Nearly a decade ago, C. Nelson Hostetter embarked on the ambitious project of an all-inclusive census of Amish, Brethren in Christ and Mennonites in the United States as a way to highlight the connectedness of these three "cousins" of the Menno Simons faith family. The result was his 1997 book Anabaptist-Mennonites Nationwide USA, a most welcome addition to the library of Anabaptist resources, answering the questions of how many of us there are and where we are located.
Despite its confounding title, Anabaptist-Mennonites Nationwide USA was an immensely fascinating reference work, sort of like the Guiness Book of World Records or Baseball Register. Hostetter told us that the United States was home to 46 distinct groups, ranging from Amish Mennonite to United Zion Churches, with a total membership of 302,256 in 3,474 congregations in 47 states. But there was much, much more. In addition to thumbnail descriptions of each group, Hostetter provided breakdowns by state and by group, thus providing a gold mine of information. Did you know that Pennsylvania had 31 groups, 887 congregations and 87,177 members, by far the most of any state? Or that Nevada, New Hampshire and Rhode Island were the three states without any congregation of Menno cousins? Or that the United Mennonites, with one congregation and 12 members, was the smallest group? Or that there were 10 Old Order Mennonite groups? Hostetter gave us the type of book that could sit by the recliner or the nightstand, inviting a few minutes' perusal at any time and always promising some nugget of information, some insight into contemporary Anabaptism.
Now five years later, Hostetter has been joined by Donald B. Kraybill to produce Anabaptist World USA (yet another confounding title). While it updates and expands Hostetter's 1997 census to provide more useful facts and figures, the book also has added features that unfortunately detract from the charm that made Anabaptist-Mennonites Nationwide USA such a pleasure. Nearly half the book is devoted to 10 "interpretative essays" about the history, convictions and current developments of the groups profiled. Hostetter and Kraybill write that they wanted to "assemble the pieces of a complicated puzzle on a small board in a concise fashion." Certainly attempts to describe the various expressions of Anabaptism are needed, when members of the former Mennonite Church are unfamiliar with the Mennonite Brethren and former General Conference Mennonite Church members still confuse the Brethren in Christ with the Church of the Brethren. And for people who aren't Anabaptist, the name "Mennonite" still conjures images of buggies, suspenders and prayer coverings.
So the book tries to be a historical, sociological and theological primer on Anabaptism--and thus tries to do too much. The book's strength is the census, but they are buried in the back, shifting the focus to topics such as martyrs, christocentric biblicism, "the Anabaptist Escalator," assimilation, education, an overview of 20th century changes, even the layout of Hutterite colonies, all crammed into 117 pages. That makes the book heavy and daunting, not inviting and fun, like its predecessor. Such academic topics, which are more than adequately covered in other books and journals, are beyond the scope of Anabaptist World USA, a point that even Hostetter and Kraybill seem willing to concede in their preface: "Historians may gasp at our sweeping historical overviews, sociologists will likely shudder at our broad generalizations, and theologians may tremble at our scant discussion of the doctrinal and ethical formulations undergirding Anabaptist life."
An example of that lack of development, Hostetter and Kraybill surprisingly categorize the Brethren in Christ as a Brethren group, rather than a Mennonite group, which has been the conventional understanding. That is most apparent in the Brethren in Christ's membership in Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite World Conference. Historians and other church experts -- including Hostetter's father, longtime Brethren in Christ leader C. N. Hostetter--have long emphasized the pervasive influence of Mennonites and Mennonitism on the Brethren in Christ. This is not to necessarily dispute Hostetter and Kraybill, only to say that their assertion that the Brethren in Christ is more Brethren than Mennonite needs more attention than just two isolated paragraphs.
Anabaptist World USA does offer additions that improve on Anabaptist-Mennonites Nationwide USA, particularly including the Brethren and Hutterite streams of the faith. As a result, the United States now has 63 distinct groups with 537,432 members in 5,539 congregations in 48 states (all but New Hampshire and Rhode Island). Hostetter and Kraybill have also crunched some intriguing numbers that were not in Hostetter's first book. Did you know that 56 percent of the Mennonite groups are in congregations of 75 members or less or that the largest congregation is Columbus (Ohio) Grace Brethren Church with 1,920 members? In addition to memberships, the authors calculated total populations of members and unbaptized children, no doubt a helpful sociological tool. Not surprisingly, the Old Order Amish have 69,578 members but a population 156,551. The Church of the Brethren is the only U.S. group to have a greater population (185,000), but it also has a greater membership (137,037).
So skip the first half of Anabaptist World USA and go the second half for a fun and fascinating look at turn-of-the 21st century Anabaptism.