A Visit to a Mennonite Community in Germany, 1881

Mark L. Louden

In the history of popular writings about the Pennsylvania Dutch, their culture and language, Phebe Earle Gibbons (1821–1893) occupies a place of importance. Born into a prominent Hicksite Quaker family in Philadelphia, Gibbons received a relatively good formal education for a female of her era. In 1845 she married a farmer and physician, Joseph Gibbons (1818–1883), from Bird-in-Hand, Lancaster County, where they made their home. Among their many activities, Joseph and Phebe brought out an important progressive Quaker periodical, The Journal: A Paper Devoted to the Interests of the Society of Friends. Phebe, in addition to raising five children, became a prolific journalist who in 1869 wrote an essay, “Pennsylvania Dutch,” which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, garnering national attention. This essay was reprinted along with several others in an anthology that was first published in 1872 and then in two expanded editions in 1874 and 1882. Gibbons’s book was reprinted in 2001 with an extensive introduction by Don Yoder.

In 1881 Gibbons traveled to Europe and spent some time visiting Mennonites in Germany, writing letters home that were published in the Lancaster Intelligencer. Below is one of these letters, describing her visit to the Mennonite community at Kühbörncheshof located near the community of Katzweiler, which is ten kilometers north of Kaiserslautern in the Palatinate. The Kühbörncheshof congregation was founded by Swiss exiles in 1715 and is still active today. Gibbons’s letter appeared in the September 21, 1881, issue of the Intelligencer. The spellings of some of the place names have been amended to reflect how they are written today.

Exterior view of the Kühbörncheshof Mennonite church. Von Sokkok – Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25923214

Among the Mennonites
Comparisons of Germany and Lancaster County
Glimpses into the Social Life of the Bavarian Farmer
Kühbörncheshof, near Katzweiler, in the Rhenish Palatinate, Bavaria, Germany
August 28, 1881

It is now Sunday morning, and at about half-past nine there is to be a meeting in the Mennonite meeting house in this small settlement. The people call it Gottesdienst, or God’s service. It holds about an hour.

Like our people in Lancaster County, these were originally of Swiss origin. The names here, or belonging to the community, are Lattschar, Rink, Weber, Koller, Bachmann and Schowalter; of which it will be noticed that the greater part are also found in Pennsylvania.

My last letter to you described my visit to Krefeld, where the Mennonite community are living in that manufacturing town. Here, however, in this little settlement, the people are farmers, living on their own land, and seeming to have prospered, much like our people at home.

I am now tarrying in the city of Speyer, on the west side of the Rhine, in Southern Germany; and hearing of this community, or settlement, I concluded to visit it. First I was to take the rail to Kaiserslautern, and there take the post-omnibus for Katzweiler, a village at a distance of about five miles. I was told to stay there over night on Saturday, and walk out to the Mennonite community in the morning. However, as I remembered the ways of our people at home, I bethought myself that it would be better to make myself known in the evening before, as there might be some distance to go to meeting, or some arrangement to make which it would be more agreeable to have planned over night. And it was fortunate for myself that I did so.

Having been left by the post-wagon at Katzweiler, at a small public house, the landlord had just consented to send me over in charge of a young girl, when he caught sight of two of the Mennists with a wagon. On the road I had seen a party of market women coming home in a wagon drawn by cows, a common sight in this country, but these Mennonites had good horses and were very polite in arranging a seat for me on a large bundle of straw. Some of the people on my journey who had learned that I am from America seemed to be quite interested in me, while I found persons about as good at asking questions as the Yankees at home. Thus in one of the towns I passed through I went into a shop to get something. I had spoken of being in a hurry for the omnibus, and the man wanted to know “Where are you going?” I said, “to Katzweiler.” “Have you relations there?” “No, sir.” “What did you come from France for?” “I did not come from France.” As I spoke German poorly, or perhaps used some French words, he inferred that I was from France.

I had asked the young Mennonites, of whom I have before spoken, to what house I would better go in the settlement, and when they drew near they said that I should go to their house. The house was good sized and very well built; not, however furnished with rag carpets, like so many of our farmers’ houses at home, but with sanded floors and stone.

Before supper the mother of the family (who had seven daughters and one son) asked me what I would have. I answered a glass of milk, warm from the cow. A noble glass was brought me with cake sprinkled with cinnamon. After while their regular supper was ready, and they seemed to think it not nice enough to invite me to sit down, but I desired to do so, being glad to see the manner of living. Before going to the table all the family stood a few moments as if in silent prayer, and again in the same manner after eating. Besides those already mentioned, there were a widowed aunt and the husband of one of the daughters. The latter was one of those with whom I rode home. The supper was potato soup, this being the only article of food on the table. A deep dish of soup was set at each end, and each member of the family provided with plate and spoon; some of the plates being tin. The soup contained mashed potatoes and bread, butter and herbs, but no meat. It was good. I think that one of the family said to me, “You have meat in America.” I understood that their usual food is potatoes and milk. They seem, however, to have plenty of rye bread. They also had some beautiful white bread, made for Sunday. To read of such simplicity of living it might be supposed that the people are poor. This family has, however, eighty acres, six cows besides calves, and as I have already said, horses. Food is doubtless expensive, however, butter being now about 31 cents a pound. It will be found that where people eat so sparingly they eat more frequently.

The settlement no longer has an unpaid ministry as with us. Until lately they had; but a few years ago they concluded to employ a minister. However, he is not heavily paid. He preaches by turns in three different settlements, and receives a salary of about $180, having too a wife and infant. There are larger communities, however, which pay as much as $250 to $450.

Interior view of the Kühbörncheshof Mennonite church. The inscription on the wall is from Psalm 100:2, “Serve the Lord with gladness.” Von Sokkok – Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25923317

There was no organ in the little church which I visited today, and in most respects it seemed as simple as some Mennonite meetings that I have seen in Lancaster County. One marked difference is that all the prayers seemed to be read from a book. I may add that none of the women wore white caps, a few wore black caps or head-dresses, but the greater part appeared without any and with their hair very neatly braided.

The ancestors of these people came from Switzerland in 1715, and there are still small Mennonite settlements in that country.

The first who came from Switzerland to the place I have today visited seems to have built himself a log house; the country being nearly covered with wood with wild animals therein. Others joined him until the little settlement numbered eight families. But counting all in the country round belonging to this church, it is said to have ninety-four baptized persons. They baptize at age of thirteen. They are no longer in this part of Germany allowed to purchase exemption from military service; all who are drawn must serve without any exception.

There was give me today a list of most of the Mennonites communities in Europe. Some of the names in Germany will be very familiar to our people at home, such as Stauffer, Lehmann, Neff, Krehbill, Muselman, Bar and Landes.

Before closing I will add a few words on the language. As spoken in South Germany it is softened as reyer or reschen for regen, rain. Among the Mennonites I caught the sound of moryets for morgens [‘mornings’], and obits or owats for abends [‘evenings’]. It is quite probable that one familiar with the “Pennsylvania Dutch” of Lancaster County would find great resemblance in it to the language spoken among the Mennonites here.

Reference:

Gibbons, Phebe Earle. 2001. Pennsylvania Dutch and Other Essays, with an introduction by Don Yoder. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books.

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