Language Shift among Weaverland Conference Mennonites

In a post to this blog last year I discussed the use of Pennsylvania Dutch among Weaverland Conference Mennonites (also known as Horning or Black-bumper Mennonites). Although they are closely connected to the Groffdale Conference (Wenger or Team Mennonites), with whom they share an Old Order affiliation since 1927, when the two conferences divided over the use of the automobile, the less tradition-minded Weaverland Conference has seen a shift away from the use of German in worship in favor of English.

In many Weaverland families, active use of Pennsylvania Dutch as an everyday language continues today, however there, too, the shift to English is evident. For their part, Groffdale Conference Mennonites maintain both German in church and Pennsylvania Dutch as a community language. The gradual transition from German/Pennsylvania Dutch to English within the Weaverland Conference parallels the experience of the Beachy Amish, whose split from their Old Order brethren also dates to 1927. Use of English in worship has become the norm in Beachy congregations and proficiency in Pennsylvania Dutch has declined among younger members.

An astute witness of the changing language situation among traditional Mennonites is the historian Amos B. Hoover, who together with his wife Nora founded Muddy Creek Farm Library on their farm near Ephrata, Pennsylvania, in 1956. This library is a leading repository of documents related to the history of traditional Anabaptists. As a Weaverland Conference member who was born in 1933, Hoover has had a unique vantage point from which he has observed and written about numerous changes in the life of his church and related groups.

The language question has been of special interest to Hoover. Recently, he has written a fascinating volume that complements wonderfully the scholarship on Anabaptists and their languages. Titled German Language: Cradle of Our Heritage (Ephrata, Pa.: Muddy Creek Farm Library, 2018), Hoover’s book is a rich compendium of primary and secondary resources he has gathered over decades, many of which have not been easily accessible to researchers. Just as important as the documentary material Hoover shares is his analysis of the language trends he has observed. In this way Hoover combines an insider’s perspective with scholarly objectivity, making this an invaluable resource for a range of readers.

The subtitle of the book is “Struggles with Language Change among Mennonites,” which points to the fact that the shift from German/Pennsylvania Dutch to English has not been one universally welcomed among Hoover’s brethren. As Mennonites in this country and Canada have felt the pull of modernity, different opinions on the continued use of German have emerged. Among those groups who sought formal training for their ministers, pursued mission work, and desired to sponsor Sunday schools for their children, the shift to English made sense. Most Old Orders, however, who have preferred to hold the line on these and other changes, are committed to “keeping Dutch.” Interestingly, Hoover himself views the shift to English with regret. As he comments on p. 247 of his book, “… our losses have been great by tossing our native tongue.”

Hoover begins his book with an introductory essay in which he presents six theses about language based on his experience and supported by the documentation in the chapters that follow. I will paraphrase these six theses, which are given on page 15.

  1. Most Old Order Mennonite and Amish groups have successfully maintained some form of German since their arrival in America nearly three centuries ago.
  2. Language is a central part of the religious expression of Old Orders (and certainly many other people of faith as well), therefore the choice of which specific language a group uses will have spiritual implications. Hoover sees the preference of English over German in hymnody (or vice versa) as an especially important example in this regard.
  3. The increasing importance of English as a language of literacy has “opened the door to mainstream Protestant theology.”
  4. Bi- or multilingualism is a good thing for anyone, but brings special benefits to Christians by making multiple translations of Scripture accessible.
  5. Whenever North American Mennonites have experienced divisions over the past nearly two centuries, language has played at least some role, if not the central one.
  6. As a practical matter, knowledge of German (including the old typeface and handwritten script) and Pennsylvania Dutch is important for researchers to be able to engage with many primary historical documents.

Hoover’s book is divided into eight parts. The three main sections of the book, part II “Personal Interviews, and Observations on Language Related Issues,” (35–137); part III “Language Issues Mentioned in Previously Unpublished Documents,” (141–165); and part IV “Language Issues Mentioned in Previously Published Sources,” 169–241), are framed by two essays by Hoover, “Introduction to Language Transition among Mennonites” (15–28) and “The Author’s Summary on PA German” (247–252). The book concludes with brief “Biographical Sketches of Contributors to this Study” (253–275), a list of language-related materials held in the Muddy Creek Farm Library (277­–282), and an index (283–311).

I will share a few gems from part II, which is essentially a journal assembled by Hoover that includes hundreds of entries describing community events and conversations related to language use that he either observed or participated in between 1959 and 2017. One theme that recurs in many of these conversations is the linkage of the preference of English over German with the sin of pride. One illustrative quote is attributed to Bishop Joseph O. Wenger (1868–1956), who led the Groffdale Conference at the time of the 1927 division. (In Pennsylvania Dutch, Groffdale Mennonites are referred to this day as Tscho Wenger ‘Joe Wengers’.) Documenting a conversation that he had with a contemporary of Wenger, David K. Martin (1915–2012), in 1975, Hoover shares the following (p. 59):

[Q]uoting Joe Wenger in Zeigness [commentary after an Old Order sermon]: “Sis nau so weit as es englisch Singes rei komme is an die Singings, aber die Junge sette doch jo net Stimmig singe. Sis nix letz mit die englisch Sproche. Es scheint aber won d[ie] Deutsche leit mohl englisch warre welle, dann dutt der Hochmut sich ei stelle.”

This is such a classic statement and quote of Joe Wenger, that I also write it in English. It is undated but early in the 1920s. This is based on the fact that the singing schools were restarted in 1920 and there was a sentiment among some people that we need to do something for the young people even if they sing some English: “It has now changed to the point that English singing came into use at the young people’s singings, but youth should not sing four-part harmony. There is really no problem with the [English] language, but it appears that when German people make an effort to become English then pride is getting a foothold.”

The connection between the use of English and pride (Hochmut) is a strong one for many tradition-minded Mennonites. In a conversation from 1976 that Hoover records, his interlocutor, Minister Wesley P. Martin (1898–1985), shared the following (pp. 60–61):

We always preached in German. In 1917, we elected a minister and my father Bishop Joseph Martin preached the qualification sermon and he cautioned the congregation that perhaps in this day and age the time is here that we should choose a minister that can preach some English. When he was through old Elias (Eli) Hornberger got up and testified, “Des English predige is nix weder hochmut.” [This English preaching is nothing but arrogance.] They got a real Dutchman too. It was Davy Hornberger.

Other comments linking language use to Scripture are especially interesting. Hoover quotes a conversation he had with a Weaverland Conference minister, Lester B. Martin (b. 1936), in 1978, in which speaking English with a “Dutchy” accent, which is regularly stigmatized, may not be such a bad thing (p. 69):

We should not be ashamed of our [English] language if it contains a PA Dutch accent, and if we cannot speak “as the world.” This may be as a “thorn in the flesh” or even as a means of saving our souls as Peter’s Galilean accent did when he was told “thy speech betrayeth thee,” thus Peter repented.

Indeed, other brethren with whom Hoover spoke extended the equation of the use of English with pride by connecting maintenance of German/Pennsylvania Dutch with the cardinal virtue of Old Order life, humility (Demut). As Hoover recalls from a conversation with another Weaverland Conference minister, Luke N. Good (1928–2015), in 1973 (pp. 52, 54):

Ich mehn es Deutsch es mir hen is ken g’schrivene sproch awwer is genunk für helfe uns zammenhalte. Gott hut die sproche verwechselt un es hut gedient zum gute, nau vielleicht sette mir net schaffe für en unified sproch. Ich denk als oft, glei as ich bei die gmeh war hut en alte fraa grote, “D[ie] schul kinner sette aa wenig lerne ihr kreitz drage, mit die gleder dracht” un ich mehn aa so mit die sproch. Sis gut won sie wenig verschpot warre.” [I believe though the German we have is not a written language, yet it is enough to help keep us together (as a people). God confused the languages, and it served a good purpose, now maybe we should not strive for a unified language. I often think how an old sister counseled, soon after I had joined the church, that “children should also learn something about bearing their cross, with their clothing style.” I think also it is thus with the language. It is good for them to endure a little ridicule.]

The interpretation of the confusion of tongues after the fall of the Tower of Babel as offering a reminder of the importance of humility, with multilingualism as its tangible expression, is a profound one.

Amos B. Hoover’s contributions to the documentation of Old Order history are many, as German Language: Cradle of Our Heritage attests.

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