Health and Well-being in Amish Society: Assessing Cultures of Well-Being

“Assessing Cultures of Well-Being” was a panel during session three of the 2019 Amish Conference, Health and Well-being in Amish Society, held June 6 through 8, hosted by the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. A full listing of the presentations, as well as abstracts, can be found on the Young Center’s website.

“Mobile Internet Is Worse than the Internet; It Can Destroy Our Community”: Old Order Amish and Ultra-Orthodox Women’s Responses to Cell Phone and Smartphone Use, Rivka Neriya-Ben Shahar

  • Rivka Neriya-Ben Shahar is a senior lecturer at Sapir Academic College in Sderot, Israel, and teaches courses in research methods, communication, religion, and gender. Shahar presented a case study on the use of cell phones and smart phones among women in the Old Order Amish of Pennsylvania and the Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel. The study investigated three questions: what is the usage pattern of cell phone and smart phone among the women in these communities; what are the women’s perceptions on the use of cell phones and smart phones; and what symbolic meanings do the women attribute to these devices. The study was conducted from 2012 to 2019 and used participant observation, interviews, and surveys.
  • The study found the following patterns: five percent of the Amish women own a cell phone, but sixty percent of them responded positively to the question “Have you ever used a mobile phone.” Ninety percent of the surveyed Ultra-Orthodox women owned a cell phone, and one hundred percent had made use of one. No one in either group owns a smart phone.
  • The perception of mobile phones is largely negative. Complaints include that the content is not good, the phones take too much time, and the phones are counter to community values. One Ultra-Orthodox participant reflected, “The smart phone is the most dangerous device . . . it has impure content, everything is there.”
  • Shahar concluded that Amish and Ultra-Orthodox women help us view the mass use of mobile phones from an outside perspective, such as by treating smart phones as transitional objects (working from an Attachment theory context) that move towards enmeshment in body and soul.

“The Dawdihaus: A Noun and a Verb, the Life and Voices of Loved Ones that Extend Generations. A Study in Rural Health and Rural Gerontology among the Amish and Other Plain People,” Claire Marie Mensack

  • Claire Marie Mensack is a community health educator with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control and is an adjunct assistant professor at Newberry College in Newberry, South Carolina. Mensack started by placing the Amish treatment of the elderly in the context of the rapidly aging United States population in which everyone is living longer, but are living longer with more disease and disability. In this context, the Amish are part of aging populations because the Amish use hospice and other sources of medical care. The Dawdihaus (lit. grandfather house) is a family dwelling, either attached or separated from the main house, used by the aging parents of adult children. This allows aging individuals to remain in close proximity to their family. It can be understood as one outcome of Amish collectivism.
  • Mensack pulled case studies from three communities: The Nebraska Amish in the Kishacoquillas Valley (also known as Kish Valley or Big Valley); the Delaware Amish; and the Union Grove North Carolina Amish (New Order Amish, established in 1995, only in partial fellowship with other New Order Amish settlements). Coming from a public health background, Mensack used a “walk along, go along method” commonly used to study health issues, focusing on how place and space influence health.
  • In the Nebraska Amish case study, the Dawdihaus was added by a family in 1999, twenty-five years after the main house was built. When the couple moved into the Dawdihaus , they moved their oldest daughter into the main house. In the Dover Delaware Amish case study, a family also built a Dawdihaus in 1999, but thirty-nine years after the main house was built. Again, the oldest daughter and her family moved into the main house. Notably, in the North Carolina group, the parents did not choose to move into a Dawdihaus —their children met separately and decided to move their parents into one.
  • In the question and answer session, Donald Kraybill noted that among Lancaster, Pennsylvania Amish, it seems to be the youngest son who takes the main house when the parents move into the Dawdihaus. This is not a prescribed transition, however, and varies with the family and their circumstances.

“Anomie, Egoism, and the Amish: A Durkheimian Examination,” Robert A. Strikwerda 

  • Robert A. Strikwerda is an associate professor of women’s and gender studies and director of the Global and Local Social Justice Program at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri. He gave a theoretical consideration of Anomie and Amish society that followed a Durkheimian model, and he included a primary consideration of Amish suicide rates.
  • The Amish have a high degree of integration and regulation, with a culture of “giving way” as a mode of discipline. Face-to-face interaction is key, which is why church districts are kept small. The Amish context does allow some agency, which prevents an unhealthy amount of integration. This can be seen in the individual’s choice to join the church and to choose a spouse. Agency in Amish communities can also be seen in permitted geographic mobility as well as free choice in business.

In Pursuit of the Missing Portrait

Prominently displayed on the main wall of the Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives are portraits, in the words of historian Carlton O. Wittlinger, of “three nineteenth-century Brethren in Christ.” 1

Jacob Brechbill (1832-1902), Sarah Ober Brechbill (1839-1908), and Henry Davidson (1823-1903) happen to be ancestors of mine; for several years I’ve been in pursuit of more information than was necessary for Wittlinger’s, or even archival, purposes. Whose is the missing portrait? Did Davidson have a wife who shared his life and ministry? Who was she?

As family historian Earl Brechbill has noted, the Brechbills and the Davidsons were members of the River Brethren (Brethren in Christ) community. The former lived out their lives in DeKalb County, Indiana, where Jacob and Sarah met, married and raised their family. Memorialized by their descendants for having donated the large block of land on which the Christian Union Church in Garrett was built, with its expanse of cemetery all around, the portraits of Jacob and Sarah Ober Brechbill depicted above were donated to the archives in their memory.2

Henry B. Davidson was another significant figure among the nineteenth-century River Brethren. He is remembered in Brethren in Christ circles as the founding editor of the church periodical, The Evangelical Visitor; his is also known as a driving force behind denominational mission.3 It is not known where Davidson’s portrait originated; nor is there a companion at his side, memorialized as his partner during his lifetime of ministry.

Davidson’s portrait, depicting intense eyes lined with passion and pain, peering out from under dark eyebrows, and the bow-tie that distinguishes him from Jacob Brechbill, raises questions in this viewer’s mind.4 Who was this man with the Scottish surname living and providing leadership among the nineteenth-century Brethren in Christ?5 My years of research have shown that Davidson lived adventurously and passionately, with a deep faith, as his calling took him from his natal Pennsylvania west to Ohio, north to Michigan, and south and west to Kansas before circling back to the state of his birth. With the tragedy that stalked him and his family, over his eighty years Henry wed not once, not twice, but three times. In the process, he was blessed with thirteen children.6

The researcher might ask, if there was a portrait hanging next to Henry Davidson’s, which one of Henry’s three wives would it feature? Would it be Hannah Craft Davidson, whom he married as a young man in his mid-twenties, and with whom he fathered five children? Would it be Fannie Rice Davidson, who after Hannah’s untimely death from typhoid fever when she and Henry were in their early thirties, agreed to marry him and come out to Ohio to raise his young family? Or would it be Kate Brenneman, whom Henry married toward the end of his life, and who served with him in his late life ministry?

If there were one portrait, it would seem fitting to honor his second wife Fannie Rice Davidson. Fannie raised Hannah’s five, and bore eight more children. During their many years in Ohio while nurturing their brood of thirteen, she managed their large home and farm, freeing Henry for ministry. In her latter years, she followed him as he moved from Ohio to Michigan, and from Michigan to Kansas, pursuing the dream of capturing support for a church periodical. This is particularly impressive when we learn in her obituary that she had suffered from cancer for the thirty years preceding her death in 1894.7

If a portrait of Fannie Rice Davidson should surface, it would help to make sense of Henry’s portrait, placed at is in proximity to those of Jacob and Sarah Ober Brechbill. It was Fannie who bore Henry’s namesake twins – Henry and Henrietta, who married, respectively, the Brechbill’s daughter Elizabeth and son John. Fannie shared in the family bond that these liaisons created.

If such a portrait would grace the archives’s wall, Fannie Rice Davidson would finally be re-united with her husband and father of their children. In sharp contrast to Jacob and Sarah Brechbill, whose graves lay side by side, and who have been memorialized by their family as donors of the land for the expansive cemetery surrounding Christian Union Church, Fannie and Henry Davidson were put to their final rest respectively in Abilene, Kansas, and Wooster, Ohio, with no less than 900 miles separating them.

At her father’s death, Fannie’s namesake daughter H. Frances Davidson, the pioneer missionary well known in denominational circles as Henry’s daughter, insisted on remembering her mother with white cosmos seeds sent from her post at Matopo Mission in Southern Rhodesia.8 I have suggested elsewhere that Frances’s wish was a way of remembering her mother on Henry’s death, for he was buried in Ohio next to his first wife Hannah Craft Davidson, in close proximity to his first family most of whom had settled in that state.9

Perhaps one day the ancestral trio on the Brethren in Christ archive wall will be squared off with a fourth – that of Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson. If such a portrait would surface, the distance between Fannie’s burial site in Abilene, Kansas and Henry’s in Wooster, Ohio finally would be bridged, as the wish of their daughter Frances’s gift of cosmos seeds sent so long ago implied.


  1. Carlton O. Wittlinger, Quest for Piety and Obedience: The Story of the Brethren in Christ (Nappanee, Indiana: Evangel Press, 1978), 47; photos of the three portraits are courtesy of Brethren in Christ Archives, Mechanicsburg, PA.
  2. Early D. Brechbill, “The ancestry of John and Henrietta Davidson Brechbill: A Historical Narrative,” (Independence, KS: Robert K. Brechbill printer, 1973), 26; photo by William Stoner. https//www.findagrave.com/cemetery/466301/Christian-unon-cemetery Accessed 17 June 2019. Granddaughters Viola Martin and Mary Olinger and great—granddaughters Joanna Hoke an dEsther Hoover donated them to the Archives. Glen Pierce to Lucille Marr, electronic mail, 12 June 2019.
  3. See, for instance, Micah B. Brickner, “One of God’s Avenues of Progress: Exploring the Outcomes of the Evangelical Visitor,” Brethren in Christ History and Life, Vol. XL, no. 3 (December 2017), 323-34.
  4. “Reverend Henry Davidson (1823-1903): Maintaining and Creating Boundaries,” Historical Papers, Canada: Society of Church History (2014), 5.
  5. I have researched and written aspects of his story published as “Henry B and Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson: Life and Vision,” Brethren in Christ History & Life, XLI, no. 2 (August 2018), 115-54.
  6. For brief biographical sketches of Henry’s children, please see “Henry B and Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson,” nn 2-4, 10-11; family tree, 119.
  7. Photo courtesy of the Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives, Mechanicsburg, PA.
  8. Hannah Frances Davidson, personal diary, 2 March 1895, Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives, Messiah College, Grantham, Pennsylvania; “Henry B. and Frances (Fannie) Davidson,” 115. Fannie left her own legacy as mother of her namesake, H. Frances Davidson. The younger Frances carried her mother’s, and also her grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s name. I have developed this maternal line in the Stewart-Rice-Davidson genealogy in “’Conflict, Confession, and Conversion,” 18.
  9. “Henry B and Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson,” 116.

Mennonites and the Waffen-SS

Recent scholarship has illuminated the hitherto little-known involvement of Mennonites in the perpetration of the Nazi Holocaust of European Jews and other atrocities committed during the Second World War. While historians have begun to describe the overall shape of Mennonite participation in war crimes, and although numerous individual stories continue to come to light, the details of how specific Mennonite communities interacted with many of the Nazi state’s killing operations have yet to be clarified. This essay offers one possible model for such studies. It examines the involvement of Mennonites in the Waffen-SS, particularly the activities of a cavalry regiment totaling about 700 men in the Halbstadt colony in Nazi-occupied Ukraine.1

Nazi occupiers in Ukraine organized local German-speaking Mennonites, such as those pictured here, into several kinds of military and paramilitary formations during the Second World War. The large Halbstadt colony was unusual in acquiring its own Waffen-SS regiment. Source: Harry Loewen, ed, Long Road to Freedom: Mennonites Escape the Land of Suffering (Kitchner, Ont.: Pandora Press, 2000), 106. [Caption edited 6/22/2019]

Mennonites in Germany had participated in the SS well before the outbreak of the Second World War. Some rose in the ranks, thus holding leadership positions as the Holocaust and other war atrocities began. Jakob Wiens, an agricultural office assistant in Tiegenhof, for instance, joined the SS in 1932. Wiens transferred to the Waffen-SS when Nazi Germany invaded Poland, and in 1941 he headed a requisitions group in Tarnow as local Jews were forced into a ghetto. Following the invasion of Ukraine, Wiens managed a center for clothing distribution in Dnipropetrovsk, likewise a site of expropriation and murder.2 Once in Ukraine, Waffen-SS members like Wiens often came into contact with the region’s large German-speaking Mennonite population. One SS-Hautpsturmführer, Günther Fieguth, published a feature article in the newspaper Danziger Vorposten about such encounters. In addition to recognizing common surnames and making genealogical connections, Fieguth lauded the Third Reich for aiding local Mennonites “to once again stimulate the blossoming racial life of this German population.”3

Nazi Germany’s military expansion into Eastern Europe presaged enormous recruitment efforts for the Waffen-SS. The organization had begun in 1933 as the armed branch of the SS, an elite core of soldiers who served as Adolf Hitler’s bodyguard. The Waffen-SS was marked by its militancy and loyalty to the Führer, including perpetration of a violent purge of the rival SA in 1934. With the outbreak of war at the end of the decade and access to populations in Eastern Europe, the Waffen-SS radically expanded. The occupied territories ultimately supplied more than half of the nearly one million men who served in the Waffen-SS at its height.4 Recruiters opened their ranks to men of a variety of perceived racial backgrounds, but they favored people they considered to be German, even if they did not yet possess German citizenship. Such individuals were known within Nazi racial terminology as “ethnic Germans” (Volksdeutsche).

Hitler intended “ethnic Germans” to be treated as a master race in Eastern Europe. One directive to occupational authorities read:

When girls and women of the occupied Eastern territories abort their children, then that can only benefit us. . . . since we have absolutely no interest in the growth of the non-German population. . . . Therefore also under no condition should German healthcare measures be provided to the non-German population in the occupied Eastern territories . . . . In no way may the non-German population receive advanced education . . . . Under no circumstances will the Russian (Ukrainian) cities be improved or even beautified, since the population should not reach a higher level, and the Germans will live in new cities and towns to be built later, from which the Russian (Ukrainian) population will be strictly prohibited. 5

The Waffen-SS counted among the numerous Nazi organizations charged with achieving this vision. In 1941, Himmler formed an SS Cavalry Brigade for deployment in Belorussia and northern Ukraine. Jews and others considered racially inferior were marked for immediate destruction: “If the population, treated on a national basis, is composed of hostile, racial and bodily inferior criminals… then all who are implicated in helping partisans are to be shot; women and children are to be deported; livestock and food are to be requisitioned and brought to safety. The villages are to be burned to the ground.”6 This SS Cavalry Brigade engaged in the mass execution of Jews, helping initiate the wholesale slaughter of the Holocaust in the East.7

The Halbstadt colony (formerly known as Molotschna) comprised the largest settlement of German-speaking Mennonites in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. Halbstadt was in the war zone from the 1941 invasion until September 1942, when it became incorporated into the Reich Commissariat Ukraine. This map shows the borders from November 1942, when the Nazi empire was at its height. The blue line approximates the trek route taken by residents of Halbstadt to Poland in 1943 and 1944, accompanied in part by the colony’s Waffen-SS regiment.

While Ukraine’s Mennonites entered the Waffen-SS in various ways, the most notable induction occurred in the largest Mennonite colony of Molotschna, renamed Halbstadt by the occupying forces. During the first year of German occupation, Halbstadt remained located in the war zone and thus fell under SS administration rather than under civil jurisdiction of the new Reich Commissariat Ukraine. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, tasked a group called Special Commando R (“R” for Russia) with overseeing “ethnic German” affairs in areas conquered from the Soviet Union, including Halbstadt. Although Special Commando R’s main objective was to provide welfare to local “ethnic Germans,” its instructions as part of Himmler’s Ethnic German Office included cooperation with the mobile SS killing units known as the Einsatzkommandos.8 Through this partnership, Special Commando R and its “ethnic German” associates participated in the mass murder of tens of thousands of Jews and other victims across Eastern Europe.

Ukraine’s approximately 35,000 Mennonites comprised slightly more than ten percent of the 313,000 “ethnic Germans” that Nazi occupiers counted in German-occupied Ukraine, Romanian-occupied Transnistria, and the nearby war zone.9 Around 25,000 “ethnic Germans,” of which a majority were Mennonites, lived in the more than ninety villages of the Halbstadt colony. Special Commando R reported that to a higher degree than in more western regions, “the German settlements of Mennonites on the Molotschna [River] and in the Gruanu area (Mariupol) have been evacuated and destroyed by the Bolsheviks.”10 Communist authorities had deported around half of Halbstadt’s residents beyond Soviet lines on the eve of the German invasion. Less than a third of remaining adult “ethnic Germans” were male. Special Commando R began organizing 1,200 of the colony’s men and boys into paramilitary “Self Defense” units, a practice typical within German-speaking settlements across Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe.11

The first steps toward the induction of Halbstadt Mennonites into the Waffen-SS began in the context of jurisdictional disputes between the German Army and the SS. The Army had been recruiting local Mennonites to serve as translators for its operations against the Red Army on the nearby Eastern front. Then, in early March 1942, the head of a Tank Group, Ewald von Kleist, ordered the formation of three “ethnic German” cavalry units (Reiterschwadronen). These were to be used as guards in the Halbstadt area, and weapons and uniforms were provided by the Army.12 A Mennonite named Jacob Reimer, then a teenager, later recalled that the mayor of his village had called a meeting of all men of fighting age and requested volunteers. “The principle of non-resistance was forgotten,” Reimer wrote after the war, “and the men felt it their duty to assist in the struggle against the fearful oppression we had been subjected to for so long.”13

Special Commando R informed Heinrich Himmler of the Army’s intrusion into the affairs of its subsidiary, Einsatzgruppe Halbstadt, which was responsible for administering the colony. Himmler, who styled himself the Reich Commissar for the Strengthening of German Race, was eager to cement SS control in Halbstadt. He forbade the new cavalry units from being taken out of the area, emphasizing: “They are not under Army jurisdiction.”14 At Himmler’s instruction, the soldiers were placed under the jurisdiction of SS-Obergruppenführer Hans-Adolf Prützmann, who oversaw police and anti-guerilla activities across Ukraine and south Russia. While the regiment remained a standard “Self Defense” force for several months, it was reorganized within the Order Police in late 1942 and joined the Waffen-SS in early 1943, receiving new commanders and uniforms.15

Himmler broadly intended the region’s “ethnic Germans” to be involved directly in Nazi Germanization and ethnic cleansing efforts. Potential rivals were informed: “The Germans in the East are to take up arms as a totality. They are to be aids to the police.”16 Military trainers belonging to the Waffen-SS provided intensive education to the Halbstadt regiment.17 The Mennonite Jacob Reimer reported that his cavalry training consisted of technical drills, such as horse and weapons handling, as well as anti-Semitic propaganda and other ideological content. One high-level directive for training “ethnic German” cavalry soldiers for service with the Waffen-SS explained that the goal of such instruction was “to free the ethnic Germans from spiritual burdens and disappointments and to educate them into good comrades and uncompromising fighters.”18 In practice, this meant a willingness to kill unarmed victims.

The Halbstadt regiment’s exact activities require additional inquiry. The soldiers’ duties are known to have included protecting the colony from robbery, military deserters, and general unrest, as well as guarding bridges, roads, and train lines against sabotage. Members also supervised the construction of military installations, such as new barracks for themselves in Tokmak, likely using forced labor. Available sources do not indicate the extent to which the regiment may have engaged, like other “ethnic German” cavalry units, in the liquidation of Jews or Red Army prisoners outside the colony. SS task forces had already murdered 36 Jews in Halbstadt prior to the regiment’s formation. But cavalry members were expected to kill any Jews remaining in the colony or encountered elsewhere. On at least one occasion, the soldiers willingly did so.19 They may also have participated in the murder of 81 Roma.20

The regiment was certainly involved in extensive warfare against so-called partisans. These “partisans” may have included armed bands who opposed the German occupation, but records of anti-partisan campaigns conducted by the SS include murder tallies of tens of thousands of unarmed men, women, and children. The first months of the Halbstadt units’ operation coincided with the initiation of a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign in nearby Crimea, which the Nazis eventually planned to incorporate into a new German province. Hitler ordered the deportation of Russians and Ukrainians from the peninsula as well as the murder of all people considered racially or politically dangerous.21 Fueled by violence in Crimea and elsewhere in the region, southern Ukraine remained an area of anti-partisan activities until December 1942.22

Halbstadt’s “ethnic German” cavalry regiment and other members of the colony gathered to celebrate the visit of Heinrich Himmler in late 1942. Source: Horst Gerlach, “Mennonites, the Molotschna, and the Volksdeutsche Mittelstelle in the Second World War,” Mennonite Life 41, no. 3 (1986): 7.

Jurisdictional clashes between the SS and Nazi civil authorities erupted in September 1942 as the Reich Commissariat Ukraine expanded to include Halbstadt and surrounding areas. Erich Koch, the governor of the newly enlarged wartime province, sought control over police activities, putting him into conflict with the SS leader Hans-Adolf Prützmann.23 Koch expressed concern over the application of collective punishment to whole villages in retribution for partisan attacks. Koch and Prützmann met for a tense discussion. During the encounter, Koch tried to bend Prützmann’s troops to his authority, while Prützmann insisted that he was answerable directly to Himmler.24 Himmler, then in Italy, took Prützmann’s side in a letter to Koch, and he promised to look into the matter shortly.25 Upon return to the region, Himmler traveled with Prützmann through Crimea and southern Ukraine, including a visit to Halbstadt on October 31 and November 1, where they inspected the “ethnic German” cavalry units.26

During late 1942 and early 1943, members of the Halbstadt regiment traveled into the war zone for operations far from the colony. One unit was reportedly decimated in anti-partisan actions in the Don area.27 Others may have aided the transportation of fellow “ethnic Germans” from Donbass, Caucasus, and Kalmykia. More than 3,000 German speakers from the eastern settlements of Mariupol, Grunau, and Kharkiv had already been relocated to Halbstadt.28 The SS planned to bring thousands more from the war zone, accommodating newcomers through the expulsion of local Ukrainians.29 From January through mid-March of 1943, Einsatzgruppe Halbstadt moved nearly 10,000 “ethnic Germans.” Battle losses on the Eastern Front changed SS plans, however, and most refugees were sent on to Poland rather than settled in Ukraine. That 2,500 fled back into the war zone hints at the violence of even allegedly humanitarian actions.30

Mennonite men in Ukraine continued to be inducted into the Waffen-SS during 1943. The Eastern Front’s deteriorating state and ongoing atrocities behind German lines had fueled local opposition to the occupation, and in June, authorities once again declared southern Ukraine to be a zone of major partisan activity.31 Two months later, Himmler ordered the recruitment of 1,200 men from Halbstadt and the non-Mennonite Hegewald colony.32 In part, this reflected Himmler’s desire to keep fighting-aged “ethnic Germans” from being conscripted into the Army after its defeat at Stalingrad.33 He intended new recruits to form a regiment with a cornflower as its insignia within the SS Cavalry Division (recently expanded from the SS Cavalry Brigade), still engaged in murder to the north. By September, this division moved to southern Ukraine, where it joined the German retreat to the Dnieper River, near the largest Mennonite colonies.

Although the trek of Mennonites and other “ethnic Germans” from Ukraine to Poland in 1943 has been remembered as a movement of mostly women and children, Mennonite men in the Waffen-SS and other armed units accompanied the refugees, participating in acts of violence along the way. Source: Marlene Epp, Women Without Men: Mennonite Refugees of the Second World War (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000), 120.

The Nazi military continued its halting retreat into the Reich Commissariat Ukraine as Stalin’s Red Army pushed westward. Rather than allowing Mennonites and other alleged Aryans to fall back into Soviet hands, the SS planned to move all “ethnic Germans” west into zones of safety. In September 1943, occupiers relocated 67,000 “ethnic Germans” west of the Dnieper River. The Halbstadt cavalry regiment assisted in transferring their colony’s 28,500 residents beginning on September 12.34 Traveling by train and in wagon treks comprising between 4,000 and 8,000 people, they were initially quartered in areas around the Kronau colony (which had a large Mennonite population) in homes taken from Ukrainians. In Prützmann’s overly optimistic view, the Halbstadt Mennonites could remain there permanently.35 But the Red Army continued to advance. Between late October and early December, the treks again moved west to the Polish border, settling for several months with other refugees in the region around Kamianets-Podilskyi.

The westward trek of Ukraine’s Mennonites with the SS constituted an unmitigated stream of violence against other peoples. One Halbstadt native justified the requisitioning of homes from Ukrainians for “ethnic German” use in his memoirs: “That is a radical solution to the housing question, which truly amazes us, but it is war; life is harsh and we, too, have become harsh.”36 Cavalry member Jacob Reimer—who changed his name to the more Aryan-sounding “Eduard”—recalled how his unit combed through forests, marching between the trees in straight lines with orders to kill partisans on sight. Reimer’s regiment burned villages and shot civilians. In a letter to Himmler, Hans-Adolf Prützmann reported that the “ethnic Germans” remained in good spirits despite their itinerancy and deprivations. He assessed that they were eager to remain under German rule, and he commended the Halbstadt group for being highly cooperative.37

In March 1944, the Halbstadt refugees moved westward yet again. As Ukraine fell to the Red Army, the colony’s former residents crossed into Poland, many traveling by train from the city of Lemberg (Lviv) to Litzmannstadt (Łódź) in the Nazi wartime province of Warthegau. There, SS employees processed them as immigrants to the German Reich, sifting them through racial lists, granting citizenship, and assigning them to transit camps or to houses and farms requisitioned from Jews and Poles. The Halbstadt cavalry regiment, meanwhile, began to be disbanded piecemeal. Jacob Reimer and most of his fellow soldiers were sent to Hungary, where they joined the SS-Cavalry Division, which had been reassigned from Ukraine.38 This division fought in Transylvania before being destroyed in the siege of Budapest by early 1945.

The history of the Halbstadt cavalry regiment demonstrates the involvement of Ukraine’s Mennonites in the machinations of the Waffen-SS during the German occupation of Eastern Europe. Mennonites’ induction into this organization and their activities within it reflected the broader maneuverings of the Nazi war machine and the fate of the Eastern Front. Little of this context has survived in collective Mennonite memory. After the war, Mennonite refugees in war-torn Germany had strong incentives to deny involvement in war crimes, a process aided by church organizations. Most notably, the North America-based Mennonite Central Committee told tales of innocence while helping to transport refugees, including former Waffen-SS members, to Paraguay and Canada. Coming to terms with Mennonite participation in the Third Reich’s atrocities remains a task for the denomination.

Ben Goossen is a historian at Harvard University. He is the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, available in paperback from Princeton University Press.


  1. On Mennonites and the Nazi occupation of Ukraine, see Benjamin Goossen, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 147-173; Viktor Klets, “Caught between Two Poles; Ukrainian Mennonites and the Trauma of the Second World War,” in Minority Report: Mennonite Identities in Imperial Russia and Soviet Ukraine Reconsidered, 1789-1945, ed. Leonard Friesen (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018), 287-318; James Urry, “Mennonites in Ukraine During World War II: Thoughts and Questions,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 93, no. 1 (2019): 81-111.
  2. Wiens held the rank of SS-Obersturmführer. See his SS officer file in A3343, roll 243B, archived in Captured German and Related Records on Microfilm at the National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland (hereafter cited as NARA).
  3. Günther Fieguth, “Volksdeutscher Aufbruch am Dniepr,” December 13, 1942, German Captured Documents Collection, reel 290, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
  4. Gerhard Rempel, “Gottlob Berger and Waffen-SS Recruitment, 1939-1945,” Militärgeschichtliche Zeitschrift 27, no. 1 (1980): 107-122.
  5. Martin Bormann to Alfred Rosenberg, July 23, 1942, T-175, roll 194, NARA. On the Nazi occupation of Ukraine, see Wendy Lower, Nazi Empire-Building and the Holocaust in Ukraine (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005); Karel Berkhoff, Harvest of Despair: Life and Dearth in Ukraine under Nazi Rule (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004).
  6. Heinrich Himmler, “Richtlinien für die Durchkämmung und Durchstreifung von Sumpfgebieten durch Reitereinheiten,” July 28, 1941, T-175, roll 109, NARA.
  7. Jürgen Matthäus, “Operation Barbarossa and the Onset of the Holocaust, June-December 1941,” in Christopher Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004), 279.
  8. Heinrich Himmler to Werner Lorenz, July 11, 1941, M894, roll 11, NARA.
  9. “Zusammenstellung der erfassten Volksdeutschen im Reichskommissariat Ukraine, in Transnistrien und im Heeresgebiet,” ca. July 1943, T-175, roll 72, NARA.
  10. “Bericht des SS-Sonderkommandos der Volksdeutschen Mittelstelle über den Stand der Erfassugnsarbeiten bis zum 15.3.1942,” T-175, roll 68, NARA.
  11. Horst Hoffmeyer, “Bericht,” March 15, 1942, T-175, roll 68, NARA.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Gerhard Lohrenz, ed., The Lost Generation and Other Stories (Steinbach, MB: Derksen Printers, 1982), 50.
  14. Heinrich Himmler to Werner Lorenz, April 10, 1942, T-175, roll 68, NARA. Special Commando R also oversaw the recruitment of “ethnic Germans” for cavalry units in Romanian-occupied Transnistria. Unlike the Halbstadt regiment, however, these other units seem to have remained part of “Self Defense” formations outside Waffen-SS jurisdiction (although around a fourth of such soldiers in Transnistria were transferred to separate Waffen-SS formations in 1943, and most of those remaining were conscripted into the Waffen-SS in Poland in 1944). See Eric Steinhart, The Holocaust and the Germanization of Ukraine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 166-169.
  15. The Halbstadt cavalry units were restructured twice while based in Ukraine. First, Himmler’s visit to the colony on October 31 and November 1, 1942, resulted in the formation being renamed the Halbstadt Ethnic German Regiment. According to a November 6 letter to the chief of the Order Police in Kiev, this occurred “in the context of the reorganization of the ethnic German Self Defense forces,” and the regiment was to be headed by an “SS leader experienced in ethnic [German] work.” Second, as reported by Hans-Adolf Prützmann on April 7, 1943, Himmler ordered that the Halbstadt regiment be transferred from the Order Police to the Waffen-SS. The SS Leadership Main Office was therefore expected to equip the soldiers. See Thomas Casagrande, Die Volksdeutsche SS-Division “Prinz Eugen”: Die Banater Schwaben und die Nationalsozialisitischen Kriegsverbrechen (Frankfurt a.M.: Campus Verlag, 2003), 327-328.
  16. SS-Obersturmbahnführer to Gottlob Berger, July 6, 1942, T-175, roll 122, NARA.
  17. “Volksdeutsche Reiter-Schwadrone,” June 5, 1942, T-175, roll 68, NARA.
  18. “Besondere Anweisungen für die weltanschauliche Erziehung,” April 5, 1943, T-175, roll 70, NARA.
  19. “Molochansk,” Yad Vashem, https://www.yadvashem.org/untoldstories/database/index.asp?cid=568; Harry Loewen, ed., Long Road to Freedom: Mennonites Escape the Land of Suffering (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2000), 110.
  20. Mikhail Tyaglyy, “Nazi Occupation Policies and the Mass Murder of the Roma in Ukraine,” in The Nazi Genocide of the Roma: Reassessment and Commemoration, ed. Anton Weiss-Wendt (New York: Berghahn Books, 2013), 128.
  21. “Aussiedlung aus der Krim,” July 12, 1942, T-175, roll 122, NARA.
  22. “Bandenlage im Gebiet des Reichskommissariats Ukraine und im Gebiet Bialystok,” December 27, 1942, T-175, roll 124, NARA.
  23. Erich Koch to the Höheren SS- und Polizeiführer, September 10, 1942, T-175, roll 56, NARA. The transfer of the Halbstadt regiment from Order Police auspices to the Waffen-SS in early 1943 appears to have particularly irritated Koch, whose response suggests that this development was unusual within the Reich Commissariat Ukraine. In June 1943, Koch wrote to Himmler: “you yourself expressed the wish [during previous discussions], that local military commandos were not yet appropriate for ethnic Germans in the Ukraine, because they are supposed to be getting used to the standards of living of the Germans from the Reich. I have tried hard to fend off the formation of local military commandos and the conscription of ethnic Germans. I am thus all the more troubled that recruitment has occurred at your order [in Halbstadt].” See Ingeborg Fleischhauer, Das Dritte Reich und die Deutschen in der Sowjeutnion (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1983), 145.
  24. Hans-Adolf Prützmann, “Aktenvermerk über Besprechung mit Gauleiter Koch am Sonntag, den 27.9.42 in Königsberg,” T-175, roll 56, NARA.
  25. Heinrich Himmler to Erich Koch, October 9, 1942, T-175, roll 56, NARA.
  26. Heinrich Himmler, Der Dienstkalender Heinrich Himmlers 1941/42 (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 1999), 603-604.
  27. Lohrenz, ed., The Lost Generation, 58.
  28. Himmler to Lorenz, April 10, 1942; “Zusammenstellung der erfassten Volksdeutschen.” The total number of re-settlers was reportedly 3,296.
  29. Werner Lorenz to Heinrich Himmler, January 15, 1943, M894, roll 10, NARA.
  30. Horst Hoffmeyer, “Bericht über den Abtransport der in den Einsatzgruppen Halbstadt und Nikopol sowie der Aussenstelle Kiew aufgefangenen Volksdeutschen aus dem Kauskasus, dem Donbas, der Kalmückensteppe und dem Charkower Gebiet,” ca. mid-1943, T-175, roll 72, NARA.
  31. Heinrich Himmler to Erich Koch et al., June 21, 1943, T-175, roll 140, NARA.
  32. Heinrich Himmler to Gottlob Berger, August 9, 1943, T-175, roll 70, NARA.
  33. Gottlob Berger to Heinrich Himmler, August 12, 1943, T-175, roll 70, NARA.
  34. Wilhelm Kinkelin to Gottlob Berger, September 22, 1943, T-175, roll 72, NARA.
  35. Hans-Adolf Prützmann to Heinrich Himmler, October 13, 1943, T-175, roll 72, NARA.
  36. Jakob Neufeld, Tiefenwege: Erfahrungen und Erlebnisse von Russland-Mennoniten in zwei Jahrzehnten bis 1949 (Virgil, ON: Niagra Press, 1958), 125.
  37. Hans-Adolf Prützmann to Heinrich Himmler, November 16, 1943, T-175, roll 72, NARA. An October 20, 1943, report to the SS Leadership Main Office commented on the Halbstadt regiment: “In addition to fanatical hate of the Russians, the men demonstrate an excellent ability to move through the terrain. With regard to training, they are well educated and handle weapons well.” See Casagrande, Die Volksdeutsche SS-Division, 328.
  38. Lohrenz, ed., The Lost Generation, 65-70. Research by the former Waffen-SS member and chronicler Wolfgang Vopersal suggests that by 1944, the Halbstadt regiment (then reportedly called the “1st Ethnic German Cavalry Regiment of the Waffen-SS”) totaled nearly 1,000 members. Vopersal’s findings provide further details about the regiment’s postings, leadership, and activities from March 1942 to October 1944. However, much of Vopersal’s account is based on information acquired after the war; this source is thus not fully reliable and must be used with caution. See “Volksdeutsches Reiter-Regiment der Waffen-SS,” N 756/151a, and “Fotografie von Angehörigen des 1. Volksdeutschen Reiter-Regimentes,” N 756/256a, Bd. 1, Bundesarchiv Abteilung Militärarchiv, Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany.

Toward a History of the Future of Mennonite Church USA

Jason B. Kauffman

In 1975, the Gospel Herald published a series of articles focused on the church of the future. Over the course of several issues, editor Daniel Hertzler invited authors to offer suggestions on “models for the next quarter century” in relation to the institutional church, the family, economics, and education.[1] The point of the series, Hertzler explained, was not to predict the future or to prescribe an exact formula that the church should follow. Instead, Hertzler hoped the articles could “suggest patterns of response to the issues that are likely to face us.” He believed that a proactive approach would help the church to choose models that “honor[ed] the lordship of Christ” instead of simply being “swept along by the late-twentieth century tide.”[2]

Hertzler commissioned this series of articles in the midst of a historical moment in which the charismatic movement was gaining increasing attention and influence in Mennonite circles.[3] The movement itself was diverse in its origins and expression, but key tenets included the central role of the Holy Spirit in the life and mission of the church and the practice of New Testament spiritual gifts. With its emphasis on renewal and church revitalization, the charismatic movement was a forward-looking project. While it was not widely adopted by Mennonites in North America, the movement did help, in part, to spur Mennonites to think more about the future.

This particular moment of self-reckoning and its impulse towards renewal was just one in a long line of such moments in the history of Anabaptism. Another came 100 years ago in 1919 when the Young People’s Conference compiled a list of priorities they hoped would guide the “church of the future.” In the 1980s, both the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church adopted statements calling the broader church to renew corporate commitments and set goals for the future.[4] More recently, MC USA’s Future Church Summit gathered Mennonites in Orlando to identify the renewed commitments that will guide the denomination on its Journey Forward in the coming decades.[5]

Such periods of introspection and looking to the future exercise an important function in the life of the church. They help us to take stock of where we have come from and to chart a course for where we want to go. As John W. Miller put it in 1975, “By thinking about the future we can become more intentional about the present. We can decide whether or not we want that future that we see taking shape on the horizon.”[6] This was the main goal of the Future Church Summit and, at this summer’s convention in Kansas City (July 2-6), delegates will hear how multiple Mennonite communities are seeking to journey forward in their own contexts.

I would add that any efforts to chart a course for the future should pay close attention to the voices of young people. After all, these people will lead the Mennonite community forward in the coming decades and the decisions we make today will affect them the most. We are entering a phase in our history when MC USA will need to make decisions about how the denomination, its agencies, and related ministries can best serve a rapidly changing church. Young people should have multiple opportunities to speak into this process. The move to include youth as full delegates at convention this summer is a step in the right direction.

The Mennonite Church USA Archives is also planning a pilot, oral history project at convention that seeks to document and preserve the voices of young people that are part of MC USA. A few weeks ago, we sent invitations to all people who registered for convention between the ages of 20-40 and, so far, the response has been much greater than we anticipated. We are currently working to find extra team members who will help to conduct interviews with as many participants as possible. At this point, we anticipate that all interviews will take place at convention.

We realize that the interviews we gather will not represent the voices of all young people who identify as Mennonite, and that is not our goal. Instead, our goal is to record the voices of young people who have chosen to participate in this gathering of the broader church. Due to the nature of convention, these are most likely to be pastors, congregational delegates, youth group sponsors, and employees of church agencies and institutions: some of the people most likely to shape the direction of the broader church in the future. We believe the project provides a unique opportunity to learn about the lives and experiences of the diverse, young voices that make up our denomination. We hope that the project will capture a historical snapshot, documenting the hopes, challenges, and dreams of the church of the future.


[1] The articles appeared between August 19 and September 30, 1975. Authors included Ann and Paul Gingrich (church), David Schroeder (family), Henry Rempel (economics), and Dean R. Chamberlain (education). Digital copies of all issues are available online at the Digital Mennonite Periodicals website at: https://archive.org/details/gospelherald197568hert_0/page/n95 (accessed 5-16-2019).

[2] Daniel Hertzler, “Some Models for the Future,” Gospel Herald 68:35 (9 September 1975), p. 644.

[3] By 1975, Mennonite Renewal Services emerged as an organization to represent the interests of charismatic Mennonites and in 1977, the (old) Mennonite Church adopted an official statement in response to the charismatic movement entitled, “The Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church.”

[4] The Mennonite Church statement was entitled, “Vision ’95,” and the General Conference statement was entitled “A Call to Kingdom Commitments.”

[5] At the global level, Mennonite World Conference’s Renewal 2027 events are designed to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Anabaptism and, among other goals, “to renew and deepen our understanding of Christian faithfulness as shaped by the Anabaptist movement.” See the GAMEO article on Renewal 2027 at: https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Renewal_2027 (accessed 5-16-2019)

[6] John W. Miller, “The Mennonite Church in 2025?” Gospel Herald 68:32 (19 August 1975), p. 573.

Maeyken Boosers’ Pear: A Mennonite Relic at the Library


Figure 1. A dried pear that belonged to Maeyken Booser, Collection of the Mennonite Church of Amsterdam (VDGA), on loan to the Special Collections, University of Amsterdam.  

There are a very small number of extant objects that have direct connections with the stories of early Anabaptist and Mennonite martyrs: the list of currently known items includes a part of a serviette owned by Thomas von Imbroich (1533-1558); a pear that Maeyken Boosers (d. 1564) gave to her relative (probably her son) Hans Booser in the time leading up to her execution; and a tongue screw, which was used on Hans Bret (d. 1577)1. The tongue screw is in private ownership, and the other two objects are a part of the collection of the Mennonite Church of Amsterdam (VDGA), on loan to the University of Amsterdam2. The Amsterdam Mennonite Church’s collection also includes the only extant handwritten letter by Menno Simons.3

The pear, cloth, and the tongue screw are historical items that occupy a middle ground between artifacts and memorial objects. These are not only of interest for scholarly research, but also items that have been considered to be of emotional or even devotional importance within the centuries-long Mennonite story.

I recently had the chance to see Maeyken Boosers’ pear in the Zaal Mennonitica (Mennonite Room) at the Special Collections library of the University of Amsterdam. Withered, shrunken, and extremely delicate, the 455 year old dried pear does not look much like a fruit any longer (figure 1). The story of Maeyken Boosers is well preserved in Dutch Mennonite circles and in the Mennonite martyrological literary tradition. Boosers was executed in Doornik (present day Tournai, Belgium) following imprisonment and torture. Notes to her family describe these trials, while demonstrating her dedication to her faith. Her story circulated as a song, “Die op den Heere betrouwen” (Those who trust in the Lord), which made its way into the late sixteenth-century Dutch Mennonite martyrology, Offer des Heeren4. Seventeenth-century martyrologies, including the Martyrs Mirror include several of her letters to her family.5 Maeyken passed along the pear to a member of her family during a visit to her in prison before her execution.6 Since then, the object has been protected and passed down over the centuries by her Dutch descendants.7 In the nineteenth century the pear found its way from the Booser family (sometimes written Boosers/de Booser) to the related Van Geuns family, after which time it entered into the Amsterdam Mennonite Church’s collection in the twentieth century.8

At present, the pear is stored in a simple oval box with a hand written label indicating the   contents (figure 2). However, up until the nineteenth century, it appears that the pear was kept in a silver casing. According to Samuel Cramer, writing about the “Mennonite relics” at the turn of the twentieth century, several of the older members of the Van Geuns family still remembered the silver container.9


Figure 2. The current container for the pear is labeled “Een gedroogde Peer/Gedachtenis van Mayken Booser/ 1564]” [A dried pear/Memorial of Mayken Booser/ 1564].

A handwritten note, which has long accompanied the pear, offers a short account about the origins of the pear. The message is signed, “Jan de Booser.” He is thought to be the grandson of Maeyken – the son of Hans Booser, who received the pear from Maeyken in prison. Jan de Booser, who lived in Grossenfehn in East-Friesland, died around 1630, meaning that the note likely dates to the late sixteenth- or early seventeenth century.10 The note states, “[t]his pear was given by Mayke Boosers to our dear father [beste vader] Hans de Booser in Doornik in the prison to be honoured as an eternal memorial” for Maeyken who was “sacrificed on September 10, 1564” (figure 3).11

The text is transcribed again in later penmanship beneath the early modern hand, followed by addition instructions to see the account in Thieleman Jansz. van Braght’s Martyrs Mirror, volume II, p. 302. This is likely an inscription added by a later member of the Booser or Van Geuns family. The more modern hand also adjusts the death date to September 18, which matches with the date given in the Mennonite martyrs books.12 This handwritten note was briefly lost in the nineteenth century. Cramer details the rediscovery and reacquisition of the letter by Dr. J.B. Van Geuns, a member of the family then in possession of the pear.13

The careful preservation of this pear, together with the fact that it used to be kept in a fine silver casing certainly lends itself to the characterisation of the object as a “relic” in some respects.  Furthermore, the pear is referred to as a relic in the existing literature on this object; namely, the articles by Cramer and the Mennonite Encyclopedia entry on “Mennonite relics.”14 In other ways, the term is perhaps not appropriate, given the historical Mennonite perspectives on relic veneration, and given the history of the pear as an object. In broader Christian tradition, relics are objects or physical remains thought to be from early Christian apostles, saints, martyrs, and even Christ. Since the origin and spread of Anabaptist movements around Europe in the sixteenth century, Mennonites have eschewed the veneration relics along with the veneration of saints, images, and the Host. These theological decisions have shaped the appearance of Mennonite churches, as well as the form of Mennonite worship. While relics housed in fine reliquaries have a long history of attracting pilgrims and generating a tradition of miracle stories in the Catholic tradition, Mennonite churches have not systematically kept or searched for “relics,” and Mennonites have historically excluded important heritage objects – whether artifacts or memorial items – from within the church sanctuary. The pear is very explicitly an object intended as a memorial for Maeyken Boosers – this is stated in Jan de Booser’s note. However, the known history and provenance of the pear suggest that it was treasured for sentimental and devotional reasons within the family sphere. In keeping with long engrained Mennonite theological practice, it was not placed within a Mennonite worship space as an object to be venerated. Now, the pear is stored among rare books, letters, and prints, in a library. The aim in this post is not necessarily to arrive at a definitive conclusion about how we should relate to Maeyken’s pear and the other objects that belonged to Mennonite martyrs – as artifacts, memorial objects, or indeed as “relics.” However, it is always interesting to check in on the question of how we as Mennonites relate to material culture that pertains to our socio-religious history. As a memorial object in a library setting the pear certainly continues to garner some attention (and spark some scholarly library pilgrimages) from within the global Mennonite faith community and the networks of Mennonite history aficionados.


  1. Christian Neff, “Relics of the Martyrs,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, Web, http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Relics_of_the_Martyrs&oldid=146122.
  2. Ibid. The pear is being housed within the University of Amsterdam’s Special Collections, and the cloth of Thomas von Imbroich is likely also there. See H.W. Meihuizen, Catalogus: Historische tentoonstelling achste doopsgezinde wereldcongres, Amsterdam RAI (Amsterdam: 1967), p. 25, cat. no. 40.  
  3. This is also on loan to the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. See I.B. Horst, “De strijd om het fundament des geloofs: van melchioriten tot menisten,” in Wederdopers, menisten, doopsgezinden in Nederland: 1530-1980,  S. Groenveld, J.P. Jacobszoon, S.L. Verheus ed. (Zutphen: Walburg Pers, 1993), p. 35, figure 21.
  4. The martyrology went through many editions in the last decades of the sixteenth century.  Karel Vos and Nanne van der Zijpp, “Maeyken Boosers (d. 1564),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, Web. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Maeyken_Boosers_(d._1564)&oldid=162649 .
  5. Thieleman van Braght, Het Bloedigh Tooneel of Martelaers Spiegel der Doopsgesinde of Weereloose Christenen, Die om ‘t getuygenis van Jesus haren Salighmaker geleden hebben ende gedood zijn van Christi tijd of tot desen tijd toe. 2nd ed. (Amsterdam: Hieronymus Sweerts, etc., 1685), part II, 302 ff.; in English translation, Van Braght, The Bloody Theatre or Martyrs’ Mirror of the Defenseless Christians Who Baptized Only upon Confession of Faith and Who Suffered and Died for the Testimony of Jesus Their Saviour . . . to the Year A.D. 1660 (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1951), pp. 667-669.
  6. Samuel Cramer, “Het reliek van Mayken Boosers,” De zondagsbode. Doopsgezind weekblad,  P. Feenstra Jr. Ed., vol. 15 (1902), p. 79.
  7. Samuel Cramer, “Martelaarsrelieken,” Doopsgezinde Bijdragen, vol. 38 (1898), pp. 115-116.
  8. Ibid., pp. 115-116.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Cramer, “Het reliek van Mayken Boosers,” De zondagsbode, p. 79
  11. Original Dutch: “dese peere heeft Mayke Boosers/ an onse beste vader Hans de Booser binnen doornick int gevangenhuisz ver eert tot een eeuwyge gedachtenis/ geschiet Anno 1564 den 10 Septemb [sic.] op geoffert/ [signed] Jan de Booser”]
  12. The early modern handwritten note reads “September 10.” Cramer is first to note the discrepancy in date. Cramer, “Het reliek van Mayken Boosers,” De zondagsbode, p. 79.
  13. When Samuel Cramer first wrote about the pear in his 1898 article, the note remained lost. He wrote only on the basis of the pear, the martyr accounts, and the family recollections. His 1902 articles on the pear note that the paper has been found once again, and he offers a transcription. See Samuel Cramer, “Martelaarszaken,” Doopsgezinde Bijdragen vol. 42 (1902): pp. 150-171 especually, 168-170, transcription in Dutch on p. 168.
  14. Christian Neff, “Relics of the Martyrs,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Relics_of_the_Martyrs&oldid=146122. (also in Mennonite Encyclopedia, print edition from the 1950s).

Anabaptists and Minority Languages

Mark L. Louden

Recently a sobering report was released by the United Nations stating that as many as one million of the roughly eight million animal and plant species on Earth – about 13% – are threatened with extinction. On the human cultural front, the statistics are even grimmer. Of the approximately 7,000 languages spoken around the globe today, at least half, probably many more, are predicted to die out, that is, they will no longer be spoken natively by the turn of the next century. While the loss of biodiversity is likely to initiate a negative cascade effect on our natural world, the extinction of a language deals a critical blow to the cultural heritage with which it is associated.1

Most of the world’s languages, including all those that are endangered, are spoken by small minority populations. In the United States and Canada, for example, all indigenous languages are threatened to some degree, including Navajo in the US, which has the largest number of native speakers at around 150,000, and Cree, which is spoken by about 117,000 in Canada. Among the descendants of immigrant populations in North America, only English and French (in Canada) are considered “safe” languages. Contrary to popular opinion, Spanish as a heritage language in the US is not in a robust state of health among those who were born in this country. The vast majority of fluent native speakers of the language are first-generation immigrants from Latin America. Were the migration of Spanish speakers to the US to cease tomorrow, within a generation the language would be just as critically endangered as, say, Mandarin, Hmong, Somali, Arabic, and a host of other languages brought to the North American continent by immigrants.

There is a small group of languages spoken in North America and elsewhere that are successfully resisting the threat to minority languages worldwide. These include the native tongues of hundreds of thousands of traditional Anabaptists and Orthodox Jews, languages that are coincidentally all members of the Germanic language family. The primary vernacular of most Hasidic Jews is Yiddish, while members of Amish and many traditional Mennonite groups speak languages that descend from regional dialects of German.

Amish family at Niagara Falls (Photo credit: Gila Brand)

The two largest Anabaptist heritage languages are Pennsylvania Dutch, spoken by most Amish and many Old Order Mennonites in the US, Canada, and Belize; and Plautdietsch, a form of Low German used by the descendants of Russian Mennonites, most of whom live in North and South America, especially Mexico, Paraguay, and Bolivia. Pennsylvania Dutch and Plautdietsch each have about 400,000 native speakers. Other Germanic heritage languages spoken by Anabaptists include Hutterite German (Hutterisch) and the languages of the so-called Swiss Amish (Shwitzer) subgroup within the Old Order Amish, most of whom live in Adams and Allen counties in Indiana. The Swiss Amish, who descend from nineteenth-century immigrants from France and Switzerland to North America, speak either a variety of Bernese Swiss or Alsatian German.

These five Anabaptist minority languages, along with Yiddish, are in a robust state of health. Despite being mostly oral vernaculars, they are acquired by children without formal instruction and actively used in a range of informal and formal settings. Four key factors promote the health of these languages.

First, each of these languages has become an important external symbol of group identity and a way of marking the socio-religious distance between their speakers and the larger societies in which they live, a distance that for the Anabaptists is explicitly grounded in their understanding of separation from the world. It should be pointed out, though, that all speakers of these Germanic heritages languages are bilingual and in some cases multilingual, for example, knowing both English and Spanish in addition to their mother tongue.

Hasidic family in Brooklyn, New York (Photo credit: Adam Jones)

A second crucial factor is that these traditional faith communities are strictly endogamous: marrying outside the faith – which would mean marrying someone who does not speak their heritage language – is not an option for those seeking to formally join or, in the case of the Hasidim, remain within the community, which the overwhelming majority do. This high retention rate is the third factor.

Finally, another important plus-point for groups like the Amish, traditional Mennonites, Hutterites, and Hasidim, and not only with respect to language, is their exceptionally high birth rates, which are between three and four times the national averages in the US and Canada. No other human populations anywhere are increasing more rapidly, which means that minority languages like Pennsylvania Dutch, Plautdietsch, and Yiddish are not only surviving but in fact now have the distinction of being fastest growing languages in the world.

For linguists and community members who seek to revitalize endangered languages, there are few practical lessons to be learned from groups like the Amish. Forbidding intermarriage and expecting couples to have at least a half-dozen children are not likely to be popular strategies for even the most ardent members of minority linguistic communities. But speakers of all languages, large and small, safe and endangered, can appreciate the emotional value that traditional Anabaptists and Hasidim attach to tongues that are a tangible connection to a treasured spiritual heritage.

Mennonite family in Campeche, Mexico (Photo credit: Adam Jones, Ph.D.)

When people who grew up speaking the Germanic languages discussed here leave their heritage communities, the shift to English monolingualism is usually swift, typically within one generation. But there are exceptions. In my own experience, I have found that people of Amish background living in Holmes County, Ohio, are more likely to maintain Pennsylvania Dutch than folks in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, or the Elkhart-LaGrange area of northern Indiana. And in places like Mexico and Bolivia, the continued use of Plautdietsch among people no longer affiliated with Old Colony groups is not uncommon. The Ekj Ran (I Run) ministry based in Bolivia is one excellent example.

I will close with the thoughtful reflections of an Amish schoolteacher from Pennsylvania who taught in Mexico as part of the Old Colony Mennonite School Project and whose experience living among Plautdietsch speakers deepened her appreciation of her own native language.

Learning Plattdeutsch allows you to feel more connected with the Russian Mennonite culture. It also opens the door to a very fascinating language. My impression is that Plattdeutsch is somehow more colorful and descriptive than either High German or English. For example, the Plattdeutsch poem and song that the first graders learned one Easter were so alive with meaning. The clear word pictures, the powerful way the emotions of Good Friday and Easter were portrayed in the poetry, seemed singular to me. I have grown to appreciate the beauty of the language.

Speakers of Plattdeutsch seem also to be aware of this beauty and therefore treasure it enough not to lose it. To us, as conservatives from the States, this stands out because of the trend towards English and away from Pennsylvania German in our circles. Among our people, one of the first things lost in a more liberal move is the German language. In Mexico, even the most liberal of the Russian Mennonites retain the speaking of their mother tongue. There are many beautiful Plattdeutsch songs and hymns, and recently Plattdeutsch Bibles and dictionaries are available. Plattdeutsch is still their favorite language to speak, even for those who know High German, Spanish, and English.2


  1. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) maintains excellent resources in endangered languages: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/endangered-languages/atlas-of-languages-in-danger/..
  2. Called to Mexico, Old Colony Mennonite Support, 2011, p. 318..

 

“The Swiss Brethren, as they are called”

On March 31, 2019, following a thematically-diverse, well-attended international colloquium at Bienenberg Theological Seminary on “Anabaptist History and Renewal Movements,” John D. Roth moderated a day-long discussion on the subject of the identity of the Swiss Brethren. This conversation centered around Martin Rothkegel’s challenge to the scholarly consensus, which Arnold Snyder has recently reasserted, concerning the character of this Anabaptist tradition.1 The essential contours of this disagreement are as follows: Snyder (along with most of his colleagues) sees the Swiss Brethren as a transregional confessional movement, rooted in the earliest theological statements of Anabaptists in Switzerland, with a consistent set of distinctive doctrinal and behavioral markers; Rothkegel, meanwhile, posits that the label Swiss Brethren was the name given to an organized, underground network of churches, analogous in structure to Calvinist églises plantées and centered in the Holy Roman Empire, with only incidental links to the Swiss Confederation and early Swiss Anabaptist theological positions and texts.

An excerpt from Heinrich Rützensdorfer’s written defense against accusations raised by the Reformed parishioners of Kilchberg. Staatsarchiv Zürich, E I 7.3, #75 (undated).

This interchange represents a new chapter in debates over group definition which have long characterized historical research into early Anabaptism. This focus persists, in large part, because the categories and models that historians have employed to explain the development of official confessional movements (Lutheran, Catholic, Reformed) during and after the Protestant Reformation cannot be easily applied to marginalized communities of nonconformists. Arguments about who Anabaptists were, what they believed and did, and how they related to each other and to those outside of their communities require creative interpretations of sparser evidence.

This particular iteration of a longer conversation about the identity of the Swiss Brethren is provocative because it encourages reconsideration of basic questions. Which sources matter in determining where the boundaries of the Swiss Brethren community lay? Which methods are most effective in uncovering these sources’ significance? And, at the core of the matter, what is the historical significance of Swiss Anabaptist origins to later Anabaptist-Mennonite traditions?

These questions brought to mind a rare reference to the “Swiss Brethren” in my reading of legal records from Zurich’s territory in the late-sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In May 1595, Markus Wydler, the pastor of the village of Kilchberg, along with a local deputy bailiff and lay elder authored a supplication to Zurich’s city government on behalf of their community.2 They complained of the recent settlement of the glassmaker Heinrich Rützensdorfer “of the Anabaptist sect” and his wife and children in their parish. The new family refused to attend Reformed services. The locals’ efforts to persuade Rützensdorfer and his family to integrate into Reformed parish life had failed. On multiple occasions, the pastor, lay community leaders, and, eventually, Rützensdorfer’s own mother-in-law had visited the couple’s home in order to investigate their religious opinions. Rützensdorfer responded to these approaches, the supplication’s authors claimed, by outlining positions associated with the “Swiss Brethren, as they are called.”3 He would only attend a church that, one, exercised the ban and, two, allowed congregants to correct the preacher when he erred. (In a separate interrogation, Rützensdorfer also expressed unwillingness to swear an oath.)4 Out of fear of the potentially “damaging unrest” that might result from these new arrivals’ presence, the supplicants asked the authorities to remove the Anabaptists, “who had never existed in our parish since the beginning of the Reformation.”

In the framework of Snyder and Rothkegel’s exchange, this document presents intriguing evidence. On the one hand, the document’s authors appear to see continuity in the identity of Anabaptists within Zurich’s territory over time. One sect has been present in the region from the introduction of Zwinglian reform in Zurich to the end of the sixteenth century. At the same time, after diligently examining Rützensdorfer’s stated beliefs, the people of Kilchberg apply a label (Schweizerbruder) to him that authorities in the area simply did not use to refer to local Anabaptists settled permanently in their communities. Officials who governed parishes and bailiwicks inhabited by larger numbers of Anabaptists employed the derogatory labels Wiedertäufer, Täufer, or, in rarer cases, Taufbrüder. In my reading, the use of the name Swiss Brethren attributes a degree of foreignness to Rützensdorfer and his family.

There is a tension within sixteenth-century attempts to categorize the religious community or tradition to which Rützensdorfer belonged which suggest both continuity and change. Examination of other extant records are not particularly helpful in resolving this tension for modern observers. As Christian Scheidegger has shown, Rützensdorfer participated in a reading circle of Schwenckfelders in Zurich proper in the late-1580s before being temporarily expelled from the city.5 Although he continuously refused to attend Reformed services in Kilchberg into the 1610s, Rützensdorfer’s wife eventually participated actively in the life of the parish and regularly sent her children to Reformed religious instruction.6 I have not yet been able to document whether Rützensdorfer established membership in a specific Anabaptist congregation or, indeed, whether he was ever baptized. Still, in addition to his aforementioned statements regarding the proper form of Christian community, Rützensdorfer also used theological argumentation often employed by local Anabaptists when refusing to submit to authorities’ demands for him to leave the territory.7

This set of documents doesn’t provide conclusive evidence about the nature of Swiss Brethren group identity, organization, and theology. Rather, it shows that even contemporary observers struggled to understand the ongoing influence of early Swiss Anabaptism on nonconformists and the forms of nonconformity they encountered in their own time. Although unique in its particulars, this case represents many more which frustrate attempts to make narrow claims about who the Swiss Brethren were. On account of Anabaptists’ marginality, Rützensdorfer’s biography is complicated in ways that many nonconformists’ biographies are complicated. As we continue to refine an understanding of the Swiss Brethren, our models need to be flexible enough to account for this type of evidence. As this post has shown, the task of definition does not necessarily become easier as we move past the turbulence of the early Reformation.


  1. Martin Rothkegel, “Schweizer Brüder,” Mennonitisches Lexicon, vol. 5, updated February 11, 2016, http://www.mennlex.de/doku.php?id=top:schweizer_brueder; Arnold Snyder, “In Search of the Swiss Brethren,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 90, no. 4 (2016): 421-515.
  2. Staatsarchiv Zürich (StAZH), E I 7.3, #74.
  3. The context of the referenced quote follows: “Demnach so habenn wir durch unseren pfarrer un[d] die Ehegoumer zu mehermalen un[d] undersheidenlichen ziten, Inne siner Meinung der Religion halben Laßen erforschen, die dan bey uns ungebrechlich, Insonders wie Er sich deß kilchgange halben wölle halten. do Er sich dan für das ine zu[o] den Schweitzerbrudern, wie man si nennt.”.
  4. StAZH, E I 7.3, #70.
  5. Christian Scheidegger, “Täufergemeinden, hutterische Missionare und schwenckfeldische Nonkonformisten bis 1600,” in Die Zürcher Täufer, 1525-1700., ed. Urs B. Leu and Christian Scheidegger (Zurich: Theologisher Verlag Zürich, 2007), 155.
  6. StAZH, E I 7.4, #43.
  7. During an undated period of imprisonment prior to Rützensdorfer’s settlement in Kilchberg, Zurich’s authorities interrogated him in the Wellenberg tower in the middle of the Limmat river. When he was asked to promise to leave the city’s territory and not return, the prisoner responded by citing Psalm 24:1. Since the earth was was the Lord’s, secular authorities had no ultimate power to determine people’s movement through it, Anabaptists often claimed.