A Holdeman history

Issue 2021, vol. 75

Review of Living in the World: How Conservative Mennonites Preserved the Anabaptism of the Sixteenth Century by Ronald C. Jantz (Wipf & Stock, 2020)

Ron Jantz, retired librarian at Rutgers University, grew up in Halstead, Kan., the son of parents who had been members of the Holdeman church (Church of God in Christ, Mennonite) there. With this book, Jantz joins the growing group of fringe or former Mennonites who tell the stories of their people from the outside. Jantz appreciates the Holdeman story and hopes that it may be a positive influence in the world.

Jantz undertakes two tasks in this book. One is to tell the narrative history of the Holdeman branch of Mennonitism from its origins in 16th-century Anabaptism to its life today, mostly in North America. This has been done before, above all by Clarence Hiebert in his extensive 1973 study, ­­­­­The Holdeman People­­­­­­. Jantz does not revise or update Hiebert’s book.

Jantz’s second task is a more speculative moral argument that the Holdeman separatist way of life constitutes a worthy preservation of Anabaptist ideals. Jantz believes that to be true to Anabaptism, a church must be separatist and nonconformist. Mennonite communities who have accommodated to modern life are alleged to have abandoned the ideals of their Anabaptist forebears.

The ideal of separation from the world is found in the Schleitheim Confession, written by Michael Sattler in 1527. Jantz could have strengthened his case if he had drawn more fully upon the literature that demonstrates the connection between medieval monasticism and the Anabaptist movement. Sattler himself came out of the monastic tradition.

How convincing is Jantz’s argument that separatist Holdeman people today, with their modestly distinctive clothing and technological markers of separation from modern American society, are “preserving” 16th-century Anabaptism? A major irony is at stake here. Anabaptists represented a challenge to the dominant church-state order of their time. They were severely persecuted by leaders who fervently believed that no state could be stable unless all members were of the same religion. To argue that Holdeman church today can credibly claim the original genius of its Reformation forebears, one must show that the Holdeman way of life constitutes a parallel disruptive challenge to the current order. In fact, the Holdeman church today, despite its marks of distinction from the world, is not a disruptive force. The social dynamics of the repressive 16th-century Reformation and of 21st-century tolerant multi-denominational American society are vastly different. The very meaning of “separation” has been transformed.

Jantz has done extensive research in the published histories of the Holdeman people, and in the Holdeman periodical Herald of Truth. He apparently did not carry out any personal conversations in his research, even though his narrative might have been enlivened with quotations from interviews with current Holdeman members and leaders. Nevertheless, this book is worth reading for a compact and well written review of Holdeman history, and for an example of how that story can inspire admiration in a modern context.