Amish Quilts and Abstract Art

Janneken Smucker

When I began researching the relationship of Amish quilts to the art market about ten years ago, I wanted to find the missing link that proved that abstract minimalist artists—like Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Ellsworth Kelly, and others—painting in bold, graphic blocks of color were inspired by Amish quilts. Surely, some of these artists must have noticed Center Diamond and Bars quilts hanging on the clothes lines in Lancaster County while they tooled about the countryside, right? I had heard a rumor that Frank Stella owned and displayed Navajo blankets, so it didn’t seem like such a stretch. And buried in a exhibition catalog I found a reference to Andy Warhol owning a Lancaster County Amish quilt, but his signature pop art shared more in common with the repeat block patterned quilts of the dominant culture, rather than the graphic minimalism of Amish quiltmakers.1 Maybe, just maybe, there was some hidden connection.

An art historian friend offered to get a message from me to Mark Rothko’s children. I asked if Rothko was familiar with Amish quilts, or if the family ever slept under quilts. His heirs’ answer was an adamant “no,” that this signature color field painter was not at all familiar with the craft. Barnett Newman’s widow fielded a similar question from a folk art curator comparing her late-husband’s work to an Amish bars quilt, stating that his intention was to explore the “subtle relationships between stripes and ground,” whereas a quiltmaker was “carrying out a simple pattern.”2

No_61_Mark_Rothko

“No. 61 (Rust and Blue)”, by Mark Rothko 1953. Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Perhaps it would not be in a prominent living artist’s best interest to acknowledge being inspired by the artistic work of untrained female artists from a relatively closed religious group. The hierarchies between art and craft, between male-trained fine artists and female needleworkers were rigidly defined in the 1960s and ’70s. A Philadelphia Inquirer review of one of the very first exhibits focused narrowly on Amish quilts noted, “It would probably be difficult to secure loans of paintings from abstract artists if the intention were to show them alongside quilts… hard-edge abstract painters…probably would feel chagrined, I should think, to have their efforts compared… with applied arts – albeit excellent, quintessentially American folk arts such as Amish quilts.”3 But these boundaries began to blur as interest in women’s traditional artforms gained prominence, thanks to feminism, the approaching Bicentennial, the counterculture’s interest in applied arts and crafts, and an otherwise expanding art canon.

While Newman and Rothko may not have acknowledged drawing any inspiration from Amish quilts—and indeed I can find no evidence that they did—another artist who painted in a similar vein did. Warren Rohrer, with deep roots in a Mennonite farm family from Smoketown in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, had grown up sleeping under quilts made by his mother and grandmother. Yet despite living in proximity to the Amish in Lancaster County, he never saw one of their quilts until visiting Abstract Design in American Quilts, a 1971 exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art. He described the Amish Bars quilt he saw there as “simple in design, like ‘modern art,’ and brooding in color, like Rothko.”4

Following this introduction to Amish quilts, Rohrer explicitly drew on the minimalism and graphic simplicity inherent in the bedcovers in his paintings. Rohrer’s mid-1970s paintings reflect both his newfound interest in Amish quilts (his paintings Fields: Amish 1, Amish 4, and Amish 5 share a strong resemblance with Lancaster Amish quilts) and a return to his agrarian roots as his minimalist painting recalled the farm fields of his youth.5 This conscious turning to his own Anabaptist, rural history prompted the Inquirer art critic to observe that unlike most abstract painters whose work had been compared to quilts, Warren Rohrer would not mind this association.

Rohrer_settlement_magenta

Warren Rohrer, Settlement Magenta, 1980. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with funds contributed by Henry Strater and Marion Boulton Stroud, 1982

And he and his wife Jane Rohrer also began, in his words, “to search for the ‘perfect Amish quilt,’” buying some with the assistance of Philadelphia antiques dealer Amy Finkle.6 And they found quilts, that seem to my eyes, indeed close to perfect, including this one they later gifted to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

PMA_quilt

Center Square Quilt, Artist/maker unknown, American, Amish, Made in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, c. 1900. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Warren Rohrer, 1982

Penn State’s Palmer Museum of Art is slated to exhibit Rohrer’s paintings along with his wife Jane Turner Rohrer’s poetry in a 2020 show titled From Mennonite Fields: Tradition and Modernism in the Painting and Poetry of Warren and Jane Rohrer, exploring the work of these two artists of Mennonite upbringing. Curated by poet and Penn State professor of English, Julia Spicher Kasdorf; director of the graduate program in Visual Studies at Penn State, Christopher Reed; and Palmer curator Joyce Robinson, the exhibit will also feature Amish quilts from the Rohrer’s collection along with Pennsylvania Dutch painted furniture. The exhibit is funded by a Penn State University Strategic Plan Seed Grant.



  1. Sandra Brant and Elissa Cullman, Andy Warhol’s “Folk and Funk” : September 20, 1977-November 19, 1977 (New York: Museum of American Folk Art, 1977). 
  2. Quoted in Jean Lipman, Provocative Parallels : Naïve Early Americans, International Sophisticates, 1st ed. (New York: Dutton, 1975), 144. 
  3. Victoria Donohue, “Amish Quilts and Abstract Art Blended at ICA,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 8, 1976. 
  4. Warren Rohrer, “My Experience with Quilts (A Bias),” in Pennsylvania Quilts: One Hundred Years, 1830-1930 (Philadelphia: Moore College of Art, 1978). 
  5. David Carrier, Warren Rohrer [Published in Conjunction with the Exhibition “Warren Rohrer: The Language of Mark Making” Held at Allentown Art Museum of the Lehigh Valley, October 23, 2016 – January 22, 2017], (Philadelphia, Pa: Locks Art Publ., 2016), 72–77. 
  6. Rohrer, “My Experience”; Amy Finkel, interview by Janneken Smucker, Philadelphia, PA, May 15, 2008, Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries, https://kentuckyoralhistory.org/catalog/xt71zc7rqw4b. 

What Do Historians Look Like?

Rachel Waltner Goossen

The first time I submitted a piece of scholarship for consideration to an academic journal—at age twenty-one and having just earned B.A. in history—a rejection letter came in quick response.

Why? Because I was young? A woman? Not networked to the journal’s editor and his team? I wasn’t sure, but subsequent discussions with my two college mentors—who had advised my capstone seminar research—backed my notion that the turn-down might have had something to do with all the above. They encouraged me to submit my article to another journal, where a shortened version soon appeared in print.  I’ve never forgotten their professorial advice, helping me make a crucial step forward at the start of my career.1

During the 1980s, when I became a historian, my academic mentors were all male: first at Bethel College, and then in graduate school at the University of California and the University of Kansas. Few women were available in my discipline, history, to serve as role models.

For my first teaching job, a tenure-track position at Goshen College, I joined a department of four male colleagues. It was clear from our conversations that they had been motivated to hire the first woman historian in the institution’s one-hundred-year history. I appreciated the support I received as a young faculty member at Goshen. But it took another half-decade, and accepting a job offer from another institution, before I had the opportunity to work alongside women historians daily and reap the benefits of having a more diverse set of colleagues.

This summer, I’ve been encouraging historian friends, including former students who have entered the profession, to sign up as participants in a new online database, “Women Also Know History.” It is an initiative for historians, and I’m prompting Mennonite/Anabaptist women historians, as a subset of that larger whole, to sign on. And I’d like to see the database utilized by all, regardless of gender. For example, if you or a colleague plan to organize a panel or conference in the next year, consider searching the website to become informed about qualified women working in your field.

CrossingtheLineWrapupSession

Jenae Longenecker speaks at the “Crossing the Line” history conference, Eastern Mennonite University, June 2017. Photo credit: Ann Hostetler

Many Anabaptist/Mennonite scholars, like our colleagues in the broader academy, are prone to imagine historians as white men, often because we’ve been educated and mentored by individuals who, due to gender, gravitas, or both, resemble those who helped me along early in my career: Keith Sprunger, James Juhnke, Robert S. Kreider, and others.

This gender bias—often implicit—is hardly limited to those of us who employed by colleges and universities. It extends to journalists, who reach out to historians to offer perspectives on topics both past and present, and who may not think twice before calling on men they’ve long known and relied upon. And gender bias extends to members of the broader public, too; for example, consumers of television news programs who see, exasperatingly often, all-male panels of commentators.

The “Women Also Know History” initiative is a networking tool, and it’s easy to use. The website is designed so that anyone interested in organizing a conference panel, designing a course syllabus, or reaching out for informed commentary on a given subject can learn about (and potentially contact) qualified, knowledgeable women. The goal is to bring more gender balance to scholarly and journalistic enterprises.2

Launched on June 5, the website now includes more than 2,500 women with historical training and expertise from around the world.  It represents a new strategy to increase the visibility and voices of qualified women, to level the playing field, to diversify perspectives.3 This resource—open to women historians from a variety of backgrounds, including graduate students, public historians, museum professionals, and others—is inspired by “Women Also Know Stuff,” a similar endeavor begun two years ago through a collaboration of political scientists. Christina Wolbrecht, one of the organizers of that site, says that her editorial board “supports efforts to combat implicit bias in every discipline and every country . . . . We enthusiastically encourage efforts to build similar initiatives for other groups of underrepresented scholars and within other disciplines.”4

The new historians’ database is an easy-to-use tool for scholars and journalists to find and network with women working in a range of professional fields. Any woman who registers can choose how much she wants to include about the depth and breadth of her scholarship. For those visiting the website, benefits quickly accrue as one scrolls through profiles of historians and begins to make connections across topics, geographical settings, and generations.

Since I entered the historical profession thirty-five years ago, women’s visibility in many subject areas has increased. In the field of Anabaptist/Mennonite scholarship, this evolution has never been more evident than at the “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” conference, hosted in June 2017 by Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia. Academics and independent scholars serving on the planning committee crafted a program with panel after panel of historical and interdisciplinary presentations featuring scholars and artists from five continents.

With the “Crossing the Line” theme highlighting literal and metaphorical boundary-crossings, we considered how gender has influenced interpretations of Anabaptist and Mennonite history. Professor and novelist Sofia Samatar, reflecting during a plenary session with humor and insight on her upbringing in Mennonite and Muslim subcultures, reminded participants of the cultural richness that comes from narrating histories from a variety of perspectives. Because of the ways in which certain topics have been gendered, some topics receive more visibility while others receive less.  Hearing from women (not just men) on panels enriches all listeners because different histories are likely to be told, and in different ways.

Samatar concluded: “We need all the women’s voices we can get.”5 In that spirit, the new database “Women Also Know History” is a welcome resource for us all.

Rachel Waltner Goossen is professor of history at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas.


  1.  More than thirty-five years later, the article is still cited occasionally in the work of other scholars.  Rachel Waltner, “From Anabaptism to Mennonitism:  The Mennonite Encyclopedia as a Historical Document,” Mennonite Life 37 (December 1982): 13-19. 
  2. Nell Gluckman, “Female Historians Try to End the ‘I Didn’t Know Any Women’ Excuse for All-Male Panels,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 22 June 2018, A-23. 
  3. For an example of earlier strategizing by women in a specifically Mennonite context, see Dorothy Nickel Friesen, The Pastor Wears a Skirt: Stories of Gender and Ministry (Eugene, Oregon:  Resource Publications, 2018), 21-22. 
  4.  Quoted in Keisha N. Blain and Karin Wulf, “’Women Also Know History’:  Dismantling Gender Bias in the Academy,” History News Network, 9 June 2018, https:  historynewsnetwork.org/article/169254. 
  5.  Samatar, “In Search of Women’s Histories,” presented 24 June 2018, Crossing the Line:  Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries conference, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia; see Ben Goossen, “In Search of Women’s Histories:  Crossing Space, Crossing Communities, Crossing Time at Crossing the Line,” Anabaptist Historians, 27 June 2017, https://anabaptisthistorians.org/tag/anabaptist-identity/page/3/. 

Collection Highlights Lancaster County Trolleys

Steve Ness

In 2010 the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society (LMHS) accepted a marvelous collection of materials related to the Conestoga Traction Company, a trolley company that operated routes throughout Lancaster County in the first half of the twentieth century. Howard E. Ressler (1907-1967), whose father, John Earl Ressler, was a conductor with the company, compiled the collection, which consists chiefly of photographs.

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Most of the photographs feature trolley cars on various lines in Lancaster County, although a few are shown outside the county. Some photos show the old and the new train stations in Lancaster City and maps of trolley routes. Along with the photographs are letters and photo documentation that Ressler received from other trolley enthusiasts and rail fans around the country.

Elizabeth Keener, an intern at LMHS, recently finished scanning all 380 photographs that are part of this fine collection. These photos, and their corresponding catalog records, can be viewed online through the LMHS Archival Catalog. To locate them, go to lmhs.pastperfectonline.com/photo and type “ressler howard” in the search box. Direct questions about the collection to Steve Ness (library@lmhs.org).

“I’m likin’ Pennsylvania Dutch”

Mark L. Louden 

A decade ago, my wife, daughter, and I lived in Freiburg, Germany, for a year. Our daughter, who turned five that year, attended a wonderful preschool there, but had some adjustment problems at first and often cried at drop-off. I would smile, wave good-bye, and tell her I loved her, at first in English, and then, after a few weeks, in German. We soon settled into a comfortable routine, and I continued to say Ich liebe dich to her, until one day the mother of another child turned to me and, with a hint of consternation in her voice, asked me where I was from. When I told her we were American, she said that although she also loved her child, she would never say Ich liebe dich at drop-off. It was too emotional or serious an expression to be used in such an everyday situation, she informed me.

mEven though I felt a bit defensive at the time, I realized that the woman was right, lieben-related words are marked by more linguistic gravitas in German than their love counterparts in English. When McDonald’s introduced their “I’m lovin’ it” branding campaign in 2003, Germans were notably uncomfortable with the sound of Ich liebe es. If they feel awkward telling their children they love them, imagine the problem they would have directing that expression toward burgers and fries. It is no accident that McDonald’s restaurants in all other European countries with linguistic sensibilities similar to those of Germany, including Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands, and the Nordic countries, avoided the problem by simply using the English slogan.

Although Pennsylvania Dutch speakers have essentially been cut off from German-speaking Europe since the eighteenth century, and conversational routines from English have been adopted into their heritage language, many patterns of German speech endure in the varieties spoken by Amish and traditional Mennonites today, including how the verb liewe ‘to love’ and noun Liewi ‘love’ are used. Their meanings are rooted in the Christian notion of agape rather than romantic or even brotherly love. Gott liebt sei Kinner ‘God loves his children’ is perfectly fine, but Plain parents, in speaking of their own children, are more apt to say, Mir gleiche unser Kinner literally ‘We like our children’, using a native German verb, gleiche, that originally meant ‘to resemble’ but under the semantic influence of English now means ‘to like’. Just as the German mom who called me onto the linguistic carpet at my daughter’s preschool, Amish and traditional Mennonite parents do not love their children any less than other parents do. Pennsylvania Dutch speakers, like their distant linguistic cousins in Europe, are simply inclined toward understatement relative to their English-monolingual neighbors.

sis addlich waarm heit

The Plain Anabaptist tendency toward verbal humility is clearly reinforced by a concern to always aim to speak the truth. Expressions such as I’m starving, I died laughing, or even It’s hot outside today that are commonplace in English are all but nonexistent in Pennsylvania Dutch. Acceptable equivalents would be Ich kennt esse ‘I could eat’, Ich hab hatt glacht ‘I laughed hard’, and S’is addlich waarm heit ‘It’s quite warm today’, even if the temperature were well above ninety degrees. The concern with using the adjective hees ‘hot’ in reference to the weather has to do with wanting to avoid a comparison, even unintentionally, between the world and hell. Boiling water or a hot stove can be called hees; in fact, for safety reasons, hot objects must be identified as such (Geb acht, sell is hees! ‘Watch out, that’s hot!’). In such cases, however, there is no risk of making unwanted comparisons.

Exercising verbal caution is reflected in another way that Pennsylvania Dutch is used by Amish and Mennonites, namely with regard to pregnancy. It may come as a surprise that in the language used in communities whose birth rates are between triple and quadruple that of the U.S. general population there is no native word for ‘pregnant’. In the monumental Comprehensive Dictionary of Pennsylvania German compiled by the late C. Richard Beam, there is an entry for schwanger, which is also the German word for ‘pregnant’, yet Beam notes that it is “not used much anymore but up until 1960, it was used.”1 It is probably no coincidence that it was around that time that Plain (sectarian) speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch came to outnumber their “Fancy” (nonsectarian) counterparts, who were more likely to describe pregnant women as schwanger. So what do Amish and Mennonites say? In general, people avoid talking openly about pregnancy, but when they do, the most common expression is an ekschpeckte sei ‘to be expecting’, as in Sie is an ekschpeckte ‘She is expecting’. This is a doubly indirect turn of phrase since it is both a euphemism and a borrowing from English.

Out of curiosity, I consulted the equivalent of Beam’s Comprehensive Dictionary for Palatine German, the Pfälzisches Wörterbuch, which documents the European source dialects of Pennsylvania Dutch. Schwanger is listed, yet with the comment that the word is usually avoided in favor of euphemisms, such as aufgebündelt sein ‘to be bundled up’ and die Täsche voll haben ‘to have full pockets’. Intriguingly, the first synonym listed in the dictionary for schwanger is pattersch, a word borrowed from Yiddish that refers to animal pregnancies.2 This is neither humorous nor disrespectful, but similar to the double indirectness involved in the borrowed euphemism an ekschpeckte sei.

The caution surrounding discussions of pregnancy characteristic of the Old Orders is not as common today among younger Central Europeans, however certain traditions connected with pregnancy that distinguish both Germans and Plain people from mainstream Americans endure. The most obvious one is the relative rarity of baby showers in Germany (and many other countries around the world), which are nonexistent in Old Order culture. For traditional Anabaptists, to assume that all will go well with a pregnancy, which is implicit in baby showers, is understood as prideful thinking, a serious transgression from a Christian perspective. Germans, as members of a highly secular culture, are more inclined to view a baby shower as just a “bad omen.” However, in recent years, among younger German women, at least, the baby shower – called a Babyparty in German – has joined McDonald’s, Halloween, and cheerleaders in the array of American popular cultural imports.

Another way that Plain people’s views on events that have not yet occurred are encoded into their Pennsylvania Dutch is in the expression, so mir lewe un’s der Harr sei Wille is ‘if we live and it is the Lord’s will’, a turn of phrase that is certainly not unfamiliar to other Americans, including Johnny Cash in his song If the Good Lord’s Willing (lyrics by Jerry Reed) with its signature line, “If the good Lord’s willing and the creeks don’t rise.” Amish and Mennonites, like their English-monolingual neighbors, cannot avoid planning for the future, but there is always a contingency that is encoded linguistically. Interactions such as this are the norm: Sind dihr an figgere mit noch Indiana geh? — Ja, sell is was der Plaen is ‘Are you (pl.) figuring on going along to Indiana? – Yes, that’s the plan’.

The fundamental open-endedness of what may lie ahead among traditional Anabaptist speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch makes their use of future tense verb forms interesting. Older varieties of the language, especially those spoken by the historical nonsectarian majority (people of mainly Lutheran and German Reformed background), resembled European German in the lack of a distinct future tense. A simple expression like Ich geh mit (Ich gehe mit in German) could mean either ‘I go along’ in a habitual sense (e.g., every time my friends go to Indiana, I accompany them), ‘I’m going along’ (right now), or ‘I will go along’ (next week). English differs from German in this regard by typically drawing a clear verbal line between present and future time, e.g., I go along vs. I will go along (or I’m going to go along). Modern sectarian Pennsylvania Dutch, almost certainly due to the influence of English, has developed two auxiliary (helping) verbs that mark future time (similar to English will/be going to), both of which are derived from metaphoric uses of counting or calculating verbs with reference to future events: zeele or (zelle) from the verb zaehle ‘to count’ and figgere, which is derived from English to figure. The difference between the two is largely regional/generational, with younger Midwestern Amish using figgere more frequently than older Midwesterners or sectarians of any age from a Lancaster-affiliated community.

That a group of speakers who are averse to speaking with certainty about the future would actually develop (albeit unconsciously) dedicated future tense forms is, on the face of it, anomalous. How are zeele and figgere used? In sentences like Sind dihr an figgere mit noch Indiana geh?, when the auxiliary is used in a progressive expression (marked by an), it has the meaning of to intend to (do something). If figgere (or zeele) is used as a normal helping verb, the future becomes more definite: Ich figger noch Indiana geh means ‘I will go to Indiana.’ Such sentences are problematic, as I myself learned many years ago. My first exposure to Pennsylvania Dutch was through Lancaster-affiliated speakers, thus I was unfamiliar with the use of figgere. After moving to Texas and living in an Amish community there, I acquired Midwestern Pennsylvania Dutch. On one occasion, I was discussing plans to drive an Amish couple to Oklahoma and made the mistake of saying Ich figger ken Accident hawwe, by which I meant to say ‘I’m not planning on having an accident’ but was understood by my friends as ‘I won’t have an accident’. The wife immediately corrected me by saying, Du HOFFSCHT, du hoscht ken Accident! ‘You HOPE you don’t have an accident!’

Examples of the acceptable uses of the future tense in Pennsylvania Dutch can be found in Di Heilich Shrift, the Pennsylvania Dutch translation of the Bible, which was completed in 2013. The first instance of a zeele form (spelled zayla) is in Genesis 2:16-17:

Un Gott da Hah hott em mann en gebott gevva un hott ksawt, “Du kansht essa funn awl di baym im goahra; avvah fumm bohm funn di eisicht funn goot un evil solsht du nett essa. Fa im dawk vann du esht difunn zaylsht du gevislich shteahva.”

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” (NRSV)

It is, of course, entirely appropriate for God, who has perfect knowledge of what will or could come to pass, to employ a future tense form when quoted in Pennsylvania Dutch.

The status of the future tense in sectarian Pennsylvania Dutch connects to a very interesting area of inquiry linking linguistics with psychology and economics. In general, human languages fall into one of two groups as far distinguishing the present from the future time goes in their grammars. English and sectarian Pennsylvania Dutch, in which there is a clear distinction between the present and the future in the verbal system, are “strong future languages.” German, on the other hand, is a “weak future language” because the difference between the present and the future tenses is blurred.

In 2013, an economist from Yale published the results of a fascinating study that showed a significant correlation between the use of strong future or weak future languages and personal economic and lifestyle behaviors.3 Specifically, speakers of weak future languages like German were more likely to save more of their income, smoke less, and generally maintain their health better than speakers of strong future languages like English. The conclusion that the Yale researcher drew was that speakers of weak future languages, such as Germans, for whom the future is in a real sense “closer” to the present, are more likely to invest, literally, in their futures, than British, Anglo-Canadians, and Americans, who speak a strong future language.

Lest one think that Germans’ overall healthier outlook on their futures might be due to cultural or historical factors independent of the grammar of their language, the Yale researcher looked closely at two European countries in which both strong future and weak future languages are spoken, namely Switzerland and Belgium. He found statistically significant personal economic and lifestyle differences between speakers of German and Flemish Dutch (which is also a weak future language), on the one side, and those who spoke French, Italian, and Romansh, which are strong future languages like English. The German and Flemish speakers saved more and smoked less than their Romance-speaking counterparts, even in the same city, Brussels.

How might the historical development of Pennsylvania Dutch from a weak future language to a strong future language reflect sectarian faith and culture? A major distinctive of Plain thought is the recognition that life in this world is fleeting; traditional Anabaptists hold that eternal life is much more important than worrying about one’s earthly legacy. Plain sectarians’ de-emphasis of materialism, in line with I John 2:15-17, as well as their inclination to be more accepting of death than what is found in mainstream American culture, could well be interpreted as fitting for speakers of a strong future language. The relatively clear distinction between the present and future for sectarians and monolingual English speakers alike may indeed be connected to certain attitudes and behaviors, albeit radically different ones. For Plain Pennsylvania Dutch, the focus is on the one half of the divide – a hoped-for future in heaven – while mainstream Americans are more concerned with the other half, making the most of the here and now.

One of the most astute observers of the relationship between language and worldview was the linguist Edward Sapir (1884–1939), who noted, “It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection.”4 Amish and traditional Mennonites have inherited a language with roots in German-speaking Europe, yet use it and have even altered its structure to fit a reality, spiritual and material, rooted in their abiding faith.


  1. Beam, C. Richard and Jennifer L.Trout, The Comprehensive Pennsylvania German Dictionary, Vol. 9: S, Center for Pennsylvania German Studies, 2006, p. 313. 
  2. Christmann, Ernst, Julius Krämer, and Rudolf Post, Pfälzisches Wörterbuch, Franz Steiner Verlag, 1965–1998. (Entry on schwanger accessible here: http://woerterbuchnetz.de/cgi-bin/WBNetz/wbgui_py?sigle=PfWB). 
  3. Chen, M. Keith, “The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets,” American Economic Review 103 (2), April 2013, pp. 690–731. (Accessible here: https://www.aeaweb.org/articles?id=10.1257/aer.103.2.690.) 
  4. Sapir, Edward, Culture, Language and Personality, University of California Press, 1958, p. 69. 

Scattered Among Strangers

In the mid-seventeenth century, Dutch Mennonites inquired with increasing persistence into reports of Swiss Reformed governments’ mistreatment of Anabaptists living in their rural territories.1 In response to these expressions of concern, nonconformists in Zurich sought to provide their own testimony of what they had experienced. The primary result of this effort was Jeremias Mangold’s True Report . . . Concerning the Tribulations Which Came Upon Them, a description of the suffering of Anabaptist women and men, and their children, during a campaign of repression instigated by the city’s council in 1635.2 “It is not possible with a few words to tell of the great tribulation and cruelty which came upon us, as well as our wives, children, the aged, the sick, those with child, and those nursing—how they dealt with us poor subjects so harshly, inhumanely, and mercilessly,” Mangold wrote.3 Despite a recognition of the limited capacity of language to capture the breadth of their hardships, community members had contributed to a “short, simple, sure, and true account” of what had occurred. As the text revealed, the detention of Anabaptists and their separation from their children stood at the center of nonconformists’ understanding of the source of their suffering.

Oetenbach_Image

Detail from Jos Murer’s woodcut Der uralten wytbekannten Statt Zurych gestalt und gelaegenhait… (Zurich, 1576) depicting the Oetenbach cloister, which lay just inside the city’s walls. By the 1630s, the city’s council had converted the complex into an orphanage, workhouse, and prison and used it to incarcerate scores of Anabaptist women and men who lived in the surrounding countryside.

For a period of more than a century after the city’s reformation, Zurich’s government had sought to achieve uniformity of religious belief and practice in the territory under its control. The authorities had employed a variety of means, including social exclusion, financial penalties, and control of physical mobility, to compel Anabaptist conformity. Yet, despite the existence of a stable legal framework under which nonconformists could be prosecuted, officials had not implemented penalties systematically. Exemplary punishment of male Anabaptist leaders achieved only short-lived successes. Nonconformists continued to threaten the unity and health of the sacred society which authorities believed they had been ordained to institute and protect.

In the mid-seventeenth century, the council extended the scope of its repression. Frustrated by Anabaptists’ ongoing unwillingness to agree to their basic demand to either conform or leave, the authorities decided to incarcerate both nonconformist men and women in large numbers and to relocate their children, now separated from their parents, into Reformed households throughout the region. In the eyes of the authorities, given the failure of previous initiatives to address Anabaptists’ intransigence, this tactic was a lamentable but necessary means to achieve what they deemed a public good, the elimination of Anabaptist religious culture and the removal of nonconformists from the social body. “But as long as the Anabaptists . . . neither want to move away, nor be obedient, is not an Honorable Government compelled to take such a disobedient people into civil custody?” they asked.4

Thus, the breaking up of Anabaptist families became routine. Reports of family separation punctuate the True Report’s biographical vignettes which relate the details of each Anabaptist family’s experience. When Rudolph Hägi and his wife were detained in the orphanage-cum-prison of Oetenbach—Hägi for a period of eighty-three weeks–their five children were “scattered . . . from house and home among strangers.”5 The children of Adelheid Egli, the daughter-in-law of the martyred Anabaptist Hans Landis, suffered a similar fate during the nearly four years she survived in confinement.6 Anabaptist parents who agreed to leave the territory in exchange for their freedom later returned, incurring significant personal risk to find their daughters and sons. Mangold, describing the actions of the expelled Anabaptist Jacob Gochnauer, reported that “when he came into the area again to search for his scattered children, he walked into the hands of the enemies on the street, and they took him prisoner.”7

Evidence of family separation also appears in the city’s archived financial records. When Anna Peter and her husband Hans Müller, a miller from the small rural settlement of Edickon and an Anabaptist deacon, were imprisoned in Oetenbach for more than a year, their nine-year-old twins and three-year-old son were handed over to Müller’s Reformed brother, while their eighteen-month-old daughter was placed in the home of Müller’s Reformed brother-in-law, an official with policing functions in a nearby village government. The authorities mandated that these children be billeted and supervised without any support from the common funds.8

Members of local Anabaptist communities, who had survived in hostile conditions for decades, recognized that the breaking up of families represented a departure from a previous punitive regime. They lamented this punishment over any other. In addition to concern about the physical well-being of children–who were now “buffeted about among strangers, looked down upon, scolded, and mocked”—Anabaptists also harbored fears about the long-term consequences of their children’s separation from “fatherly and motherly care.”9 Who would supply their children’s needs and with what intentions? Who would protect them as they matured? Who would care for their spiritual well-being? Who would they become? How these questions would be answered had grave implications for the maintenance of fragile community life.

If anything, the authorities believed that separating children from their Anabaptist parents would improve their lot; integrated into the life of the Reformed parish, children stood a chance at social and spiritual restoration.10 Yet, this remained the secondary benefit of a coercive program with a more important objective. By exerting intolerable pressure on Anabaptist parents, the breaking up of families forced them to choose between conformity or exit. This practice helped authorities articulate a basic message: “We do not want you here, at least not as you are.” Within a few years after the implementation of this program, there was no longer an Anabaptist presence in Zurich. The government’s project of religious and cultural purification found success.

 


  1. Translated editions of many of the records produced by these inquiries and the efforts of mutual aid that followed are found in Documents of Brotherly Love: Dutch Mennonite Aid to Swiss Anabaptists, Volume I, 1635- 1709, trans. James W. Lowry, ed. David J. Rempel Smucker and John L. Ruth (Millersburg, Oh.: Ohio Amish Library, 2007), and Letters on Toleration: Dutch Aid to Persecuted Swiss and Palatine Mennonites, 1615-1699, ed. and trans. Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs (Rockport, Maine: Picton, 2004). 
  2. All subsequent passages cited from this work, originally titled “Ein Warhafftiger Bericht, Von den Brüdern im Schweitzerland, in dem Zürcher Gebiet, Wegen der Trübsalen welche über sie ergangen seyn, um des Evangeliums willen; Von dem 1635sten bis in das 1645ste Jahr,” are taken from Lowry’s full translation in Documents, 24-83. On the attribution of authorship of this manuscript to Mangold, see Documents, 25n1. 
  3.  Documents, 27. 
  4. Johann Heinrich Ott to Isaac Hattavier (July 1645), translated in Documents, 103. Here, Ott, a Reformed minister defending the Zurich government’s actions to Hattavier, a merchant representing the interests of Dutch Mennonites, paraphrased an anti-Anabaptist tract known as the Manifest, published and disseminated by the city council in 1639. The original passage is found in Täufer und Reformierte im Disput: Texte des 17. Jahrhunderts über Verfolgung und Toleranz aus Zürich und Amsterdam, ed. Philip Wälchli, Urs Leu, and Christian Scheidegger (Zug: Achius, 2010), 104. 
  5.  Documents, 43. 
  6.  Documents, 61. 
  7.  Documents, 73. 
  8. Staatsarchiv Zürich, F I 190, 253. There is no mention of the removal of Peter and Müller’s children in the True Report. 
  9.  Documents, 81-83. 
  10. Reformed authorities considered children’s attendance at regular catechetical classes in the parish church an essential step in young people’s spiritual formation. Anabaptist parents regularly impeded their children from attending Reformed religious instruction. 

The Mausts at Stone Mountain

Over the last year, as my grandmother, Evelyn Brunk Maust, neared the end of her life and then passed away, I started looking at family pictures. At Christmas, I looked through scrapbooks as she slept in her chair. In May, as we prepared to bury her, we looked through many more. And last week, as most of the family gathered at a beach house for a vacation, we looked at a couple hundred slides.

Petrified_Forest[1]

Evelyn, Dennis, and Robert Maust pose in the Petrified Forest National Park.

David Thelen and Roy Rosenzweig included looking at family photos as one way of engaging with the past in their landmark study The Presence of the Past, and now I understand why. I was able to see past editions of these people I love, versions I will never meet. I was able to catch glimpses of their world: to see how my grandparents’ house evolved and how the neighboring campus of Eastern Mennonite University has changed and remained constant.

There were flashes of the present too. Nearly every photo of my dad and my uncle was accompanied by an outburst of “He looks like [my cousin/me/my cousin’s children]!” The boys in the slides, now in their seventh decade of life, retained fresh memories too: of people, places, and sartorial choices.

IMG-3213 (1)

I believe those folks facing the camera are members of the Brunk family. Photo by unknown photographer, circa 1940.

Because of my interest in public history, I paid special attention to the photos of relatives at historic sites. In the scrapbook, for instance, I found a photo of my grandmother’s family visiting Mount Vernon. In the slideshow, there were many more history sites.

When my father was a boy, his family spent many of their summers in Pigeon, Michigan, with his father Earl’s extended family. Several summers, however, they embarked on massive road trips. On these odysseys, the Mausts made stops at various national parks and tourist attractions.

Ship[1]

Dennis and Robert Maust in front of one of the ships they visited.

Historic ships have their own special appeal, and the Maust family visited at least two of them. They visited Plymouth Rock too. The rock, inscribed with the year “1620,” was identified as the landing place of the first Pilgrim immigrants by a ninety-five year-old man in 1741 and moved multiple times over the last centuries.1

Indian[1]

An unnamed interpreter in American Indian dress poses for a photo, location and date unknown.

The western trips included stops at the St. Louis Arch, giant redwoods, at least one spot that had a person in American Indian ceremonial costume, and Mount Rushmore. Perhaps more surprisingly, on a trip through Georgia, the Mausts visited Stone Mountain. Their visit was probably soon after the site—which features carvings of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson—opened to the public as a state park on the centenary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

General_Sherman[1]

Dennis, Earl, and RobertMaust sit in front of the tree named “General Sherman” in Sequoia National Park.

What were the lessons at all of these sites in the 1960s? Despite Denise Meringolo’s uncovering of radical precedents of public history, the historic sites and monuments of the mid-twentieth century were overwhelmingly nationalistic and concerned with privileged Americans. Many of these sites, both private and public, explicitly aimed to teach visitors how to be American; that is, how to assimilate to a specific strand of American culture. House museums and period rooms, for instance, were used to display idealized American homes and teach the values which informed the décor choices.

The sites visited by my family probably saw themselves fulfilling the same purpose to varying degrees. The messages at historic ships and Plymouth Rock likely centered around eighteenth century European immigration. Across the American west, history sites largely told the story of Manifest Destiny. Did the Mausts hear anything about the “Six Grandfathers” on the South Dakotan mountain which were replaced by four white presidents? Surely the word “genocide” did not appear on any plaques or on any tour guide’s tongue.

Mt._Rushmore[1]

A Maust photo of Mount Rushmore, undated.

Evelyn and Earl Maust were mainstream Mennonites for their time. Earl achieved several degrees in music and education and Evelyn was a nurse. Earl served in Puerto Rico in Civilian Public Service. Together they had traveled through Europe. So what did they take away from any of these places? Did they feel patriotic fervor at Mount Rushmore? Or alienation? Did they feel American? Did they settle for awe at the size and and skill evident in the carving?

Perhaps more intriguingly, what did they take away from Stone Mountain? To what extent had the nurse from Harrisonburg, Virginia, and the choral director from Pigeon, Michigan, internalized the Lost Cause narrative? Did they know that Stone Mountain was the site of the re-founding of the KKK in 1915? Earl participated in a march led by Martin Luther King Jr. in Nashville just a few years before. How do we square these events in one family’s life? What was the Mausts’ racial consciousness in the mid 1960s? Were Earl and Evelyn just attracted by the novelty of the new state park?

Stone_Mt[1]

Dennis and Robert Maust pose in front of Stone Mountain.

These are questions I suspect I’ll never have answers to. My grandmother left behind some diaries and correspondence which might shed light on her tourist experience, but knowing her, any observations would likely be enigmatic and brief. My grandfather, who passed away fifty years ago this fall, left these slides and little else, I think.

Why do I pose these questions? By the late 1960s, over a million and a half Americans visited Mount Rushmore each year. I suspect that the Mausts were not the only Mennonites among that number. Considering how Mennonites and other Anabaptist groups engaged with American public history sites at the high tide of their nationalist focus could provide an important data point in the story of twentieth century Anabaptist life and these communities’ relationship with the state. Perhaps more importantly, considering Anabaptist reactions to sites such as Mount Rushmore and Stone Mountain which directly or indirectly commemorate white supremacy and genocide might provide important context for those working to dismantle racial injustice in the present. For those of my parents’ generation, understanding their parents’ engagement or disassociation with mainstream American culture through this lens might be enlightening as they consider their own identity as American Anabaptists.

What messages conveyed by these sites were comfortable to mid-century Anabaptists? Which ones were uncomfortable? Even glimpses into the answers to these questions might be illuminating as contemporary Anabaptists confront an uncomfortable present.

Special thanks to Robert Maust for digitizing these slides on short notice. 

 


  1. James Thacher, History of the Town of Plymouth: From Its First Settlement in 1620 to the Year 1832 (Boston: Marsh, Capen & Lyon, 1832), 29-30: http://books.google.com/books?id=IWWLjiaEs2AC. Also, here’s a great home video of Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock ca. 1960: https://vimeo.com/32595596. 

A Train Wreck and a Hair Picture

It’s a well-known story.

It was July 25, 1896, and there had been a party at the home of John Musser in Witmer, Pennsylvania, and many young Mennonites had gathered to socialize, perhaps discussing the quarterly mission meeting that had been held a few days earlier, perhaps not. Some time before midnight the party broke up, and everybody went their separate ways.1

Three buggies went together down Old Philadelphia Pike, now Route 340, towards Bird-in-Hand. Chatting from carriage to carriage, they did not hear the east bound train approaching at the Bird-in-Hand curve—not a regularly scheduled train, but a special service, carrying militia troops home from an encampment.

“At the Bird it happened,” wrote Jakob M. Barge, recounting the incident to a son who had moved west. The first buggy, carrying Amos Landis and his girlfriend barely made it across, but the second, carrying Jakob’s son Enos, and Barbara Hershey, stopped on the tracks, horse rearing. “Enos was struck by an engine, his horse killed, his lady friend [Barbara Hershey] was killed and he has lost his right arm.” Jakob did not mention that Enos had been found thirty feet from his right arm. The next day, Enos would succumb to his wounds and die in the Lancaster hospital.2

This event is usually remembered for its tremendous impact on the young people of Lancaster Conference. Barbara Hershey’s funeral possession had three hundred carriages. At Enos Barge’s funeral, more than a thousand vehicles arrived at Strasburg for the funeral, three times the capacity of the meetinghouse.

Amos D. Wenger, already in Lancaster County at the time, was leading almost-but-not-quite-revival meetings that gained greater attention and following after the accident. Young people started to look at baptism and joining the church at a younger age—as opposed to waiting for marriage. Indeed, baptismal classes were larger than normal that summer, with about five hundred young people becoming church members. The impact of this was felt long through the conference on the account of the energy the young people brought in.

IMG_20180621_084543

“Hair Picture,” in Decorated and Plain: A Mennonite and Amish Sampler.

But there is also a perhaps less important impact of this story. In 1882, Sarah Lucinda Hershey made a hair picture of herself and her siblings—including Barbara Hershey. It is a fascinating thing—a punch card background, neatly framed in wood with the first initial carefully stitched below each of the thirteen locks of hair. Each lock of hair, some braided, others loosely gathered, is neatly bundled with ribbon. In the middle, “A Token of Love” with cross-stitched flowers with silk other and feathers as finishing touches. The piece came to the Society’s collection through a non-Mennonite antique dealer, and little is known during the time period between its construction and its purchase by the Society.3

I am looking for other similar hair memorials, in any form, that have Mennonite connections to provide comparative analysis. If you know of one, please connect with me through the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society.


  1. This telling of the story is based on the account in John L. Ruth, The Earth is the Lord’s: A Narrative History of Lancaster Mennonite Conference (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2001), 726-727. 
  2. Jakob M. Barge to Frank Barge, July 26, 1896, in Decorated and Plain: A Mennonite and Amish Sampler in the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society Museum, Lancaster, Pa. 
  3. “Hair Picture,” in Decorated and Plain: A Mennonite and Amish Sampler