Edgar Metzler’s “Let’s Talk About Extremism” (1968).

Let’s Talk About Extremism

Edgar Metzler

Originally published as Edgar Metzler, Let’s Talk About Extremism. Focal Pamphlet Series No. 12 (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1968).

© 2021 by Edgar J. Metzler. All Rights Reserved. Introduction © 2021 by Maxwell Kennel.

Edited by Maxwell Kennel

Editorial Introduction

In 1968 a Mennonite pastor and peace worker named Edgar Metzler published a short booklet in the popular “Focal Pamphlet” series published by Herald Press – a series that includes other more widely read works by Mennonite historians and theologians like Harold S. Bender and J. Lawrence Burkholder. The brief preface on the inside cover gives some indication of its purpose and audience in the context of the American Mennonite experience during the late 1960s.

This pamphlet is prepared to stimulate the Christian’s peace testimony. Christians need constantly to return to the Bible to discover the message of the gospel. This message must be translated into living terms by every generation. The S. F. Coffman Peace Lectures are sponsored by the Committee on Peace and Social Concerns of the Mennonite Church. They are financed by an individual who has an interest in the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ as it relates to the social needs and the international tensions of the world in which we live.

Metzler’s text is situated amidst the international tensions alluded to above, particularly racial tensions and violence in the United States during the Vietnam War era. The pamphlet is titled Let’s Talk About Extremism, but what the author means by the term “extremism” calls for explanation, some of which the author provides in the first section of the text below.

Although other pamphlets in the series were more widely read, Let’s Talk About Extremism has only been cited a few times since it was published – most recently in a survey of definitions of radicalism and extremism.1 The lack of scholarly or public engagement with the text in the years since it was published is a problem that I hope to remedy in this edition.

In short, the argument of the pamphlet is that how we think about the relationship between extreme or opposed positions – whether they are political, religious, social, or a combination of all three – matters deeply. For Metzler, ways of thinking and knowing, or what scholars call “epistemologies,” are just as important for the Christian peace witness as more visible manifestations of violence like killing or war. Whereas Metzler refers to “extremism,” today we tend to refer to the problems he addresses by using the term “polarization.” In response to these problems, Metzler calls his readers to consider how hard oppositions between liberals and conservatives are clarified when we think about not only what we think, but also how we think, and how we express what we think.

But rather than staying within the bounds of the liberal-conservative opposition, Metzler enjoins his readers to reframe their vision of extreme positions by measuring ways of thinking against a different standard, asking: “Is this way of thinking closed or open?” Drawing attention to the presence of closed-mindedness at all points on the political spectrum (a pattern recently explored by Francois Cusset), Metzler advocates for openness. Against racist, nationalist, and religious prejudices, Metzler values a kind of open-mindedness that is able to listen to the other, take in new information, and charitably engage with “extreme” perspectives. By contrast, the closed mind is reactive, reliant on questionable second-hand sources, and unable to be moved. This is not to say, however, that Metzler advocates for a kind of passive middle way that sits between extremes and attempts to remain neutral on matters of justice. Rather, Metzler helps his readers to avoid the pitfalls of both polarization and neutrality.

One further benefit of how Metzler frames his argument for openness is that he leaves open the question of how this openness is authorized or validated. For Metzler himself, it is the peaceful figure of Jesus Christ who is the model for a more open epistemology. But Metzler leaves open the possibility of taking on his perspective without confessing Christian faith. Metzler’s resistance to oversimplification, selectivity, black and white thinking, appeals to fear, authoritarianism, and so forth, are critical values that can resonate with the priorities of Christians and religious ‘nones,’ secular and confessional Mennonites, and anyone who is concerned with the problems of our shared world. For this reason, perhaps anachronistically, I would characterize Metzler’s work as “postsecular” – where “postsecular” names a way of thinking that challenges the claims to superiority made by both religions and secularities.

One final point that makes Metzler’s work important today is his critique of conspiratorial thinking. His conversation with an alienated congregation member, as described in the final pages of the pamphlet, is a model for how to openly and critically engage with those who are given to conspiratorial thinking, while seeing through the content of such arguments to the narratives of rejection and victimhood that lie beneath. In a time when conspiracy theories are becoming more influential, concomitant with a decline in public trust and trust in expertise, I think it is essential to consider Metzler’s reminder that beneath the “extreme” positions of those who believe in conspiracy theories is often a common human desire to be heard and recognized. Again, this is not to say that Metzler’s work is a resource for those who would, in the name of ‘free speech,’ give an open platform for hate (for example, the conspiracism and violence of far-right groups). Instead, his concluding comments point to the deeper social roots of present political problems, and provide practical ways of challenging violent ways of thinking.

Editorial Note

In the digitized edition below I have made very few editorial interventions. I have left the original text entirely unchanged. My only additions are the footnoted references for the quotations provided by Metzler and some references to resources. Paragraph breaks, headings, and numbering have been preserved, along with older usage (ex. ‘catalog’). References to original page numbers appear in square brackets.

I am especially grateful to Edgar Metzler and his son Michael Metzler for their permission to publish this online edition of the pamphlet, and I want to acknowledge not only their support but also their conviction that this historical document still has much to teach contemporary readers.

Original Author Note

“Edgar Metzler was born in Masontown, Pennsylvania, where his father, A. J. Metzler, served as pastor for a number of years. He was graduated from Eastern Mennonite High School, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and received his BA and BD degrees from Goshen College and Goshen College Biblical Seminary, Goshen, Indiana. The latter degree was received in 1961. During 1966-67 he studied at the Graduate School of International Affairs at American University, Washington, D.C. Before he became pastor he served for two years as associate executive secretary on the National Service Board for Religious Objectors, Washington, D.C. He was ordained to the ministry in 1957 when he became pastor of the First Mennonite Church, Kitchener, Ontario. where he served until 1962. He was Executive Secretary of the Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section from 1962-66. In 1967 he with his family joined the United States Peace Corps as Program Officer in Nepal. He has served on the Peace Problems Committee, later the Committee on Peace and Social Concerns of Mennonite General Conference. He has written curriculum for Uniform Sunday School Lessons and articles for various publications in the areas of peace and social concern.” 2

Introduction

Have you ever called anyone an extremist? Or have you thought that someone was one? What did you mean? Likely you meant that he had certain ideas, patterns of thought, styles of expressing and discussing ideas, or actions which you considered to be unreasonable or irresponsible.

But that’s your judgment. He may think the same of your ideas and the way you support and express them. Extremism is thus not a very useful term. It is vague and difficult to define precisely. It is relative. One man’s extremism is another man’s moderation. Nevertheless, the term is in common use in our society. The term usually appears in the discussion of political and social policy and programs. In church circles the discussion may be intertwined or overlaid with religious and doctrinal issues.

Continue reading

Peppernuts, Theme and Variations

A number of Facebook friends graciously shared photos of their peppernut-making and peppernuts when I asked for photos this week. Thank you all for helping to demonstrate the diversity of this delicacy!

To me, Christmas has well and truly arrived when the peppernuts are made. Though both my maternal and paternal lines come from a Swiss-German Mennonite background, my dad began pastoring a General Conference Mennonite church when I was a young girl, which meant that my understanding of “Mennonite food” wasn’t Shoo-fly pie and fastnacht but pluma moos and peppernuts. No fewer than three varieties of peppernuts graced the cookie table at our Christmas Eve service, some small and spicy, others slightly larger with a mild molasses flavor. I loved them all. 

As I prepared to make peppernuts this year, I became curious about their origins. I had always heard that they were closely associated with Mennonites (even Wikipedia says so!). But was that true? Where did this tradition come from? To try to discover the origins I did a quick survey of our cookbook collection at the Menno Simons Historical Library and struck gold when I found the two-volume Mennonite Foods & Folkways from South Russia by Norma Jost Voth. When I saw that it had a nearly 40 page chapter dedicated solely to “Christmas Peppernuts”, I knew I was in the right place! 

I learned that peppernuts or similar cookies, “are made in most Scandinavian countries at Christmas. Pfeffernüsse are also made in northern Germany. However, the older recipes from the Russian Mennonite kitchens more closely resemble the Dutch or Scandinavian pepernoot or pebernødder cookie than the German Pfeffernüsse.”1 Voth also writes that “Peppernuts have been part of Russian Mennonite baking traditions for several centuries.” But “Whether or not this custom came from the Mennonites from Holland to the Vistula Delta in the 1500s has not been established.”2

Everyone I speak to about peppernuts mentions that each family they know who make them has a unique recipe or method for “their” type of peppernut. The recipes have all been tweaked as they have been passed down through families and across years and borders. And it continues on into the next generation! Earlier this month I was scanning the Nov. 19 issue of the Goshen College Record when a line in “The GC pandemic logbooks” caught my eye. Claire Franz writes: 

“Made pfeffernusse today with Kristin. Even though we’re the only two Russian Mennonites in the house, we still managed to disagree about everything in the recipe. Ground anise or whole anise seeds? Chill the dough in the fridge or the freezer?”3

For her chapter, Voth collected over 33 recipes hailing from at least six different countries, though I’m sure the true number of peppernut varieties is many times more. The basic recipe is made from butter or shortening, sugar, flour, leavening like baking powder or soda, molasses or a similar syrup, and spices. The dough is chilled then rolled into logs and cut into coin sized rounds. The recipe variations in Voth’s volume included ingredients like lard, eggs, Karo syrup, watermelon syrup, candied peel, peppermint, anise seed, nutmeg, walnuts, almonds, honey, buttermilk, whipping cream, sour cream, cherries, pineapple, and even gumdrops, each adding a different flavor to the iterations (though I want to stress that no one recipe contained all of these ingredients).4

The more I read about these little spice cookies, the more I am convinced that folklore is a secret ingredient. The stories about peppernuts Voth captured in her volume were as delicious as the recipes. Some folks remember peppernuts being given by grandmothers to their grandkids to keep them quiet in church.5 Their small size also meant that they were perfect to fill the pockets of children “on their way to school or to do the chores.”6 Hildred Schroeder Wiebe recalls a tale her grandmother told of men throwing peppernuts to wolves to ward them off as they made their way by horse and sleigh into town. And there are a number of stories in Voth’s volume that describe hard Christmases where no treats can be expected, only to be surprised at the last minute by mothers or community members scraping together the necessary ingredients for a batch of peppernuts.7 Passing down the tales seems just as important as passing down the ingredients list. 

Voth writes that as she compiled this chapter, “the testers and tasters came to these conclusions: The best peppernuts are crisp and very spicy. Anise is the most popular flavor. Pepper enhances the other spice flavors. The plain, traditional peppernut is still very good. This tradition will continue!”8 Traditional foods like peppernuts connect us in a very tangible way to the experiences of those who came before, and are a tasty way to pass down the past. May we all find ways to continue these traditions in this very untraditional year.

1. Voth, Norma Jost. 1994. Mennonite foods & folkways from South Russia. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 366.

2. Ibid., 365.

3. Franz, Claire. “The GC Pandemic Logbooks.” The Record , November 19, 2020.

4. Voth, Norma Jost. 1994. Mennonite foods & folkways from South Russia. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 372-402

5. Klassen, Bev. “Pfeffernuesse (Peppernuts).” Web log. Mennonite Girls Can Cook (blog), November 6, 2014. http://www.mennonitegirlscancook.ca/2014/11/pfeffernuesse-peppernuts.html.

6. Voth, Norma Jost. 1994. Mennonite foods & folkways from South Russia. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 364.

7. Ibid., 365.

8. Ibid., 366.

Utopian imaginations

Dr. Kat Hill, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History, Birkbeck, University of London
Dr. Simone Laqua-O’Donnell, Senior Lecturer in European History, University of Birmingham

In her memoir of her life in twentieth-century Ukraine in the Mennonite colony of Molotschna, Justina D. Neufeld (born 1930) expressed the sense of dislocation and displacement which often characterized diasporic belonging and the Mennonite experience of migration. She said that as a young girl growing up on the Steppe she never really felt like this was home, for her community spoke a different language and their pasts were rooted in the Netherlands. But alongside her sense of discomfort was also the idea of hope for a better future, for somewhere where they would feel at home. As she said, she always sensed they were pilgrims on a long journey which was not yet complete. “We had come from somewhere far away where people spoke our language, and we were hoping someday to leave this foreign land in which we now lived.”1

Altonau, Molotschna (1941), drawing by Johann Regehr.

This tension between here and there, present and future underpins what we might term utopian thinking and is prevalent in the imagination of many religious non-conformist groups. But why have communities turned to the idea of utopia? What was the significance of this idea? And how does it sit alongside other notions of idealized and hopeful ideations of place and time, such as the longing for a homeland in the diaspora or anticipations of heaven? These are questions which have come to feature in our research together, and this piece is an initial foray into answering these questions.

Utopia is imagined often as a place beyond reach, idealized, unachievable and fictional. Thomas More’s utopia was never imagined as a reality but as a dreamed-up land with tolerance of religious difference, no private property and a welfare state (although also slavery in a jarring reminder of the different world in which More lived).2 But for groups like the Mennonites it has been in constant touching distance and a tangible possibility in the here and now, not just a prospect in the afterlife. There may be similarities between utopia and heaven, but they also exist in different chronotopic frameworks. Utopia is distinct from the community of the faithful in heaven in that it is something which human hands can theoretically build, and it is also an ideal which exists in the temporal realm of human existence, not the sacred time of eternity. It is, therefore, a place believers can work towards rather than await in the afterlife.

If we understand Neufeld’s memoir in the context of utopia, however, it raises a series of interesting questions: Even though Mennonite communities often seem to believe a utopian future might be on the horizon and might become reachable through the plain lifestyle, when does utopia actually begin? And what is the role of human agency in its creation? Is it in the striving towards perfection perhaps? This constant striving for individual and communal perfection is essential to the community’s survival and has been an important dynamic in the migratory histories of the Mennonite diaspora and other similar groups. Scholars such as E.K. Francis and Leo Driedger have characterized the moments when Mennonites decided to migrate from Prussia to Russia, from Russia to Canada, as a search for utopia.3 But when is utopia actually achieved? Is it a place, an activity, or perhaps a time? Can it be found in the rural rhythm of an Old Order Mennonite’s workday? Does it have apocalyptic implications and is there any relationship between the New Jerusalem and utopia? These are some of the questions our research currently grapples with.

Utopias, of course, are also a form of critique of the modern world. By building the ‘city upon a hill’ or conforming to the romantic narrative of the withdrawn pastoral idyll,4 utopian groups comment on what is wrong with the world even when this is not explicitly their aim. There are many examples of utopian communities evolving from non-conformist Christian traditions that have built their vision of an ideal world in north America and beyond – branches of the Mennonite and Amish churches, the Shakers, the Amana colonies. This critique can take quite radical forms and often found its most provocative expression in the regulation of sexual relationships. Oneida was a utopian community founded by John Humphrey Noyes (1811-1886) in the mid-nineteenth century. The Oneida community practiced “complex marriage,” in which each man was married to each woman. Sexual relations followed a schedule and were recorded to assure no illicit favouritism occurred. Sexual intercourse fulfilled the threefold function to regulate pleasure and procreation as well as the creation of community. The radicalism of this set up not only lay in this practice of religious communistic love but also in the separation of sexual intercourse from procreation, which is of course highly controversial in Christian tradition.

For Mennonites, the wish to live their own idea of communal harmony has often manifested as the desire to be somewhere where they can be ‘the quiet in the land’, while the Amish have become famous for their simple way of life apart from the modern world. Whilst seen as ‘quaint’, or old-fashioned, the critique they offer of contemporary American culture does touch a nerve with wider society and goes some way in explaining the popularity of the Amish in wider society.5 Although the isolated and cutoff nature of Mennonite or Amish communities can mean that they are hard to maintain because new recruits are not necessarily welcome, they still attract an increasing number of those known as ‘seekers.’ Research has shown that these are particularly attracted to the stability offered by the plain lifestyle. It seems to offer a timeless utopia ‘reminiscent of America’s past, when small agrarian communities supported stable family relations, and religious and social customs provided the nation’s citizens with security and belonging.’6

These visions of Christian perfection have also been translated beyond their western contexts, clashing and mingling with other traditions. In 1972, former Buddhist monks in Owa, Japan formed a Hutterite colony with support from the Dariusleut Wilson Siding Colony near Lethbridge, Alberta. In a valley between low-lying hills about 165 km north of Tokyo, this group established their haven of communal living away from the urban demands of Japanese life.7 And there are many examples of utopian experiments beyond a western Christian framework. Auroville is an experimental utopian society in Viluppuram district in India founded by Mirra Alfassa (1878-1973) whose goal is human unity ‘above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities.’8 Whilst it is beyond our current research to investigate all these communities, they are examples of people who have stepped outside the contemporary world to critique of the world they live in in complex ways.

Conditions for utopia

Utopias need building, they need to be imagined as somewhere – even if that somewhere never comes to be. For Mennonites this has never been one specific place but rather a type of landscape or place which accommodates their idealisations. When Mennonites moved to the Central Chaco in the 1920s they were drawn to it because they mistakenly believed the landscape was a perfect grass farmland.9 Actually this dense jungle area, known as the Green Hell, was completely unsuitable for farming. Amongst many utopian groups, the idea of the ‘plain people’ has been crucial as has the value attributed to a simple, rural life, working the land. Kanter argues that a feature of utopian communities is the return to the land as a pathway to perfection.10 Many of the nineteenth-century American utopian communities sprang up when industrialization threatened patterns of life and the return to rural simplicity, by communities such as the Unitarians of Brook Farm in Massachusetts.

The construction of the utopian community exists in the social relationships between people – whether this is the emphasis on equality, Christian love, sharing of goods, or particular patterns of raising children, marrying or family structures. However, it is also reflected in the architecture and the layout of the communities which facilitate the communal lifestyle. The Shakers around Ann Lee (1736-1784) became widely known for the simplicity and functionality of their community layout and furniture designs. Larger communities also included dual spaces for men and women, emphasising their general striving for order and their celibate lifestyles.

Shaker Dwelling House, South Family, New Lebanon, by 1831. Undated photograph

Early modern Hutterites practiced communal living in the Bruderhof, with long buildings around a central common. The ground floor of larger buildings were workshops or spaces for communal living, whilst the top attics were living quarters for couples and their children.11 Mennonites settling in Ukraine in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, built villages along specific plans, family homesteads close to one another along a central street, and each with its own cemetery, schoolhouse, and administrative buildings. This sense of constructed perfection extends even to the dead. The Amana colonies designed cemeteries lined by pine trees, always facing east since they believed Christ would return from this direction, and individuals were buried by chronological order of death not by family group to emphasise equality. The whole community was united as one large family in death.12 The Moravian Brethren followed a similar principle.

The longing for utopia propels movement and migration but when communities do reach their utopia it remains unstable and in constant negotiation. The Oak Knoll Amish Mennonite Community are a community for whom some sense of a utopian present has been constructed by cutting themselves off from the modern world. Alarmed at rapid urbanization in California, in 1969 three families in Oak Knoll bought one thousand acres of land.13 To maintain this refuge from the modern world, however, they have a constant process of assessment and negotiation which decides which aspects of modern technology to allow into their “other world.” Threats can be internal as well external. What happens to utopia when the society begins to break down and the vision of perfection crumbles?

Utopian dilemmas

Religious utopian communities seem to look back to an older often imagined past which is, however, constantly being constructed. Does a utopia then look back or forward in time? Can utopias also exist in the past? A mirage of a golden past of perfection from which the contemporary world has declined often seems to fuel utopian ideals yet they also constantly look the future. Koselleck proposed the notion of the temporalization of utopia, as the faith in a future heaven and millenarian ideals declined and utopian ideals shifted to the secular world of now and the future.14 He argued that the ‘imagined perfection of the formerly spatial counterworld is temporalized.’

But this model also raises problems. How does this fit with Anabaptist legacies? Is utopia something which exists on earth or in heaven or beyond earth, and how then is it to be constructed? Is this something the Mennonites and other Christian communities would agree with? Do they feel connected to the notion of utopia? Would they not strongly disagree that their lifestyle is utopian and even more so that their vision is? After all, they are already living a kind of utopia in the here and now and the utopia of the afterlife is a certainty for them, not a dream.


1. Justina D. Neufeld, A Family Torn Apart (Kitchener, 2003), 21–23.

2. Thomas More, Libellus Vere Aureus Nec Minus Salutaris quam Festivus (London, 1516); “Utopia”, trans. John P. Dolan, in James J. Greene and John P. Dolan, eds, The Essential Thomas More (New York, 1967).

3. E.K. Francis, In Search of Utopia: The Mennonites in Manitoba (Glenco, IL, 1955); Leo Driedger, Mennonite Identity in Conflict, Studies in Religion and Society 19 (Lewiston, NW, 1988), Harold J. Schultz, ‘Search for Utopia: The Exodus of Russian Mennonites to Canada, 1917-1927’, Journal of Church and State 11.3 (1969), 487–512.

4. John P. R. Eicher, Exiled Among Nations: German and Mennonite Mythologies in a Transnational Age (Cambridge, 2020), 22–23.

5. Dachang Cong, ‘The Roots of Amish Popularity in Contemporary U.S.A.’, Journal of American Culture, Volume 17.1 (1994), 59–66.

6. Cory Anderson, ‘Religious Seekers’ Attraction to the Plain Mennonites and Amish’, Review of Religious Research, 58.1 (2018), 125–147, here 142.

7. Hiroshi Tanaka Shimazaki, ‘The Emergence of Japanese Hutterites’, Japan Review 12 (2000), 145–164.

8. https://aviuk.org/about/introduction-to-auroville/.

9. Esther Breithoff, Conflict, Heritage and World-Making in the Chaco: War at the End of the Worlds? (London, 2020), 29, 37.

10. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Commitment and Community: Communes and Utopias in Sociological Perspective (Cambridge, MA: 1972), 8.

11. John A. Hostetler, Hutterite Society (Baltimore, 1997), 35.

12. Jonathan G. Andelson, ‘Amana Cemeteries as Embodiments of Religious and Social Beliefs’, Plains Anthropologist 62 (2017), 181–200.

13. Duncan Waite and Denise Crockett, ‘Whose Education? Reform, Culture, and an Amish Mennonite Community’, Theory Into Practice 36.2: Exploring the Margins: Lessons from Alternative Schools (1997),117–122; Denise Crockett, ‘Lessons from a Utopian Community: Is a Critical Examination of Technology Feasible, Possible, or Necessary?’, Scholar-Practitioner Quarterly 4.3 (2010), 256–269.

14. Gregory Claeys, ‘Utopia at Five Hundred: Some Reflections’, Utopian Studies 27. 3, SPECIAL ISSUE: On the Commemoration of the Five Hundredth Anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia—Part II (2016), 402–411; Richard Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History (Stanford, 2002), 85, 88.

It’s High Time We Change How Mothers Bring Their Babies into the World: Present-Day Perspectives on Birth and Reproductive Care in Chihuahua’s Mennonite Campos

The following is the fifth and final article in the series Trachtmaokas, Parteras, and Midwives: 100 Years of Maternal Care in Chihuahua’s Mennonite Campos.

The work of Casa Geburt Birthing Center and Midwifery Training School, featured in Part 4 of this series, has been gaining a lot of attention, locally in the Tres Culturas Region, as well as nationally in Mexico, since its establishment in 2016. The school has graduated 3 classes of midwives and continues to train midwives and doulas from traditional and non-traditional Mennonite backgrounds, as well as from Mestiza and Indigenous Rarámuri backgrounds. Graduates from the midwifery and doula programs are attending births in their home communities and the Casa Geburt Birthing Center provides services in the center’s birthing room, in clients’ homes, and in the local maternity ward through a partnership with Hospital Angeles in Cuauhtémoc.

The following link features a segment from the nationally syndicated news program, Milenio, titled, “Doulas y parteras menonitas en Chihuahua” (“Mennonite Doulas and Midwives in Chihuahua,”) which was originally broadcast January 21, 2020. English subtitles are available by using YouTube’s closed captions feature and a translated transcript is also available below.

Translated Transcript “Menonite Doulas and Midwives in Chihuahua”

[Translation from Spanish] And now we go to Chihuahua where they have created a midwifery and doula school that serves the Mennonite community in Cuauhtémoc so they have options–alternative options, as well as, traditional options to give birth to their babies. Norma Ponce has the complete report.

[Speaking English] Katia LeMone: My name is Katia LeMone and I am a midwife and herbalist and I’ve been here in Cuauhtémoc since 2015. I moved here at the end of 2015 at the invitation of the Mennonite community.

[Translation from Spanish] Norma Ponce: Mennonites in the municipality of Cuauhtémoc began the work of bringing an American doula and midwife to their community to facilitate births that were more humanizing and in accordance with their traditions.

Aggie Froese: In regards to Mennonite women, there is often a language barrier and no one to attend to them in the hospitals.  The objective is to give them more options and to give them a different, more beautiful experience.

Clara Enns: Well, we were losing this tradition and we didn’t have anyone to learn from, but once again, the need has arisen. Young couples are searching for a midwife.

Norma Ponce: With the help of the community, Katia created Casa Geburt, a school for doulas and midwives that serves and supports mothers and gives them the opportunity to give birth at home, at a birthing center, or in the local hospital.

Diego Fernández: Yes, it’s something unusual. It’s probably not something you’d find in any other hospital in Mexico. What’s important to us is to raise the quality of healthcare in a region, in a community, which because of their customs, for many years, until recently, has been isolated. 

Norma Ponce: With a population of more than 50,000 Mennonites, doulas and doctors from the region have learned to work cross-culturally, respecting their traditions, which has led to a lowering of C-section rates and a greater demand for more humanizing births.

Dr. Guiller Stauferd:  We’re wanting to create an atmosphere where the patient feels relaxed, like she is at home and not at a hospital or a hotel. Where she feels like she is receiving good care in her home, but knows that she has complete hospital access within 10 or 20 steps.

Norma Ponce: They have witnessed such great success that Mexican [Mestiza] and Rarámuri women are beginning to see this group of doulas and midwives as an option. From 2016 to today, more than 125 babies have been brought into the world through the hands of these women.

Angélica Galaz: I met these women at a Christmas fair, from the first appointment I had, I felt very confident in them. They give you all the time you need. They answer all your questions. It was very different from what I was used to.

Delma Cecilia Martínez: They charge what people are able to pay. The women give them what they can. They create a secure environment where women feel cared for and protected, within the hospital.

[Speaking English] Katia LeMone: The Rarámuri didn’t have any money to pay, but they wanted a partera [midwife] to help them. I’ve had women do a lot of sewing for me. And we’ve had Mennonite women who couldn’t afford do canning of fruits and vegetables for us. We’ve had people clean houses.

[Translation from Spanish] Norma Ponce: From Chihuahua, with images provided by Daniel Ramírez, this is Norma Ponce with Milenio News.

Aggie Froese: It’s high time that we change how mothers bring their babies into the world.

This nationally syndicated broadcast reveals changing sentiments locally and nationally to midwifery and highlights the work of midwives in the Tres Culturas Region, offering them public recognition for work that had largely gone unnoticed for almost a century.

The following accounts were collected by Casa Geburt doulas and midwives who gave the Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders Oral History Project (REBB) permission for their use. These accounts reveal many of the recurring issues that have faced women giving birth in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua over the last 100 years such as: linguistic and other communication barriers; pregnancy loss and infant mortality; fear and distrust of the medical establishment; high C-section rates; the intersection of traditional midwifery and modern medicine, as well as and the role of the doula and midwife as a comforter and advocate. These accounts were translated from German to Spanish by Sarah Banman, a midwifery school graduate who currently attends births in her community. The Spanish to English translation was done by Abigail Carl-Klassen.

The first account, from a woman who chose to remain anonymous, details difficulties faced by her mother-in-law, mother, sisters, and friends in childbirth:

My mother-in-law had all of her babies by Cesarean. And my mother had extremely difficult births because the doctor did not give her the care she needed. She had to lay in the bed, not allowed to get up, suffering for hours. She had her last two babies by Cesarean.

Two of my sisters had difficult births and the other two sisters had their children by Cesarean. The majority of my friends had their babies by Cesarean. The reason that the doctors do it this way is so that the woman does not suffer so much pain and for the doctor it’s faster.

She continues, describing her fear of the hospital and what she believes to be a case of medical malpractice experienced by her sister.

My husband and I don’t know a lot about hospitals or therapies; because so far we have only gone to the hospital to visit family. There are things that still scare us about going to the hospital in the city or having a baby in a hospital.

Another reason why I didn’t have my birth with a doctor was because of an experience one of my sisters had. My sister was expecting her second child, but she hadn’t realized it yet and she was not feeling well and she went to the doctor. He told her she had something in her uterus and needed to see a specialist. The specialist examined her and told her it was something very serious and needed to take medication. If the uterus did not clean itself out after a few days she would have to have a surgery.

My sister and her husband had the presence of mind to think that maybe she was pregnant and they waited to use the medicine that had been prescribed to them by the doctor to clean her uterus. Instead, they took a pregnancy test, which came back positive.

If they had followed the directions of this doctor, today I would not have this beautiful, healthy, and strong nephew. Many doctors do not respect the trust that people put in them and they care for them at their own convenience.

She describes her own birth and the ease and safety she felt with the midwives:

The most beautiful and wonderful experience I ever had in my life was the birth of my daughter. She was born at home, and the birth went well. Although I had a lot of strong pain, I was comfortable to be at home and the service from the midwives was the best. The most valuable part of the experience was that my husband was at my side to support me as best as he could and the baby was born in her father’s arms.

I am currently expecting my second baby and we didn’t question for a second who we were going to receive care from during this pregnancy, birth, and post-partum period. We feel at home with the midwives and I have fallen in love with the kind of care they provide.

The second account, provided by Mina Gunther, echoes many of the challenges and positive experiences described in the previous account, but also highlights the positive experiences she had at Casa Geburt concerning the partnership they had with her gynecologist and how they walked beside her through the difficulties she encountered in her post-partum period:

My name is Mina Gunther. I want to write a little about my story and my experiences with the midwives at Casa Geburt Cuauhtémoc Chihuahua. For my second pregnancy I decided to go the midwife Katia LeMone, for all maternal services and to have a home birth, since my first pregnancy where we had Dr. [Redacted] attending me, ended at 25 weeks with an extremely premature birth, where the baby did not survive. For this reason, we decided to change and have Dr. [Redacted] as our gynecologist, whom we would like to thank for his professional care and support when he knew we were planning a birth with the midwife that he approved of.  

Dr. [Redcated] explained our situation clearly and supported us at all times and was very honest about the situation. We had monthly appointments with the midwife until the third trimester, and after that we had weekly appointments. At Casa Geburt they checked: Pulse, Blood Pressure, Weight, Hydration, the Position and Heartbeat of the Baby. The last weeks before the birth and the first appointments postpartum, they made house calls.

I had the opportunity to choose the position that was the best and most comfortable for me. During labor they gave me the time I needed and did not pressure me.

They taught me lactation when I had complications since I didn’t have any experience and they gave me all the instructions on how to do it and it helped me so much which makes me very happy. They explained everything to me and answered all my questions and brought me everything I needed. And they inspired me to eat healthy, drink lots of water and take vitamins. They were also accepting of our decision to have Dr. [Redacted] as our gynecologist. They were not against any medication given to me by the gynecologist though they always try to help people in the most natural way possible.

She reflected on the future, confident in her ability to make choices about her reproductive health and the quality of care she would receive.

I am very thankful to God, because without him our beautiful boy would not have been born and to the midwives for their presence for being peaceful and waiting until the right time to give birth….If I become pregnant again, I will choose them and have a home birth because of the professional care and experience. I would recommend Casa Geburt as a place where the mother and baby are the highest priority and they are not motivated by money, but the well-being of mothers and babies. They have made a big difference in the community in the years they have been offering this service.

Though the Campos Menonitas, Cuauhtémoc, and and the surrounding Tres Culturas Region have undergone significant socio-political, economic, ideological and cultural shifts in the 100 years since the Mennonites’ arrival in 1922, midwives and their commitment to accompany and advocate for women in all aspects of their reproductive health remain as important as ever. In many ways, today’s midwives are far removed from the experiences of Caterina Shroder and Susanna Shellenburg, whose work as midwives in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua in the early and mid-20th Century, was featured in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series; however, they still embody the same drive and spirit of service which propels them to confront reproductive health taboos and navigate cultural dynamics that often prohibit or discourage connection between women from different communities, in order to provide maternal care to women from all backgrounds regardless of religious affiliation, language, or ability to pay.  


Part 1: Trajchtmoakas, Parteras and Midwives: 100 Years of Maternal Care in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua

Part 2: “This Woman Saved Lives”: Prohibitions on Midwifery in Post-Revolutionary Mexico

Part 3: “She Came Back to Help”: Aganetha Loewen Wiens’ Experiences as a Nurse and Midwife in the Ojo de la Yegua Colony, 1980s-Present

Part 4: Casa Geburt Birthing Center and Midwifery Training School: “Quality Care for Every Woman in Her Mother Tongue,” 2016-Present

Casa Geburt Birthing Center and Midwifery Training School: “Quality Care for Every Woman in Her Mother Tongue,” 2016-Present

The following is the fourth article in the series Trachtmaokas, Parteras, and Midwives: 100 Years of Maternal Care in Chihuahua’s Mennonite Campos.

Today, after nearly a half-century of decline, midwifery is undergoing a resurgence not only in Mennonite communities in Chihuahua, but all across Mexico, particularly in rural areas and Indigenous communities. A MacArthur Foundation report on public health in Mexico found, “In recent years, more than thirty organizations—from small, indigenous led organizations, to government institutions and non-profit organizations—have worked together to bring back professional midwives with the hopes of improving access and quality of care for mothers and babies and respecting the reproductive rights of women. This movement wants midwives to be more respected and acknowledged and for them to be seen as a safe and reliable alternative, which according to many women is more comfortable and dignified than current hospital methods, especially in rural areas. After education and promotion, the number of training programs has grown to more than a dozen and the number of clinics that work with midwives has doubled. Hundreds of seminars, workshops and basic courses have become available to health authorities and practitioners throughout the country.”1

Casa Geburt Birthing Center and Midwifery School, located in Campo 6 ½ in the Manitoba Colony, approximately twenty kilometers north of Cuauhtémoc, is part of this movement to provide “partos humanizados” or “humanized births” that respect and empower women to be active agents in their reproductive choices and experiences. Founded in 2016 by Katia LeMone, a midwife, and public health practitioner with more than thirty years of experience, Casa Geburt is at the center of reproductive and maternal care in the Tres Culturas region of Chihuahua. Originally from New Mexico, Katia relocated to the Mennonite Campos in 2015 at the request of members from the Mennonite community to train doulas and midwives in the Tres Culturas Region.

In 2018, she shared how her decision to become a midwife and to train midwives had its origins in an encounter she had with an Indigenous Rarámuri woman in Chihuahua in the late 1970s with the Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders Oral History Project (REBB)2:

In 1979, I was living in Parral and I met a Tarahumara [Rarámuri] woman on the street     and she invited me to her house. We were talking and drinking tea and she asked me if I wanted to see her “instruments.” She showed them to me and said, “I’m a midwife. I help      women give birth.” I was very interested and when I returned to the United States, I volunteered in El Paso with some friends of mine who were training to be midwives. At   that time, I had a transformative experience during a difficult birth and I decided that I not only wanted to be a midwife, but I also wanted to train midwives. Women didn’t have and still don’t have access to the care that they need. I wanted to be an advocate for women and provide them with what they need. The important thing is women supporting women.

Katia had her first client from the Campos Menonitas in Chihuahua come to her midwifery practice in New Mexico in 2008, a Trajchtmoaka who was well known in the community, and by 2014, Katia had attended more than twenty births for Mennonite women from the Campos.

After a few years [of attending births], I was invited to come to the Campos Menonitas and teach some training classes in the community. The first time, I came for ten days to train doulas, but in December of 2015, I moved to the Campos to train midwives because      there was a high demand for the course. My goal was to train women who could then later train others in Low-German. We have had two graduating classes from the midwife        training course so far. The first class had fifteen participants and all of them were Mennonite,      both liberal and conservative. There were students from such conservative communities   that I was surprised that they wanted to come and train with us. In the second class we had 7 Mennonites, 2 women from the Rarámuri Pueblo and a Mestiza woman. In the second class I tried to integrate public health training in order to create relationships with churches and the community.

She continued, sharing about the challenges, successes and future goals for the work of Casa Geburt in the Campos Menonitas and the larger Tres Culturas Region.

We have really high maternal mortality rates and in this environment midwives and doulas have to be promotors of public health3. We have really big goals. I couldn’t have imagined what we have been able to accomplish. In 2016, we opened the Casa Geburt Birthing Center and Midwifery Training School. We have partnerships with La Asociación Mexicana de Partería (The Mexican Association of Midwifery) and some hospitals. We want for every woman to have quality care in her mother tongue. This is what I would love to see. There is always the goal of raising up more Mennonite women to be educators, midwives, childbirth educators, breastfeeding educators, doulas. To raise up those ranks so that we have a doula for every woman. A midwife that every woman can feel comfortable with. And then, the Tarahumara [Rarámuri] community, and working with them. Developing our program so more of our programs can be in Spanish and Tarahumara [Rarámuri]. More of them can be in Low-German. Those are the things that are all really important to us. The ultimate goal would be to have a functioning school with dormitories that’s associated with the Maternity Center Clinic where women in any of these communities could come in, and get care by women from their community.

Clara Enns, a seamstress and midwife from the Swift Current Colony in the Mennonite Campos in Chihuahua, Mexico, was one of the first graduates from Casa Geburt’s Midwifery Training Program in 2016. She spoke with REBB about the importance of Low-German speaking midwives and doulas as public health practitioners, educators and advocates in the Tres Culturas Region of Chihuahua4.

The return to midwifery is really modern in a lot of ways, but there also is a respect and a deep knowledge of the traditional, of what used to be. Deep down that makes sense to   many of the traditional women. In our communities there’s a lack of information, a lack of education. Childbirth and women’s health in general, is not talked about. There’s very little knowledge. There’s a shame surrounding it. Women have lost the information they did have. Breastfeeding is completely a lost art for so many women here. The high rate of C-sections needs to change5. The World Health Organization guidelines are there and we need to change6. Mexico in general has a very, very high C-section rate, and is being pushed and incentivized to change that7. We Mennonites form a big part of that. The C-section rate in our communities is much, much higher than it is in general in Mexico in general8. A big part of it is language barrier. It may be the biggest one. We have a lot of traumatized women. We want to empower women in our community to take back what they need.

The fifth article in this series will feature first-hand accounts of present-day pregnancy, birth and post-partum care in Chihuahua’s Campos Menonitas, and will explore perspectives concerning midwifery within and outside the Campos, including the transcript from a segment that aired on the nationally syndicated news program El Milenio in early 2020 that featured Casa Geburt.


Part 1: Trajchtmoakas, Parteras and Midwives: 100 Years of Maternal Care in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua

Part 2: “This Woman Saved Lives”: Prohibitions on Midwifery in Post-Revolutionary Mexico

Part 3: “She Came Back to Help”: Aganetha Loewen Wiens’ Experiences as a Nurse and Midwife in the Ojo de la Yegua Colony, 1980s-Present


1. Sharon Bissell, “Strengthening Midwifery in Mexico.” MacArthur Foundation, January 17, 2019, https://www.macfound.org/press/perspectives/strengthening-midwifery-mexico/

2. Katia LeMone, interviewed by Abigail Carl-Klassen, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, 2018.

3. World Health Organization Maternal Mortality Rate for Mexico, 38/100,000 (2015).

4. Clara Enns, interviewed by Abigail Carl-Klassen, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, 2018.

5. World Health Organization Estimate for Medically Necessary C-section Rate, 10-15% (2017); World Health Organization C-section Rate for Mexico, 45.5% (2017).

6. World Health Organization Statement on C-Sections, “While many women in need of caesarean sections still do not have access to caesarean section particularly in low resource settings, many others undergo the procedure unnecessarily, for reasons which cannot be medically justified. Caesarean birth is associated with short- and long-term risks that can extend many years beyond the current delivery and affect the health of the woman, the child and future pregnancies. These risks are higher in women with limited access to comprehensive obstetric care.”

7. Word Health Organization C-section Rate for the state of Chihuahua (2017), 37.6% (public facilities) 60% (private facilities).

8. El Heraldo de Chihuahua, “Incrementan partos por cesárea hasta 90%” (“Caesarean Births Increase to Upwards of 90%), January 24, 2018 https://www.elheraldodechihuahua.com.mx/local/noroeste/incrementan-partos-por-cesarea-hasta-90-748516.html; Estimated C-Section Rate for Tres Culturas Region Based on Samples Collected by Health Care Providers, 80-95% (2018).

Joseph W. Miller and a Case for Reframing Amish Compulsory Education

Regina Wenger

In stark black and white, a photographer captures three Amish men clad in their dark hats and plain coats as they ascend the marble Supreme Court steps. It is a study in contrasts. The photographer snapped this picture during the 1972 proceedings of Wisconsin v. Yoder—a case involving the Amish and compulsory education. The Court unanimously ruled that education laws stood in violation of the Amish parents’ First Amendment rights to freely practice their religion. Wisconsin v. Yoder stands as a landmark ruling on religious liberty. But is religious freedom the only reason these fathers found themselves in this peculiar place?

Fair Use (AP Photo/John Duricka)

Though religious liberty may be the reason provided when Yoder and company walked up those stairs, it would be a mistake to believe that the Court’s explanation is the only one. Since the 1910s, the Amish have endured fines and jail in an effort to educate their children. In reality, the steps these men took to the Supreme Court mark only the last stage in a civil dispute between the Amish and the government regarding education. One might assume, alongside the Court, that religious freedom—however amorphous the concept—serves as the primary lens through which to interpret Amish educational practices. However, I think that to more accurately understand Yoder, and conflicts about the Amish and compulsory education more broadly, the issue needs reorienting within earlier twentieth-century educational contests over state and parental authority. An examination of one of the earliest incidents of the Amish violating compulsory education laws illustrates this necessary context.

It’s 1915. Just southeast of Cleveland is the village off Middlefield, Ohio. East of the village, in the Hayes Corner district, sat the farm of Joseph W. Miller. He, his wife Salome, and their children formed part of the Old Order Amish community that settled in Middlefield around 1886.1 The Miller children, like many of their peers, attended school as often as the weather and farm work allowed. But that situation was changing.

Beginning in the 1890s, governments in the State of Ohio and across the country increased their oversight of public education. These top-down pressures blended with local interests to radically transform American public education. Through efforts like reforming rural schools and combating child labor through compulsory education laws, professional and lay reformers turned to public education to edify the state and society. “In the process,” observes historian Tracy Steffes, “they defined children’s education and welfare as a public interest that transcended the family and community and justified new state interventions.”2 Joseph W. Miller, and other parents like him, grappled with deteriorating parental rights over their children’s education.

In 1900, Middlefield Township, where the Miller children attended, contained eight school districts: one in the village and the others in the surrounding area.3 This organizational structure underwent a massive overhaul in 1914, when Ohio consolidated its school system, specifying core content and eliminating a majority of its one-room schoolhouses.4 Geauga County, and thus Middlefield Township, quickly complied with the new structure.5 For the first time, pupils needed to show competency in particular subjects and attend school regularly. The 1915-1916 school year would be different than any before.

Ohio law required that schoolchildren know “reading, spelling, writing, English grammar, geography, and arithmetic.”6 Yet the previous spring, Miller had heard something from his oldest daughter Mary that troubled him greatly. She had said that, in geography, she had been taught that the earth was round. Based on Revelation 7:1,7 Miller believed the earth was flat. He determined that, since Mary was 12, she did not need more schooling, especially since what she was learning conflicted with biblical teachings. So in the fall of 1915, when Miller sent his four school-age children off to school, Mary stayed home.

On October 14, 1915, Fred B. Hamilton, the Middlefield truancy officer, arrested Miller for failing to send Mary to school, and as a result, preventing her from taking the state content exam. Earlier that day, Hamilton deposed himself before the justice of the peace E.H. Brigden, stating:

On or about the 14th day of October 1915, at the County of Geauga aforesaid, one Joseph Miller, being then and there the parent, to-wit:- the father of one Mary Miller a minor between the age of eight and sixteen years of age, who [h]ad not passed a satisfactory 7th grade test in studies enumerated in section No. 7762 General Code, failed to cause said minor to attend public, private, or parochial school altho [sp] said Joseph Miller had been given notice by a truant office[r] as provided by law.8

As a result of Fred Hamilton’s testimony, Justice Brigden issued a warrant for Joseph Miller’s arrest. With Miller now in custody, Hamilton appeared before Justice Brigden, who “convicted, fined, and dismissed” Miller.9 However, the brevity with which Justice Brigden processed Miller obscures deeper issues at work.

Looking at the section violation with which Justice Brigden charged Miller provides a key into the case. Ohio first passed a compulsory education law in 1877, seeking to ensure that minors attended school for at least part of the year.10 Then, due to increased concern for child labor, Ohio passed an amended law in 1890.11 When states passed these laws, they fell into two categories, one being “laws regulating schooling and the curriculum,” which “proscribed” types of education, like private education, or “prescribed” the specifics of education, such as content areas to be taught.12

The 1910 General Code of Ohio contains a whole chapter on compulsory education, listing twenty-two sections of code. Justice Brigden indicted Joseph Miller for infringing upon Section 7762, which states that “All parents, guardians and other persons who have care of children, shall instruct them, or cause them to be instructed in reading, spelling, writing, English grammar, geography and arithmetic.”13 However, the next section of code stipulated that children attend school for a specific numbers of weeks.14 Thus, by charging Miller with disobeying Section 7762 instead of Section 7763, Justice Brigden framed the case as one regarding curricular content, rather than simple truancy. It was because Mary failed the state content exam that her father faced charges. Still, for the next month Miller refused to send Mary to school. So, on November 13, he again found himself at a hearing in Justice Brigden’s court.15 The State prosecutor, Hubert O. Bostwick presented his evidence against Miller, who was found guilty and fined $20.16

Over the next several months, Miller found himself party in a series of motions, trials, and appeals over his daughter’s education. Two lawyers took Miller’s case, navigating it from the Township level, to the Geauga County Court of Common Pleas, and finally the state’s Court of Appeals. It generated interest from the Amish and “English” community alike.17 However, the trail on Miller’s case goes cold after April 7, 1916, with one exception. An undated journal entry from the Ohio Court of Appeals says the following:

Upon consideration thereof the Court finds that there was an error in the proceedings below in that the Justice of the Peace and the Court of Common Pleas failed to find that the complaint therein as filed did not constitute an offence against the laws of Ohio.

The judgment of the Court of Common Pleas and of the Justice of the Peace is reversed and the plaintiff in error, Joseph Miller is discharged.

Reversing the earlier decisions, a three-judge panel reviewed the evidence and ruled in Miller’s favor.18 I wonder, if he had lost, whether Miller might have taken his case one more level to the Supreme Court of Ohio?

Folder noting the information regarding Miller’s appeal to the Geauga County Court of Common Pleas. The State of Ohio v. Joseph W. Miller file, Geauga County Archives.

In pursuing legal recourse to prevent Ohio from mandating his daughter attend school and learn content that violated his beliefs, Joseph W. Miller mirrored the concerns of many other parents, though his identity as an Amishman infused his approach with particularities. Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Scientists parents also contested the state’s power to abolish private education and set medical requirements for schoolchildren.19 The question of parental control of education remained very much in flux during the time of Miller’s trials.20

Ohio ruled on the constitutionality of compulsory education in the 1890 case Ohio v. Patrick F. Quigley, citing the logic of parens patriae, thus using parental neglect as the instrument to supersede parental authority in favor of the state best insuring the child’s welfare.21 By 1903, courts favored asserting the police powers of the Fourteenth Amendment as a method to curb parental control of education.22 This resulted in a blank check for state governments to dictate all aspects of educational policy.23 Though Miller eventually achieved a legal victory in 1916, the State of Ohio continued to consolidate and control education. Only in 1922 did the Supreme Court’s decision in Meyer v. Nebraska finally put a check on unlimited state control.

Miller’s identity as an Amishman imbued him with a particular worldview and educational philosophy, but in his attempt to preserve these ideals, he skirted the bounds of Amish tradition and discipline. As summarized by Steven Nolt, the Amish hold a premodern, communal worldview that stands in stark contrast to our own.24 The most basic unit in a community is the family, so the maintenance of the Amish way of life begins at home. According to Amishman Joseph Stoll, the Amish believe that the responsibility to educate children belongs to parents, not state-run schools.25 However, as historian Albert Keim stated,

“Consolidation appeared to the Amish as a major threat because it often ushered in new curricula and, in their view, faulty pedagogical methods…”26 While throughout the nineteenth century pubic education proved relatively compatible with Amish educational philosophy, by the early twentieth century that was no longer the case. This transition likely accounted for the mixed reports of Miller’s motivations for keeping Mary at home. One article cited the need for farm labor, the other religious reasons.27 Miller and other Amish joined their neighbors in asserting parental rights in education, but soon state power created a profound cultural shift that eventually overwhelmed most opposition. Nevertheless, Amish religious beliefs enabled their persistent challenge of the state’s authority.

Even as he stood firmly within the Amish tradition, Miller’s actions during his trial transgressed normative behaviors within Amish communities. First, he accepted legal counsel to argue his case. It’s important to remember that the Amish, for reasons of faith, preferred not to hire attorneys. To do so would be participating in the “violence of the court system,” an objectionable practice in Amish communities.28 Though in later legal cases involving compulsory education some Amish hired attorneys, considering Miller’s case falls at the beginning of Amish struggles over education, to have lawyers present appears to be unprecedented behavior. Second, Miller chose to appeal his case multiple times. Typical Amish practice would have Miller accepting the decision of the court and moving on with his life. After all, he viewed himself as a subject rather than a citizen of the United States.29 Yet, in exceptional circumstances, if obedience violates the Amish faith, then resistance is justified.30 Miller and his community likely deemed this relatively new conflict over compulsory education as exceptional. Unknowingly, Miller and other early Amish opponents of compulsory education laid the groundwork for contesting the practice that would eventually carry them in the 1970s all the way to the Supreme Court.

While the Court’s 1972 decision in Yoder to view Amish noncompliance with compulsory education a matter of religious freedom is important, to use that as the only lens for understanding the conflict remains problematic. Doing so divorces the topic from its origins in an issue—parental control of education—not exclusive to Amish religious belief. Occurring within a period of educational transition, the negotiation of state versus parental rights was contested for all Americans regardless of religious affiliation. Centering parental rights as important to understanding Amish compulsory education also offers a possible explanation for why appeal to the First Amendment became their chosen recourse in Yoder. The most notable Supreme Court jurisprudence asserting parental rights in education—Myers v. Nebraska (1922) and Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925)—concerned matters of the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause. However, the precedents established by both cases did not alleviate the conflict the Amish had with the state once compulsory education became entrenched in American public education. Instead, framing the matter as a First Amendment issue from which an assertion of parental rights emerged made for a viable constitutional case. Joseph W. Miller’s dispute with Middlefield Township over his daughter’s attendance and required content knowledge situates contests over Amish compulsory education as not only a matter of religious freedom, but also as an issue originating from the conflict over state and parental rights at the beginning of the twentieth century.


1. Steven M. Nolt, A History of the Amish (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 1992), 192. This group of Amish emigrants came from a larger community located Holmes County, Ohio. Frederick Stewart Buchanan, “The Old Paths: A Study of the Amish Response to Public Schooling in Ohio,” University Microfilms, Inc. (Ann Arbor, 1967), 7. A newspaper article lists the Millers’ residence as Hayes Corners. Cleveland Plain Dealer, “Amish May Build Own School since Court Fines One Geauga County Members of Religious Sect,” December 12, 1915: 1, 4.

2. Tracy L. Steffes, School, Society, and State: A New Education to Govern Modern America, 1890-1940 (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2012), 2.

3. “Middlefield Township: Geauga County, 1900.” Historic Map Works.com. Stranahan, H. B. and Company. 1900. http://www.historicmapworks.com/Map/US/20303/Middlefield+Township/Geauga+County+1900/Ohio (accessed April 27, 2015). Rick Seyer, History of the Village, 2014, http://www.middlefieldohio.com/our-community/history.

4. Buchanan, “The Old Paths,” 33.

5. Buchanan, 35.

6. The General Assembly of Ohio, The General Code of the State of Ohio Being an Act to Revise and Consolidate the General Statutes Ohio Passed (Columbus: HeinOnline, 1910), Section 7762, 1643.

7. “And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree.” King James Version.

8. Deposition transcript, The State of Ohio v. Joseph W. Miller file, Geauga County Archives, [undated].

9./a> Hearing transcript, The State of Ohio v. Joseph W. Miller file, Geauga County Archives, November 13, 1915.

10. Steven Provasnik, “Judicial Activism and the Origins of Parental Choice: The Court’s Role in the Institutionalization of Compulsory Education in the United States, 1891-1925,” History of Education Quarterly 46, no. 3 (Fall 2006): 311-47, 320.

11. Provasnik, 319-20.

12. Provasnik, 314-15.

13. The General Assembly of Ohio, The General Code, 1910, Section 7762, 1643.

14. The General Assembly of Ohio, The General Code, 1910, Section 7763, 1643. This amounts to a period of 120 days, 60 days shorter than the contemporary requirement of 180 days.

15. Hearing transcript, The State of Ohio v. Joseph W. Miller file, Geauga County Archives, November 13, 1915.

16. U.S. Census Bureau,Year: 1910; Census Place: Chardon, Geauga, Ohio; Roll: T624_1185; Page: 14B; Enumeration District: 0056; FHL microfilm: 1375198. Hearing Transcript, The State of Ohio v. Joseph W. Miller file, Geauga County Archives, November 13, 1915.

17. “Amish May Build Own School,” Cleveland Plain Dealer. “Amish Man Appeals Case,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 18, 1915: 2. “Would Convince World Is Round,” Geauga County Record, December 17, 1915.Criminal Transcript, The State of Ohio v. Joseph W. Miller file, Geauga County Archives, November 19, 1915, 2. “Amish May Build Own School,” Cleveland Plain Dealer. “Amish Man Appeals Case,” Cleveland Plain Dealer.

18. Donald R. Ford, “A Brief History Appellate Review in Ohio and the Eleventh District Court of Appeals,” Court of Appeals in Ohio Eleventh Appellate District, Supreme Court of Ohio, January 2007, http://www.11thcourt.co.trumbull.oh.us/pdfs/11th%20District%20Court%20History.pdf, 22, 24.

19. Steffes, 142.

20.Provasnik, 328.

21. Provasnik, 330.

22. Provasnik, 336.

23. Provasnik, 337.

24. “1) That ideas expressed in words are brighter and truer than ideas which take their form in personal and community life 2) That people who accept the ideas of the eighteenth century’s so-called Age of Reason are the “enlightened” ones of the world 3) That the individual is the supreme unit, individual rights the most sacred rights, and human life the richest when individuals are most autonomous.” Nolt, 196, citing the work of Theron Schlabach.

25. Joseph Stoll, “Who Shall Educate Our Children?,” in Compulsory Education and the Amish: The Right Not to Be Modern, 16-42 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975), 18.

26. Albert N. Keim, “From Erlanbach to New Glarus,” in Compulsory Education and the Amish: The Right Not to Be Modern, 1-15 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975), 14.

27. “Amish May Build Own School,” Cleveland Plain Dealer.“Would Convince World Is Round,” Geauga County Record.

28. Nolt, 231. In general, Amish try to avoid all legal entanglements. They will not sue, and the community, not the courts, sorts out quarrels between Amish members. See: Paton Yoder, “The Amish View of the State,” in The Amish and the State, ed. Donald B. Kraybill, 23-42 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 36-38.

29. Donald B. Kraybill, “Negotiating with Caesar,” in The Amish and the State, ed. Donald B. Kraybill, 3-20 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 14. Yoder, 37.

30. Kraybill, “Negotiating with Caesar,” 14. Yoder, 37.

Mennonites and politics, for better or worse

Front page of the Gospel Herald Nov. 11, 1920

“We thank God that we are living in a land where the voice of the people is respected without thought of armed opposition. There were exciting times, at places— some “mud-flinging,” bitter disputes, charges and counter-charges, etc.; — but no sooner had the people spoken than there was a general acquiescence in the result. This is something to be encouraged, a condition for which to be thankful.”1

These are the opening words from Daniel Kauffman’s editorial in the November 11, 1920 edition of the Gospel Herald. On November 2, 1920 Warren G. Harding was elected president by a landslide, earning seven million more votes than his opponent James Cox.2 Reading these words a century later, it seems that politics has not changed much (although this election has seemed especially fraught and contentious). The relationship between American Mennonites and politics, however, has greatly shifted in the intervening hundred years. The recent presidential election in the United States has demonstrated the depth of division in political perspectives in our country. The 1920 election emphasized a different divide for Mennonites–that between the church and the world. 

The relationship of Mennonites and politics has a complex and nuanced history, but it is fair to say that historically Mennonites have eschewed politics, seeking to be “in the world, but not of the world”, a calling rooted in New Testament verses including John 15:19, John 17:14-16, and 1 John 2:15.  John Redekop states in his article “Politics” on the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO) that, “Concerning politics, the traditional Mennonite stance, despite some deviation and exceptions, may be described as separationist or apolitical.” But after discussing major shifts in attitude during the twentieth century, he concludes at the end of the article that, “the spiritual descendants of Menno are well on the way to becoming part of the general political establishment. Increasingly, in these free and prosperous lands, as they move up the socioeconomic scale, Mennonites are learning, for better or worse, to take political activism seriously.”3

Despite the difficult experiences of many Mennonite COs and the hardships of World War I, the 1920 presidential election seems to have been observed with detachment by many Mennonites. Daniel Kauffman, Gospel Herald editor, exhorts his readers to, “be equally zealous in their support of the cause of Christ and the Church” as the cause of a political candidate or ideal.  He writes that, “In comparing issues, the most striking issues of the recent campaign were as nothing compared with the great issue of salvation.”4 A recurrent theme in the article is that to put stock in the world is to rely on things that are temporary, transient, and tenuous, but to place one’s allegiance in God is to ensure eternal salvation. 

The intervening century has brought enormous change and challenge, and at each turn Mennonites–particularly those in MCUSA and other similarly progressive bodies–have taken steps toward engagement with the world and with politics. In this recent election many Mennonites in good standing with their church campaigned for, voted for, or donated money to candidates and causes they believed in. To abstain from politics in our current political climate smacks of privilege; an acknowledgement that because of your race, religion, or socioeconomic status the success of either political party would have little to no impact on your life. 

 It is tempting to put our faith in civic action and political candidates, hoping that if only we could elect the right people they would promote peace and justice in our country. But Mennonites will never be fully in step with American politics, and American politics will never fully support Mennonite ideals. The national support for the military, focus on unlimited economic growth and consumerism, and the American myth of rugged individualism all run counter to core Anabaptist values of pacifism, economic and ecological stewardship, and community.   

We have come too far as a nation and a church to return to the 1920 stance of detached observation, but we should remember that to become too comfortable in the world is to lose sight of our unique perspective as Anabaptist Christians. Perhaps it need not be the either/or dichotomy put forth by Daniel Kauffman in his 1920 editorial–in the last one hundred years many Mennonites found ways to genuinely engage the political world without sacrificing their faith.  But when the election cycle has run its course, we shouldn’t forget that politics is just one avenue for change.

Daniel Kauffman wrote that “The essential difference between the Christian and the worldling- The first makes spiritual matters his first concern, counting the things of this world secondary. The second counts the things of this world first, making spiritual matters secondary.”5 We must continue to push for peace and justice in every aspect of our lives and remember that we are driven not by the highs of political victory but by humbly following Christ in daily life.


1. Daniel Kauffman, “Editorial,” Gospel Herald 13, no. 33 (11-11-1920): 641.

2. Eugene P. Trani, “Warren G. Harding: Campaigns and Elections,” U.S. Presidents, Warren Harding, University of Virginia Miller Center, 2019, accessed 09 Nov. 2020, https://millercenter.org/president/harding/campaigns-and-elections.

3. John H. Redekop, “Politics.” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Accessed 05 Nov. 2020, https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Politics&oldid=167135

4. Daniel Kauffman, “Editorial,” Gospel Herald 13, no. 33 (11-11-1920): 641.

5. Daniel Kauffman, “Editorial,” Gospel Herald 13, no. 33 (11-11-1920): 641.

Review of Richard Godbeer, World of Trouble: A Philadelphia Quaker Family’s Journey through the American Revolution (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019).

In his most recent book, World of Trouble, Richard Godbeer tells the story of Elizabeth and Henry Drinker, a respectable, upwardly-mobile Quaker couple in Philadelphia’s merchant class whose lives were inextricably bound with the economic strife, social upheaval, political chaos, and violence of the American Revolution. Godbeer, a leading scholar of early American history and a Professor of History at the University of Kansas, “resists the familiar story of the American Revolution” by presenting it through the eyes of religious pacifists who remained neutral during the imperial crisis.1 This rich and striking narrative, intimately following the lives of Elizabeth (1735-1807) and Henry Drinker (1734-1809) for over fifty years, is reconstructed from dozens of Elizabeth’s diaries and thousands of letters that Elizabeth and Henry penned in their personal and professional lives. From such a unique vantage point, Godbeer lays bare a difficult reality of the American Revolution: its turbulence and violence were virtually inescapable, whether one wore a uniform or not. In this addition to recent scholarship on the violence of the American Revolution, Godbeer shows how Quakers experienced violence as Patriots suppressed dissent before, during, and after the war through threats, imprisonment, and even killings.2

Although the Drinkers were deeply affected by the decades of revolution, their lives were not entirely defined by it. Elizabeth and Henry lived before and after the Revolution—and even during the years of revolutionary upheaval, their day-to-day lives were not entirely halted. Reflecting this, Godbeer opens their story with the courtship and early married life of Henry Drinker and Elizabeth Sandwith. Married in 1761, the Drinkers’ first years together were marked by remarkable affection for each other and considerable anxiety about social, economic, and spiritual strictures. They wed at a time when the Society of Friends was becoming increasingly insular and sought to “reinvigorate their distinctive spiritual identity through a renewed stress on marriage within the faith.”3 Elizabeth knew the social and spiritual importance of marriage as well as Henry, but for her, as was the case for most women in her time, marriage also brought a significant loss of personal independence. Once married, Elizabeth spent the next twenty years becoming and being a mother—she was pregnant eleven times, but only five of her children reached adulthood. Henry, along with his business partner Abel James, spent the decades before the revolution building their transatlantic trading business and, like many Quaker merchants at midcentury, sought to “balance Quaker values with the practicalities and opportunities of international commerce,” which they achieved with mixed success.4 Henry and Elizabeth accumulated and displayed a great deal of material wealth, letting the religious scruples of outward simplicity fall away to demonstrate their upward mobility and gentility.

The conflicts between their Quaker conscience and the socio-political milieu became even more pronounced for the Drinkers beginning in the 1760s. Godbeer describes how their Quakerism influenced James and Drinker’s politics and business, which, as taxation and importation emerged as touchstones of revolution, were becoming increasingly entangled. The two Quaker merchants saw the royal government as the source of political salvation, rather than that of the crisis. Although they joined the boycott movement in opposition to new Parliamentary taxes, they hoped that such protests would lead to a peaceful resolution within the empire. However, their refusal to endorse heavy-handed threats and violence against royal officials, compounded with the widespread suspicion and resentment that many Pennsylvania Quakers faced, made James and Drinker visibly unpopular among Patriots. Patriotic hostility toward those who showed anything but unconditional support for revolution and independence reached a new height for Quakers in 1777 when Congress connected Quaker pacifism to loyalism and arrested Drinker and ten other leading Quakers, exiling them to Virginia. This move against these Friends was founded on decades of political conflict, accusations of hypocrisy, and suspicion toward Quakers as Pennsylvania became more religiously and ethnically diverse. It was these same pressures that factored into James and Drinkers’ decision to become tea consignees in the first place. Their year of exile was likely “monotonous and anxiety-ridden” for the Quakers. Although they were imprisoned far from home, Godbeer describes their time in captivity as “an extremely relaxed version of imprisonment, based on a gentlemen’s agreement that the exiles would not try to escape.”5 Meanwhile, Quakers and other perceived opponents to independence faced trials, prison, fines, forfeiture and destruction of property, and even execution during Philadelphia’s Continental occupation.

Elizabeth, too, was deeply affected by the throes of Revolution, but in different ways than her husband. From her copious diaries, Godbeer finds that Elizabeth’s wartime concerns lay primarily with “her husband’s situation, the safety of her own household, the fate of other Friends in and around the city, and the outrage at the cruelties inflicted by both sides in the conflict.”6 While Henry was in exile, Elizabeth was forced to quarter Continental and British soldiers in their home, deal with the supply shortages during the British occupation of Philadelphia (September 1777-June 1778), and cope with and protect her family from the persecution and violence that Continents exacted on Loyalist, neutral, and pacifistic Philadelphians once they regained control of the city. Godbeer argues that Elizabeth’s attention was not limited by any distinction of gendered spheres. Rather, he casts Elizabeth as a deeply politically-informed person who applied such knowledge to those affairs she was most familiar with and affected by. In fact, Elizabeth powerfully challenged Quaker sensibilities and American socio-political gender roles when she and three other Quaker women traveled to General George Washington’s headquarters in Valley Forge to parlay with Washington for her husband’s release from exile. In telling the Drinkers’ remarkable story, Godbeer keeps a constant eye on the Drinkers’ community of faith, declaring that the “distinct and deeply felt nationhood” of the Society of Friends that triggered so much outside resentment and hostility also brought a sense of “true freedom within themselves through trust in God” and “liberated from dependence on worldly comfort and security.”7

In his final chapters, Godbeer describes the Drinkers’ lives after the Revolution, which were unfortunately no less tumultuous than those before and during the war. Henry left his career as a merchant behind him in hopes of reinventing himself in order to, prove “his worth to the new republic and [show] that Quaker values could enrich the nation morally while also turning a handsome financial profit.”8 One such project was to invest in American maple sugar, which Drinker hoped would out-compete slave-produced sugar from the West Indies and undermine the entire slave trade. This and other ventures failed because, as Godbeer argues, Henry was a poor judge of character and far too trusting and forbearing with his investors and debtors, all qualities which left him ethically and financially spent.

Godbeer also traces Elizabeth’s difficulties in the new republic as a mistress and a matron. As in many households after the war, the domestic servants of the Drinker household were swept up in the liberating rhetoric of the revolution and began to expect different treatment—treatment which Elizabeth was reluctant to give. Her attitude toward her servants—Black or white, man or woman—“reflected a blend of maternal benevolence and distrustful condescension.”9 Throughout the 1780s and 1790s, while supporting abolition and free labor, Elizabeth held firm to her vision of society in which people knew their place and did not challenge their lot in life. Despite such tumult, Godbeer’s narrative emphasizes the centrality of spirituality, a strong faith community, and the persistence of the patterns of daily living in the Drinkers’ lives, even as they entered the final years of their life at the dawn of the nineteenth century.

World of Trouble forcefully and painfully confronts the fact that “however noble its official founding ideals, the United States was born in blood, its midwife a campaign of terror” (4). Moreover, as Godbeer elucidates, the writings of the Drinkers “remind us that the fraught political issues of their era had personal, spiritual, and emotional ramifications that played out in private as well as public spaces.”10 These powerfully important themes are woven into Godbeer’s wonderfully enjoyable narrative that sheds light on far more than the experiences of one Quaker family. A World of Trouble is not only a meaningful contribution to the scholarship of the American Revolution, but also offers a great deal to anyone interested in the contours of religious pacifism in early American life.


1 Richard Godbeer, World of Trouble: A Philadelphia Quaker Family’s Journey Through the American Revolution (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019), 8.

2 See, for example, T. H. Breen, American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 2010) and Holger Hoock, Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth (New York, NY: Broadway Books, 2017).

3 Godbeer, World of Trouble, 43.

4 Ibid., 82.

5 Ibid., 150.

6 Ibid., 153.

7 Ibid., 169.

8 Ibid., 248.

9 Ibid., 261-62.

10 Ibid., 371.

Making Meaning when the Historical Record is Silent

In August 2018, Brethren in Christ History & Life published “Henry R. and Frances Rice Davidson: Life and Vision.” In that article I explore the contributions of my ancestor who became the first editor of the denominational publication that came into Brethren in Christ homes for one hundred and thirty-one years, from its launch in August 1887 until it was replaced in in 2007 by a periodical called In Part.1 Publication is a milestone, not necessarily the end of the research process; and so I continue to puzzle over these ancestors lives. One question for me, still unanswered,2 is how did the Reverend Henry Davidson, of Scots-Irish Presbyterian descent, come to be ordained in 1846 as a minister in the tiny community of River Brethren, virtually unknown until 1860 when they identified as Brethren in Christ? How did his nearly seventy years of leadership, that I have argued was significant in bringing the denomination into nineteenth century evangelicalism, begin?3 In this post I explore that question and offer suggestions as to why knowing this matters.

As I have been researching and writing on Henry Davidson how I have wished that he had preserved his experience of having “moved into the church,” as his friend and colleague William Baker put it.4 The only record we have, as far as I can find, is in family historian Earl Brechbill’s geneological history.5 I have long puzzled over this short acknowledgement: “Henry was ordained a minister in the Brethren in Christ church at the age of twenty-three.”6 His father Jacob, a farmer and millwright, was a minister of the United Brethren in Christ, and his grandfather Robert Davidson had been a Presbyterian minister. Not even Henry Davidson’s obituaries agree on his denominational history, with the Evangelical Visitor putting Henry’s father in the Brethren in Christ church, and the Wooster Weekly Republican saying he was a Presbyterian minister.7

The confusion is hardly surprising, with the influence of the German Pietist movement that reflected Enlightenment values of subjectification and emotion, and the variety of expressions of personal faith that arose, as individuals studied the Bible for themselves.8 In the immediate post Revolutionary era, the evangelical preaching of Reformed leader William Otterbein and Mennonite Martin Boehm gave rise to a number of denominations in the United States including Presbyterians, German Reformed, and Mennonites uniting into a body “vague and undefined” until they organized in 1815. This conglomeration, which identified as United Brethren in Christ, illustrates the freedom fostered by democracy and populism that Mark Noll has noted caused “the churches [to be] strongly identified with the common people.”9 Adhering to no church doctrine beyond the New Testament, accepting all modes of baptism including sprinkling, pouring and immersion, the movement quickly spread, including to Western Pennsylvania’s Westmoreland County where the Davidsons lived.10

Henry Davidson’s silence about his experience and motives for moving from the United Brethren in Christ to the small enclave of German speaking “thrifty tillers of the soil” with their fear of “popularity of any kind,” reflects the practice of the River Brethren, thus named by outsiders because they baptized new members in the closest creek or river.11 When Henry joined their numbers in the 1840s, sixty years had passed since Jacob Engle and others had been baptized in the Susquehanna River, keeping who was first in their hearts to the grave.12 Evidently Davidson was attracted to this humble group, at that time virtually unknown, judging by John Winebrenner’s History of All the Religious Denominations in the United States, first published in 1844. When Davidson “moved into the church,” to use Baker’s words, Winebrenner’s recently published history had missed them altogether. They were unique in the 1848 edition of the six hundred page compendium, with anonymous authorship by “A Familiar Friend,” whose six page article remains, in Brethren in Christ historian Carleton Wittlinger’s words, “the most reliable secondary source for early Brethren in Christ history.”13 No other group, including the Mennonites and the Amish, avoided identifying the author describing the polity, practice and history of their particular group.

Fast forwarding to August 1887 with the launch of the Evangelical Visitor, we can glean insight into the experience of early converts into the River Brethren. Davidson’s friend and colleague W.O. Baker, a medical doctor who practised medicine in Ashland, Ohio and preached for the congregation in Stark County, recounted his conversion and baptism three decades earlier in Sugar Creek, where it meandered by Wayne County’s Paradise, Ohio. Baker’s note that Henry Davidson, editor of the new paper, had been among those present in late February [1854] at his baptism, confirms Davidson’s long history with the denomination.14

In my mind’s eye I see the senior minister Jacob Hoffman standing with red topped boots reaching his knees standing in the cold creek, possibly supported by an overhanging branch, baptizing the most recent convert to the small community of River Brethren. I see Henry Davidson, a young minister in the group, standing among others, uniform grey overcoats overlapping red topped rubber boots, large capes draping each man’s shoulders, broad brimmed hats in hand, witnessing this powerful moment when a new member submitted to the triune immersion that confirmed his conversion experience, a ritual done in a way that separated the River Brethren from other groups. Baptism in cold waters, the first time in the name of the Father, then in the name of the Son, and finally in the name of the Holy Spirit, confirmed Baker’s commitment to living out his faith in this particular community of believers.15

It remains unclear exactly where Henry Davidson encountered the German community of River Brethren; perhaps it was in German township, located just south of Redstone township where the Davidson’s lived.16 Whatever the case, we must assume that as a young man Henry Davidson, similar to his friend William Baker, was attracted to the warmth of these people and the way that they lived out the particular convictions that set the River Brethren apart from other groups.17 The similarity of emphasis on a new birth before baptism must have felt familiar to the young Henry. Somehow the clarity of conviction that church order must insist on a single mode of baptism, triune immersion, appealed to him, as it had to his friend William Baker.18 Davidson’s attraction to the clarity of conviction that allowed for the warmth of testimonials where members told of their conversion experiences, their “sorrows, joys and future hope,” yet insisted on ordinances such as river baptism and foot washing rituals would have a far reaching impact on the denomination; fifteen years later in the 1860s it would claim the name Brethren in Christ, remaining distinct from the United Brethren in Christ of Henry Davidson’s origin.19

Although River Brethren pietism distinguished them from their Mennonite relatives with the insistence of the former, as Wittlinger has put it, on “a personal, heartfelt experience of the new birth as normative for the beginning of the Christian life,” their evangelism was practised in a quiet, relational way.20 It was the way they lived their faith that attracted others. Some, similar to William Baker and Henry Davidson, expressed the desire to become a part of a particular congregation, joining in the “full fellowship” that meant choosing to be baptized by triune immersion and to adopt the practices of those particular Brethren.21

It is impossible to fully understand the motives of another, but history does provide a way to know ourselves as individuals, as families, as churches, as societies, a way into becoming more deeply rooted as we are intentional about understanding faith in the context from which we came. In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer has wisely suggested that Knowing of any sort is relational, animated by a desire to come into deeper community with what we know.”22 The formative role that Henry Davidson and his friend William Baker took in introducing to the Brethren in Christ changes that had marked the pietist movement from the eighteenth century, including communication through print culture, missions, and opportunities for women to serve in public ways, had far reaching effects on the denomination.23 As the Brethren in Christ (in Canada Be in Christ) continue to develop during these fast-changing and tumultuous times, with secularism and evangelicalism in head to head combat, both shaped by the pietist impulse with their privileging experience over authority, it is essential that we know our history.24

On a personal note as I have explained in the occasional series “Growing up Brethren in Christ,” published in Brethren in Christ History & Life, it is in the on-going attempt to come to deeper understanding of my own spiritual journey and the denomination in which I grew up that I continue to explore the lives and spirituality of my ancestors Henry Davidson and his daughter Frances Davidson.25 Indeed, my journey has taken me in the opposite direction to Henry Davidson with my journey away from my Brethren in Christ roots to eventually be ordained in the Mennonite Church, while serving as chaplain and professor in a Presbyterian theological school. As I reflect on how my spiritual journey has taken me out of the Brethren in Christ to the Mennonites and Presbyterian communities, I am curious about my ancestor’s journey. Henry Davidson’s spiritual quest took him away from his Presbyterian and United Brethren in Christ roots to a group founded by Jacob Engel, another seeker whose journey brought from his Mennonite roots, to establish a tiny group convicted of the efficacy of triune baptism. The curiousity of the detective continues to motivate me as I continue to explore, as Palmer has put it, “how much of the past lives in us today,” and to seek community among the great cloud of witnesses.26

1“Henry B and Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson: Life and Vision,” Brethren in Christ History & Life, Volume XLI, no. 2 (August 2018), 115-54; See also Micah B. Brickner, “One of God’s Avenues of Progress: Exploring the Outcomes of the Evangelical Visitor, Brethren in Christ History & Life, Volume XLI, no. 2 (August 2018), 323.

2Nancy Theriot has explored the potential in reading texts in ways that the historian can attempt to understand something of how people from the past were making meaning from their lives. See her Mothers & Daughters in Nineteenth-Century America: The Biosocial Construction of Femininity (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1996).

3Paul Hoffman, compiler, “History of the Davidson descendants,” printed in Earl Brechbill, “The Ancestry of John and Henrietta Davidson Brechbill: A Historical Narrative,” Robert K. Brechbill, printer (July 1973), 55.

4Earlier publications developing the story of Henry Davidson and his family include “Searching for Mary Mathilda Yoder,” https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2020/07/02/searching-for-mary-mathilda-davidson-yoder/; “Mysticism and Evangelicalism in the Writings of a Spiritual ‘Mother” https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2020/01/28/mysticism-and-evangelicalism-in-the-writings-of-a-spiritual-mother/ “In Pursuit of the Missing Portrait https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2019/06/27/in-pursuit-of-the-missing-portrait/ “History as Relationship” https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2018/10/16/history-as-relationship/ “Henry B and Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson: Life and Vision;” “Conflict, Confession and Conversion: H. Frances Davidson’s Call to Brethren in Christ Mission.” Brethren in Christ History & Life XI, No. 3 (December 2017): 335-52; “Reverend Henry Davidson,” (1823 – 1903): Maintaining and Creating Boundaries, Historical Papers, Canadian Society of Church History (2014), 5-16.

5Paul Hoffman, “The Davidsons,” in Earl Brechbill, “The Ancestry of John and Henrietta Davidson Brechbill: A Historical Narrative” (Independence, KS: Robert K. Brechbill, printer, 1973), 49 – 59.

6Hoffman, “The Davidsons,” 55.

7Hoffman, “The Davidsons,” 53, 55; “Henry B. and Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson,” 127, n 41.

8Douglas Shantz, An Introduction to German Pietism: Protestant Renewal at the Dawn of Modern Europe (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press, 2013), 205, 277, 278-79.

9Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 68.

10Paul A. Graham, “The Beginnings,” 45-46 and Raymond Waldfogel, 130, in Paul R. Fetters, TrialsandTriumphs:HistoryoftheChurchoftheUnitedBrethreninChrist (Huntington, IND: Church of the United Brethren in Christ Department of Church Services, 1984); See also William Hanby, “The United Brethren in Christ, in John Winebrenner, History of All the Religious Denominations in the United States (Harrisburg, PA: John Winebrenner, 1848), 550, 561; Carlton Wittlinger, QuestforPietyandObedience:TheStoryoftheBrethreninChrist (Nappanee, Indiana: Evangel Press, 1978), 129-33.

11Climenhaga, History, 53.

12Wittlinger, Quest, 19-23.

13Wittlinger, Quest, 14, n. 41; see “A Familiar Friend,” in Winebrenner, History, 550-56.

14Evangelical Visitor I, 1 (1 August 1887), 9; In his biography, D. Ray Heisey, Healing Body and Soul: The Life and Times of Dr. W. O. Baker, 1827-1916 Grantham, PA: The Brethren in Christ Historical Society, 2004), 22, places 1854 as the year that Baker was baptized.

15A. W. Climenhaga, History of the Brethren in Christ Church (Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1952), 55-56, 69.

16Homer Rosenberger, “Migrations of the Pennsylvania Germans to Western Pennsylvania,” Part II, 61 file:///C:/Users/lucille.marr/Downloads/3099-Article%20Text-2944-1-10-20121002%20(2).pdf Accessed August 2020.

17In her diaries, Davidson’s daughter Frances noted how she missed “our own meeting,” when she was studying at Ashland College. “It does me so much good to get to our own meeting. It warms me up.” Hannah Frances Davidson, Diary 1 (11 Feb 1881) Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives, Messiah College, Grantham, PA. https://messiaharchives.pastperfectonline.com/archive?utf8=%E2%9C%93&search_criteria=HFD+Diary&searchButton=Search accessed 22 June 2020.

18Wittlinger, Quest, 23-24; see also Laban Brechbill, History of the Old Order River Brethren, edited by Myron S. Dietz (N.P: Brechbill & Strickler, 1972), 27-28, 33.

19Climenhaga, History, 70; Wittlinger, Quest, 24, 136.

20Wittlinger, Quest, 23.

21Climenhaga, History, 58.

22Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 54.

23Shantz, Introduction to German Pietism, 238, 275, 278-79, 285.

24Shantz, Introduction to German Pietism, 275-76; Indeed, in the view of McGill Emeritus professor philosopher Charles Taylor, both modern secularism and modern evangelicalism with their privileging experience and action are rooted in the seventeenth-century Pietist impulse. See Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 26-27.

25“Growing up Brethren in Christ,” Brethren in Christ History & Life, Vol. XLI, no. II, no 1 (April 2020), 118-25.

26Palmer, Courage to Teach, 54. See, for example, Laura Swan, The Forgotten Desert Mothers: sayings, lives, and stories of early Christian women, (New York: Paulist Press, 2001), 4.