Footwashing, also called the ‘washing of the saints’ feet’, is observed as an ordinance by most Mennonites in the world today. It is customarily based on the express command and example of Jesus, who washed His disciples’ feet at the Last Supper (John 13:1-17), and on the statement by Paul (I Tim. 5:9, 10) that having washed the saints’ feet was a qualification for a widow’s acceptance into the church widows’ group. Rarely has the Old Testament practice of washing the feet of visitors as an act of hospitality toward strangers (Gen. 18:4; 19:2; 24:32; 43:24; Judg. 19:21; I Sam. 25:40, 41) been used to support the practice, except in the early days in Holland, when the practice in some groups was limited to washing the feet of visiting elders and ministers or even of laymen as a sign of affectionate recognition. The most common practice has been and still is to observe the ordinance immediately following the communion service. In the Franconia Conference (MC), where the ordinance was long out of practice, it is observed at the preparatory service on the day preceding communion. Since most congregations that observe it today celebrate the communion twice a year, in the spring and fall, footwashing also comes twice a year.
The most common mode of the observance is as follows: After the communion service is completed, one of the ministers or deacons reads and comments on John 13:1-17. Basins, usually small wooden or metal tubs, with warm water and towels have meanwhile been provided in sufficient quantity to permit a fairly rapid observance. These are placed, either in the front of the church or in the ‘amen’ corners, and in the ‘ante-rooms’, or in some cases in the rows between the benches. The sexes then wash (more properly rinse or lightly touch with water) feet separately in pairs, concluding with the greeting of the holy kiss and a ‘God bless you’. In some localities, towels are furnished in the form of short aprons to be tied by cords around the waist, in presumed imitation of Jesus ‘girding himself’, though most commonly ordinary towels are used. In some congregations the practice is not pair-washing but row-washing, in which case each person washes the feet of his right-hand neighbour in turn in a continuous chain (United Missionary Church, some General Conference Mennonite congregations). In the Church of God in Christ Mennonite group the ministers wash each other’s feet first, and then wash the feet of all the brethren in turn, the ministers’ wives doing the same for the sisters.
Although the interpretation of the ordinance may vary, it is always held to be symbolical of a spiritual lesson, and is never considered to have any religious value per se, or to be a ‘good work’. The most common interpretation is that it teaches humility and equality. Often the lesson of service is included along with the other meanings. In some instances, it has been and is observed as a symbol of the daily sanctification which is needed by the Christian as he comes into contact with sin and temptation.
Among the North American Mennonite groups, the observance varies. The following groups practice it universally, following the communion service: Mennonite Church (MC), Conservative Mennonite Church, Old Order Amish, Evangelical Mennonites, Evangelical Mennonites (Kleine Gemeinde), Reformed Mennonites, Mennonite Brethren in Christ, United Missionary Church, Krimmer Mennonite Brethren, Church of God in Christ Mennonites. The Mennonite Brethren formerly universally observed the ordinance, but now in the United States the number is 85-90 per cent of the congregations, while in Canada only a minority do so. Among the General Conference Mennonites only a small minority of the congregations practise footwashing, depending upon the background of each congregation. A study by S. F. Pannabecker in 1929 showed that of 107 G.C.M. congregations in the United States, 23 encouraged it. Of the 23, the Western District had 10, the Northern District 8. Since then the number has decreased. An official conference study in 1943 showed that then 9 congregations made it obligatory, while 14 encouraged it. The Evangelical Mennonite Brethren, who formerly practiced it universally, have almost completely dropped it. The Lower Skippack Mennonite Church (Johnson Mennonite) withdrew from the Eastern District Conference (GCM) in 1861 because it observed footwashing, while the conference refused to make it mandatory. The Evangelical Mennonites and the Mennonite Brethren in Fernheim Colony, Paraguay, also practise footwashing.
It is customary in the Mennonite Church (MC) and related groups to have a collection for the alms fund or charity fund in connection with the footwashing service. Usually the contributions are placed in the collection plate by the members individually upon completion of the footwashing ceremony.
The History of the Ordinance: Pre-Reformation Times
In the time of Jesus, it was customary for the host to make provision for the washing of the feet of guests (Luke 7:44-46), but without religious significance. Jesus gave the rite religious significance and told His disciples, ‘Ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you’ (John 13: 14, 15). Paul’s report in I Corinthians 11 concerning the observance of the communion does not mention footwashing, but this is no absolute proof that it was not practiced in Corinth. The widows’ washing of ‘the saints’ feet’ (I Tim. 5: I 0) is clearly a rite performed only for church members, but no indication is given of when or how often it was to be done. Apparently the widows had a special office or function in the church which included this duty. The implication is that they washed the feet of others, possibly visiting brethren and sisters, rather than practising a universal mutual ordinance.
Tertullian (145-220) of North Africa in his De Corona is the first Church Father to indicate that footwashing was practiced in his time, but he gives no clue as to by whom or how. Ambrose of Milan (340-97) states that it was not the practice of the Roman Church, but endorses it as a symbol of sanctification. Augustine mentions it as being rejected by some. Knight (p. 816) says flatly that footwashing always remained ‘a purely local peculiarity, introduced at an early date into some parts of the Catholic Church, but never universal’. Among the monks in particular, the hospitality custom of footwashing was widely practiced, and often in the name of Christ, but not as a universal ordinance of the church. For the monks the observance was often intended to express humility. St. Benedict’s Rule (529) for the Benedictine Order prescribed hospitality footwashing in addition to a communal footwashing for humility.
The ordinance of footwashing persisted down through the Middle Ages, with varied interpretations and applications, more prevalent in the East than in the West. The Roman Church finally observed the practice only as a part of the liturgical festivities of the Holy Week (Maundy Thursday), not as a sacrament, while the Greek Church recognized it as a sacrament, but seldom practiced it. When practiced outside the monastery, it was gradually taken away from the laity and made a pompous ceremony for state officials and clergy. It was frequently observed at coronations of kings and emperors, and installation of popes and archbishops. As late as the 18th century it was a common feature of Maundy Thursday in European Courts, and there are references to it in Bavaria and Austria as late as 1912. Monastic footwashing is still practiced in both Roman and Greek churches.
The Albigenses and Waldenses, two medieval sects which arose in Southern France in the 11th and 12th centuries, apparently observed footwashing as a religious rite. The Albigenses observed it following the communion service. Among the Waldenses it was the custom to wash the feet of visiting ministers, but there is no evidence of the practice of the ordinance by the members. The Bohemian Brethren or Hussites also practiced it, at least in the 16th century. The ordinance was not introduced into the new Reformation state churches, but it was adopted by the Anabaptists.
From the beginning (1525-35) some Anabaptists practiced footwashing, but it was not universal. It was most common in Holland and the related or descendant groups in Northwest Germany, West and East Prussia, and Russia. It was not practiced by the Swiss Brethren or Hutterites, nor by the 16th century Anabaptists in South and Central Germany, with rare exceptions. Hubmaier (d. 1528) practiced footwashing at least once in his early (1525) Anabaptist congregation at Waldshut, but does not mention the ordinance in any of his writings. Sebastian Franck in 1531 (Chronica) mentions the practice as observed among some of the Swiss Brethren. William Gay claims (in an unpublished M.A. thesis of 1947 at Columbia University), though without giving documentary proof, ‘Among the various Anabaptist sects which sprang up all over Western Europe early in the 16th century, … footwashing as a sacramental act of communal humility was practiced almost universally at one time or another. The rite fitted in well with their tendency toward communalism, their Biblical fundamentalism, and their emphasis on self-effacing equalitarianism among the members. Often the ceremony was done in connection with a ‘complete’ observance of the Last Supper, with the agape and the communion itself following mutual footwashing, segregated according to sex.’
If the practice was prevalent at the beginning in Switzerland and South Germany (and there is no proof of this), it must have died out very soon. There is no mention of it in the Schleitheim Confession (1527) or the Peter Riedemann Hutterite confession (1545) or in any other known source except in the writings of Pilgram Marpeck (ca. 1495-1556). Marpeck’s great book of ca. 1542 (Verantwortung) makes repeated mention of footwashing as a Christian ordinance on a par with other ordinances. The first edition of the Ausbund (n.p., 1564) contains a hymn of 25 stanzas (No. 42 in the 1742 first American edition, pp. 692-700) for use at the observance of the ordinance, still used by the Old Order Amish.
Wappler (Thuringen, 128) reports a case of footwashing observed among the Thuringian Anabaptists in 1535 (see also Halberstadt). The leader of a group conducted a communion service, before which he washed the feet of all the 16 participants and greeted them with a kiss. Bullinger claims there was a group cal1ed ‘Apostolic’ Anabaptists who practiced footwashing. This is possibly the ultimate source of a statement by E. Daniel Colberg which names an ‘apostolic’ Anabaptist sect, ‘also called footwashers, who had as their ancestor Matth. Servatus’ (Servaes?). Colberg adds, ‘modern Anabaptists are almost all footwashers as Joh. Hoornbeek has shown from their writings’, probably meaning the Mennonites in North Germany and Holland.
Menno Simons (1496-1561) mentions the practice twice in his Complete Writings, but only as a hospitable practice and not as a church ordinance. However, his col1eague, Dirk Philips (1504-68), gives detailed teaching on footwashing as an ordinance in his Enchiridion of 1564 (English edition, Elkhart, 1910, pp. 388-90). His treatment reveals careful and serious thought and exhorts vigorously to its practice. There is nothing like this treatment in any other 16th-century Anabaptist writing. It was practiced in general by the Dutch Mennonites in the 16th and early 17th centuries.
The first direct evidence that footwashing was practiced as a general ordinance in Hol1and is found at the time of the division of the Danziger Old Flemish ca. 1635 from the Groningen Old Flemish. The Groningen group required the observance in connection with the communion service, while the Danzigers required it only for visiting elders who came from other districts to administer baptism and communion. For these the ordinance was to be observed in the house in which they were guests.
Out of the 19 confessions of faith produced by European Anabaptists and Mennonites from 1527 to 1874, 12 speak of the ordinance of footwashing as a Christian practice, while 9 omit it altogether. The first one to mention it (Dutch Waterlander Confession of 1577) indicates that it is to be done for visitors from a distance, particularly refugees, but is not prescribed as a church ordinance for a worship service. The same is true for the Concept of Cologne (1591), the Twisck 33 Articles of about 1615, and the George Hansen Flemish Confession of 1678 (Danzig area). Al1 the other seven which mention it (Olive Branch of 1627 in Hol1and, Dordrecht 18 Articles of 1632, Jan Centsen of 1630 in Holland, the first Prussian confession of 1660, the Prussian confession of G. Wiebe of 1792, and the confession adopted in Russia in 1874 by the Mennonite Brethren) treat it as a general ordinance of the church. The Cornelis Ris’ Dutch. Confession of 1773 does not mention it, probably because it was already dying out in Holland. The widely used Elbing-Waldeck catechism of 1778 includes it, as does the Russian Mennonite catechism of 1870.
The Alsatian congregations which adopted the Dordrecht Confession in 1660 were probably the channel for the adoption of the same confession with its footwashing article by the Amish schismatic group which originated 1693-97 in Switzerland. The Amish have ever since been fully committed to footwashing and in fact were distinguished from the other Mennonites of Switzerland, France, the Palatinate, and South Germany by it, since the latter did not practice it. The Northwest German Mennonites, being closely related to the Dutch Mennonites, followed them both in the observance earlier and in discarding it in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The decline of the practice among the European Mennonites who had earlier practiced it had set in by the 17th century in Hol1and. N. van der Zijpp supplies the following account of the history of the practice in Holland.
‘While in course of time the practice among the Waterlanders soon fell into decline – it is not mentioned in the ordinances of the Waterlander churches of 1581 – it was maintained for some time, though not after 1640, by the Frisian, Flemish, and High German congregations. (In the Hamburg congregation under Dutch influence the question arose in 1628 whether footwashing should be maintained or not; see Inv. Arch. Amst. I, 576.) But among the conservative Old Flemish and Old Frisians in the 17th century it was again more earnestly practiced. Among them, and also among the Jan Jacobsgezinden and other Fijne Mennisten (q.v.), it became a church practice observed in connection with the Lord’s Supper. So it was still in 1741, when Simon F. Rues visited several Dutch churches among the Groningen Old Flemish (Rues, 53 f.). (A pictorial illustration of footwashing as practiced in the Groningen Old Flemish congregation of Zaandam is found in Schijn’s Geschiedenis of 1743.)
‘In this same way footwashing was performed “publicly in the meeting”, as Rues says, among the Old Frisians and also among the Swiss Mennonites who had immigrated to Holland about 1711. The Swiss in Holland practiced it until 1805. Most Old Frisians had abandoned it by 1770, and most Groningen Old Flemish by 1800, though in some of their congregations it was performed until 1815.
‘Among the Danzig Old Flemish Mennonites (q.v.) footwashing was not practiced in the meetinghouse in connection with the Lord’s Supper, but in the older hospitable form, i.e., to a visiting preacher or elder. The ceremony was performed at his arrival, or in the evening, the host washing the guest’s feet in the room in which the guest lodged. It was also done to new members who had come from other places (Rues, 19). The practice was continued among this group until about 1780, when the last Danziger Old Flemish congregation died out. In the 19th century footwashing in the old form (to visiting elders) was performed only in four Dutch congregations: Giethoorn, Ameland, Aalsmeer, and Balk. Since 1854 no footwashing has been practiced in Holland.’
Footwashing died out among the French and South German Mennonites of Amish background much more slowly than elsewhere. The last observance in Luxembourg was in 1939. There are still five congregations in France which practice it: Birkenhof, Diesen, Haute-Marne, Meuse, and Montbeliard.
Clarence Hiebert (ST.B. Thesis, Biblical Seminary, 1954) comments upon the decline of footwashing in Europe as follows: ‘The decline of this practice was due largely to secularization and compromising influences in the church. Along with the loss of this practice European Mennonitism has gradually lost almost all beliefs that were once distinctive to them. In America, footwashing was rigidly observed by most Mennonite groups, the form and mode being more uniform than it ever was in Europe.’ Hiebert speculates further as to the causes for the decline, suggesting five reasons.
1. The ridiculing of the peculiar beliefs of the Mennonites and their emphasis on the “fringe doctrines” rather than the cardinal beliefs stimulated them to question some of their literalistic practices. Many abandoned this practice as a result of re-examination of their beliefs, in favour of the more cardinal emphases.
2. The literal interpretation of the Johannine footwashing narrative had never been satisfactory to all. The spiritual concept came to be emphasized as being sufficient without the external act.
3. The influence of the larger denominations upon the Mennonites played no little part in bringing about compromises in their traditional beliefs. This was especially true in Holland, where the Reformed and the Mennonite churches often united.
4. The liberal tendencies which began in the 18th century, especially through the Mennonite Seminary in Amsterdam, were influential in changing the entire church.
5. Because the more conservative element was constantly emigrating in the 19th century from Germany and France in search of religious freedom, the liberalizing tendencies gained the upper hand.
‘Other reasons could be listed, but these are the cardinal factors and suggest the trend of European Mennonitism.’
Here, according to P.M. Friesen (Bruderschaft, 40, 82), the Flemish group observed the ordinance in connection with the communion, while the stricter of the Frisians practiced the observance in the home of the minister when a guest minister arrived. Specifically, the Gnadenfeld and Alexanderwohl congregations were among those that observed the ordinance at communion. Among Bernhard Harder’s (1832-84) poems, published in 1888 at Hamburg as Geistliche Lieder, was one written to be sung at the footwashing service. Its dominant emphasis is that of cleansing from ‘sin which collects like dust’ in men’s souls. All the schismatic groups in Russia, Kleine Gemeinde (1812), Mennonite Brethren (1860), and Krimmer M.B. (1869), continued the practice. The observance was brought to North America by all these groups and the Mennonite congregations as well which had practiced it there. The Swiss-Alsatian Amish in Volhynia also brought the practice with them.
The first documentary evidence of the observance of footwashing in North America is found in a document of ca. 1775 relating- to the Martin Boehm case, in which the leaders of the Lancaster Conference specifically refer to the ordinance of footwashing as commanded by Christ to show humility. John Herr, the founder of the Reformed Mennonite Church in 1812, describes the Lancaster Mennonite group as having declined greatly and states, ‘The washing of feet, if not rejected, was at least practically omitted for many years’ (Funk, 13). By contrast Funk (p. 114) quotes a letter of an aged member in 1878 who specifically recalled that Bishop Jacob Hostetler’s (bishop 1831-65) charge to the bishops he ordained included the administration of footwashing. The Lancaster Conference hymnal Unpartheyisches Gesangbuch (1804), contained one hymn (p. 117) to be used during footwashing, and the first English Mennonite hymnal, A Collection of Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs (Mountain Valley, Va., 1847), contained three (pp. 288-91). A pamphlet published in 1859 at Berlin, Ont., written by Ulrich Steiner (?), was devoted exclusively to footwashing (Fusswaschung und Deutung derselben).
The strange deviation in the Franconia Conference from this general practice of the Mennonite Church is unexplainable. The Dordrecht Confession, first printed in English in 1712 for the Germantown group, and adopted in 1725 by a conference of all the congregations in America at that time (printed at Philadelphia in 1727), has a specific and strict article on footwashing. Yet J. C. Wenger reports, ‘It appears that until a generation or so ago what is now the Skippack bishop district was the only one which observed Feet-Washing’ (Franconia, 34). This is supported by the fact that the Franconia Conference hymnal Die Kleine Geistliche Harfe (1803), in contrast to the Lancaster hymnal, had no footwashing hymn. Only gradually did the observance spread after 1900, particularly when Henry S. Bower, a preacher, and the noted bishop Andrew Mack put his influence behind it. ‘As late as 1917,’ says Wenger (p. 105), the conference admonished the ministers ‘to teach the subject of footwashing more earnestly, so that it may be more generally observed.’ But there are some facts on the other side. The letter of Andreas Ziegler et al. to Holland in 1773, written on behalf of the Franconia Conference, inquires ‘whether you keep up the observance of footwashing’ (Franconia, 401), thus implying the observance in Franconia at that time.
It is interesting to note that the Oberholtzer group, which broke away from the Franconia Conference in 1847, according to Hiebert, for a time after their initial organization continued the practice of footwashing in connection with the communion service. In 1851, four years later, they decided the observance should not be compulsory, and in 1853 it was made an optional practice with complete freedom in the local congregation. Finally, in 1855 it was no longer recognized as a church ceremony. A spiritual interpretation of the passage (John 13) was agreed upon at the 1859 conference. The Lower Skippack congregation, which intended to continue the observance of the ordinance, thus came into conflict with the conference. Henry G. Johnson, the bishop, was declared out of order by the conference in 1859, and formally excommunicated in 1861, taking most of the congregation with him. Lower Skippack has continued as an independent congregation to this day. J. C. Wenger (Franconia, 360) suggests that the conference may have originally adopted footwashing to meet the demands of Johnson who was a strong advocate of it, but without any connection with a general practice by the body as a whole.
Footwashing has been introduced into the foreign mission fields of the American Mennonite groups in accord with the constituency.
The following other North American denominations are among those which still observe footwashing as a standard ordinance: Church of the Brethren, Brethren Church, Grace Brethren Church, Brethren in Christ, and a number of minor Baptist bodies. The Moravian Brethren practiced it until 1818 when it was discontinued by act of the Moravian Synod.
There is no uniformity in the writing of the term ‘footwashing.’ Five other forms often used are: foot washing, foot-washing, feetwashing, feet washing, and feet-washing. The initial letters ‘F’ and ‘W’ are sometimes also written in capitals.
(Reprinted from the article on ‘Footwashing’ by Harold S Bender in The Mennonite Encyclopaedia, Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1955, pp347-351)