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October 1980 · Vol. 9 No. 4 · pp. 16–23 

Conversion in Anabaptist and Mennonite History

Gerald Ediger

This study deals with conversion in the context of Anabaptist Mennonite experience and theology and proceeds on the premise that its subject is vital to a true understanding of that theology. It concludes with the recognition of tensions existing in modern Mennonite Brethren belief and practice with respect to conversion.


The term conversion refers to an experiential phenomenon that one writer describes as a crisis encounter with God. 1 Anabaptist writers used other words and phrases. They spoke of becoming “renewed,” “justified,” “made pious,” “regenerated,” “born anew,” “changed,” “born again,” and “transplanted.” 2 It is clear from these terms that conversion was thought of as a cataclysmic, radical personal change. It was something to be personally experienced and objectively recognized as a unique event in one’s own relationship with God. It marked the beginning of a new way of life encompassing every aspect of existence.

The fact that the conversion experience is at the heart of the radical reformation is well attested. While it would be inaccurate to claim conversion as the exclusive experience of the radical reformers, history shows it was they who allowed the Spirit of God to carry their experience to its logical ends. “The concept of conversion is basic in the Anabaptist movement,” says Myron Augsburger. “The Anabaptist position can best be understood by relating conversion and the church as cause and effect.” 3 Moreover, it was a vital experience of the new birth that laid the foundation of the Mennonite Brethren during the 1860’s in South Russia. 4 {17}


One of the earliest documents of the radical reformation is Conrad Grebel’s letter to Thomas Muentzer, written 5 September 1524. In the section treating baptism he wrote

The Scripture describes baptism for us thus, that it signifies that, by faith and the blood of Christ, sins have been washed away for him who is baptized, changes his mind, and believes before and after; that it signifies that a man is dead and ought to be dead to sin and walks in newness of life and spirit, and that he shall certainly be saved if, according to this meaning, by inner baptism he lives his faith. . . . 5

From the standpoint of history, it is understandable that the focus of this passage is on baptism. Yet, something else is signified here. Those who are baptized have already had their sins washed away and their minds changed. They are dead to sin and their lives have a new quality. A similar emphasis is found in the Schleitheim document:

Baptism shall be given to all those who have learned repentance and amendment of life, and who believe truly that their sins are taken away by Christ, and wish to be buried with him in death, so that they may be resurrected with him. . . . 6

Concerning Grebel’s theology, H.S. Bender wrote:

The sinner is converted by the preaching of the Word, that is, he is brought thereby to the point where he will turn from his sins, abandon them completely and take up a new life. This conversion is a new birth by which, through the faith of the believer and by means of the blood of Christ, sins are washed away, and the believer dies to sin and receives a new spirit. If he continues to live in this new life and resolutely separates himself from sin, he may be sure of salvation. 7

Here the agencies of salvation are the Word, the faith of the sinner, and the sacrifices of Christ. Conversion is not the self-reliant work of the individual. Moreover, conversion results in continuous separation from sin. Indeed, it would appear that salvation is conditional upon this continuance. Yet this continuance is not seen as earning salvation but as positive proof that conversion has in fact occurred.

In time, several important leaders who were spared execution were able to develop more comprehensive theologies. Pilgram Marpeck emphasized that entrance to the new covenant is gained by the adult experience {18} of the new birth. 8 While all may have a certain amount of “natural light,” the new birth is the result of the touch of the Holy Spirit, while at the same time believers exercise their capacity for faith. It is the seed of the Word which is used by the Holy Spirit to make the new birth possible. An important contribution is Marpeck’s insistence that “the new birth is a spiritual birth, and it includes the whole person, including flesh and blood. . . . Becoming a Christian does not merely mean mental assent to creed with the privilege of serving sin in the flesh. . . .” 9 Marpeck is clearly arguing for a wholistic view of conversion.

In contrast to the other reformers, Marpeck emphasized that “the new birth and faith are followed by new life in Christ. This is not merely a new standing, it results in a holy walk.” This new holy walk is the process of sanctification as love, knowledge, and behaviour grow towards perfection. It is significant to note that on at least one occasion Marpeck equated the new birth itself with the process of progressive sanctification so that, in a sense, the process of new birth is life-long. 10

The teaching of Menno Simons on conversion is best summarized in his vibrant tract, The New Birth, written about 1537. It is clear in this source that, for Menno, true Christianity is something other than mere profession. “Attend my words,” he writes, “all ye who think yourselves to be Christians, . . . even though there is found among you neither Christian faith, brotherly love, etc.” It is the issue of new birth and regeneration that separates all those “of the age of understanding” into two groups: the tiny, beleaguered flock of true disciples and the majority, clinging futilely to nominal Christianity. 11 A repeated emphasis is that conversion is only for those who are capable of receiving, understanding, and acting upon instruction from the Word. It would appear that for Menno, as with other Anabaptists, child conversion and baptism was just as unbiblical as infant baptism.

Menno says of conversion that

if you wish to be saved, by all means and first of all, your earthly, carnal ungodly life must be reformed. . . . We must be born from above, must be changed and renewed in our hearts, and must be transplanted from the unrighteous and evil nature . . . or we can never in all eternity be saved by any means. . . . This regeneration . . . can only originate in the Word of the Lord rightly taught and rightly understood and received in the heart by faith through the Holy Ghost.

. . .

For it is clear that the regenerate do not willfully live in sin, {19} but through faith and true repentance were buried by baptism into the death of Christ and arose with him to a new life. 12

The principal features of the Anabaptist/Mennonite Theology of Conversion may be summed up as follows:

1. Conversion has a clear and necessary priority over baptism. It is the former which determines one’s standing before God. While the latter is clearly assumed to follow, it remains a symbol and public witness only.

2. Conversion is a concrete event in the experience of an individual. It is the supreme focal point of one’s personal history. It follows that it would occur once in a person’s lifetime.

3. Conversion is necessarily based on the intelligent hearing and understanding of the Word. Although the Word is applied to the heart by the Holy Spirit, a “high” anthropology is apparent here. Individuals have both the responsibility and the capacity to respond freely in faith and to allow their transformation by the Word and the Spirit or to deny the opportunity and incur even greater guilt before God.

4. Conversion is of the whole being: mind, will, spirit, and behavior. It is thus impossible to speak of conversion apart from a changed life. A new relationship with God is accompanied by separation from the world in a life of obedient discipleship. The convert’s behavior, however, is not immediately perfect, but is contingent upon growth and development in the Christian walk.

5. Conversion is an adult experience. Only adults have the cognitive and moral maturity to accept ultimate responsibility for themselves. Only adults have the volitional capacity to walk the way of the cross, prepared to accept the baptism of death. The link between capability and responsibility is clear.

6. The converted are clearly set apart from the unconverted. A faith expressed in terms of ethical and normative expectations is clearly distinguished from creedal Christianity. Along with a strong sense of separation, however, comes a zeal for evangelism which follows directly from this doctrine.

7. Conversion is not simply a means of escaping judgement. This element is present in muted form in Menno’s writings, but the dominant appeal is to the individual’s obligation to the legitimate demands of a sovereign God. Outright appeal to the benefits of salvation both now and future is not at all conspicuous. {20}

The Anabaptist theology of conversion had important implications, especially for its view of the church. Franklin Littell argued that it was this that set them apart from the other reformers. 13 If conversion was for adults only, and if it must precede baptism, then the church could only be made up of adults. If conversion was the result of the exercise of human will in response to the Word and the Spirit, then the church must be formed by free association, and religious tolerance was essential. If conversion must be followed by the work of regeneration, then the church had the right to expect a holy and a circumspect walk of all its members and to apply the ban to those whose lives did not show evidence of regeneration. The vital interrelationship of conversion, sanctification, anthropology, and ecclesiology is evident.

Harold Bender pointed out that it was not basic doctrine, such as the “three solas,” but their doctrine of regeneration and discipleship which put the Anabaptists in conscious opposition to Reformation theology and practice: the Anabaptists contended the chief thrust of God’s grace to be in regeneration following forgiveness, and this regeneration was understood as a vital change, not primarily a conferring of status. 14 The unanimous affirmation of the Anabaptists, said Rollin Armour, that “the only legitimate basis for receiving baptism and entering the baptismal covenant was the experience of regeneration within . . . distinguished them from the developing Protestantism of Luther, Zwingli and other classical reformers.” 15


The Lutheran Augsburg Confession was published in 1530 and the Reformed Second Helvitic Confession was written in 1562 and published in 1566. Mennonite confessions and catechisms, however, did not appear until later.

The Shorter Catechism (Prussia, 1690) and the Waldeck Catechism (Prussia, 1778) continue the earlier understanding of conversion of the 16th century and of the Dortrecht Confession (Holland, 1632) which reads:

For neither Baptism, Supper, nor church fellowship, nor any other external ceremony, can, without faith, the new birth, and a change of renewal of life, help or qualify us, that we may please God or receive any consolation or promise of salvation from him. 16

Of importance for Mennonite Brethren is the Stiftungschrift, their document of organization (South Prussia, 1860) reads: “Baptism is not {21} the new birth, as some of the unconverted maintain, but serves as a sign for the baptismal candidate, that he is really born again.” 17

The Confession of Faith of the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (of North America), 1976, reads:

Those who repent of their sin and trust in Christ as Savior and Lord receive forgiveness. By the power of the Holy Spirit they are born into the family of God and receive assurance of salvation. Saving faith involves a surrender of the will to Christ, a complete trust in Him, and a joyful obedience to His Word as a faithful disciple. 18

Granting the changes of language and modes of expression, it is this writer’s opinion that there has been no substantial creedal change in the Mennonite Brethren understanding of conversion. If that were the most reliable index, one could say that this early teaching has survived intact until the present. Unfortunately, this is not the case. According to Myron Augsburger, “In the second generation of Anabaptists and following there was a loss of the original witness of personal experience with Christ, a formalizing of their faith and a loss of evangelistic fervor.” 19 A.J. Klassen described a similar pattern among Mennonites in Prussia who, in spite of their concern for inner piety, were willing to accept the stipulation of Catherine the Great that they forsake all intention of evangelistic activity as a condition of their migration to southern Russia.

Church membership almost came to be taken for granted, and was no longer based on an actual conscious religious experience and commitment. It was largely based on being born a Mennonite, and thus became co-extensive with society. 20

While there were no doubt many factors involved, S.F. Pannabecker offered three reasons why the “pure ideals” of the sixteenth century did not continue. (1) The cessation of persecution and the advent of tolerance lessened the sense of separation, and so conversion became less dramatic. (2) What separations did exist mutated into linguistic and ethnic differences which were less threatening to the established order. (3) Pietistic, revivalistic attempts at recapturing the original emphasis focused too heavily on the conversion experience and too little on subsequent discipleship. 21 The Mennonite church of the nineteenth century became insular and self-satisfied in contrast to the evangelistic, suffering church of the sixteenth.

Conversion played a primary role in the re-awakening that resulted in the formation of the Mennonite Brethren and the revival of the {22} established Mennonite church. This did not happen suddenly and it required an infusion of fresh life from the outside, principally in the form of pietistic Lutheran and evangelical Baptist influence. Nevertheless the fruition of this new stirring was a recovery of the experience of conversion and a new concern for the purity of the church.

The Mennonite Brethren adopted the dramatic, adult conversion experience as the very cornerstone of their teaching, but in so doing evolved a theology of conversion based on the details of a religious experience characteristic of first generation revival. Such experience became normative and produced a self-contradictory situation when viewed from the sociological standpoint. Succeeding generations, raised and socialized within the church environment, have had to make a “detour into the world” so as to enter the organized church from the outside via conversion and baptism. Loewen describes this as the modern dilemma of conversion:

The basic premise of conversion theology is that every person by nature and behavior is outside of the church and can become a member of the believer’s church only as a result of a crisis change in his life. Does this imply that a child raised “inside the church” must indulge in worldly behavior and be identified with the ungodly world before he can function as a member of the church? 22

Such questions, which raise also the issue of childhood conversion, suggest some conflict between doctrine and practice. Is it possible that the center of Anabaptist theology, the adult conversion experience, is again being threatened by incongruities in practice? The solution of this extremely difficult problem is critical for the recapturing of vital Christianity in the Mennonite Brethren Church.


  1. Jacob A. Loewen, “Socialization and Conversion in the Ongoing Church,” Practical Anthropology 16 (January-February 1967): 7.
  2. The Mennonite Encyclopedia, s.v. “Conversion” by S.F. Pannabecker. {23}
  3. Myron S. Augsburger, “Conversion in Anabaptist Thought,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 36 (July 1962): 243.
  4. John A. Toews, A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church (Fresno: Board of Christian Literature, General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, 1975), pp. 32-35.
  5. Angel M. Mergal, G.H. Williams, eds. Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957), p. 80.
  6. C.L. Manschreck, A History of Christianity (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1964), pp. 79-80.
  7. Harold S. Bender, Conrad Grebel (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1950), p. 206.
  8. John C. Wenger, “The Theology of Pilgram Marpeck,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 12 (October 1938): 227.
  9. Ibid., pp. 228, 232-233.
  10. Ibid., pp. 235-237.
  11. John C. Wenger, The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, trans. Leonard Verduin (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1956), pp. 89, 92.
  12. Ibid., pp. 92, 97.
  13. F.H. Littell, The Origins of Sectarian Protestantism (New York: McMillan, 1964), p. xvii.
  14. Harold S. Bender, “Walking in the Resurrection: The Anabaptist Doctrine of Regeneration and Discipleship,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 35 (April 1961): 103-104.
  15. Rollin Stely Armour, Anabaptist Baptism: A Representative Study (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1956), p. 135.
  16. John C. Wenger, Glimpses of Mennonite History and Doctrine, 2nd ed. (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1947), p. 218.
  17. A.J. Klassen, “Mennonite Confessions of Faith: Historical Roots and Comparative Analysis” (M.Th. dissertation, Union College of British Columbia, 1965), p. 134.
  18. General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, Confession of Faith (Hillsboro: Board of Christian Literature, 1976), p. 13.
  19. Augsburger, “Conversion,” p. 153.
  20. Klassen, “Confessions,” pp. 28-29, 33.
  21. The Mennonite Encyclopedia, s.v. “Conversions” by S.F. Pannabecker.
  22. Loewen, “Socialization and Conversion,” pp. 7,5. See also the pamphlet New Wineskins for Old Wine: A Study of the Mennonite Brethren Church by Delbert Wiens (Hillsboro: Mennonite Brethren Publishing House, 1965), pp. 4-7.
Gerry Ediger, a 1979 graduate of the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in Fresno, California, is presently the Executive Secretary for Student Services for the Ontario Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches in Canada.

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