Mennonite Discussion Paper, James Eash, April 1999 (United States)
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The history of Anabaptism and it's transformation into the Mennonite church is, in many ways, much like the story of my own personal faith journey. I have experienced times of small-scale religious discrimination and persecution because of my Mennonite faith, but have also had many more wonderful, enriching times that have made me confident of my choice to live the life of a Mennonite.
My faith journey is not even close to being complete; in fact, I feel that a person's faith journey is a process that is not supposed to "end" like other journeys, but rather continually change and modify, with the idea being to build a stronger relationship with God. By periodically reflecting back on how far I've traveled thus far, I'm able to gain a better understanding of where I'm going. Although I don't always feel completely confident in every aspect of my faith, I feel my journey is leading me to a wider understanding of who I am and what being a Mennonite actually means. The end of this class marks an excellent time for personal reflection. While I have understood the main Mennonite theology for quite some time, this class has given me a more concrete history and theological background that encourages my understanding not only of what I believe, but why.
To be a Mennonite means that you are a part of something "bigger." By this I mean that a Mennonite's highest allegiance is sworn not to the government or to something similar, but to God himself. Mennonites live and are an important part of the physical world, but we belong to something much greater. An important theme in many Mennonite and Anabaptist writings is one of being in the world but not of the world, and I believe that this is an important aspect of Mennonite life, one that was prevalent very early on in my life.
I was born into the small Mennonite community of Kalona, Iowa, where I lived until the age of seven. In Kalona, the church extended itself to all aspects of the community-the people you worked, played, and went to school with were the same people you saw in church on Sunday morning. When I moved to Evansville, Indiana, all of this changed. Though it was a city about fifty times the size of Kalona, Evansville did not have a single Mennonite church. Suddenly, I found myself surrounded by people who didn't believe as I did-I went from being a part of an overwhelming majority to being an incredibly small minority. My family formed relationships with many wonderful people in Evansville, and I quickly made long-lasting friendships as well. However, as I grew older I began to realize our underlying differences, and came to understand exactly how small of a minority Mennonites really are. This was when I first began to see myself as being a special part of something that was more important that anything else I would ever find in the physical world.
My understanding of this relationship between Mennonites and the rest of the world grew when we moved to Wichita, Kansas before my sophomore year of high school. Wichita was like an interesting mix of my first two homes-it is a large (300,000) city, but has an established Mennonite community as well. I was undoubtedly still a part of a religious minority-out of my high school class of 1200, I was one of only three Mennonites-but was now able to more easily nurture my religious needs within this new environment. I finally began to gain a substantial base for my understanding of the Mennonite religion, and began to capture and almost understand my feeling of belonging to something more important. This class, Anabaptist and Mennonite History, has helped to widen my overall understanding of my Mennonite religion, and has helped me to understand the reasoning behind some of my most important and profound beliefs within my Mennonite theology.
Researching the Schleitheim Confession, as well as the Anabaptist vision, helped me to more concretely define these beliefs. Much like it did for the Swiss Anabaptists in 1527, the Schleitheim Articles helped me to define my complex beliefs into a simple language that I understood. It gave more sense to something that I previously couldn't completely or accurately define.
While many other parts of our readings did much of the same thing, these two documents were the most influential because they connected me with the development of the Mennonite religion. The Schleitheim Articles gave me a connection to the Anabaptist movement, which essentially were the roots of the Mennonite religion. The history of Anabaptist martyrs and overwhelming religious persecution suddenly felt a lot closer, as I realized that I am a part of that whole story, and it is a part of me.
This isn't to say that I agree with each and every word found in these two writings, nor am I arguing that one needs to be able to have a type of checklist that determines whether or not they are truly "religious." My beliefs cannot be completely described by simply reading these documents, and for that I am thankful-I believe a person's theology should go beyond written definition. The importance for me was finding this connection to my faith that I hadn't had before. It is a connection to a powerful story of strength, determination, and faith-it is a connection to a story that I was aware of but didn't know I was a part of.
I feel that when you study history, you end up uncovering much more than simple facts. In studying the facts of Anabaptist and Mennonite history, I not only gained historical knowledge, but also a wider understanding of my Mennonite heritage. As a result, this process has allowed me to challenge and strengthen my own theology.
As I pause at this point of personal reflection, I realize that I have yet another thing in common with my ancestors. In the same way that the Russian Mennonites celebrated their centenary in 1889, I celebrate now for a number of the same reasons. Although I have greatly changed throughout my faith journey, my new and expanded understanding of my Mennonite faith makes me excited about where I currently am, what I've accomplished, and where my faith journey is taking me.This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 1999.