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LECTURES & HISTORICAL NOTES

CrossRoads Fall 2008 Lecture
Valley Brethren Mennonite Heritage Center
Presented Sunday, Nov. 2, 2008, at Mt. Pleasant Church of the Brethren, Harrisonburg, Va.
byJames O. Lehman

MY DISCOVERIES IN LOCAL MENNONITE HISTORY

  

Lehman An alternate title would be:  "Musings and Meanderings Through the Mountains and Meadows of Mennonite History in Virginia."  If you think that's too many M's, wait till you hear the 13 "M's" of Virginia Mennonite History!  And I'll mention the Brethren briefly.

 

Introduction

I'm an import from Kidron Ohio, a Swiss Mennonite community, and long ago became interested in Virginia Mennonite history.  I have been serving as archivist for Virginia Mennonite Conference for some ten years.  I also edit Shenandoah Mennonite Historian since 2002, for which I dabble into various details of Virginia developments.

I first came to Virginia to complete my last two years of high school in 1949-51 at the High School Department of Eastern Mennonite College, as it was then called.  Then followed two years at EMC and in 1957-59, I completed a bachelor's degree.  During my dropout period (1953-57) I did alternative service for two years, taught school two years and got married to Dorothy Amstutz.  We have a family of five children, four sons and one daughter, and eight grandchildren, of which two of them are schoolteachers.

History was not always high in my priorities.  I still have a college European history textbook from the early fifties on which I scribbled the words on the outside edge "In case of flood stand on me;  I'm dry.!"  But in 1957-58 Dr. Irvin B. Horst's marvelous course on American Mennonite history hooked me for life!  I've researched and written nine congregational/community histories, probably more than anyone else has been foolish enough to do.  My first "baptism by the fire" into local history came in 1968-69, when I wrote the full length history of my home community, entitled Sonnenberg:  A Haven and a Heritage.  Why do I say "baptism by fire?"  Like the proverbial "fool who rushes in where angel's fear to tread," I did a major history of my home church and community.  My congregation had been through three church splits in its 150-year history.  The worst one came in 1936 and involved nearly two-thirds of the congregation leaving.  The principal character on the Sonnenberg side was my bishop father-in-law, Louis Amstutz.  How does one deal with major contention when it is easy to be on one side?  Very, very cautiously! 

I listened to both sides and sort of danced around from here to there and let the documents and principal characters speak for both sides, and what the issues were.  Then I documented heavily with hundreds of footnotes (really endnotes).  So and so said this, he said that;  here's what the documents say, etc.  So I protected myself from the charge "You were quite biased in your history."  I learned how to look at things objectively.   Fortunately, Virginia Mennonites have not had as many major divisions as the total number of church divisions I have suffered through in the congregational histories I wrote.

Tonight, for better or worse, we take an overview and look at the thirteen "M's" of Virginia Mennonite history.  This may be the first time you heard a talk with thirteen points, but I enjoy the number 13!  I won't keep you all evening long, for I aim to cover the thirteen points in the next 30-40 minutes.  Don't time me though!  There'll be occasion for questions on things I didn't touch upon that you would like to know about.

"M" number 1:  MENNONITES MIGRATE to Virginia

From Pennsylvania the first ones meandered into Page, Frederick and Shenandoah Counties, VA, beginning around 1727, where small settlements occurred at several places.  Not until later did Mennonites come to Rockingham and Augusta counties.  Peace was present in Page, the best-known settlement until troubles relating to the French and Indian wars of the 1750's-60's brought tragedy to the little community not far from Luray.  Indian raids (perhaps I should say "Native American") began in May 1758 when fifty people were killed.  Virginia had 39 Mennonite families living in Virginia at that time;  at least one Mennonite family was murdered;  others fled for their lives.

Then came the Roads massacre in 1764 when eight Indians led by an unscrupulous white man crossed the Massanutten Mountain at Powell's Fort and found minister farmer John Roads, and many of their 13 children at home.  They shot the minister in the doorway of his house and killed his wife and a son in the yard.  Another son climbed a pear tree to see what the commotion was about and was shot out of the tree.  Another son was killed as he tried to cross the Shenandoah River nearby.  Daughter Elizabeth scooped up her baby sister and took off for the barn.  But one Native American spotted her, then went to the house for fire to burn the barn.  Meanwhile Elizabeth, with baby Esther in her arms, made her escape from the back of the barn.  By evening she had walked 12 miles to her oldest brother's home.  Two sons and two daughters were taken captive by the raiding party.  After setting fire to the house also, they left hurriedly with the four children in tow.  Finally, the seven-year old boy couldn't keep up their pace, so he was shot.  The girls, seeing their brother being killed, refused to go on.  So they were killed also.  One son lived in captivity for three years.  Altogether, three sons and four daughters survived. 

Michael Kauffman, another minister in Page County had returned to Pennsylvania in 1746 to help settle the family estate.  He missed the tragedy.  Some Mennonites fled back to Pennsylvania but many stayed and eventually joined the Baptists or attended the local "Mennonite Baptist" church that was in existence for several decades.[1]

Later, perhaps in the 1760's, Michael Kauffman returned to Virginia, but this time he came to Rockingham County.  Other families like the Abraham and Maria Breneman family, settled on 800 acres in the Edom area.  Maria died giving birth to her eighth child, so Abraham set aside a half acre in 1788 for a community cemetery.  Today that is the Lindale Church cemetery.  Minister Michael Kauffman died later that same year (1788).  Both were buried at Lindale.  In time Abraham married again and had eight more children, many of whom, when they reached adulthood, migrated westward.

"M" number 2:  MIDDLE-OF-THE-ROAD MENNONITES– a general comment about all Virginia Mennonite history.  From the larger perspective of American Mennonite history, Virginians tended to stick largely to the middle of the road, maybe a bit to the right of the middle, but they stayed on the main American Mennonite path.  For a long time they had no division, although a bit of a dust-up occurred in the 1820's when some ministers disagreed.  Pennsylvania bishops and leaders came and helped Virginians over that hump.   Which brings us to the Civil War, or "War Between the States," as die-hard Southerners prefer.  Just the other day I heard an "old-line Virginian" make that point clear!

"M" number 3:  MENNONITES among the "Dunkers" (Church of the Brethren nickname of the 19th century)[2] who mingled and intermingled.  For a long time they lived amongst each other.  Mennonites did not have a tightly-knit community, quite like their fellow Mennos in other states.  Of course, the intermingling was also with Presbyterian, Methodist or United Brethren neighbors.  Hence, there was a fair amount of intermarrying with neighbors, particularly with Brethren, more so than one finds in other Mennonite communities in Ohio and Indiana, for example.  We aren't told though whether a Mennonite joining a Brethren church needed to be immersed in order to be acceptable.  Differing opinions were strong though as in the mid-1850s  a controversial exchange occurred between Brethren Elder John Kline and Joseph Funk over the mode of baptism.  It appears neither one changed the mind of the other!  Near the turn of the 20th century, Michael Shank, who had served over 30 years as a Mennonite deacon, married a Brethren woman for his third wife.  Then they alternated attending Mennonite and Brethren services.  Michael never tells us in his diary that he joined the Brethren Church, but bishop L. J. Heatwole tells us that did take place near Bridgewater at the home of Elder John Miller.  Again, no word whether the good deacon needed to be immersed!  With generally peaceful relations between the two groups over many years, it seems that the recent development of the conjoint Valley Brethren-Mennonite Heritage Center is quite appropriate.  It is the only one of its kind where both denominations work together to reflect upon how ancestors served the Lord.

During the Civil War both held strongly to the faith of their fathers in holding the peace position—a position that clashed with the local culture.  Both were respected as good farmers and good citizens.  Brethren were in the majority and their local leader, Elder John Kline, outshone Mennonite leadership.  Mennonites were a bit more shy about communicating with government officials and no leader was quite as strong and outspoken on the peace position as Brethren Elder Kline.  But Mennonites were no less peace people.

May 23, 1861 was a fateful day, the day to vote for or against Virginia seceding from the United States.  This time period was heavily laced with dire threats from neighbors of being hung or shot and their property confiscated if they failed to vote for secession.  Some    did vote for Virginia to secede, some voted against it, and quite a few refused to vote. Augusta County attitudes may have varied slightly.  The small group of Mennonites in the Waynesboro and Stuarts Draft areas had one bishop, Jacob Hildebrand.  We have his diary of 1861 in the archives and it is most interesting on the question of loyalties. 

In January 1861, the president called for a day of prayer and fasting.  That was James Buchanan (Lincoln, you see, was not inaugurated until March).  Good citizen that he was, Hildebrand called his flock together and held church.  On May 23, 1861, he says he went to Waynesboro and voted for secession.  In June he says the president called for a day of prayer and fasting.  Again, he called his flock together for church.  But now, his president was not Lincoln, it was Jefferson Davis!  A bit later he told his diary that he sent a petition to Virginia governor Letcher.  Wow, I thought, here we might find what Virginia Mennonites were saying about the war.  Unfortunately not.  Hildebrand was the popular community thresher with a good rig;  in fact, he got a new threshing rig that year (1861). The petition, signed by thirty some local residents including Mennonite ministers and others, pleaded that the governor please excuse his threshing manager, a local Mennonite church member now in the Confederate army.  Would they please excuse him for sixty days to run Hildebrand's threshing rig?  And, promised the petition, he would be returned to military duties after threshing time.

Bishop Hildebrand, however, held the peace position.  His own son lived far to the west in the mountains, working for the railroad.  Two letters to his son have survived.  Both plead that the son please stay out of the army and he would be well rewarded.  Of course, Hildebrand could, because he was a big-time land owner and prosperous farmer.  Was that almost like bribery?  We'll let you judge.  Hildebrand's first cousin, however, Jacob R. Hildebrand, another prosperous farmer, Mennonite church trustee and deacon, was quite pro-Confederate in his journal.  Three sons all ended up in military service.  So did Jacob's brother Gabriel.  Father Jacob R. would periodically visit his sons in army camps and frequently commented about the successes or failures of the Confederate army as the war progressed.  Tragedy hit home when son Gideon was killed by friendly fire some ten days before the war ended.  Father Jacob R. finally buried the body in the Hildebrand Church cemetery.   

M" number four:  MEEKLY, disobeying the Confederate government.

Thanks to David Rodes and Norman Wenger and their volumes of many testimonies regarding activity on the so-called "Unionist Underground Railroad" to help people flee northward, we have amazing details.  Mennonites strongly taught obedience to government, but here they quietly and secretly disobeyed the Confederate government.  Never before or since in American Mennonite history have Mennonites engaged in so much civil disobedience as Virginians did with this special Unionist "railroad" with depots, postmasters, secret hiding places and guides to take young men, disenchanted Confederate soldiers, anyone, who wanted to go North.  Numerous homes, even the Weavers Mennonite Church, were used to hide people going northward .  Most Mennonites were Unionists in outlook.

There are literally hundreds of stories out there regarding Civil War experiences.  We must not fail to mention the terrible suffering among most Shenandoah Valley residents when General Sheridan and his Union troops came through and burned the mills, the barns and even quite a few houses (which was in disobedience to General Grant's orders).  Houses were to be spared, but the local paper reported at least 30 houses burnt.  It is hard to imagine the sight of smoke plumes rising all over the valley everywhere with the burning.  John Heatwole's book, The Burning, is eloquent in candidness and details.

 "M" number five:  MUSIC

There's good reason why the old name of the village of Mountain Valley was changed to Singers Glen as we know it today.  Joseph Funk and his sons made an indelible mark on not only Virginia and southern religious music, but also on Mennonites at large in America.  His compilation and printing of Harmonia Sacra (first called Genuine Church Music), and their singing schools became famous for their emphasis on learning to sing well in church and at home.  A number of Harmonia Sacra hymns made their way into later Mennonite hymnbooks.  By far, the best known "Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow," known as 606 in the 1969 Mennonite Hymnal and which became number 118 in the widely-used current Hymnal:  A Worship Book of 1992, a book used by many Mennonite and some Brethren churches.  In the Harmonia Sacra it was number 290 and called "Dedication Anthem."  The hymn was not original with Funk, it came from earlier hymnbooks.  Funk, however passed it on and eventually Mennonites really took to it, almost making it their "national anthem!"  Funk's music made a deep impression.  Today there are at least a half-dozen times places in the area that annually hold a Harmonia Sacra hymn-sing.

"M" number six:  MOVING to English in church worship

Already in 1837 Peter Burkholder (father of Martin Burkholder), the well-known Mennonite bishop thought that surrounding non-Mennonites ought to know what Mennonites believe.  So he got Joseph Funk the music man to translate the long-standing German Mennonite Confession of Faith (which actually traces back to the 1632 Dordrecht Confession of Faith) to English.  With that publication and the Funk emphasis on English music, Virginia Mennonites turned from German to English much sooner than Mennonites elsewhere in America.

"M" number seven:  MISSIONS

With a few tentative starts around Civil War times and with great emphasis later in the 19th century and far into the 20th century, many Mennonite preachers sacrificed the comforts of being at home on Sunday and took long trips by horseback or by car to out-of-the way hilly, mountainous places in Virginia and West Virginia.  Usually they held services in a number of places on a weekend in schoolhouses and whatever church houses were available to them. Eventually they established some of the preaching locations to become Virginia Mennonite churches.  In the mid-1950's minister and bishop Timothy Showalter made a list of no less than 70 schoolhouses and church buildings where ministers preached periodically (not weekly) for some time.  However, the modest Mennonites did not call this missions, they called it schoolhouse evangelism.  But it was missions, no less.  In doing this, of course, their use of English was absolutely necessary.  Later other Mennonite communities began to become interested in such home missions and foreign missions and established organizations to promote it.  Virginia Mennonites also finally established a Mission Board.

"M" number eight:  MORALITY and Purity

Virginia Mennonites for a couple centuries were quite concerned about shunning worldliness and living good moral lives every day.  From the 1860 official minutes of Virginia Mennonite Conference to the 1960's and thereafter, there were many discussions on how to live as Christians and to be separate from the world in various ways.  For a long time Eastern Mennonite School/College was a bastion of emphasis upon plain dress and Christian morality.  Leaders such as early presidents, J. B. Smith, A. D. Wenger, faculty members like John L. Stauffer, and board members like George R. Brunk I, put on strong campaigns for plain dress and separation from the world.  Nonconformity, they called it.  

To many Virginia Mennonites (but not all) plain dress became a thread, but only one of the threads that needed to be emphasized.   There were ups and downs on the topic of plain dress, for one can find family or individual photos from the turn of the century (1900) where at least younger people or some in business vocations dressed rather smartly.  Worldliness, separation from the world, not fitting into cultural norms in certain respects, remain lively topics, and sermons today are preached on faithfulness to New Testament teachings.  Eventually, by the 1960s and 70s plain dress became, shall we say, a bit threadbare to many local Mennonites who felt that worldliness, faithfulness to be separate from the world and the culture around us is much more than clothes being unique or uniform.  In 1973, Conrad Brunk, son of George R. Brunk II, observed that the Mennonite Church "seems to be swiftly losing its last external vestiges of nonconformity.  To a large extent we have melted into the mainstream of American cultural life."[3]  There is so much more to moral purity and faithfulness to the teachings of the New Testament than outward conformity to unique patterns of dress.

"M" number nine:  MINORITY MINDSET

For a long, long time Mennonites in Virginia saw themselves as being a minority, usually trying to be the "quiet in the land."  Not only was that true of Mennonites and Brethren during the Civil War as has been intimated.  Live your testimony in everyday living, not to be making a big splash or calling attention to ones self or activities.  Twice during Virginia Mennonite history, magazines were published by a minority within the minority Mennonites in Virginia to try to keep the church on what they considered the path of faithfulness.  In the 1880s the Watchful Pilgrim, edited by Abraham Blosser, lasted about eight years.  Beginning in 1929 the fundamentalist Sword and Trumpet lasted much longer.  It took a Mennonite position described as "rooted in a high doctrine of separation and premillenial eschatology."  In fact, it is still being published.  Sword and Trumpet happens to be a rather interesting title for the peaceful "quiet in the land" Mennonites, but it has been described as an "appropriate title for a paper with a shrill and cutting style."[4]  (It now has a less shrill and cutting style.) 

Faithfully clinging to the peace position during wars and in between is an example of the minority mindset.  During World War I it was difficult to know where to take a stand because everyone had to go the military camps, and there one had to take a stand whether they would wear the uniform, do rifle drilling, and other militaristic activities.  World War II brought CPS camps (Civilian Public Service).  To my surprise Virginia had at least ten of them—four of them not far from here—Grottoes, Lyndhurst in Augusta County, Staunton, and Luray. Many Mennonites but not all participated in the CPS program.  In 1945 the Virginia Conference declared that any men joining the military were forfeiting their church membership.  In Virginia and West Virginia 68 men had gone into the military.  Only 12 of these men returned to the church.[5]  No one tells us how many men went into CPS, but according to national statistics it must be over 100, perhaps quite a number over 100.   Many in the Rockingham County area went into CPS camps, but in rural and mountainous areas a larger number went into the military.

"M" number 10:  MEDIA MINISTRIES

Periodically, ironies crop up in history.  Here's one.  For many years, particularly under the watchful eye of Bishop John L. Stauffer and others, Mennonites tried to ban the radio.  That resulted in some loss of members.  Eventually, that "battle" was given up and it didn't take very long until the "Mennonite Hour" developed here at Harrisonburg and became quite a success story for years, along with the long-standing women's broadcast, "Heart to Heart."  Eventually, the Mennonite Church in the U. S. adopted the local offices here as the base of Media Ministries, the current name for this arm of the national church, the MC-USA.

Again, as with the other 13 points, much more could be said if time and patience permitted!

"M" number 11:  MOBILITY

We live in a mobile age.  People pull up roots and move elsewhere rather readily.  That becomes especially true of a community that has a strong college or university in its midst, as does the Harrisonburg area.  The church I attend, Lindale, illustrates that quite well.  Very few old-line native Virginians remain in the congregation.  There are some now of the younger generation that were born and raised here.  But in background, most of the people came from elsewhere, many of them from another state, as we did.  Many students have  come to Lindale for spiritual nourishment.  We currently have a large number of students and people who came for their education, came to Lindale to worship, found a good job locally and stayed on to raise their families.  So we have a large number of babies and children.  That is always a reassuring thing;  not like congregations in some rural areas that bemoan the loss of their young people and the scarcity of children.  Yet, even at Lindale, they often come a while, then they move on to serve the Lord elsewhere in the world.  That's fine.  In fact, that's one of the important missions of the church, isn't it?  Raise and nourish young people, then send them out to serve the Lord wherever He leads..  Thus Lindale has a large Sunday morning attendance;  this morning there were 379, about what one would expect.  It becomes impossible to get to know everyone very well.  It is doubtful, that this pattern will change anytime soon.  Nor do we want it to!

"M" number 12:  MOTIVATION to promote MCC

Many people of non-Mennonite background first become acquainted with some Mennonites through MCC, Mennonite Central Committee, which has people in service in numerous countries of the world.  That phenomena, and the fact that EMU strongly encourages cross-cultural experience as part of their education, means that many local Mennonites have more of a global perspective than do many Mennonite communities.  The world is seen less through national eyes than with global eyes.  That is as it should be.  There are three MCC locations in Rockingham County, one on the Mt. Clinton Pike near EMU and EMHS, one at Dayton, and one at Hinton along Route 33 West.  The Mt. Clinton location has a large "World of Good Thrift Shop," along with two other businesses that raise funds for MCC.  A second one is  "Artisans Hope," a store that sells fairly priced items from abroad, to try to help struggling people in other countries who seek an outlet for gift items they produce.  A fairly new method for a few MCC locations to raise money is through a program called "Booksavers," of which Harrisonburg has a thriving one at the Mt. Clinton location.  Accepting donations of private personal libraries and seeking new copies of textbooks rejected by schools, volunteers spend numerous hours each week searching the Internet to sell copies of the books that have arrived.  Three businesses at that location are doing well. 

A second MCC store is found in the Dayton Farmers Market and called "Ten Thousand Villages."  At Hinton is found the "Mennonite Relief Center," where meat canning, apple drying and other such projects take place.  MCC and a sister operation by Mennonites called MDS (Mennonite Disaster Service) are primary ways that various kinds of Mennonites work side-by-side in helping to provide relief to suffering peoples in the U. S. and abroad.

"M" number 13, our last point:  MOVEMENT in dynamic church life.

Periodically, it seems that because Mennonites tend to take their theology and church life seriously, some developments result in another new group springing up.  So there is fermentation and movement.  As a result we have considerable diversification and some different groups of Mennonites.  The first division among Virginia Mennonites has been mentioned, that of the 1901 development of the group called Old Order Mennonites, when some 70 persons had their membership withdrawn from the Middle District of Virginia Mennonites.  After long discussion about adopting such innovations as revival meetings and Sunday schools, it seemed to people involved that a separation was in order.  Thus began the Pleasant View Mennonite Church west of Dayton, where two groups of Old Order Mennonites alternate in the use of the historic building constructed in 1902.  When the automobile came, these people decided to keep horse and buggy for transportation.  A separation among themselves occurred in 1953—one named the Cline/Showalter group, the other called the Marion Wenger group.  Another separation had occurred a number of years ago when the Mt. Pleasant Church southeast of Dayton formed.  This group has Old Order characteristics with a bit more progressive outlook;  they use automobiles.

Over the years other groups have meandered from the mainstream body for various reasons.  In 1972 the Southeastern Mennonite Conference, now numbering some 600, formed a new group over issues involving retention of plain dress, the so-called "liberal" tendencies of Eastern Mennonite College, and the Virginia Mennonite Mission Board.

Other examples of fermentation and resultant new groups have happened more recently after the turn of the 21st century.  The Cornerstone group with a bit more fundamentalist evangelical outlook formed over some disagreements accompanying the development of the merger of what used to be called Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonites—Virginia Mennonite Conference being a part of the group earlier simply called  Mennonite Church.  The majority of Mennonites in 60 some congregations in Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee are called Virginia Mennonite Conference and remain the majority or largest group of local Mennonites.  Also in formation a few years ago was the Mountain Valley Mennonite Church, with five former Virginia Conference congregations.

Other fermentation continues to occur.  Right now we have the development of a new groups called "The Table," a group that meets in the Discipleship Center of EMU.  And just in formation is "The Early Church" with Ron Copeland, across from the Little Grill Restaurant on Main Street North in Harrisonburg.  Thus there is a plethora of diversity among Mennonites.  All are a part of the American scene, which after centuries of freedom of religion and the freedom to begin a new group or join a new group have become a feature of Mennonite Christianity in the U. S. and Canada.

jol   10-27-08

 

Presented Sunday, Nov. 2, 2008, at Mt. Pleasant Church of the Brethren, Harrisonburg, Va.


 

 



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