Theological Education and Anabaptist Identity

Perspectives from Mennonite History

The Abstract

This article examines the relationship between a “wounded” Mennonite identity, theological education, and mission in relation to questions being asked among members of the Mennonite Francophone Network today. From its sixteenth-century beginnings, Anabaptism bore the wounds of rejection, persecution, and marginalization. In some cases this led to a Mennonite mentality of separation and legalism. Nineteenth-century efforts to overcome the “wounds of sectarianism” and “spiritual drought” led to openness to Pietism and Evangelical Protestantism. In France, Switzerland, and North America, nineteenth-century beginnings of theological education were tied to renewal movements and interest in mission as a way of renewing an often ethnic Mennonite identity prone to formalism. This combination, plus the mission movement’s insistence on Protestant unity, led to a downplaying of a more specifically “Anabaptist” theological identity when new churches were born in Congo or Burkina Faso. Another means for renewing Mennonite identity has been through a return to sixteenth-century historical origins, which in the last half century has produced fruits in terms of a more Anabaptist missiology and a world-wide identity promoted by Mennonite World Conference. French-speaking Mennonites in Canada, Europe, and Africa are searching for theological education that will form leaders and congregations in a more positive Anabaptist identity, while at the same time assuming a conscious role in the larger context of a worldwide Christian family still too often divided.

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Academic article by Neal Blough

(Pour la version originale en français, cliquez ici.)

The growth of the Mennonite Francophone Network is a reflection of recent developments in Mennonite history. The writer of these lines was born in 1950, and the reality of the French-speaking Mennonite situation has changed considerably since that time.1

In 1950, France was still in the process of reconstruction in the aftermath of the violent shock of the Second World War. At that time, there were two Mennonite conferences, the Alsatian conference — the largest and primarily German-speaking — and the “French-speaking” conference. Today, there is only one Mennonite conference in France. All worship services are now conducted in French, a fact that marks a significant linguistic and cultural transition.2

The Swiss Mennonite Conference is composed of both German- and French-speaking congregations. Its monthly periodical, Perspective, is bilingual. Along with other factors, the disappearance of the German-speaking Mennonite primary schools in the French-speaking Jura region led to the birth of French-language congregations. All things considered, the number of European French-speaking Mennonite congregations remains small, somewhere around forty.3

In 1950, there were no Mennonite congregations in Quebec. The Canadian Mennonite Church began planting churches in Quebec in 1957. The Mennonite Brethren followed suit in 1963 with the help of former missionaries from the Congo. Much like their European counterparts, French-speaking Mennonite congregations in Quebec remain quite small in number to this day.4

Forty years of Mennonite missionary work in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where French is one of the official languages, was celebrated in 1950. These efforts led to the development of close relationships between the Congo and North America, although not with French-speaking Europe. The growth of Mennonite churches in Congo has resulted in the existence of one of the largest groups of Mennonites in the world, and certainly the largest group of French-speaking Mennonites, although for many it is their second or third language.5

The birth of the Mennonite Church in Burkina Faso, a former French colony, goes back to 1983.6 The number of congregations is small, and French is a second language for most.

Although Mennonite World Conference has existed since 1925, it is only in the last decades that more conscious efforts have been made to develop deeper relationships between Mennonites worldwide. It is also only in the past fifteen years that French-speaking Mennonites have developed closer ties via the Mennonite Francophone Network.7 Contacts led to the dream of an international consultation among French-speaking Mennonites. This gathering — unimaginable in 1950 — became a reality in Kinshasa in February 2014.

Before exploring the relationship between theological education and Anabaptist identity in the French-speaking wing of Mennonite World Conference more deeply, let us set the scene by citing one of the participants in the consultation. Siaka Traoré made the following observation about the link between theological identity and the missionary enterprise in Africa in the “Afterword” in Anabaptist Songs in African Hearts. He wrote: “[…] Mennonite missions did not emphasize Mennonite identity in the beginning. Not knowing their identity, many of these churches have conformed themselves to those churches that are dominant in their context. They embrace the theology or doctrine that is dominant in their country.”8

Similar remarks have been made by Congolese Mennonite pastors in my visits to Kinshasa over the years. Many have mentioned that “missionaries began our churches without ever telling us that we were Mennonites.” While there is a certain amount of truth to these observations, such comments may lead one to believe that the question of Anabaptist–Mennonite identity is specifically related to Africa and French-speaking African Mennonites, or that it has its origins exclusively in the missionary enterprise. Nothing could be further from the truth. The issues that Siaka Traoré raised have been part and parcel of Mennonite history ever since the beginnings of Anabaptism in the sixteenth century.

Typical of any Christian family, the question of theological identity has been an ongoing question for Mennonites. The next section of this article will offer a brief comparative overview of Mennonite history in several of the contexts represented at the consultation. This study will examine the relationship of theological identity with theological education, as well as its connection to mission history in these same contexts and the ensuing interdenominational cooperation that has come into being.

Anabaptist–Mennonite Origins and Theological Identity9

All identities are complex and shaped by the wounds of history. Among the countries represented in Kinshasa, several historical elements have strongly contributed to interrelated identities: colonial history, the slave trade, economic injustice between North and South, as well as the history of missions. Consciously or unconsciously, these various aspects are an integral part of the African, North American, and European identities brought together in Kinshasa. It is necessary to recognize that fact, as well as being willing to open ourselves to the healing of these wounds. Over and beyond any particular and/or historic identities, all of us share in the profound wound of evil, while, at the same time, sharing the hope of the gospel of reconciliation and healing.

That being said, historical wounds have been ever-present in Anabaptist–Mennonite identity. From the very beginning, this identity developed in the context of major rejection by other Christians and political authorities. This phenomenon of rejection produced a minority identity, not always sure of itself, torn between the desire to remain faithful to the theological insights of the beginnings of the movement and the fatigue inherent to constantly being considered sectarian and despicable by others. In more ways than one, the wounds of this complex Mennonite identity are also part of the history of the French-speaking Mennonites who gathered in Kinshasa.

From its early beginnings, Anabaptist identity shared most of the fundamental aspects of Christian theology. The theological particularities which led to its rejection were linked to its understanding of the church and a strong accent on Christian life as discipleship. Of the Protestant reform movements of the sixteenth century, only the Anabaptists developed an explicitly “missionary” stance towards the world, and this because of their particular understanding of baptism and ecclesiology. As the years passed, however, historical circumstances were such that it was only a matter time before their missionary zeal more or less disappeared.

Early Anabaptism did not reject the importance of theological training. Among the “founders” were university-trained leaders (Conrad Grebel, Felix Mantz, Balthasar Hubmaier), former priests trained within the Catholic Church (George Blaurock, Michael Sattler, Menno Simons), or lay professionals with a high level of theological competency (Pilgram Marpeck). Sixteenth century reformers understood the relationship between theological education and theological identity. The Reformation marks the beginning of a period of renewal of theological education, in both Catholic and Protestant circles.10 Until recently, reform and renewal movements were usually accompanied by an awareness of the importance of theological education, recognizing the fact that education was necessary to create, maintain, and transmit theological and ecclesial identity.

One of the concrete results of the rejection, persecution and marginalization of Anabaptists is evidenced after the middle of the sixteenth century. European Anabaptist leaders no longer had any formal theological training. Leader formation was limited to individual and congregational Bible study, sermon preparation, reading, and gleanings from pastoral experience. The theological identity of these dispersed and marginal congregations was maintained and transmitted mainly through worship, preaching, song, the reading of Scripture, the Martyrs Mirror and other manuscripts or books, as well as through individual and congregational spirituality.

By the end of the sixteenth century, the European context had given rise to an Anabaptist reality that was wounded, marginal, scattered, and devoid of theologically trained leaders. Because Protestant and Catholic adversaries were theologically trained, negative attitudes toward theological education were basically reactionary. “Those who persecute and reject us learn their mistaken theology in universities and seminaries. Why would we want to study in such a context?” The one exception was Dutch Anabaptism. Mennonites in the Netherlands began to be tolerated, and a training school for pastors was founded in 1735.11 Nevertheless, this educational effort already reflected a considerable amount of cultural accommodation and left a key element of Anabaptist identity far in the background.12

The historical and social context of the Mennonites in France can be used as a case in point to illustrate what took place in the rest of the small world of European Anabaptists. Located in the German-speaking regions of eastern France, Anabaptist communities lived on the margins of society. Any training for preachers and elders was derived from pastoral experience and input from regional gatherings of congregations. The Amish schism (1693) drew in a large majority of these congregations, a factor that reinforced their separatist ways and enhanced the marginality of their identity. In spite of temptations toward legalism within the congregations and authoritarianism on the part of its leaders, French and Alsatian Anabaptism nevertheless maintained their theology of nonviolence in regard to military service throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. With the coming of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic period, the state began to demand that Anabaptists serve in French armies. In France, as elsewhere in Europe, those Amish and Mennonites who held to nonviolence and other Anabaptist particularities often chose to migrate to North America. In large part, because of this emigration and the German reannexation of Alsace, French-speaking Anabaptist congregations almost disappeared by the beginning of the twentieth century.13 Swiss, German, and Russian Mennonites had also begun to emigrate — in some cases even earlier — a process which would continue even into the twentieth century. With the one exception of the Netherlands, European Mennonites found themselves in a state of numerical and psychological weakness.

Pietism, Missions and Mennonite Identity

The nineteenth century provides a key for understanding the European Mennonite context today. It was at this point in time that European Anabaptism came under the influence of evangelical Pietism. In consequence, some Mennonites became involved in the Protestant missionary movement, an activity dating from the end of the eithteenth century to the beginning of the nineteenth century.14

In the case of the French, Swiss, South German, Russian, and North American15 Mennonites, separatism, ethnicity, and the lack of trained leadership often led to legalism and spiritual apathy. In Europe, Mennonite emigration to North America diminished the number of congregational leaders, thereby contributing to the loss of certain theological aspects of Anabaptist identity, more specifically, the stance on nonviolence.

Understandably so, in many cases the desire for a more spiritually authentic, personal, and congregational life attracted Mennonites to various trans-Atlantic, pietistic, revival movements. For some, the wounds of identity were simply too deep. “Mennonitism” only seemed capable of spawning ethnicity and a formalistic faith. In Russia, this situation was an important factor in the schism that led to the birth of the Mennonite Brethren in 1860.16 Russia, however, was not the only theatre for such events. “The revival movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were more than transitory events. They brought enduring changes to the spiritual life of Swiss Mennonite congregations.”17

From this point on, with the exception of the Dutch and northern Germans, European Mennonites began sending their preachers to Pietist Bible schools. Herein marks the beginning of institutional theological training for these churches, albeit in non-Mennonite institutions.

“Training centres such as St. Chrischona near Basel not only played a key role in shaping generations of Mennonite preachers and elders from Switzerland, Alsace, southern Germany and south Russia, but also led to a certain harmony in theological orientation.”18

Mission and Theological Education

Nineteenth-century European and North American Mennonites found themselves in the midst of important and difficult debates about their theological identity. In the Netherlands and northern Germany, where congregations were more integrated into urban society, Mennonite identity was torn between liberal Protestantism and Pietism, but was moving strongly in the direction of liberal theology. Their pastors were trained in the Amsterdam seminary. On the other hand, many Swiss, French, southern German, and Russian Mennonites, who perceived their identity to be colored with overtones of ethnicity, legalism, and sectarianism, saw Pietism as a way out. The situation in North America was even more complex, ranging from conservative separatism (for example, the Amish) to those seeking a stronger theological and cultural evangelical (or more liberal) identity in a North American context.

In contrast to the Dutch and northern Germans, most of these European and North American congregations were rural. The movement towards Pietism was seen as a corrective to the spiritual condition of the church, and representative of the desire to become more culturally acclimated. In other words, Anabaptist–Mennonite identity was in ferment and a period of change.

It was in this critical phase that European Mennonites began sending their preachers for training at Chrischona, a school that emerged out of Lutheran and Reformed Pietism. In 1869, a secondary-level training school for Mennonite preachers was founded in Wadsworth, Ohio.19 The step taken by European and North American Mennonites toward Pietism was also a step towards involvement in the missionary enterprise. For those desiring to “revive” Mennonite congregations, mission was seen as a key element to an exit from slumber and isolation. The Protestant missionary movement, a fruit of the Pietist “First Great Awakening,” began at the end of the eighteenth century. Mennonites became a part of the movement, albeit later than others. The first Mennonite missionaries were Dutch, who had been influenced by the Pietist wing of Protestantism. They began by collaborating with a Baptist mission, but then founded their own organization in 1847 in order to work in Indonesia.20 The Dutch effort became a catalyst for the involvement of others, as is evidenced by the support of Mennonites from Germany, Russia, Alsace, Switzerland, and even North America.

North American Mennonites were next to join the missionary enterprise. As in Europe, those North American Mennonites interested in mission also hoped to instill new life in their congregations and conferences. Transatlantic links still remained strong, as evidenced by the fact that the first American Mennonite missionary sent to Native Americans was a German immigrant who had studied at Wadsworth, where he had learned to leave “Mennonite formalism and to work intelligently and aggressively for the Master.”21 The beginning of theological education for North American and many European Mennonites was thus closely tied to both Pietism and mission.

According to Wilbert Shenk, the first century of Mennonite missionary activity, be it European or North American, was exclusively shaped by Pietism, which was on the way to being called “Evangelicalism.”22 In other words, both the motivation and the energy for missionary involvement came from evangelical revivalism. Since Mennonites were often latecomers on the mission field, they were usually minor partners in a much bigger enterprise. Seeing little energy or missionary vision in their own context, Mennonites turned to the evangelical world for both their missiology and strategy.

The original Mennonite mission efforts in the Congo are in total coherence with this history. Two Mennonite groups — recent immigrants from Alsace — began mission work in the Kasai region in 1911–1912.23 Lacking qualified people within their own constituency, the Congo Inland Mission chose non-Mennonite evangelicals to formulate their vision and to provide mission personnel.24

In the midst of these mission efforts, no missiological reflection proper to Anabaptism can be found before the middle of the twentieth century. Even though there were mission workers trained in the perspective of the “Anabaptist Vision” already in 1950, the period of strong Mennonite postwar mission expansion until 1965 was essentially evangelical in nature.25

The first task of a historian is to describe and not to judge. Any attempt simply to consider such evangelical influence as totally negative needs to take into account the fact that it was most probably the case that this Pietist influence was a major factor in the survival of Swiss, South German, and French Mennonites to the present day. Another historical element which must also be taken into account is that from its very beginnings, the missionary movement was in strong reaction to the divisive history of European and North American Protestantism. Beginning with the sixteenth century Reformation, most Protestant or evangelical groups can trace their origins to painful divisions, the rupture with the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century being the first. The first institutional efforts toward Protestant unity issue forth from movements like the Evangelical Alliance, founded in London in 1846. The Protestant missionary movement began interdenominational collaboration at an early stage and began to hold international conferences during the latter part of the nineteenth century. During the legendary Mission Conference in Edinburgh in 1910, Chinese representatives raised the question as to why Protestants from the West insisted upon exporting their historic divisions to the rest of the world.26 Why should Chinese or African Christians feel the need to identify themselves as Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, or Methodist? Why could the missionary effort not be united? This meeting was an important step in the chain of events leading to the founding of the World Council of Churches in 1948.

The dynamic for Protestant unity was set in place quite early in the missionary enterprise in the Congo. Following the international missionary conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, the Protestant mission organizations working in the Congo formed a Continuation Committee that gave birth to the Congo Protestant Council (CPC) in 1924.27

On the other hand, the favoritism expressed by the Belgian government in relation to the Catholic missions became a significant source of tension with the Protestants. Perhaps more than any other factor, this tension (between Catholics and Protestants) motivated Mennonites and other Protestants to work towards Protestant unity during this time, something which inevitably entailed stressing what they shared in common, rather than emphasizing their distinctive characteristics.28

There are, therefore, at least two factors that explain the lack of Anabaptist or Mennonite identity in mission efforts:

  1. The insertion of European and North American Mennonites into the Pietist-evangelical mission movement as a reaction to separatist and legalistic tendencies within their own ranks; and
  2. The importance that the Protestant missionary movement attributed to unity itself.

If Mennonite missionaries failed to transmit a “Mennonite identity” to the Congolese churches, it is likely that the “sending” churches were not clear themselves about their own identity. That being said, it becomes clear that the question of Mennonite identity is thus not only a question that concerns the churches in Congo or Burkina Faso.

Anabaptist History and the Question of Identity

It has become clear that both Pietism and mission were part of a movement to renew Mennonite identity in both Europe and North America. At the same time, other (and sometimes the same) people turned towards Anabaptist history and a “theology of origins.” This move was also conceived as a way to renew congregations shaped by ethnicity and a history of being a “people apart” as well as those tempted by cultural and theological assimilation into the evangelical or liberal Protestant mainstream. Mennonites have always drawn on their history to preserve their identity, as constant reference to the importance of the Martyrs Mirror and other Anabaptist writings throughout the centuries clearly illustrates. Towards the end of the nineteenth century — the same period that some Mennonites were turning towards Pietism and the missionary endeavor — European historians began to reconsider sixteenth century Anabaptism in a new and more positive light.29 The fact that others outside of the Anabaptist tradition began to affirm its positive merits was perhaps the beginning of the healing process of a wounded identity. Some German Mennonite historians related this new tendency to their own churches, with the hopes that this trend would revitalize their congregations so imprisoned by their ethnicity that they were tempted to simply become either good liberal Protestants or evangelicals. A number of young North American Mennonites, including Harold S. Bender, began studies in European universities in order to benefit from the historiographical shift at work.30

This time frame was also characterized by a strong sense of nationalism in both Europe and North America. Mennonites began to think of themselves as German, Dutch, French, Swiss, Canadian, or American. Already strongly at work in nineteenth century Europe, this nationalism would soon wreak havoc on a global scale and bring to bear the unspeakable horrors of two world wars. Many European Mennonites gave in to the sirens of war and the predominant ideological and theological trends of the times. Neither the liberalism of the Dutch Mennonites nor the Pietism of the French, Swiss or Germans would foster much resistance to the nationalistic war efforts.
Circumstance is invariably a formidable factor in the development of identity. In missiological terms, one speaks of the importance of “contextualization.” The shock of the Second World War, the menace of nuclear weapons, and the Cold War raised questions about peace and nonviolence with new urgency. European Mennonites had just gone through indescribable horror. In North America, where conscientious objection was a legal option, one might ask why almost half of the Mennonite men chose otherwise. Mennonites had been soldiers in French, German Russian, Canadian, and American armies. Had 20th-century Christians not grandly failed in their task to be “salt and light” and “peacemakers”?

The return to Anabaptist history continued during the postwar years and, beginning in the 1950s, contributed to serious reflection on a theology of nonviolence. The renewal of Anabaptist historiography had initially begun in Europe. However, because of the devastation of the two world wars in Europe, and due to the existence of a network of North American Mennonite institutions and universities, this historical work would be continued for the most part in the United States and Canada. Various institutions, including schools, Mennonite Central Committee, and mission agencies, became vectors of transmission of a renewed Mennonite identity.

Mennonite Mission, Anabaptist History, and Theological Education

At the beginning of the 20th century, Mennonites in France, Germany, Switzerland, and Russia found themselves weakened by previous emigration towards North America. Difficulties were increased by the devastation of two world wars. A century ago, Europeans constituted about half of the global Mennonite population. Today, however, they represent only 4 percent of the ever-growing world family. The situation is different on the North American continent, in that it was one of the major beneficiaries of European Mennonite emigration. Also, it did not directly experience the devastation of the two wars. This juncture in time was also the period of “institution-building” in North America. Between 1890 and 1930 a series of Mennonite primary and secondary schools, colleges, publishing houses, hospitals, and retirement centers were founded. Mission work became better structured through the development of mission agencies. The birth of MCC in 1920 (founded as a collaboration between North-American and European Mennonites) had a strong impact in the lives of Mennonite congregations.31

Regardless of these new institutions, North American Mennonites still harbored a certain degree of hesitancy with regards to higher level theological education. Mirroring Alsace, Southern Germany, Switzerland, or Russia, emphases continued to be placed on lay preachers whose training was often limited to that of a Bible institute or the Bible departments of Mennonite colleges. University training in Mennonite colleges, however, accompanied the beginning of a significant sociological change. North-American Mennonites were beginning to “leave the farm” and branch out into other professions. These developments helped to further the establishment of Mennonite Bible schools and seminaries.32 Congregations began to notice the benefits of better-trained pastors and the importance of training in an Anabaptist theological perspective. Rightly so, for the college and seminaries helped to formulate and transmit a more specifically Anabaptist-oriented identity; one that began to influence congregations, institutions, and the mission agencies. The “return to sixteenth century Anabaptism” and the founding of schools played an important function in shaping Mennonite identity in post-Second-World-War North America. This author is a direct beneficiary of these changes. In the eyes of a historian, however, the shift toward more formal theological education is a recent phenomenon, for it took place primarily during the second half of the twentieth century, that is, within my own life span.

European Mennonites did not have the “critical mass” necessary to create such an institutional network. German-speaking Mennonites continued to be educated at Chrischona or in Protestant theological faculties. French Mennonites began to study near Paris at the Nogent Bible Institute, a school founded in 1921. A European Mennonite Bible school, the Bienenberg, was founded in 1950 close to Basel, Switzerland. An educational program was offered in either French or German. The interdenominational Evangelical Free-Church Seminary at Vaux sur Seine (near Paris) was founded in 1965 with financial support coming from, among others, the French Mennonites. Several Mennonite pastors or teachers have studied at this institution.

Similar developments took place in the Congo. An inter-Mennonite Theological School was begun in 1963 at Kajiji. According to Eric Kumedisa:

The theological school at Kajiji played a critical role in training more highly-qualified leaders for the Mennonite churches, in strengthening the spirit of cooperation between Mennonites, and in creating a strong sense of unity among students from many different ethnic or tribal groups all over the Kasai and Bandundu provinces.33

Only four years after the founding of the Vaux sur Seine seminary in France, a similar undertaking occurred in Kinshasa with the beginning of the Ecole de Théologie Evangélique de Kinshasa (ETEK). This seminary was a cooperative interdenominational effort which included the Mennonite Community of Congo (CMCo) and the Mennonite Brethren Church of Congo (CEFMC) among its founders.34 In the meantime, this school was renamed the Institut Supérieur de Théologie de Kinshasa, and has since become the theological faculty of the Christian University of Kinshasa (UCKin).

In Quebec, the Mennonite Brethren founded the Institut Biblique de Laval in 1976. This school entered into a partnership with the University of Montreal in 1990 and as of the year 2000 became the Ecole de Théologie Evangélique de Montréal (ETEM). In 2004, the school initiated another partnership with a Christian Missionary Alliance Bible institute and in the course of change became interdenominational as well.

In terms of French-speaking Mennonites, other than the Bienenberg, which is no longer a residential campus, there is no French-language theological school that offers a seminary level training program in a Mennonite perspective.35 With few exceptions, French-speaking Mennonites pursue theological education in evangelical interdenominational schools, such as UCKin, Vaux sur Seine, le Centre Universitaire de Missiologie (CUM), ETEM, or in evangelical seminaries in Bangui, Abidjan, or Lomé.

Mennonite or Evangelical Theological Education?

The preceding paragraphs illustrate quasi-analogous trajectories in very different contexts on three continents. North American, French-speaking European, and African Mennonite histories are closely connected in albeit surprising ways. All have been recipients and participants in a wounded or weakened Mennonite identity. All have been heavily influenced by the evangelical world. The same “evangelical impulse” produced missionary efforts in all of the contexts mentioned, and explains the birth of Mennonite churches in Congo, Quebec, and Burkina Faso. French Mennonite mission involvement in Chad could also be viewed as fitting into the same paradigm.36

Excepting the Dutch Mennonites, formal theological training of pastors and church leaders is also a relatively recent phenomenon in North America and Europe. European and North American Mennonites accepted theological education fairly late on in their history, in contrast to the Africans, who entered into the process from almost the beginning of their history. In addition, the founding of theological training schools occurred about the same time on the three continents.

North America has the privilege of having a network of Mennonite educational institutions. This reality has not been the case for French-speaking Mennonites in Africa, Quebec, or Europe. French-speaking Mennonite pastors and leaders are trained in other schools. In like manner, French-speaking Mennonite professors teach in these other interdenominational schools.

By way of conclusion, this rapid historical overview and space will only allow a few limited observations and several questions. First of all, in the short history of the Mennonite Francophone Network, the question of theological education has been posed with regularity and appears to be a priority. There is a strong desire to train pastors and leaders who will reinforce an Anabaptist identity. Such an identity is to be incarnated in daily discipleship and passed on to our congregations, but also shared with other Christians.

The fact that there are no French-language Mennonite seminaries raises important questions. No one would contest the necessity to work for Christian unity, and interdenominational seminaries seem to be one effective manner of doing just that. The evangelical-mission impulse towards unity needs to be taken seriously and enlarged. Mennonites should and must work with other Christians.

That said, the ability to work with others is greatly enhanced and reinforced if one’s own identity is clear. History demonstrates that theological education shapes theological identity. In the case of Mennonites, cultural assimilation and training in non-Mennonite schools has been a factor of “identity-weakening.” The Amsterdam seminary’s liberal and urban roots were a force in the disappearance of a Mennonite peace theology for many generations. Other European Mennonites were trained in liberal state–church theological schools or in more conservative evangelical Bible institutes. Little did it matter for, in both cases, peace theology as one of the qualifiers of Mennonite identity simply disappeared. Cultural and political factors came into play as well. European Mennonites were shaped by the Enlightenment heritage of nationalism and found themselves on different sides of several wars. If Mennonites are to be theologically trained in non-Mennonite schools, it is critical that ways be found to teach and sustain an Anabaptist theological identity, not one that is sectarian or hostile towards others, but rather one that acknowledges differences and is open to dialogue. Relationship building and regular contacts with schools where French-speaking Mennonites receive theological education must be the starting points. For this to happen, these schools will need to be informed of our churches’ wishes, and Mennonites must become more aware of the need to collaborate.

The question arises as to the manner of putting into place the ways and means of elaborating and transmitting an Anabaptist identity while yet collaborating with others. Both experience and testimonies during the consultation have confirmed the fact that a theology or missiology that emphasizes peace, justice, and reconciliation is a positive contribution to the curricula of non-Mennonite schools. While it is true that Mennonites need to learn from others, it is also true that they have something positive to contribute to the larger Christian world.

Another issue raised has been the lack of Anabaptist literature in French. This shortage has slowly started to be addressed within the last ten to twenty years. There is, however, still much to be done, and questions that need answered. How can publication in the realms of theology, history, ethics, and missiology be encouraged? How can we better share what already exists?

To maintain an Anabaptist identity also means to be interested in the mission of the church. Missionaries and evangelists also need to integrate elements of Anabaptist identity into their theology and practice in the same manner that “peace activists” need to see their activities as part of the church’s mission. Unfortunately, it is all too often the case — at least in Europe and North America — that those who are interested in Anabaptist theology are not very interested in mission, and those who maintain a high level of interest for mission have little interest in Anabaptist theology.

Thanks to the fruits of missionary efforts and the Mennonite World Conference, there is now a global Mennonite family. Both have come together to provide a new context for doing theology and “being the church.” If Mennonite theology and theological education are to be properly contextualized, contacts between Mennonites on the international plane are essential. As history has clearly demonstrated, churches that remain in their contextual enclaves are apt to commit serious errors. As French-speaking Mennonites, we must recognize that we need each other. What kind of future collaboration is desirable? What kind is possible?

One option is to take seriously the possibilities offered by Mennonite World Conference and to participate in and encourage its development and influence in our local and national conferences. MWC reinforces the capacity to be a worldwide family; it can help to go beyond inter-Mennonite quarrels and schisms, and allows dialogue with other Christian families.

In the midst of our different questions of identity, may we be simply Mennonite, with neither shame nor arrogance. It is in such a spirit that we can more easily find and assume our role within the entire Christian family.



Neal Blough is Director of the Paris Mennonite Centre, professor of Church history at the Vaux sur Seine Seminary, and teaches at the Bienenberg Theology School in Switzerland and the Catholic University of Paris. He is co-editor of the collection Perspectives anabaptistes published by Editions Excelsis. 

This article is adapted from a presentation given at the consultation on theological education of the Mennonite Francophone Network in Kinshasa, February 2014.


Jean Séguy, Les assemblées anabaptistes-mennonites de France (Paris: Mouton, 1977); John A. Lapp and C. Arnold Snyder, Testing Faith and Tradition, Global Mennonite History Series: Europe (Intercourse, PA: Good, 2006); N. Blough, “The Anabaptist Vision and its Impact among French Mennonites,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 69 (1995): 369–388.


Snyder, Testing Faith and Tradition, 153–168.


Robert Martin-Koop, “Quebec (Canada),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, 1990, accessed June 5, 2014, Jean Raymond Théorêt, “Quebec Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, August 2011, accessed Jun 5, 2014,


Anabaptist Songs in African Hearts (Collective), Global Mennonite History Series: Africa (Intercourse PA: Good, 2006), 45–96.


Ibid., 260–262.


Réseau mennonite francophone, “Vivre l’Eglise au-delà des frontières,” Dossiers de Christ Seul, Editions mennonites, No. 1 (2012).


Anabaptist Songs in African Hearts, 265.


In this article, “Mennonite” refers to churches that bear this name and “Anabaptist” to a larger historical movement and theological identity.


 Cf. N. Blough, “Perspectives historiques sur la formation théologique protestante et évangélique, du XVIe au XXe siècle,” Théologie évangélique 11 (2012) : 23–32.


 Snyder, Testing Faith and Tradition, 58.


 “From the 1780s on, the peace tradition among Dutch Mennonites became virtually extinct, at least among the dominant liberalist party” (Snyder, Testing Faith and Tradition, 70).


 The most detailed description of these changes is found throughout Jean Séguy, Les assemblées anabaptistes-mennonites de France.


 Pietist influence began earlier (cf. Robert Friedmann, Mennonite Piety Through the Centuries, Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1998). Philip Spener, one of the main figures in Lutheran Pietism, was born and raised in Alsace, close to where Mennonites had settled.


 “The various geographical origins in Europe of North American Mennonites, the different periods of emigration which contributed to differing mentalities, and a fairly ‘schismatic’ nineteenth century, created a surprising variety of Mennonite groups in Canada and the United States” (Snyder, Testing Faith and Tradition, 233).


 Ibid., 193.


 Ibid., 157.




 GAMEO, article “Seminaries” accessed February 1, 2014,


 Snyder, Testing Faith and Tradition, 73–74.


 James Juhnke, Vision, Doctrine, War: Mennonite Identity and Organization in America, The Mennonite Experience in America, Vol. 3 (Scottdale and Waterloo: Herald), 133, 141.


 The following paragraphs are based on W. R. Shenk, By Faith They Went Out: Mennonite Missions 1850-1899 (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 2000), especially chapter 2: “Mennonites and the Emerging Evangelical Network,” 29–49.


 An anticipation of the Mennonite Francophone Network a century later?


 Juhnke, Vision, Doctrine, War, 150.


 Shenk, By Faith They Went Out, 38–42.


 Brian Stanley, The World Mission Conference, Edinburgh 1910 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 107–10.


Anabaptist Songs in African Hearts, 50.


Anabaptist Songs in African Hearts, 58.


 Cf. N. Blough, Mennonites d’hier et d’aujourd’hui¸ Editions mennonites (2009), 49–51.


 Albert N. Keim, Harold S. Bender, 1897-1962 (Scottdale and Waterloo: Herald, 1998), 152–160; in French, see Jean Séguy, “‘La vision anabaptiste’ de Harold S. Bender à nos jours,” Bulletin de la Société de l’Histoire du Protestantisme Français 148 (2002), 119–150.


 Juhnke, Vision, Doctrine, War, 29.


 An incomplete list would include: Bluffton (Witmarsum Theological Seminary), 1914; Goshen Bible School, 1933–1946; Eastern Mennonite Bible School, 1938; Mennonite Brethren Bible College (Winnipeg), 1944; Goshen Biblical Seminary, 1946; Mennonite Biblical Seminary, 1945; Canadian Mennonite Bible College, 1947; Eastern Mennonite Seminary, 1948; Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, 1955; AMBS (Elkhart), 1958.


 Anabaptist Songs in African Hearts, 74; Jim Bertsche, CIM/AIMM: A Story of Vision, Commitment and Grace, (AIMM: Fairway, 1998), 100.


 Anabaptist Songs in African Hearts, 81; See also Bertsche, CIM/AIMM, 205.


 The Bienenberg offers a French-language continuing education program in Anabaptist theology (Etudes Francophones de Théologie Anabaptiste, EFraTA) which lasts for a four-year period and offers a one-year equivalent of seminary accredited training.


 French Mennonites have participated in mission efforts in Chad for several decades. The influence of evangelical theology in their midst led them to work with other interdenominational mission agencies.