Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Mennonites and an Early Separation Clause

Although this isn't a genealogy blog, in the course of having my enome analyzed by 23andMe, I've learned some interesting things that are relevant to the atheist community. One is that on my mother's side (which is heavily Pennsylvania Dutch) I'm descended from Swiss Mennonites. I had no idea – as far as I knew, it was Lutherans on both sides, all the way down. (Until a generation ago at least.) Reading up on my lost heritage, in the Wikipedia article on Mennonites, I found this:

Some [early Mennonites] felt that requiring church membership beginning at birth was inconsistent with the New Testament example. They felt that the church should be completely removed from government (the proto-free church tradition), and that individuals should join only when willing to publicly acknowledge belief in Jesus and the desire to live in accordance with his teachings...Many government and religious leaders, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, considered voluntary church membership to be dangerous.

An illustration from a 1685 version of the Martyr's Mirror, essentially the Book of Mormon for Mennonites and Amish. It takes the form of a record of Christian persecution starting with Christ and extending up to the travails of early Protestants. Note the dude's head sticking out of the ground.

This raises the interesting point that quite often through history, it's been the religious themselves who wanted their churches to be completely private and voluntary. (Talking point for American Christians who think they're against church-state separation: do they really want Obama to be the head of their church?) But beyond that, seeing this mora innovation in my ancestry makes me unexpectedly proud. Even if my forebears five centuries ago still believed in invisible sky-daddies, they developed the concept (for Christianity anyway) of not only church-state separation (at considerable personal risk!), but also of making membership voluntary and undertaken only in adulthood. Granted, it was membership in a new sky-daddy club, but if moral progress continues, no doubt there will be beliefs now common that five centuries from now will seem to have been non-sensical and morality-confounding. So we should try to give credit where credit is due. These people clearly contributed to the practice of religious tolerance in Europe and America.

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