By John Armistead
All the Mennonite groups of Northeast Mississippi descend from followers of Menno Simons, an Anabaptist leader in Holland and Germany in the early 1500s. From him Mennonites take their name.
Because of intense persecution, many Mennonites fled to Amsterdam, one of the very few European cities offering religious freedom. There they sought to live in peace and worship and serve God without compromising their convictions.
In the early 1600s, a small group of English Puritans also fled to Amsterdam to escape persecution. While there, they interacted with Mennonites and adopted the Mennonite doctrine of believers' baptism. In a few years, the Puritans returned home and established the first Baptist church on English soil.
During these years, with the exception of the Netherlands, each European government sanctioned a particular church as the "state church," either Catholic, Anglican, or Lutheran, and all citizens were expected to conform. One of the chief reasons Anabaptists (meaning rebaptizers) like the Mennonites were persecuted was their refusal to conform to infant baptism.
Renewed persecution drove many Mennonites to the United States and Canada in the 17th and 18th centuries where they once again sought to live in peace with those around them. Seeking peace, however, has frequently caused problems for Mennonites with those who don't understand them.
From their beginnings, Mennonites have been pacifists. Their consciences will not allow them to bear arms against other human beings. At the same time, they have never refused to do whatever non-combative service their country has asked of them.
Because of their bitter experience with persecution, Mennonites have maintained a strict separation from the world. This has been not only for religious reasons but as a survival tactic as well.
Through the centuries the Mennonites have split into many groups, including the Amish. While each group differs from other groups in particular ways, all strive to live lives bound as closely as possible to the teachings of Jesus.
The Egypt congregation of Mennonites is a member of a branch known as the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. This conference was organized in Ohio in 1859 by John Holdeman. Today there are approximately 15,000 members worldwide.
Mennonites of this conference began migrating to Mississippi in the early 1970s primarily from Kansas, Iowa, Oklahoma, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and California.
Why did they come? "There was opportunity here," said Brad Unruh, who does contract work for furniture companies. The opportunity, of course, was only in part economic. It was also an opportunity to build an environment where they could live in peace and serve God.
Over the last two decades they have formed congregations in Mississippi at Clarksdale, Leland, Egypt, West Point, Macon and Brooksville, where some members operate the Ole Country Bakery, a well-known establishment on U.S. Highway 45 Alternate.