Teaching Mennonite History in “Historic Times”

As a historian, I am well aware that all times are in some sense historic, that every time period and every surviving source worthy of study, and yet, like so many of us, I have been well aware that the events of the past year—the Covid-19 pandemic, the protests for racial justice and against police brutality that spanned first America and then the globe, and the end of the Trump presidency—are events that my descendants will ask about, in the same way that I have been curious about my grandparents’ experiences of World War II. Likewise, I am confident that future students taking Mennonite history courses will want to know how Mennonites and other Anabaptists were affected by and responded to these events—as in fact, did my current students, who brought up some of these topics in their online discussions. This, then, is the beginning of a modest collection of contemporary links, in the hope that they might serve as useful primary sources for future Mennonite history instructors and students writing term papers as they attempt to make sense of the past year.

Covid-19

When it first became evident that Covid-19 would spread virtually unchecked across North America, I couldn’t help but think of the Amish and Old Order Mennonites who refuse both private and government-run health insurance might be affected. Would they be more reluctant to seek medical care for Covid as a result? Moreover, how difficult would it be for them to maintain social distancing without many of the technological solutions that the rest of us have used to fill the gap?

I was intrigued by this post from Penn Medicine, which discussed health outreach efforts among the Amish by Lancaster General Health, useful as a way to see how Amish communities in Lancaster County have been affected and how health care workers have tried to provide Covid safety guidance in culturally appropriate ways.1

This CBC news article detailed how, a month into the pandemic, Hutterite and Old Order Mennonite communities in Canada were adapting to restrictions on gatherings.2 The better part of a year after these restrictions have been put in place, the cost of isolation is felt even more keenly.

Of course, anyone seeking to learn how more assimilated Mennonite churches have weathered the pandemic is faced with an embarrassment of riches, as more churches than ever have recorded sermons and even full services and shared them online over the past year.

Black Lives Matter

During the protests following the murder of George Floyd, an image and video quickly circulated featuring a group of people in plain dress, singing hymns and holding signs that read “Justice for George Floyd,” “Thou Shalt Not Kill Anyone,” “I Can’t Breathe,” and “Standing Against Systems of Oppression.” Twitter users quickly identified the group as Amish, and tweets about Amish support for Black Lives Matter quickly proliferated. One such post, by Twitter user @nedwhat, garnered over 400, 000 likes.3 In fact, these protesters were not Amish at all, but members of the Church of God (Restoration), a church with no Anabaptist affiliation based in Greenville, Ohio.4

Though the actual Amish do not appear to have participated in Black Lives Matter protests in any great numbers, other Anabaptists did. On June 1st, Mennonite Church USA released a statement on racial injustice that forcefully repudiated white supremacy and state violence and encouraged Mennonite congregations “to lament and pray together…to stand in solidarity with communities of color, walk alongside them and, indeed, be led by them.”5 My own city of Portland became a particular point of national and international media attention, and several members of Portland Mennonite Church participated in peaceful protests across the city. Britt Carlson, our pastor of community life, also wrote a reflection on the citywide protests for Baptist News.6

Members of Portland Mennonite Church participate in a protest for racial justice. Photo by Art Wright.

The 2020 Election

As journalists and political strategists attempted to determine which candidate might carry the swing states in the Great Lakes region, several outlets published pieces about the political sympathies of Amish communities in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. Many of the Amish interviewees had a broadly favorable opinion of Trump’s presidency, particularly his support of deregulation and his perceived support of businesses.7 Amish voter turnout remained low in the 2020 election, but opposition to restrictions on businesses and religious gatherings designed to curb the spread of Covid-19 appears to have motivated at least some younger Amish voters.8 The ongoing work of Steve Nolt and Kyle Kopko of the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College will no doubt help to clarify how Amish turnout in 2020 compared to past year.

We are, of course, in the midst of these events still. It remains to be seen just how various Mennonite and other Anabaptist communities will have been shaped in the long term by the events of the pandemic, the ongoing work of racial justice, and the increasing political polarization in the United States (and indeed in many parts of the world). I welcome additional links and resources in the comments as well, in the hopes that this collection might continue to evolve as the situation does.


1 Mary Beth Schweigert, “How Amish Communities are Staying Safer from the COVID-19 Pandemic with Help from Good Neighbors at Lancaster General Health,” Penn Medicine News Blog, 1 September 2020, http://www.pennmedicine.org/news/news-blog/2020/september/how-amish-communities-are-staying-safer-from-the-covid.

2 Karen Pauls, “’We, too, are part of this world’: How Hutterites, Old Order Mennonites are responding to COVID-19,” CBC News, 1 April 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/hutterites-covid-mennonites-1.5515797.

3 WhatTheNed, Twitter Post, May 29, 2020, https://twitter.com/NedWhat/status/1266515656037588992.

4 Adrienne Dunn, “Fact check: Images of witches, ‘Amish’ supposedly at Floyd protest are out of context,” USA Today, 19 June 2020, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/factcheck/2020/06/19/fact-check-viral-photos-dont-show-witches-amish-floyd-protests/3195430001/.

5 Mennonite Church Executive Board Staff, “Mennonite Church USA statement on racial injustice

By Mennonite Church Executive Board staff,” Mennonite Church USA, 1 June 2020, https://www.mennoniteusa.org/news/mc_usa-statement-on-racial-injustice/.

6 Britt Carlson, “At the Portland protests, I’m afraid the bread won’t rise,” Baptist News Global, 21 July 2020, https://baptistnews.com/article/at-the-portland-protests-im-afraid-the-bread-wont-rise/#.YAqfxuhKjIU.

7 Ted Roelofs, “Michigan’s Amish seem to love Trump. But voting is another matter,” Bridge Michigan, 30 October 2020, https://www.bridgemi.com/michigan-government/michigans-amish-seem-love-trump-voting-another-matter; Tim Huber, “Ohio Amish Show Trump Support,” Anabaptist World, 2 October 2020 https://anabaptistworld.org/ohio-amish-show-trump-support/.

8 Gillian McGoldrick, “Was 2020 a breakout year for Amish voters? Here’s what the numbers show,” Lancaster Online, 30 November 2020, https://lancasteronline.com/news/local/was-2020-a-breakout-year-for-amish-voters-heres-what-the-numbers-show/article_f77af684-32a7-11eb-b3ec-13a56697652f.html.

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