Mennonite Footwashing: Identity Reflections and Altered Meanings

by Keith Graber-Miller

Although practiced by about 110 denominations in North America1,
liturgical footwashing – ‘the sacrament that almost made
it’ – remains an enigma to many modern religious
Even among practitioners, the ritual’s meaning is polyvalent at
best, or vacuous at worst, for those uncertain of its significance
for contemporary Christians, who are geographically and
chronologically removed from the bodily practices of first-century
Palestine. This essay explores how the performance of a ritual such
as footwashing can be both a reflection of a religious group’s
identity and identity-conferring. It also attempts to show how the
meaning or content of a ritual ‘remembered’ arid
interpreted more by a bodily practice (sign-act) than a text can be
altered as the practitioners’ identity changes – and how
the bodily practice itself can carry latent meanings. Even though the
structure of a ritual is relatively invariant across centuries3,
its primary meaning may undergo nuanced reinterpretation as a group’s
self-understanding changes, especially when the related rhetoric is
minimal, and the founding biblical text is ambiguous. Given its rich
history, the ‘ordinance’ of footwashing in the Mennonite
Church will serve as the vehicle for this examination.4

their inception in the 16th century, some Anabaptist
groups have practiced footwashing, either as a communal ritual –
the primary interest here – or as a hospitable practice for
visiting church leaders. However, Anabaptists, unlike Catholics and
most Protestants, never articulated a sacramental theology
explicating outer-inner relationships in rituals, ‘and thus
could never completely be at peace with their rites and
Anabaptist-Mennonites also lack any kind of coherent, consistent
liturgy. Because of persecution in the first century of Anabaptism,
the splinter groups worshiped secretly in homes, caves and cellars
and behind hedgerows.6
Frequent location moves and early deaths of church leaders hindered
the development of a liturgy – a tradition about which
sixteenth-century Anabaptists already felt ambivalent because of
their ‘againstness’ toward some of the practices of their
Catholic and reforming peers.

most Mennonites have talked about ‘symbols’ in worship,
calling the Lord’s Supper a ‘remembrance’, but they
have been uncomfortable with the thicker language of ‘sacrament’
or ‘Eucharist’. As one 1929 Mennonite text says,
Christian ordinances or ceremonies are for the Church’s
edification. They ‘bring to our remembrance the vital Christian
principles needed in Christian life and service.’7
Although not exclusive to Anabaptists, this ethical orientation in
worship, rooted in the notion of discipleship, runs throughout
Anabaptist history.8
While absent from some of the early Anabaptist interpretations, most
Anabaptist hymns, confessions and narrative accounts of footwashing
make reference to ethical meanings. However, differing emphases on
footwashing’s particular ethical concerns signal an alteration,
or several alterations, in self-understanding during the
denomination’s 466-year history. This essay suggests that the
development in religious meanings attached to footwashing parallels
the Mennonite Church’s general shift from a more passive,
withdrawn orientation – in Ernst Troeltsch’s classic
‘sectarian’ sense9
– to a more active engagement with their surrounding societies.

as Identity-Reflecting, Identity-Conferring

essay’s second major section addresses symbolic meanings
associated with footwashing, and attempts to trace the shifts in
Mennonite emphases from the sixteenth century to contemporary
practice. In this section, however, it is suggested that .the simple
performance of a ritual such as footwashing serves a boundary
defining function, reflecting a group’s self-identity and
conferring identity. What emerges in reviewing scattered sixteenth-
and seventeenth-century Anabaptist references to footwashing is
evidence for how the rite was used among a complex of ordinances to
intentionally differentiate Anabaptists from other Reformers and from
the Roman Church, and to link them, in their own minds, to a faithful
‘remnant’ of the apostolic Church. Here we first will
examine early Anabaptist self-understandings related to the practice
and its significance for identity, then trace briefly the history of
liturgical footwashing in the larger Christian Church.

Boundaries, Making Connections. Clearly not all
Anabaptist-Mennonite groups practiced footwashing with any
regularity, nor did those incorporating the rite practice it in the
same fashion.10
The first extant record of an Anabaptist footwashing, which occurred
in Waldshut, South Germany, dates to 1525, the year some Anabaptist
groups made formal breaks with other Reformers. On Easter day the
newly committed Balthasar Hubmaier (1481-1528) baptized three hundred
persons out of a milk pail filled with water. On the following Monday
and Tuesday, Hubmaier baptized another seventy or eighty followers,
and then gave them ‘the bread of heaven’ and washed their
feet. ‘From this and like references to contemporary
chronicles,’ said historian Henry C. Vedder, ‘it should
seem that the practice of feetwashing in connection with the Supper
had been previously introduced at Waldshut, and was still retained.’11

Marpeck (c. 1495-1556), a mining engineer who was influential in the
Swiss and South German churches, makes more mention of footwashing in
his writings than any other early Anabaptist leader. Among his (at
least) seven references to footwashing in five tracts and letters
written between 1531 and 1547 are repeated citations of the founding
John 13 passage and admonitions to practice footwashing. Marpeck
ranks footwashing with baptism, forgiveness of sins, teaching, the
Lord’s Supper, and the laying on of hands, noting that ‘we
receive these external things through those who truly believe they
are His own and through the love of Christ.’12
Elsewhere he writes: ‘The church of Christ is standing yet on
the same foundation as the apostolic church…How can it be
asserted then that at the present time no one has authority and power
to assemble a people of Christ, baptize them into one body, and carry
out all His commands, such as baptism, communion, laying on of hands,
feet washing, teaching, admonishing, reproving, excommunication and
all that is serviceable and salutary for ... the Church.’13

remarks, found in an elaborate document titled Verantwortung, are a
response to Caspar Schwenckfeld’s Criticism (Judicium)
of the New Book of the Anabaptists, in which Schwenckfeld said
no divinely authorized church existed al that time, nor was anyone
called to organize a ‘true church’.14

Simons (c. 1496-1561), likely the best-known Anabaptist leader, makes
only two oblique references to footwashing in his voluminous
writings, and these are likely disconnected from the communal,
liturgical footwashings with which this paper is concerned. In one
tract Simons simply urges his readers to ‘wash the feet of your
beloved brethren and sisters who are come to you from a distance,
tired.’ Later he uses footwashing figuratively, saying that ‘we
must be prepared to wash the defiled feet of our human tendencies and
affections in the spiritual basin of Jesus Christ.’15
The silence on liturgical footwashing following the Lord’s
Supper is particularly striking, given Simons’ close
relationship to fellow Dutch Anabaptist leader Dietrich Philips
(1504-1568), who wrote the most extensive early treatment on the
ordinance of footwashing.

his Enchiridion (c. 1560), which is divided into three
suggestively titled sections, beginning with ‘The Origin and
Primordial Fall and Restoration of the Church’, Philips
outlines ‘The Seven Ordinances of the True Church’.
Alongside ‘evangelical separation’, the proper,
Scriptural use of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, ‘the
command of love’, and other somewhat unusually categorized
‘ordinances’ is footwashing. In a later section, we
return to Philips’ reasons ‘why Jesus instituted’
the ritual, but here want to note his concluding remarks regarding
ordinances: ‘I have now briefly pointed out and discussed what
the congregation of God is, how and by what means it is built up,
what ordinances are included, by what symbols it is portrayed, how it
may be recognized, and how distinguished from all sects; for in all
false and anti-Christian congregations these things are not found;
namely: no real new birth… no Christian washing of the feet of
the saints (John 13:5-17) in the quietness of true humility…All
these ordinances and evidences of true Christianity are found in no
anti-Christian congregations in correct form, but everywhere the
reverse and opposite, as may be clearly seen in these days, if so be
that a man has eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart…to

wants to differentiate the ‘true church’ from other
‘anti-Christian congregations’, and places footwashing
within this larger complex of identity-conferring ordinances.
Footwashing was a sociological tool in the hands of Philips and some
other Anabaptists, drawing boundaries between insiders and outsiders,
between those carrying on the memories and practices of the early
church, and the ‘unfaithful’. In modified Durkheimian
terms, the ritual was a system of ideas which represented the
Anabaptists’ relation to their society.

influence in establishing footwashing as one of the ordinances of the
Mennonite Church cannot be underestimated. None of the three European
Anabaptist-Mennonite confessions of faith written prior to the
publication of Enchiridion mentioned the ordinance of
footwashing, but twelve written afterward did include the ritual.17
It is important to recognize that, from Philips’ writings and
other extant references, it cannot be ascertained whether footwashing
remained a home ceremony, or whether it was attached to the Lord’s
Supper – although the latter may be implied by the context of
Philips’ comments. By 1588, however, Dutch Mennonites
definitely did include footwashing as a religious rite in connection
with the Supper.18
Also, a multi-stanza footwashing hymn is part of the 1564 edition of
the Ausbund, the first Anabaptist hymnal, and this would
suggest that even earlier the ritual was a communal practice in

and Subsequent Liturgical Footwashing. Whether Anabaptist
footwashing was practiced in the home or in public worship, its
inclusion was intended to identify practicing groups as members of
‘the true church’, tracing their origin back to the
biblical, apostolic Church – a church based in the teachings of
Jesus. Before examining the John 13 passage on which the ordinance is
based, and the symbolic meanings derived from it and from the bodily
practice itself, it may be helpful to take a cursory glance at the
practice in the larger Christian Church over the last twenty

bodily practice of washing another person’s feet has its
origins in the Eastern custom of hospitality, and was practiced
throughout most of the ancient world. In warm, oriental climates
cleanliness was thought necessary to avoid leprosy, and ‘what,
therefore, the health demands, religion is at hand to sanction’.20
Hebrew Scriptures speak oft this original practice of sanitary
self-cleansing (for example, Gen 18:4; 19:2; 24:32; Judg 19:21) and
of washing by a host (1 Sam 25:41), as well as the religious
requirement of ritual footwashing for priests (Exod 30:18-21,
40:30-32; 2 Chr 4:6).

references to footwashing can be found in canonized Christian
writings of the first century, including two in the Gospels –
the account of the delinquent host and gracious woman in Luke
7:36-50, and, more important for our later purposes, John 13:1-20.
The third mention of footwashing is in 1 Timothy 5:9-10, and is
explained as a qualification for a widow’s enrolment into the
care of the church – she must have ‘washed the feet of
the saints, relieved the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good
in every way.’ Based on the 1 Timothy and John passages, most
scholars agree that footwashing was practiced at least in Ephesus and
in the Johannine community of the first century.

second- and third-century Church theologians – including
lrenaeus (120-202), Clement (‘The Disciple of Peter the
Apost1e’), Cyprian (100-158), Clement of Alexandria (c.
153-193) and Tertullian (145-100)21
– mention concepts which might imply the liturgical practice of
footwashing in their time, but these comments do not confirm the
practice. Athanasius (c. 296-373) charges bishops to wash the feet of
weak priests three times yearly following Paschal, Pentecost and
baptism feasts.22
Ambrose (340-397) makes it evident the practice was used as a
postbaptismal ceremony in some areas. While not practiced in the
Roman church, some bishops and clergy washed neophytes’ feet in
Ambrose’s time, especially in Turin, Gaul, North Africa, and
possibly Syria.23
‘I am simply recommending our own rite,’ says Ambrose
about footwashing. ‘I wish to follow the Roman church in
everything: but we too are not devoid of common sense.’24
Other church fathers indicating some ritual footwashing include
Augustine (354-430) and Chrysostom (347-407).25

full history of the subsequent sixteen centuries cannot be traced
here, but several sweeping remarks are merited before returning to
Anabaptist practice. By the ninth century, postbaptismal footwashing
was virtually extinct26,
but it took on new life in medieval monasteries. Benedict’s
Rule (529) made provision for communal washing for humility as well
as hospitable footwashing for visitors, and later Bernard of
Clairvaux (1090-1153) touted the sacrament in a sermon to monastics.27
Gradually the practice became used by members of the ecclesiastical
and political hierarchy for coronations of kings and emperors, and
installations of popes and other leaders. In these ceremonies, the
one about to be crowned or installed publicly washed the feet of
twelve old, usually poor lay persons or priests as a sign of
In the Church and in the courts, it gradually also became associated
with Maundy Thursday observances, celebrated by leaders washing the
feet of poor persons.29
Today footwashing remains a ‘local’ practice in both
Catholic and mainline Protestant religious communities. Where it is
practiced, the ritual usually is part of Maundy Thursday
Anabaptist leaders were likely aware of these ceremonial and monastic
footwashing practices, and perhaps also knew of the footwashing
rituals of pre-Reformation predecessor groups such as the Albigenses
and Waldenses, eleventh and twelfth century sects in southern France.
The former group practiced footwashing following the Lord’s
Supper as a response to Jesus’ example. Itinerant preachers
among the Waldenses washed each other’s feet upon arrival at
congregations as a gesture of humility and hospitality.31

some Mennonite scholars earlier suggested that the Anabaptists were
attempting to trace a line of apostolic succession back through these
‘faithful’, schismatic groups, sixteenth-century writings
would indicate instead that, on the issue of footwashing at least,
they were leaping over the previous fifteen centuries and attaching
themselves directly to the Johannine community. No doubt they were
influenced by their links with monasticism, but what was most
important for the Anabaptists practicing footwashing was rooting
themselves as a ‘true church’ in Christian Scripture.
Mennonite social memory has depended in part on the social embodiment
of this identity-conferring practice. The ritual confers and
actualizes social memory, making connections with the founding
memories of the early Christian Church and with their own founding
practice – one which they saw as distinct from other
‘outsiders’ and which linked them to the ‘true

of the direct origins of footwashing as a liturgical practice in
Anabaptist churches, marking boundaries by including the practice was
effective in distinguishing early Mennonites from other groups –
although not always in flattering ways. Historian Henry Vedder
writes: ‘In an attempt to reproduce the exact order of the New
Testament churches, there were certain to be some extravagances,
resulting from a hasty and unwise literalism.’32
Sebastian Franck (1499-1533), a South German Reformation historian,
considered the Anabaptist practice of footwashing, among others,
‘ridiculous inventions of man’.33
Although his reference is more likely to the ecclesiastical and court
hierarchies’ footwashing ceremonies, Martin Luther denounced
the practice.34
As is evident from other Reformers’ few scattered comments
about liturgical footwashing, not only did Mennonites use the
practice as a boundary marking their identity as the ‘true
church’, but also others saw the practice as
identity-conferring – distinguishing a kind of fanaticism or

Identity-Confusion and Footwashing Practice. Many contemporary
Mennonite congregations, uncomfortable with the cultural and
liturgical peculiarity of footwashing, have been dropping the
practice from their celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Mergers
of European and North American Mennonite churches have affected the
cessation of ritual footwashing, but acculturation is likely the
primary factor. ‘As groups which have been marked by
ethnic-exclusivity, language barriers, poverty, or isolation from
others become more prosperous and more integrated into the dominant
culture, they often begin to feel embarrassed about clinging to
customs which others find peculiar,’ said one contemporary
writer, reflecting the influence of the Troeltschian school.35

surveys of precise practices are unavailable, it is known that many
Mennonite Church congregations have discontinued ritual footwashing
in the last half-century. Only a smattering of congregations in the
General Conference Mennonite Church, the second-largest Mennonite
body, practice footwashing.36
However, the second section of this essay examines the meanings
associated with footwashing where it is being practiced or has been
practiced, noting the sources of polyvalence and attempting to trace
the shift in emphasis from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries.
There we leap not quite as quickly over the three centuries between
the founding of Anabaptism and the contemporary era, although
greatest attention will again be given to early and late symbolic
meanings. We return to the issue of footwashing and Mennonite
identity at the close of the essay.

Practices and Shifting Interpretations

far we have dealt primarily with the context of footwashing
and the simple performance of the ritual, avoiding discussion
of content. Here we examine interpretations of symbolic
meanings of communal footwashing, noting the ambiguity of the
Johannine passage, later understandings of Jesus’ act and its
relevance for Christian bodies, and the shift in interpretive
emphases in the Mennonite Church. Since Mennonite footwashing is
interpreted more by a bodily practice than by the text (which is
ambiguous) or the liturgical rhetoric (which is generally minimal),
it has undergone a nuanced reinterpretation, making it relevant and
meaningful for some modem Mennonites seeking to understand themselves
and their faith. With the burden on the sign-act, footwashing’s
meaning has evolved in significant ways – especially in this
century – as Mennonite identity has developed.

Ritual in Mennonite Congregations. Before moving into the texts
and interpretations, a brief outline of how the ritual is enacted in
Mennonite congregations may be helpful. Practice varies, but what is

described here37
is relatively typical and is usually associated with the twice-yearly
communion service.

After the taking of the bread and the cup, church
leaders (often elders) and young people take basins and towels to
public locations around the church auditorium, and to more private
spaces in the back ante-rooms. This usually happens while the
congregation sings hymns, among which may be one of the Mennonite
Hymnal’s two footwashing hymns. Then the pastor or another
church leader reads John 13:1-17, makes a brief comment on the
passage, prays, and dismisses the congregation to .the footwashing
locations. Generally men and women separate themselves, washing only
the feet of same-sex partners.38

People pair off by nodding to each other, tapping
another on the shoulder, or asking quietly if they can wash feet with
another. Most of the ritual takes place in silence or in hushed
voices. Participants take turns at the basins. The washer stoops in
front of the other person, takes her foot in her hand, and rinses it
with the water, drying it with a towel. After both feet are washed,
the two switch positions, and the washer becomes the washee.39
After both have washed, they stand and hug, exchange a handshake or
the ‘holy kiss’40,
and say ‘God bless you’. Others, including unbaptized
children and adults, remain in the benches during this time, but are
clearly able to observe the ritual. Observation, and initial
participation with an experienced member, are the only ways the
ritual is ‘taught’.41

will be suggested here is that this bodily practice, coupled with
some text and rhetoric and with modem Mennonite practitioners’
self-understanding, projects a trajectory of meaning slightly
different from that of earlier Anabaptists.

in the Institution. While the scope of this paper does not allow
for a full exegetical analysis of the footwashing ‘institution’
passage in John 13:1-2042,
a survey of interpretations is necessary. It is noteworthy, first of
all, that no account of footwashing is included with the Corinthian
or synoptic Gospels’ narrative accounts of the Lord’s
Supper. Nor, inexplicably, is the institution of the Supper included
in the Johannine passage. This lack of a consistent textual witness
is among the reasons for ambivalence about the literal practice of
footwashing, both within the Mennonite Church and among other
Christian groups.

most scholars believe the John 13 passage itself represents a
combination of two different Johannine traditions. ‘Verses
14-11 state explicitly that what Jesus did in washing the feet of his
disciples was an example of self-sacrificing humility to be imitated
by them,’ said Catholic biblical scholar Raymond Brown. He
continues: ‘Yet there are difficulties. Verses 6-10 indicate
that what Jesus has done in the footwashing is essential if the
disciples are to gain a heritage with him (v. 8) and apparently this
action cleanses them of sin (10)…Moreover, there is a lack of
harmony in the narrative: v.7 states that understanding will come
only afterwards, i.e., seemingly, after the resurrection; but vv.12
and 17 imply that understanding is possible now, as it should have
been if only an example of humility were involved.’43

at least two quite different interpretations are possible: the need
for regular spiritual cleansing, and the admonition to be humble.
Also, one is left with the difficulty as to whether the act’s
meaning was to be apparent then (the call for humility) or whether
understanding would come only later.

a provocative reconstruction of the passage, Oscar Cullmann suggests
that the footwashing refers both to baptism and the Eucharist.44
In religious history, water is usually symbolically associated with
spiritual cleansing or, in Christian contexts, baptism.

Ambrose, footwashing was linked with the baptism of neophytes as a
‘special help of sanctification’, even though ‘in
baptism all guilt is washed away’.45
Led by Augustine, many Latin writers since the fourth century,
including a few modern Roman Catholic scholars, see a reference to
penance in verse 10: ‘The one who has bathed does not need to
wash, except for his feet.’46

footwashing practice among the ecclesiastical and political
hierarchy, and in Benedictine monasticism, the ‘humility’
strand is the most obvious one. With the exception of Cullmann and
one or two other scholars, most modern commentators see no
sacramental significance in the footwashing, but consider it a
‘lesson in humility’.47
These commentators usually believe the footwashing story and Jesus’
injunction to ‘wash one another’s feet’ is to be
taken figuratively rather than literally.

the Mennonite Church, several scholars recently have offered other
creative interpretations of the footwashing story. Arland J. Hultgren
focuses on the original use of manual ablutions as an act of
hospitality, and considers it ‘a symbolic act of eschatological
hospitality’ – Jesus was receiving the disciples into the
place where he was going.48
Herold Weiss sees the Johannine community’s footwashing as a
preparation for the martyrdom members were willing to face, analogous
to the anointing of Jesus’ feet by Mary.49
Using hermeneutical presuppositions of Paul Ricoeur and H-G Gadamer,
Sandra M. Schneiders views the footwashing as a prophetic action
distinguishing ‘the community which Jesus calls into existence
from the power structures so universal in human society’
through ‘the love of friendship expressing itself in joyful
mutual service for which rank is irrelevant.’50
We return to Schneiders’ work in the following section.

in Mennonite Emphases. As should be clear from the various
interpretations, footwashing’s founding passage is ambiguous,
and that ambiguity is significant since it leaves practitioners with
the burden of ‘remembering’ without any certainty as to
what is remembered. No Mennonite scholarly journals in this century
devote an article-length treatment to the Johannine narrative, nor to
the practice of footwashing, leading one observer to remark that the
ritual has ‘suffered from mental neglect’.51
Some interpretive texts, confessions and hymns are available,
however, and these evidence the shift in Mennonite interpretations.
We will note the available Anabaptist-Mennonite texts, weaving into
the comments a discussion of the bodily practice itself. The
sign-act, it seems, serves in part as a vehicle for the ‘memories’
associated with footwashing today.

addition to the previously examined emphasis on practicing
footwashing simply because it was ‘instituted’ by Jesus,
and was a mark of the ‘true Church’, most Mennonite
writings have attached symbolic meanings to the ritual.52
These meanings, as has been mentioned, are generally ethical in
nature – for example, humility, discipleship, reconciliation,
fellowship and service – but some are also theological –
that is, cleansing. Of greatest interest here is that what is
commonly ‘remembered’ in Mennonite footwashing during
this century is more closely related to active service than to
the previous stresses on passive cleansing (purification) or
equally passive humility. This is a nuanced shift away from
agent-centeredness in the ritual and toward other- or
act-centeredness. This reflects the denomination’s
twentieth-century movement toward engagement with its world rather
than withdrawal into pure communities.

Enchiridion, Dietrich Philips presents two reasons why ‘Jesus
Christ commanded his disciples to observe’ footwashing: so that
followers would recognize the need for Christ’s inner
cleansing, and so they would humble themselves toward one another.53
These, obviously, were the two primary available interpretations,
both in the Johannine text and in scattered sixteenth-century
practices in the Roman Church and schismatic sects. Later Mennonite
confessions, which built partly on Philips’ text, echoed
similar themes. Nine of the twelve relevant European Mennonite
confessions written between 1577 and 1874 offered some interpretation
of the ritual. Of these, the dominant emphasis in four confessions
was on hospitable rather than communal washing. In the remaining five
confessions, which dealt with liturgical washing, two emphasized
humility, one stressed humility and sanctification, and one
emphasized equality. Secondary emphases in two of the
confessions included servitude.54
The Dordrecht Confession of 1632, which greatly influenced North
American Mennonitism, stressed both sanctification and humility.

How Societies Remember, Paul Connerton says groups will
entrust to bodily automatisms the values and categories they are most
anxious to conserve, knowing ‘how well the past can be kept in
mind by a habitual memory sedimented in the body’.55
While here Connerton is referring to day-to-day bodily practices
rather than commemorative rituals, his understanding of memory being
passed on in non-textual and non-cognitive ways is applicable for
Mennonite footwashing ceremonies. In its communal form, even with
texts referring to sanctification, Mennonite footwashing has
different meaning from early Christian initiation rites.

initial Mennonite interpretations of the ritual included references
to sanctification and cleansing – and, to a lesser degree, some
contemporary interpretations still do so because of the influence of
the Dordrecht Confession56
– such a meaning makes less sense in Mennonite practice. In the
early Christian Church’s footwashing rites, bishops washed the
feet of neophytes. Because of the hierarchy’s apostolic
continuity, the notion of Christ’s continual cleansing made
sense in the ritual. In the Mennonite Church, with one lay member
washing another lay member’ feet, such an interpretation –
even if in the text – makes considerably less sense, since
members have no calling to ‘perform’ inner cleansing on
another. Likewise, removed from the dusty climate of Palestine and
generally provided with closed shoes, twentieth century worshipers
aren’t accustomed to washing their feet as they move from place
to place, so the notion of having feet cleansed seems less relevant.

medieval and later coronations and political celebrations, humility
was dramatized in the ceremony as one of superior rank washed the
feet of poor priests or subjects. As has been suggested,
agent-centered humility also was historically the primary thrust of
the Mennonite ritual. In Mennonite communities, the commemorative
ritual of footwashing was a reminder of the group’s identity as
a humble people.57
However, because of the already egalitarian nature of Mennonite
social structures, the corporate ceremony was perhaps less
dramatically a symbol of humility than it may have been for other
persons or groups. The ritual’s symbolic meaning was not
radically discontinuous with existing relationships among washers and
washees, as it was for kings and princes.

bodily practice of stooping, touching the feet of another, and
kneeling before another, continues to indicate a kind of passive
humbling of oneself. In this century the theme humility often still
is present in Mennonite references to footwashing, but increasingly
the more act- and other-centered term ‘service’ has been
used. Although not a Mennonite, Sandra Schneiders’
interpretation of John 13 illuminates changing Mennonite
understandings. Schneiders notes that what Jesus does in the passage
is an act of serving, but then she calls for a phenomenology of
service. Here she delineates three models: one person serving another
because of some right or power the latter possesses; or because of
some perceived need in the latter which the former has the power to
meet; or for mutual service in friendship.58
The final model is the only egalitarian one, whereas the other two
continue systems of power or domination. It also most nearly
resembles the Mennonite sign-act of footwashing, and is in contrast
to some traditional ecclesiastical and political models. The
Mennonite bodily practice itself has carried with it not only the
sense of humbling oneself, but humbling oneself for mutual service to
another person.

better represented Mennonite identity during the sixteenth to
nineteenth centuries, when Mennonites were sometimes known as the
‘quiet in the land’. Within the last one hundred years,
Mennonite mission organizations have proliferated, giving Mennonite
congregations a greater awareness of the world in which they live.
Recent Mennonite self-interpretations acknowledge this identity: ‘As
a distinctive community created and sustained by God’s grace,
the Church is called “out of the world” in order to carry
out a missionary and servant ministry “in the world”.’59

in Mennonite articles or text chapters about service, footwashing is
alluded to, at least in a figurative sense. In a Mennonite
Quarterly Review issue recognizing the fiftieth anniversary of
Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonites’ largest relief
organization, Peter J. Dyck writes: ‘Matthew states that Jesus
“came not to be served but to serve” (Matthew 20:28),
which was clearly borne out by his life and teaching, symbolized by
the washing of the disciples’ feet and supremely dramatized on
the cross. Neither the washing of the feet nor the cross was a mere
object lesson in humility; they were powerful demonstrations of how
God works in history.’60

The Politics of Jesus, Mennonite, theologian John H. Yoder
attaches footwashing directly with servanthood, concluding by saying
there is ‘but one realm in which the concept of imitation
holds…servanthood replaces dominion, forgiveness absorbs
Another text used in introductory courses in Mennonite colleges
similarly links footwashing with service.62

significant is the fact that two recent Mennonite texts –
designed for persons about to become newly baptized Mennonite Church
members – stress the service aspect of footwashing. One
instructional book emphasizes servanthood in the symbol, but makes a
secondary, passing reference to cleansing. By the time of the 1980s
manual, service is the only symbolic meaning associated with the,
Another 1971 booklet titled ‘What Mennonites Believe’
says: ‘This ceremony is still a powerful object lesson today of
equality and servanthood in a world where people have largely
forgotten to serve each other.’64

we have turned to numerous ‘texts’ in this passage, it
should be restated that these are intended to provide background for
Mennonite self-understanding, especially as that identity relates to
footwashing. During the ritual itself, rhetoric – other than
the ambiguous Johannine passage – is minimal. The only other
‘text’ used during some Mennonite footwashing services is
the Mennonite Hymnal.65
Both available hymns, ‘Extol the Love of Christ’ and
‘Love Consecrates the Humblest Act’ highlight service.
The latter’s final verse says:

Love serves, yet willing stoops to serve,
What Christ in love so true,
Hath freely done for one and all,
Shall we not gladly do?

such prods toward thinking about service, the identity
predispositions of modern Mennonites, and the bodily practice itself,
footwashing becomes an act- and other-centered ritual, symbolizing
the participants’ willingness to serve human needs.

and Future Research Directions

sign-act of footwashing, symbolizing something slightly different in
early Anabaptist history, has carried with it latent meanings which
allow it to represent the altered identity of twentieth-century
Mennonites. While the ritual has remained relatively invariant, the
practice allows for a shift in symbolic meaning. As Mennonites have
encountered modernity and moved out of contained communities, their
has changed. As a denomination, the Church is considerably less
passive than it was a century ago. Congregations often are actively
engaged in social service, political action and mission work.
Ironically, the ancient practice of footwashing continues to reflect
and form the denomination’s identity, although not in the
polemical manner it did in the sixteenth century. As Mennonite
self-understanding has changed, so have interpretations of

thorough research is needed on specific meanings of ‘service’
within the denomination. An unexplained transformation in symbolic
meanings associated with footwashing is the broadened understanding
of whom is to be served. Footwashing descriptions within the last
several decades moved its other-centeredness beyond the egalitarian
but narrow church fellowship and spoke, instead, of meeting human
needs. This is consistent with Mennonite mission/service
understandings, but is not as clearly present in the bodily practice
itself. Also, more analysis of practitioners’ perceptions is
needed. This is especially necessary given the dramatic decrease in
congregations practicing the ritual since 1965.67
Since footwashing’s symbo1ic flexibility has allowed for
reinterpretation alongside this century’s Mennonite identity
reinterpretations, it may be a sign-act meriting greater attention
and reconsideration.

The reference to the 110 denominations practicing footwashing is
from Thomas W. Goodhue, ‘Do We Have to Lose Our Uniqueness
When We Merge?’ Journal of Ecumenical Studies 22:1
(Winter 1985) 127-30.

The phrase ‘the sacrament that almost made it’ is from
Robert M. Herhold, ‘Footwashing and Last things’,
Christian Century, 100:7 (9 March 1983) 205.

Paul Connerton says that in comparison with myths, the structure
of rituals has significantly less potential for variance. This is
true regarding the structure of footwashing in Mennonite churches,
although meanings have changed. See Connerton’s How
Societies Remember (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989)

Under the larger umbrella ‘Mennonites’ are more than 20
sects or denominations. The most sectarian of these are the
Hutterites and Amish. In 19th and 10th century references here, the
religious body discussed is the Mennonite Church (formerly known as
Old Mennonites), the largest and likely the second-most ‘liberal’
of the Anabaptist groups. In North America, the Mennonite Church now
numbers 102,296 members (baptized adults) in 1,145 congregations.
Worldwide, 154,439 persons are members of the Mennonite Church.
Statistics from Table 5 in James B. Horsch, editor, Mennonite
Yearbook & Directory, 1991 (Scottdale: Mennonite Publishing
House 1990) 200.

Dennis D. Martin, ‘Catholic Spirituality and Anabaptist and
Mennonite Discipleship," Mennonite Quarterly Review,
62:1 (January 1988) 11. In this article, Martin seeks to show the
similarities between Catholic and Mennonite spirituality and
discipleship. Sixteenth-century Anabaptism also has a clear
inner-centeredness, but the fact ‘that the external sacraments
and liturgical worship could be filled with inner, dynamic Spirit
has for the most part escaped Mennonite awareness, even while
informing Mennonite intuitions.’

Paul M. Miller, ‘Worship Among the Early Anabaptists’,
Mennonite Quarterly Review, 30:4 (October 1956) 235.

Daniel Kauffman (ed.), Doctrines of the Bible (Scottdale:
Mennonite Publishing House, 1919) 378. For a related orientation in
Judaism, see Max Kadushin, Worship and Ethics: A Study in
Rabbinic Judaism (Evanston: Northwestern University Press,

On discipleship, see J. Denny Weaver, ‘Discipleship Redefined:
Four Sixteenth Century Anabaptists’, Mennonite Quarterly
Review, 54:4 (October 1980) 255-79.

See Ernst Troeltsch, Social Teachings of the Christian Churches
(New York: Macmillan, 1949), and the later work of H. Richard
Niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (New York:
Harper, 1919).

Although some historical records were not available at the time, the
most complete documentation of early Anabaptist practice and
writings regarding footwashing is in a thesis by Clarence R.
Hiebert. See his ‘The History of the Ordinance of Feet-Washing
in the Mennonite Churches with a Survey of the Pre-Reformation
Evidences of this Practice’, unpublished B.S.T. thesis at The
Biblical Seminary of New York (April 1954). See especially pp. 47-56
for his accounts of early writings The fact that not all Anabaptist
groups practiced footwashing is in contradiction to William Gay’s
undocumented – and incorrect – assertion that among
Anabaptists footwashing was practiced ‘almost universally at
one time or another’. See ‘The Origin and Historical
Practice of Footwashing as a Religious Rile in the Christian
Church’, unpublished M.A. thesis at Columbia University under
the faculty of the Union Theological Seminary, New York (1947) 63.

Henry C. Vedder, Balthasar Hubmaier, The Leader of the
Anabaptists (New York: The AMS Press, 1971), 112.

William Klassen and Waiter Klassen, trans. and eds., The Writings
of Pilgram Marpeck (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1978) 318. Other
references to footwashing are on pp. 51, 79, 98, 264-65, 340,
453-54. As did other early Anabaptists, Marpeck encouraged
footwashing largely because it was a ‘command of the Lord’.
However, in his later work Marpeck a1so stresses the service
aspect of footwashing to a greater extent than his contemporaries
(pp. 453-54), although his sense of the term ‘service’
is too broad to contribute to this study. Also, on Marpeck and
footwashing, see especially pp. 250-51 of J. C. Wenger, ‘The
Theology of Pilgram Marpeck’, Mennonite Quarterly Review,
12:4 (October 1938) 204-56.

John Horsch, Mennonites in Europe (Scottdale: Mennonite
Publishing House, 1971), 136.

Horsch, 135.

J. C. Wenger, ed., The Complete Writings of Menno Simons
(Scottdale: Herald Press, 1956) 417, 1063.

George H. Williams and Angel M. Mergal (eds.), Spiritual and
Anabaptist Writers (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1957)
254-55. Although first published in Dutch, Enchiridion has
been translated into German, French and English in about l5
different editions. The text is still popular with the Amish because
of its rigid teaching on the ban and avoidance. See Hiebert, 52.

Hiebert, 54, 58. It should also be noted that six Post-Enchiridion
confessions did not make reference to footwashing; Among other
reasons, Hiebert says this may be because the teaching was never
universally accepted among Mennonites, and because some of the
confessions were written for conciliatory purposes, and therefore
wouldn't have inc1uded ‘questionable’ doctrines.

J. C. Wenger (ed.), Introduction to Theology (Scottdale:
Herald Press, 1966) 230. See also Christian Neff, ‘Fusswaschung’,
Mennonitisches Lexicon, edited by Christian Hege and
Christian Neff (Frankfurt-am-Main und Weierhof: Friedrich-Mahren
1937) 22-24.

The Ausbund is still used by the Amish Church. One modern
reprint which includes two footwashing hymns, including a 25-stanza
one found on pp. 692-700, is Ausbund, Das ist: Etliche schone
Christliche Lieder (Amsterdam: Frits Knuf; Niewkoop, B. de Graaf,

John McClintock and James Strong, editors, Cyclopaedia of
Biblical Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, vol. 3
(Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1969) 615. The best encyclopaedic
resource on footwashing is G. A. Frank Knight, ‘Feet-Washing’,
Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, vol. 5, edited by James
Hastings (New York: Charles Scribners' Sons, 1912) 814-23.

These writings are in Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo: Christian
Literature Publishing Co., 1885). On Irenaeus, vol. 1, p. 493;
Clement, vol. 8; p. 62; Cyprian, vol. 5, pp. 283, 545; Clement of
Alexandria, vol. 2, p. 435; and Tertullian, vol. 3, pp. 98, 47. The
second Tertullian reference is more likely to handwashing. On
handwashing, see also Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy
(New York: Seabury, 1983) 124-25.

Cited in Hiebert, 19. Athanasius of Alexandria, Canons, The
Arabic and Coptic Versions, edited and translated by Wilhelm
Riedel and W. E. Crum (London: Williams & Norgate 1904) 43.

.J Edward Yarnold, The Awe-Inspiring Rite of Initiation:
Baptismal Homilies of the Fourth Century (Slough, Great Britain:
St Paul Publications, 1971) 37.

Yarnold, 123.

For Augustine’s writings, see Nicene and Post-Nicene
Fathers, vol. 1, First Series (New York: Charles Scribners’
Sons, 1903) 314, and his more extensive treatment of John’s
Gospel in the same series: vol.7, pp. 300-07. For Chrysostom’s
less definitive but relevant writings, see Nicene and Post-Nicene
Fathers, vol. 14, pp. 256-62.

The 48th canon of the Synod of Elvira (306) in Spain forbids the
practice of footwashing following baptism. Knight, p. 816. Oddly
enough, the 17th Synod of Toledo (694) in Spain said ‘washing
of feet at the feast of Coena Domini which has fallen into
disuse in some places must be observed everywhere.’ Hiebert,

Hiebert, 24, 27-30.

Knight, 816-21.

The term ‘Maundy’ is most likely derived from the Middle
English maundee which is from Old French mandé
and that from the Latin mandatum, ‘a command’ (Jn
13:34). Less likely is the suggestion that ‘Maundy’
stems from the French maundier (‘to beg’:
‘mendicant’ – a beggar), which would make the day
‘the poor people’s Thursday’. Knight, 818.

On contemporary Maundy Thursday services, see R. F. Buxton, ‘Maundy
Thursday’, The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and
Worship, ed. by J. C. Davies (Philadelphia: The Westminster
Press, 1986) 366-67.

Hiebert, 33-34.

Vedder, 112.

Cited in Hiebert, 50. On Franck and Heinrich Bullinger’s
criticism of Anabaptist practices, see also E. Belfort Bax, Rise
and Fall of the Anabaptists (New York: American Scholar
Publications, Inc., 1966) 31-13. Another later historical reference
to the ‘rigid anabaptists’ who ‘wash the feet of
their guests as a token of brotherly love and affection’ is in
John Lawrence Mosheim, An Ecclesiastical History, Ancient and
Modern, From the Birth of Christ, to the Beginning of the Present
Century, in Which the Rise, Progress, and Variations of Church Power
Are Considered in Connection with the State of Learning and the
Political History of Europe, During That Period, vol. 3 (New York:
Evert Duyckinck, Collins &: Hannay 1824) 344-45.

For Luther, the ceremony was one ‘in which the superior washes
the feet of his inferior, who, the ceremony over, will have to act
all the more humbly towards him, while Christ had made it an emblem
of true humility and abnegation…If you wish to wash your
neighbour’s feet, see that your heart is really humble, and
help every one in becoming better.’ From Samtliche Schriften,
pt. xiii (Magdeburg 1743) col. 680, as cited in Knight, 821.

Goodhue, 128-29.

The relevance of mentioning the General Conference Mennonite Church
in this context is that the two largest Mennonite denominations are
considering a merger. The GCMC has not historically emphasized
footwashing, while the Mennonite Church in North America has sought
to retain the practice. This potential merger was the impetus for
Goodhue’s article, ‘Do We Have to Lose Our Uniqueness
When We Merge?’

The description here is mine, based on footwashing experiences in
several Mennonite congregations, but other similar descriptions can
be found in Haro1d S. Bender, ‘Footwashing’, Mennonite
Encyclopedia, vol. 3 (Scottdale: Mennonite Publishing House
1955) 347, and Hiebert 87-88. Hiebert’s description is from a
1952 Mennonite Minister’s Manual. In some conferences
(Franconia Conference, especially) and congregations, footwashing is
attached to the preparatory service the day before communion.

It has happened, but only rarely, that men and women have washed
each other’s feet in Mennonite liturgical footwashing. In some
settings, members are admonished not to choose their partners,
apparently washing with the closest same-sex person near them.
Daniel J. Graber, ‘The History of the Ordinance of Feetwashing
as Observed by the Mennonites’, unpublished paper at Mennonite
Biblical Seminary in Chicago (1952), 15. For an argument supporting
women in inclusion in Roman Catholic Maundy Thursday celebrations,
see Peter Jeffery, ‘Mandatum Novum Do Vobis: Toward a Renewal
of the Holy Thursday Footwashing Rite’, Worship, 64:2
(March 1990) 107-41.

While footwashing is usually done in pairs, sometimes row-washing is
done instead, says Bender, 347. In row-washing, ‘each person
washes the feet of his right-hand neighbour in turn in a continuous

Because of the limited scope of this essay, I unfortunately will not
be able to give attention to the holy kiss in the footwashing

This ‘teaching’ could be the subject of a more extensive
treatment, but cannot be developed here. The point is the contrast
between this method of learning the practice and that in some other
contemporary settings, where footwashing is being introduced. For
example, a 1991 Maundy Thursday chapel service at Candler School of
Theology in Atlanta featured a bulletin with details about when
one’s footwear should be removed and replaced, when and how
one washed and dried another’s feet, and when one should be

A recent, thorough, technical analysis of the passage is Jean
Owanga-Welo’s ‘The Function and Meaning of Footwashing
in the Johannine Passion Narrative: A Structural Approach’,
unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Emory University, Atlanta (1980).

Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (Garden City:
Doubleday, 1970) 558.

Oscar Cullmann, Early Christian Worship (London: SCM Press,
1953) 46-55, 105-10. Cullmann speaks at length about the Fourth
Gospel’s emphasis on ‘remembering’ as remembering
not just facts, but the Holy Spirit’s granting of
understanding of those facts. Cullmann suggests that in baptism the
individual receives once-for-all part with Christ, and in the
Eucharist the community receives part and that again and again. In
John 13, the writer is focusing on the ‘fellowship of love’
dimension of the Eucharist, whereas in chapter 2 he brought out the
atoning death of Christ and in chapter 6 the lifegiving,
resurrecting power of the Lord’s Supper.

Yarnold, 123.

Brown, 559. This is a disputed clause, and its inclusion or
exclusion greatly colors possible interpretations. A recent study
arguing for the clause’s inclusion is John Christopher Thomas,
‘A Note on the Text of John 13:l0’, Novum
Testamentum, 29:1 January 1987) 46-52.

Herold Weiss, ‘Footwashing in the Johannine Community’,
Novum Testamentum, 21 (October 1979) 299. Brown suggests,
contrarily, ‘where footwashing has been a part of the liturgy,
it has generally been understood as sacramental rather than as a
sacrament, understood, that is, as a sacred rite of lesser
importance.’ Brown, 558.

Arland J. Hultgren, ‘The Johannine Footwashing (I3:1-11) as a
Symbol of Eschatological Hospitality’, New Testament
Studies, 28:4 (October 1982) 539-46.

Weiss, 300.

Sandra M. Schneiders, ‘The Foot Washing (John 13: l-20): An
Experiment in Hermeneutics’, The Catholic Biblical
Quarterly, .43:1 January (1981) 76-92.

Goodhue, 129. Denominational exceptions to the scholarly silence
about footwashing are the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) and the
Church of the Brethren.

During the Mennonite Church’s early Fundamentalist period in
the first half of this century, it would seem that the injunction to
wash one another’s feet was the primary reason for
footwashing, regardless of what symbolic meanings might have been
attached to the ritual. Evidence for this are two tracts written
between 1900 and 1910: A.S., ‘Feet-Washing’, tract no.
44 (Elkhart: Mennonite Publishing Co.), and E. J. Berkey, ‘Is
Feet Washing a Command?’ tract no. 47 (Scottdale: Mennonite
Publishing House). These tracts are available from the Mennonite
Historical Library, Goshen (Ind.) College.

Williams and Mergal, 244-45.

See Hiebert’s synopsis of these confessions, pp. 57-61. In
North America, the most influential of these confessions is the

Dordrecht Confession written by Dutch Anabaptists in 1632, which
emphasized both humility and sanctification in the footwashing
ceremony. The Confession is reprinted in full in Wenger,
Introduction, 375-85. See also Gerald C. Studer, ‘The
Dordrecht Confession of Faith, 1632-1982’, Mennonite
Quarterly Review, 58:4 (October 1984), 503-19.

Connerton, 102.

I would suggest that had it not been for Philips’ Enchiridion
and the later, influential Dordrecht Confession, the theme of
sanctification or cleansing would have dropped out completely from
Mennonite understandings of footwashing. A germ of the idea is in
the John 13 passage, but it is clearly overshadowed by the alternate
themes of humility or, now, service in the
contemporary sign-act.

Connerton, 70.

Schneiders, 81, 84-87.

The statement is from Marlin Miller, ‘The Church in the World:
A Mennonite Perspective’, The Covenant Quarterly, 41:3
(August 1983), 50. Miller i president of Associated Mennonite
Biblical Seminaries in Elkhart, Indiana, and one of the Mennonite
Church’ main theologians. His remark is from the 1979-81
dialogue meetings between Lutheran and Conservative/Evangelical
church bodies.

P. J. Dyck, ‘ Theology of Service’, Mennonite
Quarterly Review 44:3 (July 1970), 263.

John H. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,
1971) 122, 126, 134. On p. 126, Yoder draws the parallel between
John 13 and the post-Supper conversation in Luke 11:14-27, which
highlights serving.

Donald B. Kraybill, The Upside-Down Kingdom (Scottdale:
Herald Press, 1978) 291-96. ‘Footwashing is not the most
pleasant task’, Kraybill writes. ‘It means bending over
and looking down to the bottom of the person. The bending over
symbolizes humble and obedient service…’

Paul Erb, We Believe (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1969), 55-59.
Bruce Yoder, Choose Life (Scottdale: Mennonite Publishing
House, 1984) 99-101.

J. C. Wenger, What Mennonites Believe (Scottdale:
Herald Press, 1977), 38.

The Mennonite Hymnal (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1969) 410,
411. Two other liturgical resources (on footwashing) among the
limited ones available in the Mennonite Church are: Edwin W. Epp,
Henry V. Friesen and Henry Peters, The Celebration of the Lord’s
Supper (Newton: Faith and Life Press, 1979); and Heinz and
Dorothea Janzen, (eds.), Minister’s Manual (Newton:
Faith and Life Press, 1983). These were both joint projects
published by the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite
Church. The former contains two paragraphs on footwashing, and the
latter a page. Both mention cleansing and service as themes. In my
experience, the resources are rarely used in footwashing ceremonies.

I recognize that, sociologically, I have been assuming far too much
by speaking of modern Mennonites as though their primary Identity
were still in their denominational affiliation. For many Mennonites,
this is not so. However, to the extent that Mennonitism remains
ethnically and culturally as well as religiously defined (and this
is true for some congregations), ‘being Mennonite’ is
identity-establishing. In any event, my intent here is to speak more
about the denomination’s identity.

One possible avenue for exploration would be the possibility that
the Mennonite Church is corporately going through James Fowler’s
fourth faith stage (‘Individuative-reflective faith’) –
a critique of religious symbols, and a questioning of traditional
authorities and foundations. This explanation could have something
to do with the decrease in the practice of footwashing. As one
Mennonite voluntary service worker put it, ‘Why should we
practice this ritual? Service is what we’re doing everyday.’
If the collective church were moved to Fowler’s fifth stage
(‘Conjunctive faith’) – which resembles Ricoeur’s
second naiveté – meaning may return to footwashing’s
bodily enactment of service in worship. See James W. Fowler, Stages
of Faith (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981).