Mennonite Weddings at Home and Church

Anna Showalter

When people find out that I am planning my wedding for this summer they often ask, “What are Mennonite weddings like?” Sometimes I respond saying, “no dancing, no alcohol,” and enjoy watching the disbelief on my non-Mennonite friends’ faces. In reality, however, there are as many ways to have a Mennonite wedding as there are Mennonites. Despite the inevitable diversity of practice across North American Mennonites, my study of Gospel Herald essays and marriage announcements between 1908-1960 made it clear that Mennonite Church leaders felt strongly that important matters of doctrine and practice were at stake in how church members conducted their marriage ceremonies. Beyond the problem of dress, music and the wedding ring was the question of home wedding versus church wedding. The primary concern was that weddings, whether at home or church, be consistent with Mennonite commitment to simplicity and non-conformity to the world. The shift from home weddings to church weddings meant that weddings were no longer semi-private events but full congregational occasions. Though there is little discussion of what is at stake with this shift in the Gospel Herald it strikes me as a question to pursue. How does the inclusion of marriage vows in congregational worship reflect Mennonite beliefs about marriage in relation to our beliefs about the church as the family of God?

At the turn of the twentieth century, (Old) Mennonites had a firmly established practice of holding wedding ceremonies in the home of either the bride or the officiating bishop. The services were small, involving a handful of close friends and family, often on a Tuesday or Thursday. Gospel Herald marriage announcements usually described these events as a “quiet wedding.” In the late 1920s, however, an occasional “church wedding” appeared in the listing of recent marriages. The trend continued to build slowly so that by 1957 the majority of weddings were held in churches rather than homes.1

Though less is known about Mennonite weddings prior to the twentieth century, we do know that the shift to church weddings did not come without a precedent. The 1890 Minister’s Manual instructs officiants that “The marriage ceremony, according to our present usage, generally takes place at the home of the bride. There is apparently no reason, however, why it should not be performed in the meetinghouse at the time of public services, according to the custom of our brethren in former times, and as is still the custom with some Mennonite churches.”2 An eyewitness account of a nineteenth century Reformed Mennonite wedding describes such a wedding. The couple stood up during Sunday morning worship after a sermon on marriage and divorce, said their marriage vows and then took their (segregated) seats in the congregation.3

Historical precedent or not, the shift back to church weddings in the 1930s and 40s in Mennonite Church communities raised questions and concerns for some. Virginia Conference, for instance, ruled against church weddings entirely in 1900 but modified the prohibition in 1914 to permit weddings to take place at church during regular services.4 The question was still debated in 1944, and Ruben Brubaker wrote to the Gospel Herald to express his concern. “[I] would not encourage the practice of church weddings for [I] feel they will cause drift into worldly practices.”5 A church wedding opened the door for a larger congregation, and increased the visibility of the couple as they made their vows. Even if the wedding was conducted without the pomp and circumstance of attendants, processional, special clothing and flowers, a church wedding would still be a larger, public event in contrast to the “quiet wedding” of previous years.

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John and Doris Sollenberger married December 9, 1951 during Sunday morning worship at the Rowe Mennonite Church. The bride wore blue.

My own grandparents exchanged their marriage vows during Sunday morning worship at the Rowe Mennonite Church near Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, in 1951. They wore their Sunday best and stood up during church at the appointed time to say their vows. My grandma remembers her mother-in-law cautioning her against this plan in favor of a low-profile home wedding that would not draw unnecessary attention to the couple. My grandparents, however, felt that since Grandpa had recently been ordained as a minister, it was fitting for them to take their marriage vows in the midst of their church community.

Despite a cautious attitude toward church weddings in general, several essays in the Gospel Herald show that my grandparents were not alone in believing that the church body gathered at the meetinghouse was potentially an ideal context to make marriage vows. One voice representative of this view was Amos Weaver of Ronks, Pennsylvania. In 1956, he noted the shift to church weddings as a positive change:

Until about 10 years ago Mennonite church weddings were practically unknown in many communities. Today, any other type of wedding is a rare thing. To have this very important God-given ordinance of holy matrimony solemnized publicly in the church of Christ certainly seems right and proper for a Christian. Many of us will say it is a change for the better.

Amos Weaver went on to clarify that this change could only be positive if done with the utmost simplicity within the context of regular church worship. Any added frills would obscure the advantage of explicitly placing marriage vows in the midst of corporate worship. Weaver described the church wedding he would advocate:

We could have a church wedding with all of the advantages of the church’s sanction and blessing by including it in a regular church service without all the fanfare we now have. I believe all the truly spiritual values to be had in a church wedding for the bridal couple and for the brotherhood would be retained and enhanced by a simple marriage ceremony in connection with a regular Sunday morning or Sunday evening service. No dramatic arrangements staged for the bridal party to enter at timed intervals, and no tableau of specially gowned attendants would be necessary.6

It appears that for Weaver and his like-minded contemporaries, the primary issue at stake was simplicity, economy and non-conformity to worldly wedding practices. I wonder, however, if in addition to the exhortation to simplicity, a subtext running underneath conversations about changing wedding practices is the question of how marriage vows belong in the life and worship of the church. Perhaps unarticulated in the hesitation to shift weddings from semi-private events to full congregational occasions is concern about a fine line between elevating the romantic couple in the public eye and maintaining the simplicity of a community of Christian brothers and sisters.

My study of Mennonite home and church weddings leaves me with more questions than answers. For instance, is it possible to read the inclusion of marriage vows in congregational worship as potentially, very subtly, obscuring the Christian claim that it is our baptismal vows rather than our family ties that constitute our membership in the family of God? Alternatively, could such an inclusion be read as acknowledging the particularity of the marriage vow while placing it in the context of community instead of romanticizing the idea of an insular, self-containing couple? In a cultural moment in which marriage practices are changing, today Mennonites have the opportunity to again consider how to make marriage vows in a way that communications our convictions about human marriage and the family of God.


  1. Orville R. Stutzman, “Vital Statistics,” Gospel Herald 50 (Nov 12, 1957): 970. 
  2. Confession of Faith and Minister’s Manual (Elkhart In: Mennonite Publishing Company, 1890). 89. 
  3. Phebe Earle Gibbons, Pennsylvania Dutch and Other Essays (Philadelphia Pa: J.B. Lippincott & Co, 1872), 28-31. 
  4. Minutes of the Virginia Mennonite Conference (1835-1938), (Scottdale Pa: Virginia Mennonite Conference, 1939), 56, 109. 
  5. Ruben Brubaker, “Church Weddings,” Gospel Herald 37 (October 13, 1944): 557. 
  6. Amos W. Weaver, “Weddings,” Gospel Herald 49 (June 26, 1956): 622. 

Juanita Lark Building Dedication at Goshen College

Regina Shands Stoltzfus

On February 10, Goshen College officially renamed its Welcome Center to honor Juanita Lark, the college’s first African American graduate. The daughter of James and Rowena Lark, mission workers and influential church planters, Juanita Jewel Lark graduated in 1943. On the day of the dedication, members of the Lark family visited the campus, and Linda Lyons, a niece of Juanita Lark, shared stories of her aunt’s time at Goshen College.

James Lark was the first black minister ordained in the Mennonite Church, becoming a bishop in 1954. The Larks planted six churches and spent much of their time in the 1940s, 50s and 60s as consultants to Mission Boards, conferences and congregations regarding planting new churches in black and urban areas.

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Born in 1888 in Savannah, Georgia, James Lark was baptized there at age sixteen in a Baptist church. He attended the Quaker Institute for College Youth in Cheney, Pennsylvania (now Cheney State College). James and Rowena married in 1918, and the couple had six children. In 1927 the family made their first contact with Mennonites when they moved to a farm near Quakertown, Pennsylvania. Members of the Rocky Ridge Mission Church invited the children to Sunday School; Rowena Lark also began to attend and eventually became a member. Later on her husband and three of their children became members. Rowena Lark later reflected:

“It was the literal fulfillment of scripture that caused me to join Rocky Ridge Mission. As I saw these faithful Christians coming eight or more miles from their homes and gathering up in their cars Italians, Poles, Dutch, American Negroes, and Germans, to take them to the house of the Lord, I was made to feel that here is a group of Christians who are really making their religion practical.”1

For Rowena Lark, Mennonites represented Christians who took their faith seriously; the evidence of this was the willingness to traverse racial and cultural boundaries to bring the word of God into the lives of all people and also meet their physical needs; the willingness to rub shoulders and share possessions. This was later reflected in the couple’s own ministry, when James Lark became the first African American Mennonite minister in 1944 with Rowena a capable partner in that work.

In February 1945, the Larks had become full time workers in Mennonite mission work in Chicago. They organized and presided over children’s activities, including boy’s club, girl’s chorus, and camp program. In 1949, the Larks purchased ten acres of land in rural Hopkins Park, Illinois for a Sunday School camp for children; in gratitude, Rowena named it “Rehoboth” after Genesis 22. This was the site that eventually became Rehoboth Mennonite Church.

The 1940s continued to be a relative swirl of activity concerning the convergence of African American and white Mennonite worlds in the midwest. The Voluntary Service unit that was established in Saginaw, Michigan eventually lead to the planting of Ninth Street Mennonite Church (now Ninth Street Community Church), and the Gladstone Mission was initiated in Cleveland. That mission led to the planting of the Lee Heights Community Church. Yet the Larks found themselves frequently impatient with the slow pace of white administrators who held the purse strings and made final decisions on various urban ministries. The work was urgent; as Rowena wrote to a friend – there was so much to be done. She also was sharp with those who would denigrate Black people and Black culture.  According to Leroy Bechler, Rowena Lark

“grieved and was not always patient with those who reflected an inflexible or critical spirit of the Black community or Black worship.  She was a woman ahead of her time – reading, studying – learning Spanish and going to Mexico to live for a number of months after she was 70 years old.”2

The Lark family legacy, realized in part by the naming of the Juanita Lark Welcome Center on the Goshen College campus, is an important reminder of this history of interracial partnership and the broadening nature of Mennonite identity, and an acknowledgement that this work continues into the present day.


  1. James and Rowena Lark Collection, Hist Mss 1-566, Box 1, Folder 4a, Bethel Mennonite Church (Chicago, Il) Mennonite Church USA Archives, Goshen, Indiana (MCA-G) 
  2. Urban Pioneers Interview, #2003-49, Box 1 Historical committee, Urban Pioneers Interview Project 2001-02. 

“The People of God around the World”: Melvin Gingerich’s Archival World Tour

Jason B. Kauffman

On January 13, 1969, Melvin and Verna Mae (Roth) Gingerich embarked on a tour of Mennonite church communities around the world. During a period of 4.5 months the couple traveled more than 54,000 miles (“by air, train, taxi, jeep, and touring cars”) over a distance spanning five continents and twenty four different countries or territories.1 In all, their itinerary included 47 flights on 25 different airlines. The tour was commissioned by the inter-Mennonite Council of Mission Board Secretaries (COMBS) with financial support from the Historical Committee of the (old) Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).2

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Melvin and Verna Gingerich contemplate the itinerary for the 1969 archival world tour

By 1969, Gingerich had directed the archives of the (old) Mennonite Church for 22 years.3 He was also heavily involved in the Mennonite publishing world. Aside from his work as managing editor for the Mennonite Historical Bulletin and the Mennonite Quarterly Review, he was an editor and frequent contributor to several other publications including Mennonite Life, Mennonite Weekly Review, and the Gospel Herald. From 1955-1958, he represented the Peace Section of the Mennonite Central Committee in Japan. Gingerich’s active involvement with Mennonite institutions, his familiarity with trends in Mennonite writing and scholarship, and his experiences abroad shaped his worldview and over time he developed a keen interest in the global Mennonite Church.

Gingerich’s stated objectives for the archival world tour were to “determine the amount and nature of archival materials relating to American Mennonite missions located outside of the U.S. and Canada,” to consult with missionaries and church workers about record management practices, and to identify potential authors for the Mennonite Encyclopedia and other publications. But, for Gingerich, the trip was much more than a simple fact-finding mission. During his time abroad, Gingerich also planned to offer lectures on the important role of history in shaping the vision and identity of the global Mennonite community. He hoped that his meetings with mission workers, church leaders, and school groups would create a space for them to “examine together the Christian approach to history and to consider how historical interest could be aroused where it did not exist.”4

Such concerns became a recurring theme in his reports. After his visit with mission workers and church leaders in Argentina, Gingerich wrote:

It seems to me that perhaps my major contribution has been in making them aware of the fact that they have an obligation to witness to the rest of the church what God has been doing among them. The Bible is largely the account of God’s mighty works among His children. Much of the Old Testament was designed to review their history. The great sermons in the New Testament do the same thing. We have an obligation in our day to record and witness to this continuing history.5

Later in the trip, during a conversation with Dr. Saphir Athyal of the Union Biblical Seminary in Yavatmal, India, Gingerich discussed “the problem of how to get [seminary] students to feel that contemporary church history is a part of the ongoing stream of church history, directly related to past centuries of the story of God’s people.”

While educating the “younger churches” about Mennonite history was clearly part of his agenda, Gingerich was also sensitive to the local realities and traditions of the communities that hosted him.5 According to Gingerich, “the purpose of this visit to the fields was not a paternalistic one,” but rather “to encourage our brethren to share their story with the entire Christian brotherhood. We are brethren who can all share with each other and learn from each other.” As such, he felt that local Mennonite conferences should take the lead to develop “their own historians or historical committees and [to] cultivate the consciousness of their unique role in history.”

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Melvin and Verna Gingerich in Japan, Christmas 1956

Gingerich also had the intercultural awareness to recognize that not all members of the global Mennonite community transmitted and preserved history primarily through the written record. In several locations, Gingerich met with local church leaders to discuss plans for commemorating the upcoming anniversaries of their churches. In Ethiopia, he encouraged leaders from the Meserete Kristos Church to produce an account of their own history in order to tell “their own story from the Ethiopian perspective.” On other legs of the trip he also discussed the importance of recorded oral histories as a tool for preserving the life stories of early church members and leaders.

When Gingerich undertook his archival world tour, the global Mennonite population stood between 400,000 and 600,000 people. Roughly one third of these people lived in places outside of North America or Europe. Since then, the global Mennonite population has grown rapidly so that, today, Mennonites in Latin America, Asia, and Africa outnumber Mennonites in North America and Europe by a ratio of 2 to 1.6 The demographic shift that has occurred in the global Mennonite community in the last several decades raises important questions about the stories we tell about our shared history. Specifically, what should global Mennonite history look like and who should set the terms for those discussions?

Gingerich envisioned global Mennonite history as an unbroken narrative thread connecting the past to the present through the lives of “the people of God around the world.” His efforts to involve local believers in the telling of their own stories were ahead of their time. However, in his vision Mennonites from North America and Europe remained firmly at the center of this story as keepers of the collective memory of an Anabaptist tradition rooted in sixteenth century Europe.

Today, organizations such as the Mennonite World Conference and the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism are modifying this vision through initiatives such as Renewal 2027, a 10-year series of events during which Mennonites will meet annually in locations across the globe to commemorate and reflect upon the five hundredth anniversary of the beginnings of the Anabaptist movement. Organizers are planning the events with a broad, ecumenical vision which recognizes shared heritage and convictions but also the unique and varied ways followers have lived out the Anabaptist-Mennonite faith in diverse cultural contexts around the world.7 According to John D. Roth, the commemorations present an opportunity to “engage in fresh thinking” about the “global nature of the Anabaptist-Mennonite church today” and how this global nature “challenges or expands definitions of the word ‘Anabaptist.’”8 Such efforts are important steps toward decentering North America and Europe in the stories we tell about “the people of God around the world.”

Footnotes:


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Letter from Melvin Gingerich to Verna Gingerich, December 24, 1968


  1. Melvin and Verna visited Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Colombia, Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Ghana, Nigeria, Congo, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, India, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, the Fiji Islands, and Hawaii. 
  2. Gingerich was careful to specify that the couple paid for Verna’s travel expenses from their own funds (see photo). 
  3. Gingerich was born and raised in Kalona, Iowa. After graduating from Goshen College – where he met his wife, Verna – in 1926 he later earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of Iowa in 1938. After some short teaching stints at Washington Junior College (Iowa) and Bethel College (Kansas), he moved with his family to Goshen (Indiana) where he served as archivist of the (Old) Mennonite Church Archives for the rest of his career (1947-1970). For part of this time he also directed the Mennonite Research Foundation and edited the Mennonite Encyclopedia
  4. Quotations come from reports contained in the Melvin Gingerich Papers, HM1-129, Archival World Trip – 1969, Box 78, Mennonite Church USA Archives, Goshen, Indiana. 
  5. Ibid. 
  6. Throughout his reports, Gingerich drew a distinction between the “younger churches” and the “older churches” in the global Mennonite community. 
  7. These are rough estimates based upon statistics from 1958 and 1978 published on the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online at http://gameo.org/index.php?title=World_Mennonite_Membership_Distribution 
  8. John Roth uses the concept of “right remembering” to examine the relationship between commemorations, historical memory, and collective identity formation in the global Anabaptist-Mennonite community. See John D. Roth, “How to Commemorate a Division? Reflections on the 500th Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation and its Relevance for the Global Anabaptist-Mennonite Church Today,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 91:1 (January 2017), 24-35. 

Perception, Reality, and Anabaptist-Muslim Solidarity

In a 2016 multinational survey Ipsos MORI, a United Kingdom and Ireland-based market research company, examined the disconnect between perception and reality in forty different countries in six different continents. The survey asked respondents to estimate figures such as the percentage of their nation’s inhabitants who report being happy, the percentage of homeowners, the percentage of their GDP that the country spends on health, and more.1 One particular aspect of the survey caught the attention of the Guardian: the respondents’ perception of the percentage of Muslims in their country. The respondents greatly overestimated how many Muslims lived in their country; European respondents were often off by a factor of as much as 4 (France’s average guess was 31%, compared to the actual figure of 7.5%), while North American respondents’ guesses were even further from reality (in the U.S., where Muslims represent 1% of the population, the average guess was 17%).2 These inflated perceptions of the size of the Muslim population in Western countries likely both fuel and are fueled by alarmism surrounding the so-called “Muslim takeover” of the West, though the actual statistics lend no credence to the narrative of a takeover.graphic-for-anabaptist-historians-article

As a historian of sixteenth-century Anabaptism, the idea of a misunderstood and oft-maligned religious minority, whose numbers are thought be much larger than they actually are and whose rise is thought to pose a demographic threat, is very familiar to me. It is far more difficult to make an exact demographic breakdown of Europe in the sixteenth century than in the present day. Moreover, religious identification is further complicated by the fact that Anabaptists operated largely underground in the sixteenth century, and the term Anabaptist itself was used primarily as an epithet rather than a form of religious self-identification. Nevertheless, while Anabaptists formed significant clusters in several regions, their overall numbers in German and Dutch-speaking lands (where the movement primarily took root) were undoubtedly relatively small. In his 1972 monograph Anabaptism: A Social History, Claus-Peter Clasen analyzed the numbers of reported Anabaptists in early modern Switzerland, Austria, and South and Central Germany, and concluded that they were numerically insignificant; even in the city of Ausgburg, which had the largest Anabaptist congregation in the Holy Roman Empire in the 1520s, the Anabaptists comprised only 1.2% of the city’s population.3 On the basis of his quantitative analysis, Clasen concluded that “the Anabaptist movement was so insignificant that it is misleading to use the term Reformation at all” and that “[the Anabaptist movement] cannot be called more than a minor episode in the history of sixteenth-century German society.”4

Clasen’s analysis drew criticism from other Reformation scholars. The accuracy of his numbers is difficult to gauge, and he omitted the Netherlands entirely from his quantitative analysis, despite the presence of a vibrant Anabaptist movement in the region. However, regardless of the accuracy of his numbers, Clasen forgot to account for the fact that the historical significance of religious minority groups rests less on their actual numbers than on their perceived numbers and the threat their contemporaries believe them to pose. As Sigrun Haude persuasively argued in In the Shadow of Savage Wolves: Anabaptist Münster and the German Reformation during the 1530s, “numbers are only part of the story…[Anabaptists] had a bearing on the era through their sheer existence and perceived menace.”5 The numerous anti-Anabaptist edicts issued at both the imperial and the municipal level from the emergence of the Anabaptist movement in 1525 and throughout the sixteenth century attest to how seriously Protestant and Catholic authorities took the threat of Anabaptist growth.

Other parallels between the experience of sixteenth-century Anabaptists and twenty-first century Muslims in the West come to mind. Both groups are and were far from ideologically homogeneous, yet members of both groups are and were frequently conflated with their most radical and dangerous co-religionists. Critics such as Lambertus Hortensius, whose Tumultus Anabaptistae (Anabaptist Tumults) circulated in various Latin, Dutch, and French editions well into the seventeenth century, printed and disseminated lurid tales of Münsterite violence and sexual excess long after Anabaptist groups with revolutionary impulses had largely disappeared.6 Then as now, feared religious minorities faced the difficult challenge of attempting to assimilate while still staying as true as possible to their religious values, even as the general public often made false assumptions about these values.

It is a lonely and at times dangerous path to be a visible part of a religious minority that members of the public and even lawmakers perceive as a threat to the status quo. The many stories of early modern Anabaptist martyrs attest to this, as do examples of modern Islamophobic laws and acts of violence. As people who are intimately acquainted with their religious forebears’ history of persecution and marginalization, modern-day Western Anabaptists are in a unique position to empathize and stand in solidarity with other religious minorities as they face public suspicion and hostile political administrations. This is already happening in many ways, as the Mennonite Central Committee in the United States and Canada works to welcome Syrian refugees in partnership with local Mennonite congregations and even Hutterite colonies.7 2017, with the new incoming administration in the United States, the upcoming federal elections in Germany and France, and a contentious Conservative leadership race underway in Canada, poses new challenges for Muslims and other religious minorities in the West. Particularly in light of the events of the last week, including Trump’s executive order on refugees and immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries and the tragic shooting at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec by far-right nationalist Alexandre Bissonette, solidarity with Muslims and other religious minorities is needed more than ever. It is my hope that more and more Anabaptists will commit to standing in the gap and becoming the sorts of allies their forebears might have wished for.

 

Image Source:

Duncan, Pamela. “Europeans Greatly Overestimate Muslim Population, Poll Shows.” Theguardian.com.

https://www.theguardian.com/society/datablog/2016/dec/13/europeans-massively-overestimate-muslim-population-poll-shows (Accessed 10 January 2017)

 

Footnotes:


  1. Ipsos MORI, “Perceptions Are Not Reality: What the World Gets Wrong,” Ipsos-mori.com, https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3817/Perceptions-are-not-reality-what-the-world-gets-wrong.aspx, accessed 10 January 2017. 
  2. Ipsos MORI; Pamela Duncan, “Europeans Greatly Overestimate Muslim Population, Poll Shows,” Theguardian.com, https://www.theguardian.com/society/datablog/2016/dec/13/europeans-massively-overestimate-muslim-population-poll-shows, accessed 10 January 2017. 
  3. Claus-Peter Clasen, Anabaptism: A Social History (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972), 27. 
  4. Clasen, 29; 428. 
  5. Sigrun Haude, In the Shadow of Savage Wolves: Anabaptist Münster and the German Reformation During the 1530s (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 150. 
  6. See, inter alia, Lambertus Hortensius, Tumultuum Anabaptistarum Liber Unus (Basel: Johannes Oporinus, 1548); Lambertus Hortensius, Oproeren der Wederdoperen: Geschiet tot Amsterdam, Munster, en in Groeningerlandt (Amsterdam: Samuel Imbrechts, 1660); Histoire des Anabaptistes: Contenant Leur Doctrine, Les Diverses Opinions qui les divisent en plusieurs Sectes, les Troubles qu’ils ont causez et enfin tout ce qui s’est passé de plus considérable à leur égard, depuis l’an 1521 jusques à present (Amsterdam: Jacques Desbordes, 1702). 
  7. Meghan Mast, “Hutterite Help: A Refugee Sponsorship Story,” MCCCanada.ca, https://mcccanada.ca/stories/hutterite-help-refugee-sponsorship-story, accessed 17 January 2017. 

Searching for Common Ground: Muslim-Mennonite Encounters

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In the last number of years, Mennonite churches and institutions in North America have paid particular attention to their relations with Muslims. They have sought to dispel suspicion and hostility between communities; terms like “friendship, hospitality, and dialogue” regularly accompany organized events that seek to create a common ground by emphasizing the values shared by Muslims and Christians. Rarely, however, do these events reach into the past to acknowledge the collective history of Muslims and Mennonites. In the Russian empire, these groups were neighbors: in Molochna, Crimea, Kuban, Terek, Ufa, Neu-Samara, Orenburg, Slavgorod, Pavlodar, and Aulia Ata, Mennonites settled next to established Muslim communities, who practiced a variety of nomadic, semi-nomadic, and settled lifestyles.1

—A Kumyk family (left) and a Russian Mennonite family (right)

The Russian empire expanded at the expense of Muslims on its periphery. This was particularly the case in the Caucasus. By the mid-nineteenth century, Russia’s military conquest had transformed the Caucasus “from a contested frontier zone into a borderland of the Russian empire.”2 The violence that secured Russian rule left an indelible mark on the region, which would haunt relations between the state and the indigenous peoples as well as influence the lives of settlers. In the Caucasus, the Russian state’s actions initiated a clash between a colonial Christian empire and a local population increasingly united by a shared Muslim identity. Even though the local population at the time was incredibly diverse and highly fragmented (as it remains today), the interpretation of Russia as a Christian empire aggressively and without mercy annexing territories lingered in the region, arguably influencing relations on the ground.3

Mennonites decided, in the early twentieth century, to move right into the heart of this maelstrom, purchasing 66,950 acres of land from Princes Aleksandr and Konstantin Lvov for nearly a million rubles. This land was located between the river Sulak in the south and the river Aktash in the north. A map showing the ethnicity of the population in 1913 confirms the isolation of Mennonites. Located in the far reaches of the Terek province, near the Caspian Sea, Mennonites established a small enclave surrounded by various groups of Sunni Muslims, such as the Nogai, the Kumyks, and a little further away, the Chechens. Mennonites, however, were not the only Christians in the Khasavyurt district, as other German and Russian settlers also established villages.4 As Terry Martin has noted, Mennonites debated the decision to purchase this land on the basis of economic and health concerns; it did not cross their minds that Mennonite properties and lives might be jeopardized by their neighbors.5 This showed, perhaps, a strong belief in their own resourcefulness, or maybe they sincerely believed that the Tsarist state could keep them safe: either way, they were mistaken. My grandmother, who was born in Khartsch (village #2), could vividly recall the day her family fled their home, as her mother carried loaves of raisin bread to the wagon in her apron. Through the eyes of a child, this was an adventure—to her mother, a stressful event, as she frantically packed her children and belongings. My grandmother’s family, as well as the majority of the Mennonite settlement, fled in beginning of 1918, as anarchy spread through the region with the collapse of authority after the overthrow of the Provisional Government by the Bolsheviks.

It is important to interpret Muslim-Mennonite interactions through the lens of settler colonialism to show how the structure of settlement benefited Mennonites at the expense of the local population. It is equally as important to focus on the ways in which both Mennonites and Muslims participated in and instigated violence against each other, as they asserted control over land and property. In case of the Mennonites, this violence, at least initially, was performed by others on their behalf; however, as raids on their villages intensified,  some Mennonites chose to participate directly. As Martin notes, the Terek settlement foreshadowed the difficult choice that Mennonites would soon face in Ukraine: fight or submit humbly to the violence.6 In the Terek, they chose to both fight and flee.

Yet this is not the full story. Amid this chaos, there were moments when the values of friendship, hospitality, and dialogue joined Mennonites with their Muslim neighbors. As the raids on Mennonite villages intensified during 1918, Mennonites not only prayed for God’s mercy, they also approached some of their Muslim neighbors (the Kumyks) living in the villages of Kazi-Yurt and Kostek for help. The Kumyks sent representatives to a meeting held at the Mennonite Brethren Church in the village of Talma (village #3) to discuss the situation. They brought a detachment of the militia, which travelled to the neighbouring Nogai and Taulin villages to confiscate goods stolen from the Mennonites.7 These militiamen were then billeted in Mennonite villages overnight. When it became apparent that the settlement could not be saved, Mennonites fled to Kazi-Yurt and Kostek where they were welcomed by the local population and extended significant hospitality.8 Those who could not make it to these villages were helped by Muslim acquaintances to safety through alternative routes.9

These short vignettes are only snippets of a complicated story that has yet to be fully told. Despite the fact that this help saved Mennonite lives, Mennonites felt betrayed as their protectors asked for compensation. While I have no evidence, I’m sure that Muslims felt shocked by the ingratitude of Mennonites, who appeared to place the same value on their property as they did on their lives. Nonetheless, the example of the Terek settlement shows that even amidst violence, anarchy, and competing interests Mennonites relied on and benefitted from the kindness of their Muslim neighbors.


  1.  For more on this issue, see my article in the 2016 issue of Preservings. 
  2.  Michael Khodarkovsky, Bitter Choices Loyalty and Betrayal in the Russian Conquest of the North Caucasus (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011), 10. 
  3.  Ibid., 17. 
  4.  Arthur Tsutsiev, Atlas of the Ethno-Political History of the Caucasus, trans. Nora Seligman Favorov (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 56. 
  5.  Terry Martin, “The Terekers’ Dilemma: A Prelude to the Selbstschutz,” Mennonite Historian XVII, no. 4 (1991): 1. 
  6.  Ibid., 2. 
  7.  C. P. Toews, The Terek Settlement: Mennonite Colony in the Caucasus, Origion [Sic], Growth and Abandonment, 1901-1918, 1925 Memoirs, trans. Isaac A Dyck (Yarrow: Columbia Press, 1972), 54–55. 
  8.  Ibid., 57. 
  9.  Ibid., 59. 

Oral History for the “Quiet in the Land”

Janneken Smucker

I’ve read with interest the posts here from my colleagues  Ben Goossen on Digital History and Ted Maust on Public History, topics very near and dear to me in both my scholarship and teaching. Ben outlines some of the facets of digital history, particularly how digital technologies can provide increased access to historical sources. Ted considers what public history—historical interpretation that in some way engages with the general public rather than to fellow academic historians—can do and has done for Anabaptists. I’d like to draw on these threads by exploring the role of oral history, and how oral history poses particular opportunities and challenges for those of us conducting history among Anabaptist groups.

Much of my scholarly energy in recent years has involved oral history in one capacity or another. As a young historian working on contemporary history topics from the 1970s and ‘80s, it was a natural fit. Interviews with living subjects served as excellent primary sources for my senior seminar paper at Goshen College, about the origins of the Women’s Studies program at GC. When I began studying quilts from an academic perspective, my first paper was based on an oral history interview I conducted with my elderly grandmother about the quilts she and her Amish-Mennonite peers made as young women in the 1920s in eastern Ohio. I now regularly teach with oral history, working with my students to create digital public history projects, interpreting and providing access to archival oral history interviews, by building classroom/archive partnerships that take advantage of open source technologies.

Members of the Anabaptist faith have long valued oral tradition, as the stories from our ancestors have been a source of faith. So-called ethnic Mennonites remember the challenges of our forebearers as stories and folklore are passed down from one generation to the next. Perhaps Martyrs’ Mirror, with its tales of courage and conviction, is the ultimate collection of Anabaptist oral tradition. Books like Martyrs Mirror, Amish Roots, and MennoFolk: Mennonite and Amish Folk Traditions collect and interpret some oral accounts that have resonance to many members of the Anabaptist tradition.1

tonguescrew

Sons of Maeyken Wens search for the tongue screw used to silence her among her ashes, Antwerp, 1573. Engraving by Jan Luiken in Martyrs Mirror, v. 2, p. 661 of Dutch edition. Source: Rijksmuseum via GAMEO

But oral history itself is a historical method distinct from oral tradition. Oral history really only became possible in our current understanding of the term with the availability of audio recording technologies, which enabled the interview—the dialogue between the interviewer and narrator—to become permanently fixed as a primary source. One of the most straightforward definitions of oral history comes from Donald Ritchie: “An oral history interview generally consists of a well-prepared interviewer questioning an interviewee and recording their exchange in audio or video format.  Recordings of the interview are transcribed, summarized, or indexed and then placed in a library or archives.”2

My brief search for Mennonite (the wing of Anabaptism I most closely identify with) oral histories turned up archived collections of interviews (among others) with Russian Mennonite immigrants, World War I conscientious objectors (with digitized audio!), Mennonite women from Manitoba discussing their childbirth experiences, and video interviews collected by the Brethren Mennonite Council for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Interests. Perhaps not surprisingly, the majority of the oral history collections I discovered are from Canadian organizations or are interviews conducted with individuals from Russian-Mennonite backgrounds. At the risk of overgeneralizing, I surmise that Amish and “Old Mennonites”—the really quiet of the land—have been less keen on recording oral histories. Maybe individual life stories have seemed not to reflect the humility for which these groups have historically striven, or members of these less worldly affiliations have been reluctant to record their stories using modern technologies for the permanent record. In my own research, I’ve encountered this. What if the narrator is from a plain community and does not feel comfortable with the research, the technology, the release forms, or the archive? Can we still do oral history?

Two current tenets of oral history which squarely place this methodology in relationship with public history are “informed consent” and “shared authority.” By informed consent, oral historians mean that the interviewee/narrator has a full understanding of the purpose and potential uses of the interview. They should understand that they are “on the record” while being able to restrict aspects of their interview for future use if necessary. Typically, this is handled through a release form granting the interviewer permission to record, use, and/or archive the interview. Historian Michael Frisch popularized the term “shared authority” in relationship to oral and public history, suggesting that historians are not the sole arbiters of historical interpretation, but instead share that authority with those from the public with whom we dialogue and engage—especially those sharing their testimony through oral history interviews.3

Amish Country Quilts

Carol Highsmith, Amish Country Quilts, c. 1990. Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

When I was conducting fieldwork among Amish quilt entrepreneurs, I was hesitant to pull out legal forms for these women to sign, let along my fancy little digital audio recorder. Although I strived to make these informants feel comfortable speaking with me, I don’t think I did particularly well with “informed consent” guideline. I typically told the proprietor of a shop I was a student studying quilts (true, even though I was a PhD student, who hoped to eventually translate my research into a book) and asked if I could ask her a few questions. These women (and the occasional man) were usually quite willing to talk. They were accustomed to tourists asking lots of questions about quilts, and they typically had an almost scripted answer to my questions about how the design, production, and sale of quilts functioned. I did not quote these informants directly in my text, since I did not record the conversations, although their responses certainly served as evidence that informed my interpretation of the subject. In the endnotes to my book, I refer to these non-interviews as “conversations” rather than as “interviews.”4

In 2003, when Emma Witmer, the Old Order Mennonite proprietor of the longest operating quilt shop in Lancaster County, agreed to give an interview for Q.S.O.S. – Quilters Save Our Stories, an oral history project of the non-profit Quilt Alliance, she declined to be recorded or have her photograph taken. But she agreed to tell her story, presumably feeling informed and giving consent, as she signed a release form. Interviewer Heather Gibson took notes rather than record the audio, and the online “transcript” begins with the disclaimer: “notes from the interviewer—Emma Witmer is an Old Order Mennonite. The interview was recorded on pencil and paper at Emma Witmer’s request. Portions of the interview that were not recorded verbatim are noted in brackets. There are no photographs.” With this note, can we even consider this interview as “oral history,” at least based on Ritchie’s definition that an oral history must be recorded in audio or video? I drew on this interview extensively in my research on the origins of the quilt industry in Lancaster County, but is this as reliable of a source as I think it is since it is based on notes, which ultimately are an interpretation of the interview rather than the verbatim interview itself? Is it more or less reliable than the “conversations” I had with other shop owners?5

In contrast, one particular Amish informant was quite willing to go on the record, signing the forms and having his voice recorded. He knew I was writing about his father, an Amish businessman who bought quilts from his co-religionists and sold them to New York quilt dealers. He was the expert. I was the student. Here I think I came close to achieving the elusive “shared authority,” with his interview completely transforming my understanding of the relationship of Amish individuals to the market for quilts. When I wrote articles drawing on what I learned from him, I sent him drafts, and he gave me feedback. I even invited him to attend my dissertation defense, where he engaged in the discussion along with my committee members (he continues to relish telling people about that momentous event).

Excerpt from interview with Benuel Riehl, conducted by Janneken Smucker, May 13, 2008.

Throughout my career as a historian, I am continually reminded of the power of the first hand accounts gained through oral history. But I worry about what interviews we might never have the opportunity to record because of the challenges of conducting interviews with some Anabaptist groups. I also fear for the collections of interviews that have been recorded—like the ones with Mennonite women about childbirth—but remain inaccessible, on analog cassette tapes in faraway archives. Too often oral history projects result in amazing resources that are virtually undiscoverable, although new technologies have made it increasingly affordable and possible to provide access. And most importantly, we need to find ways to ensure that we as historians freely share our authority with our publics, listening not only as a way to elicit details of the past, but also as a way to check our perceived expertise as historians.


  1.  Thieleman J. van Braght, I. Daniel Rupp, and Thieleman J. van Braght, The Bloody Theatre, or Martyrs’ Mirror, of the Defenceless Christians: Who Suffered and Were Put to Death for the Testimony of Jesus, Their Savior, from the Time of Christ until the Year A.D. 1660 (Near Lampeter Square, Lancaster Co., Pa.: David Miller, 1837); John A Hostetler, Amish Roots: A Treasury of History, Wisdom, and Lore (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989); Ervin Beck, MennoFolk: Mennonite and Amish Folk Traditions (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2004). 
  2. Donald A. Ritchie, Doing Oral History, 3rd edition (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014), 1. 
  3.  Michael H Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990); Michael Frisch, “From A Shared Authority to the Digital Kitchen, and Back,” in Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, ed. Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski (Philadelphia, Pa.; Walnut Creek: Pew Center for Arts & Heritage ; Distributed by Left Coast Press, 2011). 
  4.  See Janneken Smucker, Amish Quilts: Crafting an American Icon (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013). 
  5.  Emma Witmer, interview by Heather Gibson, October 20, 2003, Quilt Alliance, Quilters’ S.O.S.—Save Our Stories, Library of Congress, American Folklife Center, http://quiltalliance.org/portfolio/qsos-emma-witmer/

Hazel’s People

Felipe Hinojosa

hazels-peopleIn 1973 the motion picture Hazel’s People, an adaptation of Merle Good’s novel, Happy as the Grass Was Green, became one of the first mainstream films to depict Mennonite life in rural Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It was also the first Mennonite-made feature film. The film followed a young “hippie” named Eric from New York City who came to Lancaster for the funeral of his close Mennonite friend, John. After the funeral, Eric decides to stay in Lancaster, and forms a close relationship with the simple and quiet Mennonites portrayed in the film. But his growing admiration is tempered when he begins working for a prominent Mennonite fruit grower in the area. The grower, who in the film goes by “Rufus,” is cast as a pious businessman who has abandoned many of the traditional values that Eric has come to admire about the Mennonites.

Soon after he is hired, Eric discovers that his new boss is housing Puerto Rican farmworkers in small shacks with no heat and charging them rent at forty dollars a month. Outraged, Eric confronts Rufus’ assistant, Stanley, demanding to know “what those people are doing out in those sheds… it’s thirty-five degrees outside!” Stanley, trying to calm Eric down, discloses that “Puerto Ricans used to give us a lot of trouble drinking and that sort of stuff . . . last summer Rufus got a hold of a Spanish speaking evangelist and since then we’ve hardly had any trouble.”1 When Eric shares what he saw with a Mennonite minister and close friend named Eli, his only response is “You expect too much from us, Eric . . . we disappoint you.” A few scenes later, Eric delivers a fiery sermon at the Mennonite church where Rufus attends, challenging churchgoers to stop building cages, “no more Mennonite cages… no more Puerto Rican cages!”

Have you seen this film? You should. Of course, the film is full of problems. It perpetuates the white savior myth and there are few, if any, Latinas/os in the film. To be fair, the film is not only about the poor labor practices of Mennonite farmers. It’s also about the flaws and the beauty of one Mennonite community in Pennsylvania. But ask Latina/o Mennonite leaders from the 1970s and they will remember Hazel’s People as a film about Mennonite farmers and their mistreatment of Puerto Rican farmworkers. Many Latino/as, including members of my own family, experienced similar conditions while working on Mennonite farms across the Midwest.

tijerina-family-oh

The Tijerina family (author’s family) with the Mennonite family on whose farm they worked, Archbold, Ohio (circa late 1950s)

But the film also came eerily close to portraying a real life case in Goshen, Indiana. In 1969  Rudolfo Blanco, a migrant farm worker, committed suicide at the Pine Manor Turkey processing plant in Goshen, Indiana. The tragedy of Blanco’s suicide exposed the dreadful working and living conditions that many Mexican American farmworkers experienced at the Pine Manor Turkey processing plant. Owned by Mennonite businessman, Annas Miller, Pine Manor regularly attracted Mexican Americans from South Texas to work in its plant. Blanco’s suicide, however, brought to light the negligence of Pine Manor’s management with regards to the living conditions of workers at the plant. Goshen News reporter Don Klassen described the living conditions at Pine Manor as “a brooder house or a tar-paper shack hidden behind tall corn or over the hill, or a room ten by twenty with two or three beds where three to five children sleep in the same bed.”2 To make matters worse, a large open cesspool was within a few feet of the living quarters and created an “unbelievable stench” for the workers and their families living nearby.3

Local church groups in the area initiated a boycott of Pine Manor products in 1969 as the plight of migrant farmworkers in northwestern Indiana, most of whom were from Texas, took center stage for many progressive religious groups. Since at least the late 1950s, Mexican American families had been making the trip north to Indiana to work in the fields and processing plants like Pine Manor. Migrant workers were often recruited to work in the tomato cannery in Milford and the tomato fields in southern Elkhart and northern Kosciusko Counties in northwestern Indiana. In 1970 the annual report on farm labor in Indiana also counted several hundred Puerto Rican migrants from Florida who joined Mexican American workers in the fields and in the turkey processing plants. Working and living conditions for migrant farm workers in northwestern Indiana were so bad that one migrant commented how “from Utah to Wyoming, and Idaho to Kentucky, Virginia, and Alabama, THIS is the worst place… I’m sick of it here—I’ll never come back!”4

The concerns that were raised over how Mennonite farmers treated their workers emerged right at the time when Latina/os took more leadership roles throughout the church. In 1971, the Minority Ministries Council (MMC) hired Lupe De León, Jr., to work as an Associate Secretary in partnership with John Powell. De León, who grew up as a migrant farmworker in the cotton fields of West Texas, immediately raised important questions about the negligence of some Mennonite business owners. De León and other Latino leaders led the charge to get official support from Mennonite church leaders for the lettuce and grape boycotts led by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Worker movement. Like Eric in Hazel’s People, Latina/o leaders expected white Mennonites to share in their outrage and openly support the farmworker movement. Sadly, white Mennonite leadership—from MCC to Mennonite Brethren, Old Mennonite, and General Conference leaders—refused to give official support to what became the most successful agricultural rights movement in U.S. history.5 Instead what did happen was that migrant farmworkers like the ones depicted in Hazel’s People found their greatest support from Mennonites in the pews—White, Black, and Brown—ordinary folks who marched, boycotted, stood on the picket lines, and encouraged people to only buy union lettuce and union grapes. These politics, the ones where the people in the pews and the outsiders are leading the charge, make the message of Hazel’s People so relevant for us today. But I also think the film does more than remind us about the importance of grassroots politics.

In my first post, I argued for the deterritorialization of Mennonite studies by moving beyond the familiar geographical spaces that have come to define the Mennonite experience in the United States. But as several of my colleagues have rightly noted in their own posts, much work remains to be done in those familiar spaces. In other words, even as we move out of the familiar and expand the geographic and ethnoracial limits of Mennonite studies, we must also look inward and reimagine the familiar. The notion that we must expand Mennonite studies does not suggest a complete abandonment of the ethno-Mennonite story, but instead a deeper investigation of it. As Hildi Froese Tiessen argued in the book, After Identity: Mennonite Writing in North America, the issue here is “not to abandon identity issues in Mennonite [life] altogether but to probe them more vigorously.”6 Hazel’s People does that by portraying Mennonite piety, even as it calls out the aloofness of Mennonites whose peace theology remained silent on labor injustice. Expanding the contours of Mennonite studies will require us to explore multiple forms of evidence from film, music, architecture, and especially the familiar areas that are today being changed by the demographic revolution currently underway in places like Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Goshen, Indiana, where the Latino population has been the engine of demographic growth. My hope as a historian is that as we probe Mennonite life and identity more deeply—as we reimagine the familiar—that we also take a stand like Eric’s character did in Hazel’s People and call ourselves out of those Mennonite cages that have kept us from imagining a new and vibrant future for Mennonite studies.


  1. Charles Davis, Hazel’s People, 1973. 
  2. Don Klassen, “Plea for Migrants,” The Goshen News, 14 November 1969. 
  3. Ken Washington, “Protesters to Boycott Pine Manor Products,” The Goshen News, 19 November 1969. 
  4. Quoted in Ben Noll, “A Community of Brotherhood,” unpublished paper, Goshen College, 2009, 4-5, Goshen College, IN. 
  5. For more on this, see my book: Felipe Hinojosa, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014). 
  6. Hildi Froese Tiessen, After Identity: Mennonite Writing in North America (Penn State University Press), 212.