Fall 2008 Lecture
Valley Brethren Mennonite
Presented Sunday, Nov. 2, 2008, at Mt. Pleasant Church of the
Brethren, Harrisonburg, Va.
byJames O. Lehman
MY DISCOVERIES IN LOCAL MENNONITE HISTORY
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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." There is so much more to moral purity and faithfulness to the
teachings of the New Testament than outward conformity to unique patterns of
"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." (It now has a less shrill and cutting style.)
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. 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.
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.
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
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.
Presented Sunday, Nov. 2, 2008, at Mt. Pleasant Church of the
Brethren, Harrisonburg, Va.