Debating Military Service Exemptions in the North German Confederation, Oct. 18, 1867

Mennonites Accept and Contest Military Service in the German East: A Sesquicentennial Series

On Friday, October 18, 1867, the North German Confederation continued debate on the military service law that proposed exemptions for two different classes of top-ranked nobility and for Mennonites and Quakers. The North German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, and the acting Minister of War, Theophil von Podbielski, were again present for these debates. Mennonites were attacked from the lectern at great length for treason, duplicity, and heresy against the doctrine of patriotism by a number of representatives, while only two weak defenses of the exemption were mounted.1

2.1 Franz Duncker

Franz Duncker

The first speaker of the day, Franz Duncker, launched a vigorous attack on any form of exemption. As a co-founder of the German Progressive Party, he was an ardent proponent of both equality and German nationalism, seeing equality as constituting the nation and the nation as the guarantor of equality. Exemptions were therefore damaging to both projects. He attacked the idea that the sons of the kings and rulers should be exempt as making a mockery of the idea of equality and noted that, “such a principle is a great and holy principle only when there is really no exception.” He went on to note that neither a religious principle nor a legal principle, such as state treaties, that exempted former ruling houses could trump the constitutional principle of equality.

Duncker was a left liberal and had little patience for conservative nobility or religious twaddle. Although the parliament was for the North German Confederation, Prussia was the dominant power, and the Prussian constitution, Duncker went on to note, explicitly said in article 12 that civic and civil duties could not be avoided due to religious concerns. Therefore when the constitutions stated that all Prussians or all North Germans were liable for military service, Mennonites could not be exempted. It could not be the job of a democratically elected parliament to work out ways to circumvent the constitution. In addition, he remarked that Mennonites themselves had suggested ways to work around this problem, an apparent allusion to Neuwied Mennonite pastor Carl Harder’s petition that Mennonites be made to serve in the military in exchange for being granted full civil rights. He concluded with an ardent plea to block all exemptions, since a constitution and human rights should not be massaged to create space for “artificial privileges and preferential treatment based on social classes.”2

2.2 Julius_von_Hennig

Julius von Hennig

The third speaker of the day, Julius von Hennig, was a liberal on the conservative side of the political spectrum and a leader of the National Liberal party. He also devoted a long speech to the specific question of military service exemptions. He affirmed the exemptions for the current and former ruling families since state treaties must be respected. No such protection, however, could be claimed by the Mennonites. He argued that Mennonites historically were not primarily non-resistant, rather they were opposed to taking on any political role, which thus precluded military service. Now, however, they were getting more involved in politics by standing for minor offices and voting in national elections. By implication, political Mennonites could also participate in the politics of getting drafted. He quoted at length from a Dutch Mennonite statement that ended any church support for requiring members to avoid military service. He claimed, correctly, that many Mennonites had used the revolutionary turmoil in 1848 that lifted restrictions on buying property to do so. Given that a main restriction on Mennonites had been lifted, drafting them was only fair. He noted, “there is no doubt that every religious sect must obey the requirements of the state if they want to be tolerated by that state.”3

The next speaker, Baron Karl von Vincke-Olbendorf, also a more conservative liberal, was the only speaker outside the government’s speaker to defend the Mennonites. His argument was weak and short as he briefly noted that he thought Mennonites’ exemptions, which were enshrined in existing laws, did perhaps raise the level of state guarantees that could not be so easily overturned. He also noted that revoking the exemption would cause a number of worthy citizens to emigrate which could hardly be in the state’s interest.4

Adolf Weber, another National Liberal, then mounted a sustained rebuke of Mennonites and the government for wanting to shield them. He noted that the Mennonites in his area, East Frisia in the former kingdom of Hannover, had been able to pay for substitutes as a way to avoid the draft. He repeated many of the arguments already given and summed up his position by saying, “Whoever will not defend his homeland (Heimath) should leave it! Whoever will not defend his fatherland does not have one!”5

2.3 Emil_von_Melle

Emil von Melle

Skipping one speaker who felt compelled to attack the Social Democrat Wilhelm Liebknecht, the next speaker, Emil von Melle, also took up the Mennonite issue. As a representative from the city of Hamburg, which had an important Mennonite congregation, he was ambivalent about drafting them, but vehemently opposed to any idea that a Prussian Mennonite could be in a better position than one from Hamburg, and demanded the reinstatement of the dropped proposal to spread the Mennonite exemption in the form used in the west of Prussia. That amounted to a plea to let Mennonites everywhere or nowhere be exempt, but he noted that since they were so few in number, perhaps it did not matter a great deal.6 In terms of broader German politics, Melle’s speech revealed an abiding and popular suspicion among smaller German states that Prussia was a bully, demanding special privileges not accorded to others.

2.4 Karl_Twesten_1862

Karl Twesten (1862)

Karl Twesten was a founder of the right-of-center National Liberal party, a member of the parliamentary committee that had reviewed and slightly amended the government’s proposal and was charged with defending the government’s position. He outlined the discussion in the committee, which noted that the constitution declared both the end of all noble privilege and the obligation on the part of all males to serve in the military, and yet in both cases it was unclear how this was to be implemented. He simply argued that implementation belonged to the legislature and so they should feel free to decide on both points. His next point was that these debates did not matter much. Mennonites were a small group and not counted in the population when it came time to determine the number of draftees needed, so their presence did not in fact require their neighbors to serve at a higher rate. What finally swung the majority of the committee to vote for preserving Mennonite privilege at this point was the realization that in the law on military service they could not revoke the laws that discriminated against Mennonites’ civil rights, and that it would be improper for the legislature to draft Mennonites without lifting the restrictions and extra taxes in place on them.7

The defense of the committee’s draft concluded the debate, so that the parliament moved immediately to voting, which was done by standing. The proposal to exempt members of current ruling houses of the states of the North German Confederation was approved almost unanimously, the exemption for former ruling houses by a large majority. Melle’s proposal to extend the Mennonite and Quaker exemption was narrowly defeated, and the exemption as a whole was easily defeated. Thus Mennonites everywhere in the central and northern German states were to be subject to the draft with no chance of exemption.8

Mennonites found themselves in an unusual spotlight in these two days of debate, but Quakers were not named from the floor even once. Their defense by the government and other supporters was tepid and promised only short-lived relief that would be removed as soon as their civil rights were granted. Mennonite pleading for exemption from the draft could not be squared with equality before the law. Other opponents of the draft  dragged Mennonites into uncomfortable company; Social Democrats, ethnic minorities, and particularists who did not trust Prussia, the founder of the Confederation. There was no progressive path to exemption, nor were Mennonite leaders interested in one, as we will see in the next post on October 24, when they meet with the Prussian Minister of War in Berlin.


  1. For overviews, see Mark Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772-1880 (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame, 2010), 191-228, and “‘Whoever Will Not Defend His Homeland Should Leave It!’ German Conscription and Prussian Mennonite Emigration to the Great Plains, 1880-1890, Mennonite Life, Vol. 58, no. 3 (Sept. 2003), https://ml.bethelks.edu/issue/vol-58-no-3/article/whoever-will-not-defend-his-homeland-should-leave/ 
  2. http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000438_00489.html and the next two pages. Harder’s petition is at the Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin, Hauptabteilung I, Repositur 77 (Innenministerium), Titel 31 (Mennonitensachen), Nr. 2 (staatsbürgerliche Verhältnisse der Mennoniten), Bd. 9 (1862-1869), 220-1. Harder proposed requiring Mennonites to serve in non-combatant roles such as medics, clerks, or artisans and in exchange granting them full civil rights, including the right to buy property, affirming instead of swearing oaths, and incorporating their congregations so that the congregations could register the deeds to their buildings instead of being listed as the property of an individual. Neuwied had become part of Prussia as part of the Congress of Vienna, and Prussian Mennonites had the right to affirm since 1827, but perhaps Harder was thinking here of a solution for non-Prussians, see Mark Jantzen, Mennonite German Soliders: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772-1880 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 113-4, 267. On Harder more generally see ibid., 174-181. 
  3. http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000438_00492.html and the next two pages. It is true that Mennonites in the Vistula River valley were able to buy land after 1848 with the support of the local courts who now took a more liberal view of Mennonites’ rights. Because doing so, however, threatened their exemption as demonstrated by von Hennig’s attack, Mennonite leaders required buyers to sell back much of that land and refrain from buying more even though it was now legal to do so. Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers, 151-9. 
  4. https://www.deutsche-biographie.de/sfz83810.html#adbcontent; http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000438_00494.html 
  5. Ibid, and the next two pages. 
  6. http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000438_00497.html 
  7. http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000438_00498.html 
  8. http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000438_00499.html and the following page. 

Debating Military Service Exemptions in the North German Confederation, Oct. 17, 1867

Mennonites Accept and Contest Military Service in the German East: A Sesquicentennial Series

One hundred and fifty years ago today, Mennonites were dragged into a raucous debate over the draft in the most important German parliament of the day. This debate was the first in a series of unusual sesquicentennial events in Mennonite history that will occur over the next six months. In addition to parliamentary debates on October 17 and 18, 1867, a Mennonite delegation lobbied politicians in Berlin in late October, Mennonites in the Vistula River valley became subject to the draft on November 9, 1867, another round of lobbying, including a meeting with King William I occurred in February 1868, and they were granted, and for the most part accepted, non-combatant status on March 3, 1868. A series of blog entries will mark the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of each of these events on the exact date over the next six months.1

Following a quick war between the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia in 1866, victorious Prussia formed a North German Confederation by annexing some of the northern German states that had fought on Austria’s side and forcing the others to join the new polity. Along with Austria, only the three southern German states of Baden, Württemberg, and Bavaria remained outside this new German entity. By 1871, those three states had joined to form the German Empire. Elections for a new Confederation parliament were held on August 31, 1867, after Otto von Bismarck, the Chancellor of the Kingdom of Prussia and the new Chancellor of the Confederation, had a special assembly approve the constitution he wrote for it.

1.1 paragraph 1Since the individual states retained control over most domestic institutions, the military was the main focus of the Confederation’s constitution, budget, and laws. During the inaugural legislative period of the parliament of the North German Confederation, the government proposed a law regulating the length and types of military service. The opening paragraph made provisions for three classes of citizens who should be exempted. The first was the members of the ruling families of the North German states, including the Hohenzollern family of Prussia, with the King of Prussia serving as commander-in-chief of the combined forces. The second category was for the ruling families whose territories had been annexed by Prussia in 1866 or driven from power by Napoleon in 1806. State treaties exempted these families from the draft. The third category was for those Quakers and Mennonites who were currently exempt. Whatever current arrangements obtained were to be extended and carried over into the new state.2

The government offered two reasons for including the Mennonites. The exemption was an expression of tolerance demonstrated by long-standing legal arrangements. Secondly, it dealt with an exceedingly small group of people considering the state as a whole.3 By far the largest group in this category were the 12,000 Mennonites in the Prussian east living along the Vistula River. Since 1830 Mennonites in the Prussian west were exempted if they paid an additional 3 percent income tax and refrained from buying real estate from non-Mennonites. If a territory in North German Confederation did not yet have a law dealing with Mennonites and Quakers, the government proposal was to apply that 1830 standard outlined for the Prussian west.

Starting on Thursday, October 17, 1867, the parliament debated this new military service law, attempting to standardize practices between the various states in the Confederation. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and the acting Minister of War, Theophil von Podbielski, were among those seated at the table in front representing the states of the confederation. The most serious issue was the length of army service. The government wanted soldiers to serve three years on active duty while members of parliament on the left accused the government of using that lengthy service to create a force loyal enough to the crown that it could be used against domestic rebellion, as had been the case less than twenty years earlier during the revolutionary events of 1848 and 1849.4

1.2 Kryger, Hans Andersen

Hans Andersen Kryger

The debates over universal military service itself were acrimonious. Before the parliament took up the specifics of particular exemptions, they shouted down two proponents of wide-scale exemptions. Hans Andersen Kryger represented the northern most tip of the Confederation where Danes were the majority. He did not want his people drafted at all since they did not even want to be in this state. When he claimed that he could not acknowledge the legitimacy of the constitution, his speech was cut off.5

 

A subsequent speaker, Wilhelm Liebknecht, who was one of the founders of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, went even further. He argued that the entire army should be abolished and replaced with a militia of armed citizens, as in Switzerland. He accused the army of being an instrument of oppression of the people, not their defender. When he prophesied the imminent demise of the Confederation and denounced it as a fig leaf of authoritarianism, he was removed from the lectern.6 He was followed by the other founder of the Social Democratic Party, August Bebel. He and Liebknecht were the only two Socialists in the parliament and the first Socialists elected to such high positions on a national stage. Bebel reiterated the call for a militia and for serving only three months of active duty instead of three years. He noted that such a long term of service meant that only a small portion of the male population would ever be drafted due to a lack of money and capacity in the army to handle everyone for such long times. Thus the majority was going to be de facto exempted. He was at least allowed to finish his speech.7

1.5 Leopold_von_Hoverbeck_portrait_1878

Leopold von Hoverbeck, 1878

The specific debate on the Mennonite exemption was opened by Baron Leopold von Hovenbeck, who was a left liberal, a co-founder of the German Progressive Party, and had been a member of the commission assigned to work through the many proposals for amendments, which explains his deeper knowledge of the topic.8 He mocked the idea of calling these Mennonites “pious and non-resistant.” Instead these knaves knew that “their military exemption had significant material rewards,” namely while they paid 15 silver dimes [probably less than a week’s wages] annually per head for their exemption, their neighbors who had to compete with them were gone for three years. When they returned home, they could not afford to farm next to Mennonites who had gotten richer. “Gentlemen, this piety has an economic foundation,” he asserted. Furthermore, it was not even true that Mennonites were forbidden to serve in the military. Napoleon had made them serve as non-combatants, he claimed, and he pointed as well to a petition sent in by Mennonite pastor Carl Harder, formerly of Königsberg and Elbing, currently Neuwied, who had long argued that Mennonites could serve as regular soldiers or non-combatants, as in fact most did in the west of Prussia.9

1.6-harder

Carl Harder

Harder’s petition tellingly was titled “Seeking the Removal of Mennonites’ Military Service Exemption in Exchange for Recognition as Independent Congregations.”10 Since Harder had long accepted military service, at least for non-combatants, he was interested in leveraging this acceptance into removing remaining discriminatory laws and shoring up Mennonite distinctives in other areas. His proposal was to remove the exemption and to require and allow Mennonites to serve as medics, clerks, or artisans in the army. In exchange, Mennonites should be allowed to buy real estate, incorporate their congregations so that they could register the deeds to their church buildings, and give affirmations instead of swearing oaths. The petition was sent to the king on May 30, 1867, forwarded by his staff to the Ministry of the Interior, which administered the draft, on June 19, and made available to the committee that work on the military service law, or perhaps even more widely, by the government.11 The fact that more progressive Mennonites had already accepted military service both as active duty or as non-combatants made traditionalists look hypocritical to Hoverbeck and other parliamentarians and he beat the traditionalists rhetorically with a stick provided by their progressive brethren. Continued debate on the topic would bring more of the same the next day.


  1.  For overviews see Mark Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772-1880 (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame, 2010), 191-228; and “‘Whoever Will Not Defend His Homeland Should Leave It!’ German Conscription and Prussian Mennonite Emigration to the Great Plains, 1880-1890, Mennonite Life, Vol. 58, no. 3 (Sept. 2003), https://ml.bethelks.edu/issue/vol-58-no-3/article/whoever-will-not-defend-his-homeland-should-leave/ 
  2.  The parliament printed word-for-word protocols of their debates that were bounded in volumes and are now available on a website dedicated to the protocols of all the modern German parliaments. The government’s proposed military service law is here, http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000439_00061.html 
  3.  http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000439_00063.html 
  4.  On Podbielski, see Mennonite German Soldiers, 199, on the larger issues, ibid., 193-4. 
  5.   Ibid., 195, http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000438_00471.html 
  6.   Starting on http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000438_00476.html and continuing two more pages. 
  7.  http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000438_00479.html and continuing on the next page. 
  8.  https://www.deutsche-biographie.de/sfz33979.html#adbcontent, http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000438_00157.html 
  9.  http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000438_00483.html 
  10.  http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000439_00128.html 
  11.  The petition is in the Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin, Hauptabteilung I, Repositur 77 (Innenministerium), Titel 31 (Mennonitensachen), Nr. 2 (staatsbürgerliche Verhältnisse der Mennoniten), vol. 9 (1862-1869), 220-1. See also Mennonite German Soldiers, 194n11 and on Harder’s intriguing career generally, ibid., 174-181. Asking for the right to affirm instead of swearing oaths was available to Prussian Mennonites since 1827. Since Neuwied had become part of Prussia in 1815, they should have had this right as well, making Harder’s request here a bit odd. Perhaps he was simply wanted the privilege reaffirmed, ibid., 267.  

Crowdsourcing Anabaptist history?

I’m teaching two digitally focused courses this semester at West Chester University, Introduction to Digital Humanities and the upper level history election, Digital History. In both courses, my students spend a lot of time looking at existing digital projects and learning how to analyze and evaluate them, not unlike a book review. This is a great opportunity not just for my students—but for me—because I get to learn about cool digital projects and be inspired by them.

One of my favorite genres of digital projects is crowdsourced public history, in which public users—the people out there on the internet—contribute their knowledge, skills, and labor to a greater understanding of history.

The Mennonite Church Archive already participates in a crowdsourced project by sharing some of its photographs on Flickr Commons, the wing of the Yahoo-owned photo sharing service through which cultural heritage institutions share copyright-free images, allowing users to add tags to photographs or identify individuals pictured. Wouldn’t all these great photographs of 1960s VSers and “Bean Blossom Wayfarers” be even better if we knew who was in them? As a frequent student of the material culture of the Anabaptist traditions, these photographs are an amazing resource for tracking changes of fashion among church members (note when the head coverings come off), analyze the introduction of cultural objects like musical instruments, and study other visual elements of the cultural tradition.

VSers_01

Figure 1. First group of Mennonite Volunteers (VSers) to serve in Rocky Ford, Colo. at the Pioneers Memorial Hospital. They gather informally for a period of relaxation and sharing after a hard day at the Hospital. 1965. Mennonite Board of Missions Photograph Collection from Rocky Ford and Colorado from 1961-65. IV-10-7.2 Box 3 Folder 18, Photo #8. Mennonite Church USA Archives -Elkhart. Elkhart, Indiana.

bean_blossom_wayfarers

Figure 2. Bean Blossom Wayfarers. Mennonite Board of Missions Photographs. IV-10-7.2. Box 7, Folder 3, Photo 9. Mennonite Church USA Archives – Elkhart. Elkhart, Indiana.

Other successful crowdsourced humanities projects include those that let volunteers transcribe primary sources, such as handwritten nineteenth-century diaries and letters, menus, and all sorts of government documents. These work in a twofold way: first, volunteers interested in these historical materials provide labor to assist cultural heritage organizations in the essential process of making their documents machine-readable, and thus searchable through databases and search engines. Second, the institutions gain engaged community members who are using and thinking about their archival materials.

Another type of crowdsourced project asks contributors to share their knowledge and stories in order to add to a body of knowledge and cultural heritage. Wikipedia may be the best-known example, with its volunteer force of editors who continually work to create and improve encyclopedia entries. Public history projects have also captured the stories of those affected by Hurricane Katrina, crowdsourced location-based media by pinning it to a world map, or harvested stories of quilts (a personal favorite of Anabaptist Historian’s resident quilt expert).

So, what does this mean for Anabaptist historians? How can the traditional venues of both religious and cultural history harness the power of the crowd? In some ways, Anabaptist genealogists have long been engaged in crowdsourcing, contributing their knowledge of extensive family trees and long-lost details harvested from cemetery headstones or European church record books. The Swiss Anabaptist Genealogy Association’s extensive databases attest to this. It also demonstrates the enthusiasm of the community interested in Anabaptist history. Those same community experts could lend a hand by identifying and tagging photographs on Flickr, transcribing handwritten documents hidden in archives, and recording stories about their quilts. The Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO)’s community portal could become a real community portal where participants could suggest new articles and additions to existing ones, rather than a blank page. What about a digital project that allows Pax Program participants to upload their stories of doing voluntary service during the Vietnam War or Mennonite Central Committee volunteers to share accounts of their service?

These ideas all have a low barrier to entry in terms of the technology and cost required for digital history projects. But all of them require cultivating an enthusiastic community of participants. No digital humanities project can survive on the motto of “if you build it they will come.” But the enormous benefit of an engaged community ensures not just the longevity of a digital project, but a sustained commitment from an active public who wants to interact with an institution’s collections.

Mennonites, Amish, and the Pennsylvania Dutch Language

Mark Louden

When people hear the name “Pennsylvania Dutch,” they often assume it is a synonym for “Amish.” And in the same way that the difference between “Amish” and “Mennonite” is often fuzzy for folks unfamiliar with Anabaptist groups, the meaning of “Pennsylvania Dutch” gets stretched even further.

Yet even for those with some familiarity with Amish and Mennonite groups in North America and their history, it may come as a surprise to learn that the primary language used in many Old Order communities, which is also known as Pennsylvania German, was once spoken mainly by non-Anabaptists.

4-2_Oberholtzer_1862-(1)

“Vom naus Heira” by John H. Oberholtzer, from “Das Christliche Volks-Blatt,” April 2, 1862.

The roots of the Pennsylvania Dutch language extend back to the migration to Pennsylvania of around 81,000 German speakers from central and southwestern Germany, Alsace, and Switzerland during the eighteenth century.1 At that time, Germans and Swiss of all social classes spoke regional dialects that in most cases differed quite substantially from the emerging written dialect known today as “High German.” Since Pennsylvania Dutch strongly resembles the German varieties spoken in the region known as the Palatinate (Pfalz), we can presume that a critical mass of those 81,000 immigrants to colonial Pennsylvania came from that region.

Though we often have little precise information on where immigrants came from, we do have good information on the religious affiliations of the Pennsylvania Dutch founder population. The great majorityaround 95%were members of Lutheran and German Reformed churches. Only about 3,000 were associated with Anabaptist or Pietist groups, including Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren.2 The relations across denominational lines into the early nineteenth century were, however, sufficiently close that all varieties of Pennsylvania Dutch, those spoken by the “church people” (“Fancy Dutch,” i.e., Lutherans and Reformed) and those of the “plain people” have always been mutually intelligible with one another.

The maintenance of Pennsylvania Dutch as a vital language among church people and plain people alike has, since the eighteenth century, correlated with a number of important external characteristics. One important one is ruralness. Pennsylvania Dutch has always been a language of people who live outside of cities and towns in relatively ethnically homogeneous communities. Not surprisingly, as rural dwellers, active speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch traditionally pursued modest levels of formal education and earned their living mainly through agriculture, crafts, and other forms of manual labor. Moving off the farm, literally and figuratively, usually meant a shift away from Pennsylvania Dutch to speaking mostly or exclusively English.

Looking at today’s situation, Pennsylvania Dutch is now essentially only spoken by Amish and horse-and-buggy-driving Old Order Mennonites, who have very consciously maintained a lifestyle, grounded in their strong faith, that promotes the continued use of a distinctive language without special effort. In contrast, Pennsylvania Dutch has been moribund among the church people for at least two generations. The same is true for most Anabaptists who are less traditional than their Old Order brethren, including conservative groups who in some cases may still live in rural areas and limit their children’s formal education. Unlike the Old Orders, however, members of these conservative Mennonite communities, often pursue active mission work, which in their view makes more practical the use of English only.

At the center of my research program is documenting the history of Pennsylvania Dutch, which includes locating and interpreting texts that were written in the language. Already around the turn of the nineteenth century we find the first evidence of Pennsylvania Dutch, which were generally short texts that appeared in German-language newspapers serving rural southeastern Pennsylvania. Eventually, especially after the Civil War, Pennsylvania Dutch speakers began writing longer prose, poetic, and dramatic texts that gave rise to a body of folk literature that is a precious resource for students of American history and culture.

JH-Oberholtzer

John H. Oberholtzer

It is noteworthy that the vast majority of identified Pennsylvania Dutch writers were not affiliated with Anabaptist groups, the likely reason being the relatively small numbers of Mennonites and Amish in North America into the twentieth century. I have looked closely at two exceptional writers, both Mennonites who hailed from southeastern Pennsylvania, John H. Oberholtzer (1809–1895) and Samuel Ernst (1825–1909). Oberholtzer’s name is likely most familiar to readers of this blog, as he was a prominent figure in the progressive movement that eventually led to the founding of the General Conference of the Mennonite Church in North America in Iowa in 1860. Ernst was an “old” Mennonite from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, who later moved to Kansas and edited what were likely the only trilingual periodicals of the time, newspapers that included material in German, English, and Pennsylvania Dutch.

 

In future posts I will share some of the Pennsylvania Dutch writings of Oberholtzer and Ernst, which have been untouched by scholars until now.


  1. Marianne Wokeck, Trade in Strangers: The Beginnings of Mass Migration to North America (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), 44–47. 
  2. Aaron Spencer Fogleman, Hopeful Journeys: German Immigration, Settlement, and Political Culture in Colonial America, 1717–1775 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), 102–103. 

Mennonite Environmental History

The term “Mennonite environmental history” yields only nine results when entered in a Google search. That is astounding, given the extent to which white Mennonites’ narratives of peoplehood are bound up with imagery of tilling and harvesting—as well as the degree to which Anabaptism and soil are linked in public imaginations. Recent New York Times articles featuring “Mennonite” in the title are exclusively devoted to issues of land, agriculture, and food: “Mennonite farmers prepare to leave Mexico,” “A Mennonite’s knack for fine goat cheese,” “Mennonite farmers struggle with water shortage,” and “Eat like a Mennonite.” While other reporting certainly focuses on topics from conscientious objection to sexual politics, surely no idea is more closely tied to popular North American perceptions of Anabaptism than the environment.image1-17

In this light, the latest issue of the Journal of Mennonite Studies is an important and long overdue milestone. The first full volume of scholarship devoted to Mennonite environmental history, this special issue brings together papers presented at a conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba last year on “Mennonites, Land and the Environment.” The conference was hosed by the Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies as well as Royden Loewen, Chair in Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg, who in 2005 published the first academic article on Mennonites and environmental history. As Loewen explains in his editor’s foreword, the nucleus of the recent conference—as well as the resulting volume—formed around a multi-year research project, “Seven Points on Earth,” which the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada funded in order to enable study of the environmental history of Mennonite communities in Bolivia, Canada, Indonesia, the Netherlands, Russia, the United States, and Zimbabwe.

This essay aims to offer an interpretive and critical review of the articles collected in “Mennonites, Land and the Environment.” My intention is to illuminate what makes the volume’s contributions so interesting and refreshing to read, while also suggesting a number of possible future directions for the still fledgling field of Mennonite environmental history. To start with the obvious: this volume is a timely and much needed corrective to the surprising paucity of literature on Mennonites and the environment. In an era of rapid climate change, biodiversity loss, and growing resource scarcity, we should all be studying and acting on environmental issues. If ever there were a time for Anabaptist history, theology, and practice to join an urgent, planet-wide conversation, it is now.

The 2017 Journal of Mennonite Studies admirably addresses its topic from a global perspective. Arguably, Anabaptism has been a global movement from the beginning, shaped by the mobile, transnational forces of the Reformation and quickly exported to Eastern Europe, the far side of the Atlantic, and later to Asia, Africa, and Oceania. Since the twentieth century, the church’s demographic weight—like most Christian denominations—has shifted decidedly to the Global South, indicating that a historiography disproportionately focused on Europe and the Americas is now badly out of balance. Given the uneven degree to which Anabaptist historians have thus far told the story of the global church, the articles in “Mennonites, Land and the Environment,” offer varying degrees of nuance and innovation, depending on the geographic locations they cover. Taking the pieces more or less in chronological order, a few preliminary thoughts are as follows:

First, the section on the Netherlands provided fascinating insights into seventeenth and eighteenth century Dutch Mennonite rural transformation and visual art. Although the role of Mennonites in the Dutch Golden Age is comparatively well studied, it remains only poorly integrated into larger histories of Anabaptism. Generally, this period is portrayed as exceptional, having relatively little bearing on the more “typical” conservative white agrarian Mennonite communities in Russia and the Americas that were only at their nascent stage during this era. Second, in the section on Mennonites in North America, I appreciated the authors’ attention to changes within and challenges to agrarian lifestyles. These pieces do important work to contextualize narratives of land use rather than treating them as immemorial.

If one looks beyond the pale of Mennonite studies, the section on Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union seems perhaps the most historiographically important part of this volume. The Black Sea region appears, on the evidence presented here, to be one place where Mennonite agriculture made a truly substantial impact, contributing both to the construction of the Russian state and also to narratives of East European modernity. The authors portray Mennonites as an unusually useful group to study with relation to agronomy across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, into the Soviet period and beyond. As revealed in the section on Bolivia, the hundreds of thousands of Low German-speaking Mennonites now living in Latin America are in many ways the most direct inheritors of this Russian tradition, so even the physical proximity of articles on these topics in one volume is revealing.

From a Mennonite studies standpoint, the sections on Indonesia and Zimbabwe cover the most important new ground. Anabaptist scholarship in North America generally and the Journal of Mennonite Studies in particular have tended—for both institutional and ideological reasons—to focus on white Mennonites with a general, sometimes latent, master narrative of migration from Europe, relative isolation and/or persecution, and perseverance through hard work, whether in the traditional patriarchal sense, or in an inverted way via the struggles of women and other underrepresented groups against the constraints of traditional authority. These articles challenge that master narrative in valuable ways: one essay on the environmental ethics of the nineteenth-century Javanese apostle Tunggul Wulung offers a non-European source of Anabaptist agency, as does another piece on pre-colonial environmental practices in southern Africa. To these might be added an earlier article on Mennonite-indigenous relations in Manitoba, which emphasizes the settler-colonial nature of white immigration, taking local Métis as an alternative narrative center of moral authority.

Where to go from here? “Mennonites, Land and the Environment” will not remain the only volume on Anabaptist environmental history for long, so it is worth considering the extent to which the 2017 issue of Journal of Mennonite Studies can and should stand as a touchstone at the birth of a field. First, I think some rather high-level theorizing might be in order for any future synthetic work on Mennonites and environment. Within North American Mennonite studies, Anabaptist history has been dominated by social and, more recently, cultural history. Those traditions remain dominant strands in this volume, with the tools of environmental history often present yet playing a secondary role. If one were to begin from an environmental history perspective, rather than simply adding in environmental analysis here and there, much of this volume would look different.

For example, there would have to be some serious assessment about whether and how Mennonites are important at all, were we to start with the premise of Alfred Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange, Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature, or William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis, to name a few classic examples. I suspect an honest treatment of Anabaptism in environmental history might ultimately depict Mennonites as marginal figures operating within much larger trends: the formation of modern industrial economies, the trans-oceanic movements of seeds and animals, and the ongoing global transformation of agrarian landscapes. Mennonite actors retain an inordinate degree of narrative agency in the volume at hand. Noting some minor exceptions, such as in Tsarist Russia, I am not convinced—environmentally speaking—that they are deserving.

My second suggestion would be to take seriously the lessons of transnational history—which Royden Loewen and others have persuasively argued is uniquely suited to understanding the environmental context of at least some Mennonite communities. By contrast, most of the articles in “Mennonites, Land and the Environment” exhibit a more narrow community-centric model of narration, with the global Mennonite church divided up more or less by nationality like an enormous pie. The volume’s essay-collection format may overdetermine methodological nationalism, although some laudable examples of transnational scholarship are present here.

One meta question raised by a volume like this is, of course: why put these predominantly nationally-organized stories side by side in the first place? The basic assumption seems to be that Mennonites, globally considered, are worth studying together, including in the context of agriculture. On one hand, the point is to show diversity. Loewen notes in his foreword that “The [journal] issue makes no case for an ‘Anabaptist’ approach to the land,” and indeed, some of the articles’ primary conclusions are simply that agriculture as practiced by Mennonites in, say, the present-day Netherlands does not conform to traditional narratives of Anabaptist history and identity as recounted in North American academies.

But such disruptions are only interesting to a point. It would be valuable to consider how connected any of these case studies really are. Given that Mennonite historians have disproportionately emphasized agriculture as a through-line in their narrations of some groups’ movements across the Atlantic world—with sovereigns and migration agents emphasizing Mennonites’ alleged agrarian qualities along the way—we might follow how environmental thought and practice has mediated movements across and also within borders.

Finally, if future scholars of Mennonite environmental history choose to retain this volume’s global emphasis while also taking transnationalism seriously, I will be eager to see how they treat the Global South. From a Eurocentric or North-dominant view, the story would presumably be one of transmission through institutions (Loewen mentions Mennonite World Conference in his foreword) or individuals (missionaries figure prominently in the Indonesia and Zimbabwe sections). Alternatively, the tale might be one of failure by locals to develop Western Mennonite agrarian traditions, much as some early histories of missions narrated the disinclination of locals to wear bonnets and cape dresses. Both of these options are self-evidently problematic, however, since they presuppose the normality of Western institutions and perspectives, in turn raising the question of whether and how Mennonites studies departments and forums like the Journal of Mennonite Studies can create multi-centered approaches to Anabaptist scholarship.

Taken as a whole, this volume does not yet meet the challenge. Its starting premise is that Mennonite history should be studied from an environmental perspective; many of the individual articles subsequently justify this belief through reference to an Anabaptist agrarian tradition identified as unique and significant primarily in Western contexts. Thus, the final result sends an implied message to readers that Mennonites of color outside the industrialized West either deviate from or fail to live up to a “standard” white-ethnic Anabaptist model.

My critique is meant not to dissuade but to encourage widespread use and thoughtful engagement with this special issue of the Journal of Mennonite Studies. The many authors who have contributed to the volume have enriched our historiographical horizons invaluably, while also adding extensively to our knowledge regarding communities on five continents. “Mennonites, Land and the Environment” will be of great significance to anyone studying Anabaptism and environmental history over the coming years. It will certainly be a testament to this volume if the ideas and methodologies offered here undergo sustained testing and rigorous transformation in future works. Many more of us, after all, should be thinking critically and innovatively about our local communities and our planetary home, given the real environmental challenges ahead.

Ben Goossen is a global historian of religion and science at Harvard University. He is the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published in 2017 by Princeton University Press.

Can Violence Build God’s Kingdom?

Tobin Miller Shearer

My sons, Dylan and Zach, are both members of the Democratic Socialists of America. In their mid-twenties, they live in Chicago and carry the cards to prove their DSA membership. I’ve seen them.

Dylan and Zach regularly fill us in on their work for the DSA. They attend rallies, sit on committees, and organize community-building events. We joke sometimes that this is their form of church.

But we also have more serious conversations such as the one that Zach and I had several weeks ago about the antifa movement, the loosely organized coalition of individuals and associations focused on defeating the resurgence of U.S.- based neo-fascism and white supremacy. In my conversation with Zach, I had dismissed the antifa movement as indiscriminately violent and therefore dangerous. Zach pushed back, reminding me that the antifa movement had, quite literally, saved lives during the “Unite the Right” white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in mid-August. Antifa members had used violence to protect a group of clergy and other Christian leaders like the Harvard philosopher and public intellectual Cornel West when they had come under attack. Zach challenged me to not dismiss what I didn’t understand.

I have thought often about his comment and the antifa movement in the weeks since Charlottesville. While I continue to count myself a pacifist due to my religious beliefs and upbringing, I am now at a point where I no longer know if what I once thought to be true still is.

To be fair, it is not just Zach’s prompting that has pushed me to reconsider the relationship of violence and nonviolence.

Every other year or so I teach a course entitled, “The Black Radical Tradition.” In it I introduce my students to Robert F. Williams. An unapologetic defender of armed self-defense during the civil rights movement, Williams found himself publicly denounced by Martin Luther King, Jr., kicked out of the NAACP, and by 1961 forced to flee the country following trumped up kidnapping charges by the FBI. I feature a photo of him and his wife Mabel, each holding a pistol, on the webpage for the African-American Studies Program that I direct at the University of Montana.

I include Williams on that webpage because he personifies a central question arising from the study of the black freedom struggle: what is the appropriate relationship of violence and nonviolence in the struggle to overcome racism—or any form of oppression?

After introducing Williams, I spend a day arguing that he and those influenced by him were not only harmful to the overall goals of the black freedom struggle, but that they were actually far more conservative than they were radical. I attempt to convince my students that violence is “the white man’s way” and is, therefore, an inherently racist and colonialist practice. To further bolster this position, I also aver that violence does violence to the perpetrator, drawing on the thought of non-violence advocate Elias Chacour: “If to overcome the beast, we become the beast, then the beast has won.”1 I conclude with a flurry of evidence showing that nonviolent methods were successful in the South from the 1940s through the 1960s, that violent methods were often highly sexist, and that civil rights leaders like long-time activist Daisy Bates absolutely excoriated Williams for not being true to the nonviolent principles that had proven so successful in the struggle for black freedom.

I then do something different. The next time that the class meets I rebut my previous argument by noting that, in communities like Jonesboro, Louisiana, in the 1960s, armed self-defense groups such as the Deacons for Defense successfully protected nonviolent demonstrations, offering a sign of strength, an indication that they would not be intimidated, that they would not yield. I note that even the most principled and committed of activists, people like NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers—a man who was ultimately assassinated for the nonviolent resistance he promoted—seriously considered the possibility of organizing armed struggle in Mississippi. Evers even studied the tactics used by the Mau Mau rebels who had fought against British colonial rule in the 1950s.2

Students find most convincing the argument made by civil rights historians Charles Cobb and Charles Payne that one of the reasons the KKK and other white activists killed relatively few civil rights field workers was that local families in communities like Greenwood, Mississippi, had armed themselves and forced carloads of white aggressors to retreat under fire. When I add that women also shot back at their attackers and that young people were rarely convinced by the dictates of nonviolence, my students rethink their assumption that the civil rights movement and violence were antithetical.3

In that same course, I also discuss two other civil rights figures with distinctive views on violence and nonviolence: Vincent Harding and Gloria Richardson. By the middle of the 1960s, civil rights activist and Mennonite minister Vincent Harding had witnessed the violent backlash directed at his friend and mentor, Martin Luther King, Jr. By 1967, that violence had only intensified. No wonder that Harding then challenged white Mennonites on their acquiescence to and participation in state-sponsored violence. Harding pointed out the hypocrisy of those who criticized revolutionaries bent on seizing power while taking “advantage regularly (though often unconsciously) of political, economic, and military power.”4 Although in subsequent essays in the 1990s and beyond Harding remained faithful to King’s ethic of nonviolence, Harding recognized and called out the inconsistency of a Mennonite community that preached nonviolence but had relatively little cause to live it out.

The same tension between nonviolence and armed self-defense surfaces when I introduce my students to Gloria Richardson, the activist and organizer who led the early 1960s struggle to defeat segregation and achieve economic justice in Cambridge, Maryland. Through her leadership of the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee (CNAC), Richardson passionately defended the right to self-defense in the face of racial terror. Heralded as a proto-Black Power icon, Richardson added, “Self-defense may actually be a deterrent to further violence. Hitherto, the government has moved into conflict situations only when matters approach the level of insurrection.” Although the Cambridge campaign incorporated tactical nonviolence, Richardson and those protesting with her rejected nonviolence as an all-encompassing ethic. As a result, the demonstrations in Cambridge often turned violent and, by June of 1963, Maryland’s governor had sent in the National Guard to quell the rebellion growing there. Intervention by the Kennedy Administration then resulted in the short-lived but ultimately effective “Treaty of Cambridge,” an agreement to end segregation and increase black hiring in city jobs. Richardson maintained that the treaty resulted directly from the violent means used by the CNAC, an analysis she went on to impart to younger activists like Stokely Carmichael.5

But the conversation that Zach and I had in the aftermath of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville has made the issues I discuss with my students feel far more pressing, urgent, and immediate. The ideas have jumped the fence from academic exercise to real-life proving ground.

Since Charlottesville I have thought of the many times I’ve witnessed members of the Anabaptist community offer smug and satisfied declarations about the superiority of nonviolence, a bumptious attitude seldom grounded in experiences such as those faced by the clergy in Charlottesville. At the same time, I’ve recalled conversations I’ve had with those who have lived out their nonviolent commitment with integrity through involvement with Christian Peacemaker Teams, Witness for Peace, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and other peacebuilding organizations. I’ve been deeply impressed by both those who have witnessed outside the military establishment like Daniel Berrigan, Molly Rush, and the rest of the Plowshares anti-nuclear activists as well as by those who have witnessed inside the same, like Lisa Schirch of Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.

And I’ve wondered what this present moment means for my own ongoing commitment to peacemaking and nonviolence.

When Zach challenged me on my easy and ready dismissal of the antifa movement, I had to admit that I for one like a world in which Cornel West is alive. I am very glad he will continue to gift us with virtuosic theological performances. I like that world a whole lot better than one in which Professor West and those others who protested with him are not present. I am grateful for the antifa members who saved their lives in Charlottesville. I am also grateful for those who stood in silent witness prepared to be nonviolent even if they came under attack.

At this moment, my desire is this. I wish that those of us Anabaptists who hope to have something relevant to say—or do—in the context of a resurgent white supremacy will grapple with and respect the tradition of armed self-defense that is today being taken up by some members of the “antifa” movement. I hope that we will not be too quick to dismiss what they may have to teach us about the limits of our own commitment to nonviolence.

Indeed, as a historian of both the black freedom struggle and the Anabaptist community, I hope that we will be able to recognize that violence in the tradition of armed self-defense has sometimes done real, palpable—dare I say it—kingdom building work.

As I write those words, they sound foreign and alien to my Anabaptist ears. Nonetheless, I think the historical record bears out my contention.

Perhaps I should be fearful of what my sisters and brothers in the Anabaptist community may have to say to me about such a heterodox assertion. Yet, at this moment, I care far more about whether the words I pen in this article will have some modicum of relevance to my sons and their comrades in the DSA.


  1. The author has heard numerous speakers attribute this quote to Chacour, but as of publication has not been able to confirm him as the actual source. The author invites readers to contact him at tobin.shearer@umontana.edu if they can confirm the attribution. 
  2. Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995). 
  3. Ibid., 373; Jr. Charles E. Cobb, This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 148-149. 
  4.   Vincent Harding, “The Peace Witness and Revolutionary Movements,” Mennonite Life, October 1967, 164. 
  5. Peniel E. Joseph, Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2007), 88; Biography.com Editors, “Gloria Richardson,” A&E Television Networks, https://www.biography.com/people/gloria-richardson-21442461 (Accessed September 27, 2017). 

An Honest Look at Ancestry Reveals Diversity

This is a response to “Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege” by Ben Goossen.

Darvin L. Martin

Ben Goossen convincingly explains that the development of Mennonite family research a century ago was at least partially motivated by a quest for “blood purity and racial hygiene” (“Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege”). Bridging to the present, Goossen also asserts that these themes become exacerbated through the recent advent of DNA testing, “privileging the notion that Anabaptism is as much an inheritable trait as a religious conviction.” The implication is that interest in ancestry today continues to foster attitudes of exclusion and superiority, when in my experience the opposite can and should be true.

As a prime historic example, Goossen cites the Amish-Mennonite historian C. Z. Mast, who published a genealogy in 1911, and within it spent pages to express his thoughts of heredity, defending a position we now understand as white supremacist. [^1] What Mast articulated on paper, many and perhaps most of his contemporary Mennonites had also embraced, but were ill-equipped to write or to express in detail.

In a lengthy epilogue, Mast proposed that the same natural law exemplified by selecting physical vitality in breeding agricultural stock likewise applied to humans.  He further projected that moral tendencies, in addition to outward form and features, were physically transmitted from parents to their children (747). Mast endorsed the responsibility of governments to convince their populations of the natural laws of heredity, selectively improving “human stock,” by implementing and enforcing regulations against endogamous marriage, and praised purposeful spousal selection as a means to reduce and ultimately eliminate undesirable characteristics and diseases, including blindness, tuberculous, curved legs, and mental handicaps (749).

Mast argued that the remarkable progress of his contemporary early twentieth-century Americans was the expected outcome of inheriting the vitality of the most successful men and women of the different nationalities of Europe. In contrast, he gave examples from other cultures where “divine displeasure is announced.” He cited Native Americans and other “ancient tribes and races of the Orient” having succumbed to severe inbreeding, causing “their physical and mental power [to have] melted into weakness” (748).  He criticized the Catholic royalty in Spain and Portugal, concluding their congenital disorders were the product of pope-blessed marriages between princes and their nieces.  He imprecated the emirs of Turkey for producing “simpletons and imbeciles,” as they have “intermarried so long and extensively [. . .] among those who revere the memory of the prophet” (749).

To use a common and necessary tag line of our time, it is not far-fetched to clearly report that Mast’s comments are the “textbook definition” of racism.  Yet here we have them, published by our very own Mennonite Publishing House in 1911.  In his defense, Mast had merely articulated the mainstream thoughts of the scientific and intellectual community of his time, with a directed passion to convince his Amish and Mennonite cousins to extend the tent a bit wider when looking for a spouse among the community.  But his words also subsequently labeled the “other” communities as inexcusable for the very problems that he found in his own.

Goossen calls us to own the historic racism exhibited by Mast and his fellow Mennonite and Amish family researchers, as rightly we should.  Just like those who descend from slave holders, those of us who are ethnic Mennonites have our own demons to expose. We cannot pretend that our ancestors thought of their whiteness as but one variety among many.  Likewise, let’s not be haphazard in our attempt to separate family history research from racism, as this is no easy task. Especially when Mast and others have been intent on keeping these themes so tightly bound.

For myself, an honest account showcases that Mast’s supremacist ideas sit uncomfortably close to home.  C. Z. Mast’s father was a first cousin to my great-great grandmother, Hannah Kurtz (1855-1937).  They grew up in the same congregation along the upper reaches of the Conestoga River, just west of Morgantown, Pennsylvania.  C. Z. lived on the farm of our common ancestor, Stephen Mast (1800-1868), two miles south of Morgantown.

Perhaps some of C. Z.’s prowess and detail towards family history found a home in my genes as well.  I can relate.  C. Z. was only in his mid-twenties when he wrote this history, and he certainly pursued it as a way to exercise his intellectual curiosity and differentiate himself from the expected mandate to become a farmer.  C. Z. was well read, and ascribed to the basic understanding of genetics promoted in his day—that human genetics were understood as having an ideal, pure and original form; that we exhibit various stages of corruption from that pure form . . . and for some, in Mast’s warped view, the corruption is more extreme than in others.

This understanding, although now proven untrue, had filtered down through my family. Physical and mental problems were blamed on such corruption.  My grandmother (the granddaughter of the Hannah Kurtz mentioned above) scolded her younger brother when in middle-age he fell in love with a woman and decided to marry.  This brother was somewhat mentally and physically limited, had always lived with his parents, and was part of the Friendship Community program sponsored by Mennonites in Lancaster for handicapped individuals.  

From my grandmother’s perspective, marriage and the benefits and responsibilities that came with it were not to be made available to those constrained by handicaps assigned from birth.  In childhood she was told that we have a moral duty to keep handicapped individuals from having children, otherwise we inhibit humanity from rising to its full potential.  She grew up in the face of the eugenics movement, and ultimately had enough control over her brother that he decided not to marry, even though both he and his partner were well beyond child bearing age.  Both my grandmother and her brother had passed away within three weeks of each other in February 2016. These attitudes of restricting bloodlines to attain a supposed ethnic purity haunt our recent past, and perhaps have found expression in new contemporary forms.

Goossen suggests that DNA testing has become a new avenue to enforce concepts of ethnic exclusion—that those who grew up Mennonite use this to privilege common ancestry over shared convictions. While there is a tendency to use DNA testing to play the “Mennonite Game,” my own experience in interpreting DNA results of several hundred individuals, both inside and outside the Mennonite circles of ethnicity and persuasion, challenges this notion. DNA testing is all about surprises—that our ancestry is not straightforward, but rather a complicated web of interconnectedness.  We see the surprises advertised in the commercials by the two most prevalent DNA testing companies, Ancestry DNA and 23andMe.  DNA testing reveals the unexpected, and that is what people find attractive.

There are at least a dozen Mennonite DNA projects on the internet that seek to use DNA as a means to link families together.  And all of these clearly reveal an astounding amount of diversity among ethnic Mennonite populations. An honest assessment of the Y-DNA profiles among testers who share the common surnames familiar to ethnic Mennonites reveals that they are not homogenous, but rather span a wide cluster of populations of origin. The “Mennonite DNA Project” by Tim Janzen, the “Swiss Anabaptist DNA Project” by Bonnie Schrack and my own “Mennonite and Amish Immigrants to Pennsylvania DNA Project” are but three examples. While a very selective reading of DNA can enforce a tester’s prejudices, a more complete assessment determines that ancestry is much more complex than first assumed.

Here’s why.  All of us, if we extend our family trees into the past, have an increasing diversity of ancestors.  This is statistically inevitable. Eight great-grandparents descend from sixteen great-great grandparents and thirty-two three great-grandparents, and so forth back through time.  Ten generations back, about 350 years ago, we each should have 512 ancestors.  At twenty generations back, about 700 years ago, that number of ancestors increases to 524,288, and at thirty generations, around 1000 A.D., we should have 536 million, more than the total population of the world at that time.

Those statistics eventually break down due to the inevitable placement of common ancestors in different places on one’s tree.  In my personal example, (through recordkeeping as the result of the privileges received because of 300 years of relative economic and social stability), I can create a nearly complete ancestral chart back ten generations on each side of my family. And in spite of having strong Mennonite background on both sides of my family, the chart shows increasing diversity.

I don’t have 512 ancestors ten generations ago, but instead have 372, due to duplications on my tree.  This is caused by fourth, fifth and sixth cousins marrying each other.  But even so, diversity far outweighs the truncation experienced by intermarriages.  For myself, truncation first appears seven generations back, where a seventh-generation ancestor of my father’s lineage also appears as an eighth-generation ancestor on my mother’s side.  This one and a few others reduce my total ancestral count by about ten percent in the eighth generation, and consistently another ten percent in the ninth, and another ten percent in the tenth, so I am left with 372 unique ancestors, 350 years ago.  

Each of these has a unique story of their own life experience.  Many crossed the ocean to carve out a new existence in America. Many were Swiss—representing at least four cantons, about four dozen were German, as many as ten held Dutch nationality, a few were French, and at least five were Irish.  And I have a few unknowns.  That’s where my genealogy ends.

But let’s assume out of those 372, they each had 372 ancestors ten generations further back.  That gives me 138,384 ancestors twenty generations ago, around the year 1300.  That is far less than the 524,288 I should have, assuming each ancestor a unique individual. Even if a full half of them were duplicates, I’m left with 65,000 people that I can statistically claim as ancestors.  Writing their names alone would fill more than a thousand-page book.  What are the statistics that every one of those had the same five nationalities as my most recent ancestors? The amount itself simply forces further diversity.

And we all experience this diversity, if we take an honest look at ancestry. Some Americans can claim ancestors who fought on both sides of the Civil War.  Some have found ancestors among the Native Americans, among Africans forced into slavery and transported to America, and among those engaging in the slave trade, all at the same time.  Go back further in time and the probability increases that your ancestors were not just the ones you perceive as friends, but also your foes.

And among these 65,000 people 700 years ago, what if they each had 372 ancestors ten generations back?  That’s twenty-four million ancestors in the year 950.  It is statistically inevitable that at least one of these is a Central Asian merchant of the Nestorian Christian persuasion. At least one is an Arab from the Maghreb practicing Muslim faith, one a caravanning Mongol whose abode lies far to the east in modern China, one a Hindu who bathed in the Ganges, and one a sub-Saharan African herding cattle within the shadow of Kilimanjaro.

I’m only considering a thousand years ago. Jump back another thousand years and it is not difficult to assume that nearly every person alive at that time was an ancestor, statistically speaking.  Even those island populations that have lived in relative isolation for tens of thousands of years, such as the indigenous populations of Australia, New Guinea, and the Andaman Islands would have had occasional escapees and castaways in nearly every generation who mixed with nearby continental populations. Over time the web that starts with yourself extends wider and wider back through time until everyone is included.

Modern DNA testing as it relates to family history grants us the ability to apply specific data towards these statistical results. Through a 23andMe DNA test, I found that my grandmother (mentioned above) has a small snippet of Native American ancestry, predicted to have arisen eight generations back. In one woman around the year 1730, I find the DNA evidence to include 200 to 400 Native American ancestors by the year 1380, and 40,000 in the year 1030, encompassing all the known Native peoples’ groups of the Mid-Atlantic region and likely far beyond.  Can anyone doubt that every one of those migrant families who resided along the Bering land bridge linking Siberia to Alaska during the last Ice Age 15,000 years ago was also an ancestor?  Of course, some left no descendants, but those who left descendants ultimately became the ancestors of all of us.

Through Y-DNA testing, we have uncovered that the prominent Mennonite Groff family shares Y-chromosome affinity not with fellow Swiss Mennonite families, but with a Greco-Roman cluster of Italian families with surnames such as Albarano, Margarelli and Visentin.  Through similar testing, we have uncovered that Mennonites who share the Swiss surname Hollinger, Hullinger or Holiger, have as their next closest matches the Saudi families Almotawa and Al Daihan and the Turkish family Kahanizaman. The Mennonite Metzler family, tracing their lineage of descent through Valentine Metzler, a German immigrant who arrived in Lancaster County with his father Jacob in 1738, has close Y-DNA matches to Jewish families such as Kronik (in Belarus), Cohen and Langer (in Ukraine) and Friedman and Wengrowski (in Poland).

These are only a few of the examples in which DNA showcases the statistical inevitability of diversity as one takes a serious look at ancestry. I haven’t even touched the Y-DNA results of the Mennonite Good family, which reveal an origin in Afghanistan predating the time of Alexander the Great. Nor have we seriously examined the Amish Bassinger families from Ohio, which have a Central Asian Y-DNA signature closer aligned to the Asian origins of the Native Americans than to most European families.  Nor have we investigated the selection of European surnames than showcase Y-DNA signatures more closely matching a recent African origin than the typical Celtic or Greco-Roman cultures of European antiquity.

An honest look at DNA can and should break down the racial prejudices that have defined the last few generations of family researchers.  DNA analysis provides concrete ways that forecast the inevitable diversity that a statistical evaluation of our ancestry requires. Eventually, given enough time, all humans around the world are included in our ancestry, along with their diverse cultures and traditions.  That fusion throws the ideas of genetic purity on its head.  If a pure genepool of humanity exists, it includes the genes of everyone. As family history research increasingly considers DNA as a means to fill in the gaps and extend family trees, these notions of inclusion become inevitable.

I certainly am privileged to be able to construct a genealogy of my ancestry back ten generations.  But DNA testing has now broken down these barriers.  Today, anyone, even one who knows nothing of his or her ancestry, can find pertinent and often surprising information through DNA testing. The most accurate records are the ones stored in our bodies. These records are now becoming accessible and, in many cases, challenge the assertions of a century of family history researchers.

I ponder what C. Z. Mast would think of genetic testing for family history as it exists today.  Would he selectively interpret it to confirm and promote his own stereotypes, or would he embrace the data in its diversity, extending the genealogical fence to include everyone?  I don’t know for sure, but I would like to think that C. Z. Mast could be persuaded through the presentation of DNA test results that his Swiss Mennonite ancestors were vastly more diverse than he could ever have imagined.


Darvin L. Martin is a graduate of Eastern Mennonite University (B.S., Agriculture) and Millersville University (B.S., Analytical Chemistry).  As a real occupation, he tinkers with chemistry related instrumentation, but on the side, manages the “Mennonite and Amish Immigrants to Pennsylvania DNA Project” through Family Tree DNA.


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