September’s issue of The Mennonite focuses on Mennonites and healthcare costs. In a moment of synchronicity, my own family has recently been facing unexpected healthcare costs after a member of my family had a routine medical procedure to screen for cancer. We were relieved to hear the positive news of a clean bill of health, but soon became stressed as the medical bills began to arrive. The EOBs rolled in to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, with seemingly arbitrary “adjustments,” allowed amounts, and finally, the absurdly high bottom line that we are responsible for. I was yet again reminded of how broken our American medical system is and grew curious about the historical origins of our current insurance system. It’s hard to remember a time before co-pays and deductibles, HMOs and PPOs, but I quickly learned that the system, as well as American Mennonites’ embrace of it, is relatively new. So I wanted to know: what changed in the last sixty years that led to our compliance with such a system?
What I found when I began to investigate this issue is that many American Mennonites in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were vehemently opposed to most forms of insurance, specifically life insurance. Some conferences were lenient on members holding property or fire insurance, but other conferences, like Virginia Mennonite Conference, went so far as to make the holding of insurance a test of membership. Harry Brunk writes in History of Mennonites in Virginia 1900-1960 that, “In 1900 Virginia Conference was asked—”Why do we oppose life insurance? Scripture references were given as the answer and members were told to make “Christ our Life Insurance.”
The practice of buying insurance, especially life insurance, was seen as placing one’s trust in the world and rejecting faith in God’s providence. The church also called upon its members to practice mutual aid, assisting one another financially in times of loss or hardship. This idea had strong historic roots—many Anabaptist groups since their beginnings had practiced poor relief and sharing of goods. This barn-raising mentality continues today in many conservative Mennonite and Amish communities, with members providing tangible and financial relief for coverage of healthcare costs, property loss, and in other times of need.
But for some church members, especially those whose livelihood was dependent on farms or property, insurance was still tempting. In order to help their members avoid an unequal yoke with insurance companies, some conferences responded by creating “Aid Plans” for property and automobiles. Others established mutual aid societies, to cover many possible pitfalls of life like storm damage, fire, or to help with burial costs. These were highly successful for a time, providing mutual aid to members in need, but began to hit snags as the US government tightened up regulations surrounding insurance coverage. After the Great Depression and during the onset of the Second World War there was agitation by some in the Mennonite Church for a more formalized, church-wide form of mutual aid to coordinate aid for church members in times of need.
Mennonite Mutual Aid (MMA) came about at a time of upheaval and transition in the Mennonite church and the world. It came on the heels of World War II after many years of negotiation and work by emerging leaders in the church including H.S. Bender, Chris Graber, Guy Hershberger, and Orie O. Miller. Al Keim writes in his essay “My Brother’s Keeper: Origins of Mennonite Mutual Aid” that the fact that MMA “so long in gestation, should be born at this pivotal moment of leadership change was no accident. Both the war and the new generation of leaders made it happen.” It also came at a time where Mennonite nonconformity was being tested, and many feared that worldliness and assimilation were taking hold.
At the same moment, in 1945, an Insurance Study Committee was created by Virginia Mennonite Conference, comprised of George R. Brunk II, Aldine Brenneman, and Clarence Huber. It appears to have been created in response to some members acquiring automobile and property insurance and an overall relaxation of opposition to insurance in the laity. After thorough scriptural examination, the committee delivered a report on May 24 that doubled down on the belief that forms of insurance such as automobile and property, “though generally thought to be less objectionable” than life insurance, “are, in fact, we believe, opening wedges that may bring us finally to the point of recognizing and tolerating insurance of life itself.” They called for the church to better educate members about the perils of insurance, create aid plans for hospitalization and burial costs, and “continue to make Life Insurance a test of membership.”
But the wedges had already been opening in Mennonite communities in other areas of the country, and just a week after this VMC group delivered their report, on May 31, 1945, a church wide mutual aid agency was born. Although the idea garnered support from many, the more conservative conferences were not easily convinced. Keim writes that “Graber presented the plan to both the Virginia and Pacific Coast conferences” and was “dismayed when both conferences failed to endorse the plan.” When he complained to Guy Hershberger, Hershberger replied that “Virginia…and Oregon…are afraid of everything new as being something worldly.” Keim notes that to many of those conservative conferences, “the organizational good sense of the new generation of leaders looked to some . . . like a worldly trend” and “the insurance features of the aid plan seemed to have more to do with clever means of risk reduction than with New Testament mutual aid.” Ultimately, through the strong leadership of a few and the slow acquiescence of many, the roots of MMA took hold. It quickly added a number of aid policies, including those for “property loss, sickness, or death.”
As the insurance industry grew in the United States, so did Mennonite church members’ desire for insurance and so did MMA’s offering of more traditional insurance plans. This shift toward acceptance was likely driven by urbanization, education, and overall assimilation of the constituency, increasing government regulations for insurance, and a loss of tight-knit communities based in rural areas. In the realm of health care specifically, the introduction of Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs) and Preferred Provider Organizations (PPOs) along with healthcare reform in the 1990s limited the options MMA (now Everence) could provide its members. Keith Graber Miller writes in his 1995 essay “Mennonite Mutual Aid: a Margin of Difference?” that “the result is that Mennonite Mutual Aid’s HMO and PPO health products become increasingly like those sold through other commercial companies.”
Nearly twenty-five years after Graber Miller wrote that, it appears that the Mennonite Church has fully embraced, or at least complied with, the insurance industry it once actively worked to avoid. Those of us who work at Mennonite institutions are offered plans by our employers that include health insurance, dental and vision insurance, life insurance, accidental death and dismemberment insurance, short term disability, and on and on. Most of these plans are brokered by Everence (formerly MMA), but come through large providers such as Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield. There is no longer a conversation about whether or not insurance is worldly or scripturally sound, it is simply a benefit we all expect with our employment.
Yet I find myself wishing we as a church could do better than this status quo. It is naive to hope that a denomination like MCUSA could return to the forms of mutual aid encouraged by early Mennonite leaders or practiced by the tight-knit communities of the Amish and Conservative Mennonites. But our complicity in these systems that cause pain and financial ruin to so many in our country troubles me.
With an understanding of the historical perspectives within the church on insurance and its pitfalls, I wonder if there is a place for Mennonites to speak into these issues and imagine a system whose first priority is caring for the sick, not making a profit. I doubt the conservative Mennonite leaders in Virginia and Oregon could have foreseen our convoluted dealings with insurance companies issues 80 years ago, but I can’t help but feel that their caution should have been heeded rather than being dismissed as the cries of fearful sectarians unwilling to embrace change. They saw a different way forward, rejecting capitalist impulses, and tried to put their faith in God and the church. How can we do the same today?