Reading the Signs of Nature in Traditional Pennsylvania Dutch Culture

This past Saturday, people across the country focused their attention on a groundhog named Phil who crawled out of his hole near Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, at dawn. Unable to see his shadow, Phil “predicted” that spring will be coming early this year. For those of us just emerging from our burrows in the Upper Midwest, this is welcome news.

Groundhog Day, an event now celebrated in many communities across the US and Canada, takes place annually on February 2nd, which is the midpoint between the winter solstice and spring equinox. February 2nd is also Candlemas, an ancient Christian holy day whose roots go far back in pre-Christian Europe (cf. the Celtic festival of Imbolc). There are parallel spring-heralding traditions in Native American cultures, with which early German settlers in Pennsylvania very likely became familiar.1

By the turn of the twentieth century, the groundhog came to be adopted as a cultural symbol by nonsectarian Pennsylvania Dutch (church people, Fancy Dutch). As an antipode to greater America’s soaring bald eagle, the groundhog evokes humility, common wisdom, and proximity to nature, classic Pennsylvania Dutch virtues, including among the Plain people. Amish and traditional Mennonites, however, have kept their distance from celebrations involving the groundhog, including Pennsylvania’s Grundsow Lodge movement, which has become an important vehicle for nonsectarian Pennsylvania Dutch culture. The “seriously nonsensical” worship of King Groundhog at lodge meetings, which are also overtly patriotic, is out of sync with Plain sensibilities.2

Even though one was unlikely to have spotted any beards or bonnets at Gobbler’s Knob last Saturday morning, contemporary Amish and Plain Mennonite culture does have elements of traditional Pennsylvania folk astronomy.3 A common sight on the book table in many a Plain home, alongside the Bible and prayer and song books, is the farmer’s almanac.4 The almanac goes back to the beginning of Pennsylvania Dutch history and is deeply interwoven with the Christian faith and folk spirituality of sectarians and nonsectarians alike.

Julius F. Sachse (1842–1919), a keen observer of Pennsylvania Dutch culture, wrote this about the farmer’s almanac in a 1907 essay titled “Prognostics and Superstitions.”5

The Aberglaube (superstitions) of the early Germans may be said to have been divided into at least a hundred different forms, the scale running all the way from a simple belief in the efficiency of Bible verses promiscuously selected down to demonology itself. Perhaps the most common of these superstitions was what was known as Kalender-Aberglaube, or a belief in prognostics based upon the almanac. This was again subdivided into various departments, based upon the phases of the moon and other celestial bodies. This, however, is not to be confounded with the custom of astrology or the casting of the horoscope. To any person schooled in the art, the almanac became the guide and mentor for almost every function of daily life. First, it told us of the state of the weather for every day of the coming year; then it informed us what were to be the prevalent diseases, gave us the proper days for felling timber, taking purgative medicine, for bleeding and blood-letting, for cutting the hair, for weaning calves, children, etc. It gave the lucky days for sowing grain, the proper days for a merchant to speculate, and for other daily avocations.

Plain people today take special care not to allow superstitions into any aspect of their life. Young folks don’t ask each other what their signs are when they meet. However, deciding when it is auspicious to plant certain crops and cut one’s hair and nails, depending on the situation of the moon and constellations, for example, is understood as aligning one’s behavior to the cycles of a natural world that is created by God and therefore fundamentally good.

The nonsectarian Pennsylvania Dutch poet, Harvey M. Miller (1871–1939), lyrically recounts the wisdom contained in the pages of “Mother’s Almanac” (Der Mammi Ihre Kalenner), which is given here, first in English translation, and then in the Pennsylvania Dutch original, along with a recitation of it.6

Mark L. Louden reciting “Mother’s Almanac”

“Mother’s Almanac”

Faith has much to do
With our human life;
The lawyer believes in big pay,
The minister believes in praying;
The young girls get a lot of joy
From their faith in men;
Mother takes the good old way,
And believes in the almanac.

Sie always observes the signs,
Before we dig the garden;
And goes by the moon, you can bet on it,
For that is her faith.
In order to grow well, everything must go in
During the waxing of the moon;
Thus she plants in that sign,
As others do, as well.

Potatoes you plant in Libra,
Then they get nice and big;
You might think that’s a joke,
But I’m not so narrow-minded.
That’s why I wish they would not slip
Down so deep into the ground,
And if there were no such sign,
They would not be so round.

So if you don’t watch the sign,
Just as it is in the almanac,
Then your potatoes will be ruined,
And we’ll have nothing to sell;
I tell you now, don’t plant in Cancer—
They crawl down too deep,
And get as warty as a toad
And also taste bad.

Cucumbers, really, you may not
Plant in the sign of Gemini,
Otherwise they just go ahead and bloom
And creep around like roaches;
That sign is not for a good crop,
They just don’t form on the vine—
Whoever wants cucumbers, doesn’t plant
In the sign of Gemini.

But now, whoever likes flowers,
This sign is the best;
The blossoming virgin is also good
For planting flowers.
In spring here, in Virgo, that is,
You let the hens out,
Whoever goes by this sign then gets
Better chicks from them.

When bees swarm in Libra,
Honey becomes plentiful in the hive;
If a cat drowns in a water trough,
At least it won’t die of thirst.
When fruit trees are in full bloom
While the moon waxes, there’ll be fruit;
But if the trees blossom during the waning,
There’s not much you can do.

In the setting moon you roof a house,
That keeps the shingles down;
And whoever doesn’t build according to the almanac,
His shingles will be down right away.
To roof during the waxing of the moon,
That’s the wrong thing;
The shingles curl right up,
And you get a ragged roof.

You make the post fence according to the moon,
But just when it is setting;
The posts will not stay in the ground
In any other sign.
So, don’t laugh, and take heed,
I’ll tell you that in advance,—
Whoever makes fence in the waxing of the moon,
His posts will creep out.

Some poke fun, there are such people,
Especially among the menfolk,
Yet they are in no way as smart
As Mother’s almanac.
“An old wives’ tale, ha!”
That’s what they always say,
But faith will still save,
And it rules digging in the garden.

Libra is supposed to be good for planting,
But some also put in potatoes
In the Aries waxing moon,
That’s just testing.
And for good luck with radishes
Seeds have to be planted in Pisces,
That means that radishes will be tender and thick
And plenty on the table.

In the fall apples have to be put away,
And so that they don’t rot
You have to do this in the dark moon, you bet,
Even if the men-folk complain.
To get vinegar you need to tap the cider
In the sign of Leo, definitely:
That makes you as strong as ginger pop,
And as crusty as an old grouch.

But winter meat should not be
Hung up in the sign of Leo,
Otherwise it will get as “lively” as a lion—
One definitely wouldn’t think that!
White worms will move right in,
If no one goes fishing,
That way you get fresh meat, too,
If you don’t understand the sign.

A board left out in the weather
Often gets quite warped,
But one doesn’t consider the reason
As being the influence of the moon;
In the waxing of the moon the board turns up,
In the waning down,—
It all depends how the moon shines on it.
Isn’t that amazing?

You don’t clean your house in a full moon,
That’s the wives’ tale,
For if you do, the house will fill up 
Terribly with moths;
That just goes to show, moths go
By the moon sign in the almanac,
Apparently they are sharper
Than our clever menfolk.

The signs have the world in order,—
Capricorn, Pisces, and Aries,
Leo, Libra, Aquarius,
Taurus, he’ll knock you down;
Sagittarius, he shoots, Aquarius pours,
We have Cancer and Gemini,
Scorpio stings, Virgo speaks,
That’s how you find it in the almanac.

“Der Mammi Ihre Kalenner”

Der Glaawe hot doch viel zu duh
Mit unserm menschlich Lewe;
Der Lawyer glaabt an grooser Luh,
Der Parre glaabt an Bede;
Die yunge Meed hen groosi Freed
Fer Glaawe an die Menner;
Die Mammi nemmt der gut alt Weg,
Un glaabt an der Kalenner.

Sie watscht die Zeeche immer uff,
Eb mer als Gaarde graawe;
Un geht beim Muun, verloss dich druff,
Fer sell is ihre Glaawe.
Fer waxich sei, muss alles nei
Im Zunemmede vum Muun;
So blanst sie als in selre Sign,
Wie aa noch annri duhn.

Grummbeere blanst mer in der Woog,
Noh duhn sie schee grooss warre;
Du denkscht verleicht sell is en Joke,
Awwer ich bin net so narrow.
Also ich wett, sie schluppe net
So dief nei in der Grund,
Un wann’s ken so en Zeeche hett,
Waere sie net so rund.

So wann mer net des Zeeche watscht,
Graad wie’s is im Kalenner,
Dann sin Grummbeere glei verbatscht,
Un Marrick hen mer kenner;
Ich saag dir yetz, blans net im Krebs—
Sie graddle zu dief nei,
Un warre waarzich, wie en Grott,
Un schmacke schlecht debei.

Die Gummere, waerklich, darf mer net
Im Zeeche Zwilling blanse,
Sunscht bliehe sie yuscht graad ahead,
Un graddle rum wie Wanse;
Die Sign is net fer en guder Crop,
Sie henke gaar net aa—
Wer Gummere hawwe will, geht net
Im Zeeche Zwilling draa.

Awwer nau, wer scheeni Blumme suit,
Des Zeeche is am Beschte;
Die bliehend Yungfraa is aa gut
Fer Blumme naus zu setze.
Es Friehyaahr do, Yungfraa also,
Setzt mer die Glucke naus—
Wer geht beim Zeeche, grigt dernoh
Die Yunge besser raus.

Wann Ieme schwaerme in der Woog,
Watt Hunnich schwer im Kaschte;
Wann die Katz versauft im Wasserdroog,
Dutt sie ennihau net verdaschte.
Wann Obschtbeem recht am bliehe sin
Im Zunemmede, gebt’s Frucht;
Wann awwer die Bliet ins Abnemme kummt,
Gebt’s net viel zum Versuch.

Im Unnergehnde deckt mer’n Haus,
Sell halt die Schindle drunne;
Un wer net beim Kalenner baut,
Sei Schindle sin glei hunne.
Im Iwwergehnde Deckes duh,
Sell is en letzi Sach;
Die Schindle ringle sich graad uff,
Un’s gebt en schtruwwlich Dach.

Mer macht die Poschtefens beim Muun,
Awwer yuscht im Unnergehnde;
Die Poschte bleiwe net im Grund
In ennich annrer Zeeche.
So, net gelacht, un geb doch acht,
Ich saag der’s vannenaus,—
Wer Fens im Iwwergehnde macht,
Sei Poschte graddle raus.

Deel mache Gschpass, es hot so Leit,
Abbadich bei die Menner,
Doch sin sie uf ken Weg so gscheit
Wie die Mammi ihre Kalenner.
“En alder Weiwerglaawe, huh!”
Sell’s was sie immer saage,
Doch macht der Glaawe selig noch,
Un regiert Gaardegraawe.

Die Woog soll gut fer blanse sei,
Awwer deel duhn aa Grumbeere
Im Iwwergehnde Schteebock nei,
Sell is yuscht im Browiere.
Un fer gut Glick im Reddich-Schtick
Muss Suume naus im Fisch,
Sell bringt die Reddich zaart un dick
Un blendi uff der Disch.

Im Schpootyaahr misse Eppel weg,
Un dass sie net verfaule
Geht’s draa im Dungelmuun, you bet,
Wann aa die Menner maule.
Fer Essig zappt mer Cider ab
Im Sign vum Leeb, net letz:
Sell macht en schtark wie “ginger pop,”
Un groozich wie der Gretz.

Awwer Winderfleesch, des soll mer net
Im Zeeche Leeb uffhenke,
Sunscht watt’s lewendich wie en Leeb—
Mer deet’s gewiss net denke!
Es ziehe glei weissi Warrem nei,
Wann niemand fische geht,
So hot mer aa frisch Fleesch debei,
Wer net die Sign verschteht.

En Board das draus im Wedder is
Watt oftmols arrick grumm,
Doch denkt mer net die Ursach is
Der Eifluss vun em Muun;
Im Iwwergehnde dreht sich uff,
Im Unnergehnde nunner,—
S’is nochdem wie der Muun scheint druff.
Is sell nau net en Wunner?

Mer butzt ken Haus am Vollmuun rum,
Sell is der Weiwerglaawe,
Fer wann mer dutt watt’s Haus gans rum
Gaar hesslich voll mit Schaawe;
Des weist doch pleen, die Schaawe gehn
Beim Muun-Sign im Kalenner,
Sie sin yo scharfer, sell’m nooch,
Dass unser gscheite Menner.

Die Zeeche hen die Welt in Hand,—
Der Schteebock, Fisch un Widder,
Der Leeb, die Woog, der Wassermann,
Der Ox, daer schtoost em nidder;
Der Schitz, daer schiesst, der Wassermann giesst,
Der Grebs un Zwilling hen mer,
Der Schkorpion schticht, die Yungfrau schpricht,
So findt mer’s im Kalenner.

  1. Don Yoder, Groundhog Day, Stackpole Books, 2003.
  2. William W. Donner, Serious Nonsense: Groundhog Lodges, Versammlinge, and Pennsylvania German Heritage, Penn State University Press, 2016.
  3. Louis D. Winkler, “Pennsylvania German Astronomy and Astrology I: Almanacs,” Pennsylvania Folklife 21.3, Spring 1972, pp. 24–31.
  4. See this 2004 Mennonite Weekly Review article on the popularity of almanacs among the Amish:
  5. Julius F. Sachse, “Prognostics and Superstitions [Current in Pennsylvania],” Historical Papers and Addresses of the Lancaster County Historical Society VII, pp. 75–101, 1907, accessible at…/vol7no5pp75_101_682506.pdf
  6. Solly Hulsbuck (Harvey M. Miller), Pennsylvania-German Stories, Prose and Poetry, Hawthorne Press, 1911, pp. 3–6.


Searching for Anabaptists in Emden

At the risk of appearing preoccupied with Emden and its Schutzgeld, I write today about another aspect of these seventeenth-century registers. When I began researching in the summer of 2016, I assumed the example I found in Emden to be one of a readily available type of bureaucratic document. A simple list of Mennonite believers, with names and sums – surely these are widespread! Sadly, no. Although Schutzgeld structures were in place in a number of cities in the Holy Roman Empire, and presumably were collected regularly within those cities, sparse records remain. The Emden city archive itself holds only the registers from 1601, 1602, 1626, 1737 and 1749.  For today, then: a short note on my research and its many dead ends.

As the Schutzgeld registers fueled my earliest research and writing, names were on my mind. What could I do with names? My initial instinct was to amass a database of individuals mentioned as Anabaptists in the northwest corner of the Empire. I could use static official documents to infer movement – where Anabaptists were taxed, where they were disciplined, where they were expelled. I had hoped that, by tracing who left where, and why, I might be able to reconstruct patterns of itinerancy and find new civic sources to flesh out the lives of these religious refugees. This was my big-picture goal, but I began in Emden with my lists of names and a wonderful, digitized archival finding aid courtesy of the friendly archivists in Emden.

I was immediately confronted with problems common to genealogists and historians alike. To begin with, only the most unique of surnames provided any hope of a definitive match. The many iterations of ‘Jacobs/sen,’ ‘Jans/sen’ and ‘Peters/sen’ proved too numerous to hope for success. I found a Johan Janßen in the notarial records – perhaps related to the Johan Janßen who paid a Schutzgeld of 15 thaler and six schap in 1602 – petitioning the court for the release of his father in 1568.[1] Yet, Johan Janßen? A more common name can hardly be found. More likely the connection was a coincidence of popular naming.

Yet, despite these setbacks, I hoped that these Schutzgeld records might have more to teach me. Perhaps the most useful aspect of these lists is the notation of ‘vertrocken,’ – rendered in modern Dutch as ‘vertrokken’ – those who departed, or emigrated. This was a smaller subset of names to investigate, and promised some sort of movement.

Those who are noted as ‘departed’ throughout the 1602 register, seventeen in all, largely do not leave a mark elsewhere in the Emden archives. One small exception is Hanß Kock. Obligated to pay two thaler, he had by Easter remitted one thaler five schap, and “thereby departed.”[2] He received his letter of safe conduct from Henrica Ripperda, the widow of the Lord of Dornum, on 30 June 1602. As a boatman, Kock provided the means of transport to Hamburg for two brothers bearing a load of butter and cheese.[3] The timing suggests that this Hans Kock is the same as found in the Schutzgeldlists, as does the von Dornum’s long history of Anabaptist sympathy.[4] But that’s about all it suggests.

I’ll keep Hanß Kock in my database, and check for him in Hamburg if my research ever takes me there. But this methodology, of names and lists and cross checking, has become just one of many tools I use to find Anabaptists wherever I can in the archive. I have benefitted greatly from the recommendations of my mentors, the suggestions of fellow grad students, and the inventions that arise out of necessity – as I keep searching to find those who largely did not want to be found by early modern authorities.

[1] Stadtarchiv Emden, I. Registratur, Nr. 712c.

[2] Ibid., Nr. 415, Bl. 80: Hanß Kock Ad 2 {dhr} soluit vp Oisterenn darmitt vertrockenn

[3] Ibid., Nr. 176a.

[4] The lords of Dornum and Oldersum fueded in the early seventeenth century. Ibid., Nr. 824.

How much to change: Amish teachers in Mexico

The average person is not a revolutionary even though the average person might want some kind of change. I noticed this tendency to be especially strong in the Mennonites and Mormons I spent time with in Mexico, because of the strong communal ethos. And yet, in every community, there are people who risk a lot to make changes.

One way that people attempt to make change is in the realm of education. Education, particularly of young children, is a highly contentious area in most communities because changing young children’s experiences will change the future. Maintaining religious education in German is one of the reasons that Mennonites initially moved from Canada to Mexico, and for that reason, education is especially important in Mennonite communities in Mexico. There have been some efforts to change traditional schools from within Mennonite communities in Mexico and from people in Canada and the United States.

Students playing broom jail. (Muddy Creek Farm Library, Ephrata, Pennsylvania)

Many different aid groups have worked in Mennonite colonies (groupings of villages) in Mexico, most notably MCC. One of the most surprising groups to find there, at least from my perspective, were Amish people. I first came across this cultural exchange when I began researching Mennonites in Mexico. Many people would ask me if I knew any Amish people, because I lived in Ohio, and Amish people lived in Ohio. I didn’t and would say so.

Mennonite people usually encounter Amish people as teachers. (I should note that the family and friends who first asked about Amish teachers were in the Mexican state of Zacatecas, where it is my understanding that people from the Conservative Mennonite Conference teach in summers, not from any Amish group). Moreover, not all the teachers that come to Mexico through the “Amish” board were Old Order Amish – some were Old Order Mennonite and others were New Order Amish. Still other Amish people, namely the Beachy Amish, are involved in aid work with Mennonites in the Southern Mexican state of Campeche and in other countries.

I have just mentioned approximately four Christian denominations (Beachy Amish, Old Order Amish, New Order Amish, Old Order Mennonite) and have grouped together all Mennonites in Mexico, who are divided into a multitude of church groups, the largest of which is the Old Colony church. These words are really unimportant for the story I am telling today – although the distinctions between groups are important for people who are part of them. The important thing for today is that all these people dress differently from their surrounding country, be it Canada or the United States. They are also involved in cultural exchange with one another.

Steve Nolt has discussed the roots of this exchange in his Article “Amish Stories, Images, and Identities,” and it was basically fostered by the Mennonite Central Committee through a learning tour for some of their Amish donors in the 1990s. After this trip some kind of board was formed for teaching in some parts of Mexico – where church leaders were already familiar with ideas of educational reform thanks to the work of people like George Reimer and others. Then, this board began sending young women from the United States to Mexico to go teach (or to go to Kansas and teach Old Colony Mennonites there). The teachers, by and large women, go to Mexico in groups and live with house parents from their community who look after them and house sisters to do some of the housework.

This movement is fascinating because this exchange replicates the colonial missionary engagement either at home or in other countries and likely a lot of the negative things that happened as part of the fresh air movement, which Felipe Hinojosa discusses in Latino Mennonites. At the same time as it repeats these troubling patterns, it gives the people who participate in it a new experience of travel and also of ability to see the world and meet a different kind of person – which is challenging in a closed religious community.

This travel has many of the same effects on the Amish women as it had on previous generations of women missionaries, which Marlene Epp talks about in Mennonite Women in Canada. They can be leaders in a way they would not be able to be at home. At the same time, the teachers and others who are part of the project exercise agency very much within their communal boundaries

The people to change education in Mennonite communities in Mexico, including those who participate in this project, as well as the children in these schools likely did not set out to be revolutionaries. They did set out to make small changes that made sense within their communities and I hope that it has a positive effect.

This post relates to an article I’ve written: “American Old Order Teachers Write Home from Mexico: Reflections on Gender, Religion and Caregiving.” Journal of Mennonite Studies 36 (2018): 237-258 and to some of the background research I conducted for this research note ““Expanding Low German Childhood: The Children’s Feature in the Mennonitische Post [Mennonite Post].” Mennonite Quarterly Review 92, no. 1 (2018): 471-481. If you’d like to read either article please let me know and I can share a copy with you.


Epp, Marlene. Mennonite Women in Canada: A History. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2008.

Hinojosa, Felipe. Latino Mennonites. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2014.

Nolt, Steven M. “Amish Stories, Images, and Identities: Two Windows and a Mirror on Contemporary Culture.” The Conrad Grebel Review vol. 33, no. 1, 2015,

The Musical Million for the millions


It is always exciting for librarians and archivists when we are able to share our collections in new and accessible ways. For this reason we were thrilled when the Library of Virginia’s Virginia Newspaper Project approached us proposing a collaboration to digitize and make available the Musical Million1. With the help of those at the Library of Virginia, specifically Errol Somay, and the dedication and swift scanning ability of our summer work-study student Finn Wengerd, we were able to complete this project in a few short months and are pleased to make it freely available.

Some very thorough and informative pieces been written about the Musical Million in conjunction with this digital launch, so I encourage you to read the blog post written by Gregg D. Kimball from the Library of Virginia as well as a post written by EMU’s Lauren Jefferson to get a good sense of the importance of this periodical and its place in both Shenandoah Valley and Southern Gospel music History.

EMU is one of the few institutions in the country to have a nearly complete run of the Musical Million, and it has been top on our wish-list of things to digitize and make available for many years now. We are very proud of this collection and this collaboration, and hope researchers and other interested folk can make good use of it! If you find yourself wanting to know more about Joseph Funk or the Ruebush-Kieffer company, come visit us in the Menno Simons Historical Library, where you can see an outstanding collection of songbooks and other publications from Funk and Ruebush-Kieffer, as well as interesting artifacts such as Joseph Funk’s writing chair, original printing plates for the 16th edition of the Harmonia Sacra, and Aldine Kieffer’s pump organ.

  1. As of this writing, there are 315 issues of the Musical Million available beginning in 1879. We hope to be able make accessible the first decade of the periodical as soon as we are able to digitize the fragile issues. It is also our hope that the precursor to the Musical Million, the Southern Music Advocate and Singer’s Friend, will soon be available. 

Call For Papers: Young Historians

The Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, in partnership with the Sider Institute for Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan Studies at Messiah College, and with the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, welcomes paper proposals for its “Young Historians Spotlight,” held June 3, 2019.

Invited to participate are high school students, undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral students, those who have just started careers in history, as well as those who are “young” in scholarly study of historical topics (no matter what their age).

All must be engaged in original research using chiefly primary sources (written and/or oral). All should either be a part of a Historic Peace Church (Amish, Brethren in Christ, Church of the Brethren, Mennonite, Religious Society of Friends/Quaker, etc.) or focusing on one or more of these traditions. 

Those interested should submit a 250-word proposal, for a 20-minute paper to be given at the symposium, along with a brief autobiographical sketch and full contact information, by April 23, 2019. Send these to Joel Nofziger at Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, 2215 Millstream Road, Lancaster, PA 17602, or at A limited number of travel scholarships are available. Please note in the proposal whether this will be needed. The symposium will take place at the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society at 7 p.m. on Saturday, June 3.

Proposals are due April 23, 2019

For the seventh year in a row, young historians are being invited to share their research findings with others in a symposium in the Lancaster area. This event was conceived by Joel Nofziger and Devin Manzullo-Thomas, who were concerned about the limited venues there are where young adults engaged in historical research and writing are the focus of attention, especially those from Historic Peace Churches. In the symposiums, three of the proposals received are accepted for papers to be given in a public event. In addition, the papers are subsequently published in Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage. 

In the past, papers have included topics such as John F. Funk and the dissemination of information to the scattered churches of America, Quaker Anne Knight and her lifelong efforts for the rights of the disenfranchised, and the peace position of the Church of the Brethren, among others. 

Symposium Planning Committee: Jeff Bach, Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, Elizabethtown College; Simone Horst, Menno Simons Historical Library, Eastern Mennonite University; Jason Kauffman, MC USA Archives; Devin Manzullo-Thomas, Sider Institute for Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan Studies at Messiah College; Joel Nofziger, Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society; and Anne Yoder, Swarthmore College Peace Collection

Newly Processed Collections at the MC USA Archives

Jason B. Kauffman

If I had to choose one word to describe the work of the Mennonite Church USA Archives over the last several months it would be: “productive.” In September I welcomed Eva Smucker Lapp as the new archives assistant, along with a Goshen College intern and two more regular volunteers. They joined a small, but dedicated core of long-term volunteers who have worked for years to process collections, build our online database of obituaries, and add images to our online collection of historical photographs. Together we made much progress this fall toward arranging, describing, and cataloging collections that accumulated before I arrived and while I was preparing for the move from Goshen to Elkhart.

IMG_4183.jpgSome processing highlights include:

I am grateful for colleagues, interns, and volunteers who keep things moving behind the scenes at the archives. They help complete the necessary work of organizing materials, rehousing and refoldering documents, and creating online finding aids so researchers can discover our new collections. Without their work, it would not be possible to make these important and fascinating collections available to researchers and the broader public.

And researchers are finding and using the collections. For example, a doctoral student from Canada spent three weeks in 2018 researching the Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission records for her dissertation project. Two other professors from universities in Canada and England recently consulted the Melvin Gingerich Papers for sources documenting his involvement (through MCC) with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and Seagoing Cowboys trips to Poland after World War II. And, of course, other researchers near and far continue to make creative use of many of the thousands of other collections housed at the archives.

I am amazed at the richness of our collections and am grateful that I can continue to make them accessible to researchers. I look forward to seeing what new discoveries await in 2019.

Christmas Controversy: Community Mennonite, Interracial Marriage, and a Hope from a Half-Century Ago

The Christmas pageant at Community Mennonite Church in Markham, Illinois, was always a treat. The brick walls festooned with greenery. The eager anticipation of young children bursting into chatter and antics and no small bit of mayhem. Christmas carols. Advent wreaths. Food and friends and beauty. For the six years we worshipped with that congregation between 2002 and 2008, I don’t think we ever missed a pageant.

One of those years my partner played the part of Mary. A young man from the youth group played Joseph. Another year, I played Joseph, and the partner of one of our pastors played Mary. In both instances, as was the case most every year, the holy couple was interracial.

Not such a big deal, that. Not in 2018. Although commercials featuring interracial couples still ignite the ire of white supremacists and interracial couples report instances of social ostracism and harassment, interracial marriages have grown more commonplace and socially acceptable – at least as compared to 1963.

I mention 1963 because that was the year when the depiction of an interracial holy couple in Community Mennonite’s Christmas pageant did cause a hullabaloo. A big one. They had to call in the denominational heavyweights. It was not, apparently, very pleasant.

This is how it went down.

By December 1963, Community had been experimenting with integration for a little over two years. One Sunday in 1961, three African-American women attended a Sunday morning worship service at the previously all-white congregation. In 1956 when charter members had purchased property on which to construct a sanctuary, they had signed off on a restrictive covenant excluding “‘any one who is not a Caucasian’ from the premises.”1 The congregation, nonetheless, welcomed the African-American women. Despite a few bumps along the way, a core of both white and black members continued to attend. And, by all accounts, they enjoyed each other as they worshipped.2

Yet, tensions built below the surface. From the onset, some white members had raised concerns that an integrated congregation would lead, inevitably, to intermarriage. In keeping with the history of black-white racial unions, the white community has been less supportive of interracial unions than has the black community, a pattern especially true in the 1940s and 50s.3 Although white attitudes had begun to liberalize by the 1960s, the issue remained fraught in a community like Markham that was at that time in the midst of white flight. Black families had started to relocate to the community in search of a bit of suburban safety and security.4

Community Mennonite Church, Markham, Illinois, circa mid-1960s and featuring Pastor Larry Voth

In that context of rapidly changing racial demographics, a long history of white fear of interracial marriage, and a still fledgling congregation, the organizers of the 1963 Christmas pageant cast a black Joseph and a white Mary.5 The service ensued. Christmas came and went. All apparently without incident.

Then the church board met on January 17. With the start of the new year came reports on attendance (it was up), heating of the church building (it had started), and offering envelopes (they should be numbered). Then the pastor at the time, Larry Voth, invited the field secretary for city churches from the national-level home Missions Commission of the General Conference Mennonite Church, Peter Ediger, to speak. Ediger noted that the rest of the denomination was very interested in what was happening in Markham as this small, formerly all-white congregation found itself on a journey toward racial integration. He offered a word of encouragement by noting that when a congregation is “having a struggle for existance [sic] it is a living church.”6

All seemed in order.

And then it wasn’t.

Church board chair Al Levreau read Genesis 11:1-9, the description of the tower of Babel in which “the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”7 The notes from the meeting on January 17 don’t explain what message Mr. Levreau meant to send by reading that passage. Perhaps he saw in the story of Babel’s chaos a case study to be avoided as Community Mennonite embarked on racial integration.

What was clear was that he did not approve of mixed race marriages. Not at all. Not even the hint of one in a Christmas play. With a generous dose of understatement bordering on cheekiness, the unidentified keeper of the minutes observed, “there was quite a discussion regarding inter-marriage.”8

It must have been quite a discussion. At the end of it Levreau has resigned from his position a board chair and declared that he would not return to worship services at CMC. After a unanimous vote to close the meeting, Ediger offered “a word of prayer.”9

I’ve often wondered what the conversations went like in the church parking lot after this meeting. I imagine that there was some venting. Perhaps even a bit of invective and opprobrium directed at the departing chairperson. A bit of self-righteous indignation even? Or, there could as easily have been mourning and expressed concern for the sudden separation. After all, when the congregation had weathered a previous racial controversy, Levreau had been the one to lobby for an open-door policy that set the path toward the integrated nativity scene.10 The record doesn’t say.

A month later the board met again. This time the president of the entire General Conference joined the meeting on February 15. Although Levreau did not attend – and in fact had not been visited by church leadership since his abrupt departure – board member Margaret Carr also objected to the prospect of intermarriage and grilled conference executive Walter Gering on the denomination’s position on the topic. After Carr explained her objections to both integration and intermarriage, Gering backpedaled by asserting that denominational officers had never encouraged intermarriage but that he thought black and white couples could have a happy marriage. When prompted, African-American board member William Smith explained that black families in the congregation were not interested in marrying across racial lines, an assurance that black church leaders had been stating to white Mennonites for nearly a decade.11

The controversy came to an end a month later. A delegation reported that they had met with Levreau, but that he was not willing to return unless he could influence the church away from integration. Smith replied, “As well educated as we are why do these things keep coming between us?”12 His incredulity at the prospect of a Christian brother objecting to his presence in the congregation leaps off the page across a half-century.

In response the board put their collective foot down. They voted – unanimously – to discontinue discussion about whether the church would be integrated and to declare – officially – that “Community Mennonite Church of Markham, Illinois …welcomes continued growth on a racially integrated basis.”13

History could have gone in a different direction that night. Board members could have chosen to be silent, allow the controversy to spill over into the congregation as a whole, or simply decide that the bother wasn’t worth it. Other majority white churches certainly did.14 But instead they set their faces toward an uncertain future and made the decision to continue trying to figure out what it would mean for black and white to worship together.

I chose this story to write about because it is a Christmas story, and we are in the midst of the nativity season. And also because I miss CMC’s Christmas pageants. They were a fine thing. Always a bit chaotic around the edges. Sometimes the congregation’s singing was a bit flat. It wasn’t always entirely – well – polished. But the love in that room? That was unmistakable. And the holy couple – by tradition through the first decade of the twenty-first century if not longer – was always interracial. The hope and promise of that image – however simplistic it may have been – never failed to move me.

I write this blog post on the morning of a day in which I will later denounce white nationalism at a local rally. Given the resurgence of white supremacy in our country, writing about an integrated Christmas service fifty years in the past can seem irrelevant if not naïve. To a degree, that may be true. But I also know that when I speak tonight, when I call out white nationalists for being small-minded, hard-fisted, and racist through and through, I will do so carrying a little bit of that nativity scene with me, and a little bit more of a congregation that decided to say yes rather than no to the question of integration before them fifty years ago.

  1. Tobin Miller Shearer, Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2010), 166.
  2. Don Burklow and Grace Burklow, “Interview with Don and Grace Burklow,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Markham, Ill.,2005); Mary Ann Woods, “Interview with Mary Ann Woods,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Markham, Ill.,2005); Mertis Odom, “Interview with Mertis Odom,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Markham, Ill.2005); Gerald Mares and Dolores Mares, “Interview with Gerald and Dolores Mares,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Markham, Ill.,2006).
  3. Renee Christine Romano, Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 45.
  4. Andrew Wiese, Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century, Historical Studies of Urban America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).
  5. That is at least the gender arrangement recalled by one couple. The written record doesn’t specify the gender mix, just that they were an interracial pair. Given the response by certain white members of the congregation, a black male/white female combination makes the most sense. Historically, the white community has been less threatened by white male/black female pairings, in part due to the record of white slave masters raping female enslaved Africans and denying the progeny that resulted any rights of inheritance. For reference to CMC’s casting decision, see: Mares and Mares.
  6. “Community Mennonite Church Church Board Meeting,” (Markham, Ill.: Community Mennonite Church, 1964).
  7. Genesis 11:1-9, New International Version.
  8. “Community Mennonite Church Church Board Meeting.”
  9. Ibid.
  10. Shearer, 167.
  11. “Community Mennonite Church Church Board Meeting.”
  12. M. Carr, “Community Mennonite Church Board Meeting,” (Markham, Ill. : Community Mennonite Church, 1964).
  13. Ibid.
  14. Stephen R. Haynes, The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-Ins and the Campaign for Southern Church Desegregation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Kip Kosek, “‘Just a Bunch of Agitators’: Kneel-Ins and the Desegregation of Southern Churches,” Religion and American Culture 23, no. 2 (2013); Douglas E. Thompson, Richmond’s Priests and Prophets: Race, Religion, and Social Change in the Civil Rights Era (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2017).