John Ruth's story of the Mennonites who first settled in what became Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in 1711, is not really a "conference" history although readers will learn a great deal about the Lancaster Mennonite Conference. The focus is on people, not institutions. The requisite institutions common to most Mennonite conferences, such as schools, missions, retirement homes, orphanages, and so forth, are described. Most arrived somewhat late on the scene in the twentieth century. However, Ruth could not have successfully woven his narrative around the creation of these institutions. Even the semi-annual conference of ordained men which appears to have evolved from more irregular councils in the mid-eighteenth century into a body which met regularly for discernment and decision-making is tangential to the history of the Lancaster Mennonite Conference. Occasionally as controversies arose, the role or judgment of this conference reached center stage, but Ruth's story is about a network of congregations and even more about an extended family of people. How did this family persist and grow while yielding to Christ's will? He develops this central theme over a span of nearly four centuries with incredible insight and detail.
Persecution of the Anabaptists in Switzerland continued into the seventeenth century and at times escalated with harsh penalties of imprisonment, confiscation, exile, and even death. Some escaped for a time by moving north to the Palatinate. However, as the persecution worsened at the end of the first decade of the eighteenth century, Bernese Anabaptists chose migration to America. Seven families settled about seventy miles south of Philadelphia at the head of the Pequea river in the Conestoga watershed in spring 1711, and six years later ten fold as many families followed them to perhaps the most fertile agricultural land in the new world. The community prospered and more Anabaptists arrived from Europe. Ruth traces the name they used to describe themselves from "Brüder" or "Täufer" and then "Mennist" in Europe to "Mennonist" and eventually "Mennonite" in America.
It is impossible to summarize even the major themes in the history of the Lancaster Conference in a few short pages. One approach is to look at the previous gaps in this history which have been filled in by this volume. Perhaps first and foremost is the extensive European background provided. Interest in where they came from has been a mid to late twentieth century phenomenon for the Lancaster family, and Ruth - with very sparse written records and few oral traditions - fills the void well. The situation with respect to the early years in America is similar, and again the depth of research presented is remarkable. A second and related emphasis of this volume is on listening to and telling all stories, especially those of women, which were almost completely absent from previous works about the conference. A third theme, which forms the foundation for understanding this community, is the significance of the land on which they lived and how it shaped virtually everything, including even their world view and spirituality. Their relationship with the land is described with great insight. Another theme, also largely missing from the previous record of events, is a focus on the local native Americans who were their predecessors on this land and for much of the eighteenth century neighbors of the Mennonites.
John Ruth writes as a storyteller, minister, and English professor, not a professional historian, and thus this is not a traditional narrative history. It is a compilation of stories, woven together largely in chronological order, with minimal commentary or analysis. Frequent bold headings clearly identify the stories or groupings of stories. The reader will not often find a generic description of a church service, funeral, wedding, harvest, diet, farmstead or other types of practices or activities. Instead first hand accounts are told, and often lines from poems, hymns, or other documents are quoted.
In some respects this format narrows the audience to the Lancaster community itself. The details and stories will be more meaningful to descendants, even those separated by generations from Lancaster County, and those from other Mennonite groups or without much background in Mennonite history may occasionally get lost. Fortunately, a series of excellent maps and illustrations provide some grounding so at least the geography is not completely confusing. Likewise some congregations have been known by various names and are more likely than congregations in the western states to have family names (Eshelman, Erb, Gerber, Gingrich, Mellinger, etc.) than place names. Some family names are extremely common in the Lancaster family, such as Landis, which fills over two columns in the index, with one column having the first name of John. One learns a great deal about who is related to or descended from whom.
Some themes recur throughout the three centuries of the Lancaster Conference in America. One of the foremost is nonresistance. This volume traces the challenges of the military to the Mennonite community from Switzerland and the Palatinate to various conflicts in America: French and Indian War, Revolutionary War, Civil War, World Wars I and II, and the Vietnam War. Other factors over the years threatened their nonconformity or separation. Some of the larger issues over time were the transition from the German to English language and innovations in religious practices, such as Sunday schools and pulpits. One of the most interesting stories is of a newly installed pulpit which was torn out of a meetinghouse in the dead of night and the controversy which followed. Some of the issues were over whether to adopt developments in the greater American society, such as insurance, higher education, or television. However, the most significant rule of distinction was plain dress, and the twentieth century saw this emerge as a major line of separation and a constant source of discussion over rules and discipline. At times disagreements over separation created splits, such as that which resulted in the Old Order Mennonites.
Nevertheless, most of the issues which resulted in individuals leaving the Lancaster Conference did not relate to separation or plain dress but to evangelism or in a broader sense spirituality. Even in the early years many Mennonites became attracted to the more emotional faith and worship of other groups, including Dunkers, Brethren in Christ, United Brethren, and others. If all descendants of the Lancaster family had remained Mennonites, the author estimates the conference would have had 250,000 not 25,000 adults and children in the mid twentieth century. Perhaps the most insightful analysis of the volume is looking at the development of the faith of the Lancaster community while faced with a myriad of pressures from the outside world. Temptation for change came both from within and without, and movement often occurred - both from Lancaster Conference to more liberal Mennonite groups or evangelical groups and from Old Order Mennonite or Amish groups into the Lancaster Conference.
While the more emotional or evangelical style of other groups may have challenged the Lancaster Mennonite Conference on occasion, perhaps the most remarkable development of the past century has been the growth of home and foreign mission work by the conference. The evolution of the Home Mission Advocates in 1894 into the Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities in 1914 is a fascinating story. The work of the conference in missions could be the subject of several books, and this volume provides a good overview of the numerous fields and the challenges faced in each and of the service of hundreds of dedicated mission workers.
Change appears to have accelerated within the Lancaster Conference during the last quarter of the twentieth century. Wearing plain dress has fallen off considerably. Young people have begun to attend college. In addition to the two meetings of ordained leaders each year, an annual meeting of congregational delegates is held. In 1971 the Lancaster Mennonite Conference joined the Assembly of the Mennonite Church (though, the author adds, without much enthusiasm for it). Today it is important for those in the newly created Mennonite Church USA to read the stories in these pages and understand how the Lancaster Conference got to where it is today and how it fits into the complicated mosaic of North American Mennonitism. For those within or related to the Lancaster community, this volume recovers and tells your story in a dramatic and detailed fashion unmatched by any other conference history book.
David A. Haury