Mennonites Search for Bible Truth
ONE morning in November 2000, some missionaries of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Bolivia glanced out the window of their small home and saw a group of plainly dressed men and women standing nervously at the gate. When the missionaries opened the gate, the visitors’ first words were, “We want to find the truth from the Bible.” The visitors were Mennonites. The men wore overalls, the women dark aprons, and they spoke among themselves in a German dialect. There was fear in their eyes. They kept looking to see if they had been followed. Nevertheless, even while climbing the steps to enter the house, one of the young men said, “I want to know the people who use God’s name.”
Inside, the visitors began to relax when they were served some refreshments. They had come from a distant, isolated farming colony. There, they had been receiving the Watchtower magazine by mail for six years. “We have read that there will be a paradise on earth. Is that true?” they asked. The Witnesses showed them the Bible’s answer. (Isaiah 11:9; Luke 23:43; 2 Peter 3:7, 13; Revelation 21:3, 4) “You see!” said one farmer to the others. “It is true. There will be a paradise on earth.” Others kept saying: “I think we have found the truth.”
Who are the Mennonites? What do they believe? To answer these questions, we must go back to the 16th century.
Who Are the Mennonites?
In the 1500’s, the upsurge in Bible translation and printing in the common languages of Europe sparked renewed interest in Bible study there. Martin Luther and other Reformers rejected many teachings of the Catholic Church. Yet, the newly formed Protestant churches retained many non-Biblical practices. For instance, most expected every newborn infant to be baptized into the church. However, some searchers for Bible truth realized that a person becomes a member of the Christian congregation only by making an informed decision before being baptized. (Matthew 28:19, 20) Zealous preachers who held this belief began traveling through towns and villages teaching the Bible and baptizing adults. Thus, they were called Anabaptists, meaning “rebaptizers.”
One who looked to the Anabaptists in his search for truth was Menno Simons, a Catholic priest in the village of Witmarsum in the northern part of the Netherlands. By 1536 he had severed all ties with the church and had become a hunted man. In 1542 the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V himself promised 100 guilders as a reward for Menno’s arrest. Nevertheless, Menno gathered some of the Anabaptists into congregations. He and his followers soon came to be called Mennonites.
In the course of time, persecution drove thousands of Mennonites from Western Europe to North America. There they had the opportunity to continue their search for truth and to spread their message to many others. But the burning zeal of their forebears for progressive Bible study and public preaching had largely been lost. Most clung to certain unbiblical teachings, such as the Trinity, the immortality of the human soul, and hellfire. (Ecclesiastes 9:5; Ezekiel 18:4; Mark 12:29) Today, Mennonite missionary efforts tend to focus more on medical and social services than on evangelism.
It is estimated that there are now about 1,300,000 Mennonites living in 65 countries. Yet, present-day Mennonites lament their lack of unity, as Menno Simons did centuries ago. During World War I, differences of opinion about the world’s conflicts caused major divisions. Many in North America refused military service on Biblical grounds. But An Introduction to Mennonite History says: “By 1914 non-resistance was largely a historical memory for the Mennonite churches in Western Europe.” Today, some Mennonite groups have adopted modern ways to a greater or lesser extent. Others still fasten their clothes with hooks and eyes rather than with buttons and believe that men should not shave their beards.
Some Mennonite groups, determined to keep separate from the modern world, have moved their communities to places where local governments allow them to live without interference. In Bolivia, for instance, an estimated 38,000 Mennonites live in numerous remote colonies, each with different rules of conduct. Some colonies forbid motor vehicles, permitting only horses and buggies. Certain colonies forbid radio, TV, and music. Some even forbid learning the language of the country they live in. “So as to keep us under their control, the preachers don’t let us learn Spanish,” commented one colony resident. Many feel oppressed and live in dread of being expelled from the community
How a Seed of Truth Was Sown
It was under these circumstances that a Mennonite farmer named Johann saw a copy of the Watchtower magazine in his neighbor’s home. Johann’s family had emigrated from Canada to Mexico and later to Bolivia. But Johann had always desired help in his search for Bible truth. He asked to borrow the magazine.
Later, while in the city to sell his farm products, Johann approached a Witness who was offering The Watchtower in the market. She directed him to a German-speaking missionary, and soon Johann was receiving The Watchtower by mail in German. Each issue was carefully studied and passed from family to family in his colony until the magazine was worn-out. Sometimes families would get together and study a Watchtower magazine until midnight, looking up the cited Bible texts. Johann became convinced that Jehovah’s Witnesses must be the ones who are unitedly doing God’s will earth wide. Before he died, Johann told his wife and children: “You must always read The Watchtower. It will help you to understand the Bible.”
Some of Johann’s family began talking to their neighbors about the things they were learning from the Bible. “The earth will not be destroyed. Rather, God will make it a paradise,” they said. “And God doesn’t torment people in hell.” Word of these conversations soon reached the church preachers, who threatened Johann’s family with expulsion if they did not stop. Later, during a family discussion about the pressure the Mennonite elders were putting on them, one young man spoke up. “I don’t know why we complain about our church elders,” he said. “We all know which is the true religion, and we haven’t done anything about it.” These words touched the heart of the young man’s father. Soon, ten of the family set out on a secret trip in search of Jehovah’s Witnesses and ended up at the home of the missionaries, as mentioned at the outset.
The next day, the missionaries went to visit their new friends in the colony. The missionaries’ motor vehicle was the only one on the road. As they slowly drove past horse-drawn buggies, they exchanged glances with the equally intrigued local residents. Soon they sat at a table with ten Mennonites, representing two families.
That day, it took four hours to study chapter 1 of the book Knowledge That Leads to Everlasting Life.* For each paragraph, the farmers had looked up additional Bible texts and wanted to know if they were applying the texts correctly. Each study question was followed by a pause of several minutes while the farmers consulted in Low German before a spokesman finally answered for the group in Spanish. It was a memorable day, but a storm of trouble was brewing. They were about to face trials, just as Menno Simons had when he began his search for Bible truth nearly five centuries ago.
Facing Trials for the Truth
A few days later, the church elders came to the home of Johann’s family with an ultimatum for the interested ones: “We heard that Jehovah’s Witnesses visited you. You must forbid them to return, and unless you hand over their literature to be burned, you face expulsion.” They had had just one Bible study with the Witnesses, so this presented a formidable test.
“We cannot do as you ask,” replied one of the family heads. “Those people came to teach us the Bible.” How did the elders react? They expelled them for studying the Bible! This was a cruel blow indeed. The cart belonging to the colony cheese factory passed by the home of one family without collecting their milk, denying them their only source of income. One family head was dismissed from his job. Another was turned away from buying supplies at the colony store, and his ten-year-old daughter was expelled from school. Neighbors surrounded one home to take away the wife of one of the young men, asserting that she could not live with her expelled husband. Despite all of this, the families who studied the Bible did not give up their search for the truth.
The missionaries continued to make the long weekly drive to conduct the Bible study. How strengthening the families found those studies to be! Some family members traveled two hours by horse and buggy to be present. It was a moving occasion when the families first invited one of the missionaries to pray. In these colonies Mennonites never pray aloud, so they had never before heard anyone pray in their behalf. The men had tears in their eyes. And can you imagine their curiosity when the missionaries brought along a tape recorder? Music had never been allowed in their colony. They were so delighted with the beautiful Kingdom Melodies that they decided to sing Kingdom songs after each study! Nevertheless, the question remained, How could they survive in their new circumstances?
Finding a Loving Brotherhood
Cut off from their community, the families began making their own cheese. The missionaries helped them to find buyers. A longtime Witness in North America who grew up in a South American Mennonite colony heard about the families’ plight. He had a special desire to help. Within a week, he flew down to Bolivia to visit them. In addition to providing much spiritual encouragement, he helped the families to buy their own pickup truck so that they could get to meetings at the Kingdom Hall and also get their farm products to market.
“It was difficult after we were expelled from the community. We would travel to the Kingdom Hall with sad faces,” recalls one family member, “but we returned joyful.” Indeed, local Witnesses rose to the occasion and offered support. Some learned German, and several German-speaking Witnesses came from Europe to Bolivia to help conduct Christian meetings in German. Soon, 14 from the Mennonite community were preaching the good news of the Kingdom to others.
On October 12, 2001, less than a year after that first visit to the missionary home, 11 of these former Anabaptists were baptized again, this time in symbol of their dedication to Jehovah. Since then, more have taken this step. One later commented: “Since we have learned the truth from the Bible, we feel like slaves who have been set free.” Another said: “Many Mennonites complain about a lack of love in their community. But Jehovah’s Witnesses take an interest in one another. I feel safe among them.” If you are searching for a better understanding of the truth from the Bible, you too may face difficulties. But if you seek Jehovah’s help and show faith and courage as these families did, you too will be successful and find happiness.
Published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
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Happy response to receiving Bible literature in German
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Though music had always been forbidden, now they sing after each Bible study