From Collective Body to Individual Mind: Religious Change in an Old Colony Mennonite Community in Belize

From Collective Body to Individual Mind: Religious Change in an Old Colony Mennonite Community in Belize

  • From Collective Body to Individual Mind: Religious Change in an Old Colony Mennonite Community in Belize

by Carel Roessingh and Tanja Plasil


Entering the Shipyard Mennonite Colony in  North Belize one feels thrown back in  time at least a hundred years: no  electricity lines span the sides of  the dusty roadways, no   satellite dishes on   the wooden roofs, no  cars parked in  front of  the houses. People drive around in buggies: men in black overalls hold the reins, their wives, dressed in dark, high-neck dresses, their heads covered with a black kerchief and a white straw hat to protect them against the merciless tropical sun, quietly sit next to them. The back of the buggy is filled with blond, blue-eyed children of all ages looking suspiciously at the stranger who has entered their colony.


These are Old Colony (Altkolonier)1 Mennonites who left Europe at the end of the nineteenth century to seek more secluded places where they could live according to  their own rules and religion. What immediately becomes obvious is the conformity of the colony: all the houses are painted light blue and resemble each other both in architecture and interior. The people also look much the same, adhering to a strictly traditional dress code that does not leave much room for individual taste. These Mennonites adhere to a particular Ordnung, a system of rules that regulates almost every aspect of their lives from the use of modern technology to the naming of children. They are supposed to live a plain, simple and humble life, following the traditions of their forefathers and being submissive to God’s will as outlined in the Bible. This set of rules and regulations is enforced by a group of preachers who are the spiritual, and in some ways even the secular, leaders of the colony.


However, as one takes a closer look one discovers that there is also a group of “outcasts” who have challenged the traditional system by forming a Bible Study group.  Their challenge has gotten them excommunicated by the preachers and banned from the community. They now face a life of hardships, as they are shunned by even close family members and do not receive any help from former friends and neighbors. They disobeyed the Ordnung and the authority of the preachers and were punished for this transgression.


Max Weber identified three different kinds of leadership: the rational, the traditional and the charismatic. The rational form of leadership rests on chosen leaders and the acceptance of the legality of a system of law and order that has to be followed by all citizens. This is a very bureaucratic, rational and calculated form of leadership resting on a body of laws and the idea that the chosen leader is the “senior,” governing with the help of an administrative staff. The traditional leadership relies on the “Alltagsglauben an die Heiligkeit von   jeher  geltender Traditionen und die Legitimität der  durch sie zur Autorität Berufenen”.   The leader thus becomes the master governing his servants as legitimized by old  and everlasting traditions and ideas about the holiness of his leadership. The charismatic leadership, finally, depends on the charisma of the leader himself. He convinces his followers by some extraordinary attributes or qualities. Each of the three styles of leadership goes hand in hand with a special form of adherence. While the traditional system is based on obedient and submissive subjects, the charismatic leader has to rely on the loyalty of his followers and rational authority rests on the understanding of the people that this is a legitimate legal system of rule.


Together with leadership comes persecution. Every social system and especially every leader – has to have means to keep the people in line, otherwise chaos would threaten social order and the authority of the leader. Focault (1979) states that power in modern societies is exercised and ensured through treatment of those who misbehave rather than through the traditional forms of punishment, which aim at the destruction or the exclusion of the deviant. In traditional societies punishment was highly visible, generally aimed at the body and often very painful either in physical or psychological terms. It was also meant to act as a deterrent to prevent others from following the example of the wrongdoer. In more modern societies this idea is replaced with the idea of the possible betterment of the offender. This form of persecution is aimed at the mind and attitudes of those who do not abide by the norms rather than at physical punishment. It tries to discipline subjects and to teach them self-control.


The Altkolonier community demands a lot from its members – being obedient to strict rules of conduct and depriving themselves of such comforts of modern life as electricity and cars. The Old Colony church offers an all-encompassing way of life.  On the other hand, it demands total compliance from its members, who are generally willing to submit to the community. However, sometimes an encompassing ideology does not give enough answers for those who are searching, and even the strictest social system of control and punishment fails to keep rebellious members in line. This leads us to the central question of this article: What changes took place in the regulative system of the outcasts and what does a comparison of that system to the Ordnung of the Altkolonier tell us about changes in leadership, attitudes and individual belief?


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How to Cite:


Carel Roessingh, T. P. (2006). From Collective Body to Individual Mind: Religious Change in an Old Colony Mennonite Community in Belize. from

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