conversionism, but a discipleship form of living which gives evidence of a commitment to an other-worldly value-orientation.

Social Class: Perpetuate Distinction or Penetrate Divisions? The Mennonite Brethren need to be alerted to the dangers of increased class cleavage which naturally follows the upward movement resulting from economic ascendancy. Will Mennonite Brethren perpetuate the status differentiation which we largely abandoned upon emigration from Russia? Or will our growing prestige-consciousness rather be checked by an attitude of brotherhood which is rooted in the priesthood of every believer? Will our local churches and our conferences guard against an elitism in leadership which is dictated by wealth or determined by occupation? Our diversified professional pursuits and our economic strength can enable us to transcend class distinctions by collectively giving our churches the financial means and qualified personnel to penetrate freely into all segments of society with our Christian influence. Where we take mission seriously, the cleavage soon disappears and the economic strength and vocational expertise become instruments of witness instead of barriers to fellowship. The mission of the church is realized where bridges are built, where racism is overcome, and where reconciliation of differences is actively sought.

Mobilization of Resources: Centripetally or Centrifugally Directed? We, the Mennonite Brethren, need to examine more closely our consumptive habits. The manner in which wealth is acquired must be subject to rigorous ethical scrutiny. Equally as important is the manner in which one’s economic assets are consumed. We {12} tend to forget that wealth has power. Affluence, through the material assets it controls, the pleasures and leisures it allows, and the influences it brings to bear, can be used for the primary benefit of the individual of the local church. Wealth can, however, also be broadly and responsibly invested and distributed so that the benefits are not self-oriented but directed toward others. Where the mission of the church remains central, the budgets of individuals, of local churches, and of conferences will reflect expenditures which do not generate personal power, but meet immediate needs (missions and welfare), as well as more long-range goals (educational institutions and economic development).

The Helping Hand: Exploitative or Liberating? Economic ascendancy can be a source of true liberation. It can also be exploitative. With our human and financial resources we as individuals, churches, and conferences have the power to manipulate the recipients of our money or expertise. Such manipulation inhibits the exercise of free will and self-determination and becomes exploitative instead of liberating. For example, grants directed to “development” projects may be given subject to the condition that they produce a profit. In this way recipients of our grants are socialized to exploit others by the same means. 22 We may need to take the risk of having our gifts spent as the recipient sees fit. Our help may even consist in advocating reform which calls into question the social order and challenges the dominant, this-worldly values. True liberation may require siding with the poor and oppressed, not in Marxian fashion, but in the spirit of Christ who set us free that we might assist others to gain the same spiritual, economic and social liberation. In this way economic ascendancy can remain consonant with and supportive of the mission of the church.

In conclusion, we remind North American Mennonite Brethren (this essay has focused on Canadians, the more recent immigrants) that we have much for which to thank God. Thousands upon thousands have been permitted by God to immigrate to one of the world’s most prosperous nations, and with immigration to achieve economic prosperity and upward social mobility. But, for what purpose? This essay has shown that the economic ascendancy of Canadian Mennonite Brethren has not necessarily caused a loss of religious vitality. Is their economic strength, then, harnessed to fulfill the mission of the church, or is it self-oriented and creating new barriers? We need to remind ourselves of the message of the Lord directed to Baruch via Jeremiah, “Seekest thou great things for thyself? seek them not!” Mennonite Brethren, as Christians everywhere, need to invest their material and personal assets to build the kingdom of God and bring glory to His name. {13}


  1. In this article the term “sectarian” is not used in its popular, pejorative sense, but describes a movement of religious protest to the social order.
  2. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), chapter four, “The Religious Foundations of Worldly Asceticism”, pp. 95-154. Weber refers here to four movements—Calvinism, Pietism, Methodism, and Baptistic sects. In his treatment of the Baptistic sects, he makes frequent references to continental Anabaptism, especially in his documentation. See also his notes, pp. 254-258.
  3. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (New York: World Publishing, 1972), pp. 17-21.
  4. Gerhard Lenski, The Religious Factor (New York: Anchor Books, 1963), p. 114.
  5. Frank Epp, Mennonites in Canada, 1786-1920 (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1974), p. 298.
  6. Yearbook of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (hereafter YB), 1915, p. 24. The acquisitive motif was not the only expression of their economic spirit. In 1922 the Conference chose to send a representative to Russia to investigate the need to provide relief. See YB, 1922, p. 3. Mutual aid became an important expression of their economic viability.
  7. Quoted by the Mennonitische Rundschau ((hereafter MR), XLIX (May 26, 1926), p. 5): “Diese Mennoniten, die alle aus dem bolschewistischen Russland kommen, wo sie meistens durch Arbeit, Fleiss, and Sparsamkeit zu Wohlstand and Reichtum gekommen waren . . . sind gute and fleissige Landwirte. . . . Wir brauchen solche Leute, um ein starkes arbeitsfreudiges and loyales Volk aufzubauen. . . . Und es spricht Baende fuer die Ehrlichkeit and der Fleiss der Ansiedler, dass die Kreditoren im grossen ganzen nichts zu klagen haben. . . . Es sollen noch an 80,000 Mennoniten in Russland sein and wir hoffen dass die Meisten dieser guten deutschen Farmer nach Canada kommen werden zu ihrem eignen Wohl and zum nutzen and Segen ganz Canadas.”
  8. Discussing the Calvinistic combination of piety and business, Weber remarked, “Even more striking . . . is the connection of a religious way of life with the most intensive development of business acumen among those sects whose other-worldliness is as proverbial as their wealth, especially the Quakers and the Mennonites. . . . That in East Prussia Frederick William I tolerated the Mennonites as indispensable to industry, in spite of their absolute refusal to perform military service, is only one of the numerous cases which illustrate the fact. . . . See Protestant Ethic, p. 44.
  9. Lois Barrett Janzen, “Mennonites Leave Church for Many Reasons”, The Mennonite, LXXXIX (Feb. 5, 1974), p. 88.
  10. Peter C. Schroeder, “Clairmont, Alta”, MR, XLVII (Sept. 17, 1924), p. 9. It was the lure of Mr. Schroeder through the MR that inspired my own father, an immigrant of 1926, to settle in the Peace River District. See M. {14} Hamm, Aus der Alten in die neue Heimat (Winnipeg: The Christian Press, 1971), p. 72.
  11. See G. D. Huebert, “Work without Glory”, Mennonite Observer (hereafter MO), VII (Aug. 18, 1961), p. 2, and “Work that Counts”, MO, VII (Oct. 27, 1961), p. 2.
  12. Mennonite Mirror, “50 Years of a Family Business”, V (Nov., 1975), p. 13.
  13. F. C. Peters, “Work-Biblical View”, Mennonite Brethren Herald (hereafter MBH), IV (Aug. 6, 1965), p. 8.
  14. F. C. Peters, “Toward a Theology of Work”, MBH, IV (Oct. 1, 1965), p. 8.
  15. The Church Member Profile (see note #17) indicates that 87.7% of Canadian Mennonite Brethren own their homes; this compared with 62.9% for United States families in 1970. See Kauffman and Harder, Anabaptists Four Centuries Later (hereafter AFCL), p. 63.
  16. F. C. Peters, “The Local Church—and Cultural Influences”, MBH, II (Jan. 18, 1963), p. 7.
  17. The author gratefully acknowledges access to the Church Member Profile (see Kauffmann and Harder, AFCL) of 1972, based on a survey of a random sample yielding 359 responses from 15 Canadian M. B. churches. The Canadian component from the larger sample was extracted through access to the University of Winnipeg computer terminal. Some 6000 data cards with the M. B. data for both U.S. and Canada are available with the author. Details not included in this essay (in order to conserve space) are available from the author. See Kauffman and Harder, AFCL, for the exact wording of the question and the response to be elicited.
  18. Susan Budd, Sociologists and Religion (London: Collier-Macmillan, 1973), p. 111, makes a similar observation for both Britain and United States.
  19. The term “fundamentalist orthodoxy” was used by Kauffman and Harder, AFCL, because the items of belief measured resembled the creed of the World Christian Fundamental Association of 1919.
  20. Bryan Wilson, Magic and the Millennium (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), pp. 22-30.
  21. Weber, Protestant Ethic, pp. 150-154. By this Weber meant asceticism practiced within the world as contrasted with auserweltliche Askese which withdraws from the world as in a monastery.
  22. See Arthur DeFehr, “Development from an Anabaptist Perspective or Which is the Other Side of the Boat?” Direction, V (Oct., 1976), 12-19.
Peter Hamm is Assistant Professor of Contemporary Ministries and Sociology at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba. This article is an outgrowth of the doctoral dissertation he recently submitted to McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario.