Skip to main content

How Anabaptist traditions have survived the modern world

Research considers the history of 500 years of non-conformist religious groups and how they have thrived in both secular and non-secular environments.

This is a photo of a Mennonite church
The church building of the Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church in Goessel, Kansas.

In the twenty-first century, religious communities called Mennonites, Hutterites, and Amish are a visible presence in North America. The buggies, beards and traditional dress are part of the cultural landscape and their appeal to conservative traditions often seem to be a relic from an older age. Descended from the Anabaptist tradition, from non-conformist Protestant churches which originated in the European Reformation, their origins stretch back over five hundred years, but their presence infiltrates the modern world. These communities have migrated and moved many times to form a confessional diaspora which spans continents. Today, there are around two million members of the Mennonite World Conference, the international umbrella organisation which includes all churches in the Anabaptist tradition. This project examines how their traditions and histories have survived across periods and national frontiers, intersecting with the most important narratives of the early modern and modern past.

What we’re researching:

This five-year project, which received funding in October 2020, examines the histories of these communities over five centuries and across geographies; studying documents, objects and spaces in which these communities lived and still live. Dr Kat Hill, Lecturer, Early Modern History, explains, “The research aims to understand what gave these groups such longevity, how they have survived and thrived despite the fact that they seem to run parallel to, and present a challenge to, our modes of thinking about modernisation.”

The team address three essential research problems:

  • The long legacy of religious change as seen through the survival of non-conformist groups.
  • The nature and importance of confessional migration and diasporas.
  • The question of what global history means, exploring the relationship between global movement and located context for these communities.

To address these questions, the research will bring together an international team of six scholars working on different periods and geographies: North America, South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. Our work will be focused on a series of themes:

  • Memory and nostalgia
  • Genealogy, family and community
  • Space and landscape
  • Objects and things

This project will work with these communities and study their documents, archives, histories, and material cultures to explore their pasts and to understand how they changed as they moved and faced the challenges of the modern world. We will draw on methodologies from human geography, sociological models of diasporic space, approaches from archival sciences, archaeology and material culture studies, and memory studies. With a digital humanities expert, this project will also produce an interactive online resource to provide a visualisation of the patterns of movement, blogs, photos and a database of archives. Working with these living communities, the project interrogates questions of memory, history and archiving and will work with research and heritage institutions to communicate the public histories of living communities. 

“The research aims to understand what gave these groups such longevity, how they have survived and thrived despite the fact that they seem to run parallel to, and present a challenge to, our modes of thinking about modernisation.”

A replica of the Mennonite immigrant house
A replica of the Immigrant Houses in which Mennonites lived when they migrated from the Russian Steppe to Kansas in 1874, Mennonite Heritage and Agricultural Museum, Goessel, Kansas.

What will the impact be?

The project will write the first cross-period and global history of communities emerging from the Anabaptist tradition and their migrations. It will remodel the way we think about the legacy of the reformation over a period of 500 years, pushing back against particularly western-centric explanations which suggest that society has become more secularized. We will ask new questions about confessional migration and diaspora over a period of 500 years and destabilize some of our assumptions about the nation state as central to migration and diaspora. The project will also give us new ways to think how individuals and communities experience global change, analysing both global movement and precisely located context. It also questions global history’s assumptions about the division between the global south and north.

Project Fact-file

  • Full project title: Global Faiths: Anabaptist Confessional Communities of Dispersion, 1550-present day 
  • Project funding: £959,953
  • Funder: Leverhulme Trust
  • Length of award: 1 October 2020 – 30 September 2025
  • Supported by: Department of History, Classics and Archaeology
  • Project website:
  • People: Dr Kat Hill, Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, Birkbeck, University of London; three Postdoctoral Research Associates; two PhD students

Further Information

Read more about the MennonitesHutterites and Amish.

More news about: