The fields of Mennonite studies have been defined to a great extent by the disciplines of history and sociology, although literature, theology, and biblical studies have made significant interventions in recent decades. The historians, for the most part, have devoted their attention to the key events and personalities associated with assimilating Mennonite communities and conferences, relying on materials found in archives to tell the story of the denominational institutions, conference assemblies, and influential leaders that shaped the changing lives of various church bodies. The sociologists, by contrast, have focused their attention on traditional “plain” communities and used ethnographic methods to gather data about the practices of stability by which plain people persist in their struggle against modernity. While both disciplines deal in their own ways with problems of time and space, historians tend to focus on nuanced accounts of changing contexts and responses while the sociologists typically feature thick descriptions of sustained rituals and networks. Against this backdrop, Royden Loewen’s Horse and Buggy Genius cuts against the grain by treating plain Mennonite groups as historical communities, each with their own usable past that shapes decisions and perspectives in the ongoing struggle of Mennonites with the challenges of modernity. For these communities, history is “less about change over time than about passing changelessness on along from one generation to another,” as Loewen artfully puts it.
But what makes this book even more unusual is its ambition to display the stories horse and buggy Mennonites themselves tell in order to understand and appropriate their pasts. Rather than seek to reconstruct a coherent history of Old Colony Mennonites from primary source documents and secondary professional histories, for example, Loewen and his team of researchers collect the testimonies of hundreds of Old Colony Mennonites who tell the stories they recall as members of communities shaped more by the informal approximations of oral communication than by the technically precise practices of print media.
Loewen and his assistants studied two groups of Mennonites who rely on horses and buggies for their primary means of transportation: the Old Colony communities in Central and South America and the Old Order communities in Canada. Of these two groups, the Old Colony Mennonites receive the most attention – five chapters – while the Old Order Mennonites receive a more cursory consideration in two chapters. This choice of research subjects is initially somewhat bewildering, especially since there are plenty of Old Colony Mennonites in Canada who could have been included in the study. Of course, these Mennonites no longer drive horses and buggies and so might be regarded as outside the scope of a project defined by “horse and buggy genius.” On the other hand, while the Old Order communities discussed in the book still drive horses and buggies, their history is substantially different from the Old Colony, making simple comparisons difficult. Moreover, since Loewen provides much less detail about the Old Order, it can sometimes be unclear how the two communities figure in the overall picture of horse and buggy Mennonites the book presents.
Among the surprising details of “horse and buggy genius” that Loewen’s work makes accessible is the religious relativism of otherwise conservative communities. Old Order and Old Colony Mennonites regard people as responsible for the spiritual knowledge they have received, a knowledge that varies from one community to another. Thus, church rules about technologies of transportation and communication are regarded as relevant to the specific group of Mennonites that have adopted them and not as grounds for making spiritual judgments about people beyond those communities. At the same time, horse and buggy Mennonites are able to offer pithy and savvy cultural commentary about the effects of modern technology on individuals. For example, Loewen offers the following quotation from one of his interviewees: “The car makes people lazy and stupid; they go and buy everything at once with their cars, small things they don’t need or could easily have bought another day…. Like this they spend a lot of money needlessly.” Gems like this accumulate throughout the book to provide a corpus of the conventional wisdom that shapes Old Colony and Old Order life.
Although he clearly wants to let his subjects speak for themselves, Loewen can impose a somewhat restrictive, even if sympathetic, theoretical framework on the words he has gathered from field research. He cannot resist correcting his subjects when their reminiscences are mistaken, such as a nostalgic but false memory of tobacco fields in Manitoba. He characterizes a recollection of church conflict that leads to division and migration as “placing the move within the broader context of religious suffering.” He speaks about “culturally conditioned masculinities and femininities” or “surprising complementarity” when summarizing descriptions of marriage and family relationships.
Still, most of Loewen’s analysis is done with a light touch and serves to move the reader along from one fragment of testimony to another while offering an overall picture of the coherent and distinct stances of specific Anabaptist historical communities against the persistent corruptions of modernity. This picture is at its sharpest when it compares the Old Order inclination to stay put with the Old Colony tendency to be on the move. Both staying and leaving are tactics of resistance to cultural assimilation, but are given different meanings because of the distinct histories of the two groups. Old Order Mennonites prefer long-term connection with a spiritual and geographic home, a commitment given meaning through a history that features innovators who moved away, whether to become more assimilated or more orthodox. Old Colony Mennonites privilege migration as a practice of faithfulness, a practice identified with the memory of steadfast ancestors fleeing persecution, whether from outside political repression or from inside conflicts over apostasy. Unfortunately, this is one of the few clear comparisons that can be drawn from Loewen’s research between Old Order and Old Colony communities, given his comparatively briefer account of Old Order historical practices. For example, the details Loewen provides about Old Colony Easter and Christmas celebrations – the small excesses of gift exchange, for example – are not included in his description of Old Order religious life. The preference of Old Colony Mennonites for conservative governments that “leave them alone” does not have a corresponding discussion in the Old Order section. The extensive and illuminating analysis of Old Colony racial identity cannot be compared an Old Order experience of race and cultural “otherness” because it does not appear as a topic in the chapters about the Old Order.
One issue confronting each community is the problem of sexual abuse, a concern that Loewen and his informants do address forthrightly in both the Old Order and Old Colony sections of the book. Many of the ministers and church members he interviewed in both communities acknowledged that their system of church discipline was often inadequate to hold perpetrators properly accountable. One Old Order church member spoke highly of an investigating officer and a social worker who had helped to convict and imprison a persistent Old Order sexual predator. This church member congratulated such secular authorities for being “more ‘Christian,’ caring more for Old Order children… than did our own leaders.” Old Order and Old Colony discipline, frequently accused of being overly rigid and demanding, can appear frustratingly weak when addressing the sexual crimes of perpetrators who concede wrongdoing and are more quickly forgiven than a rebellious church member reluctant to acknowledge a minor breach of the Ordnung, such as driving a truck or using a cell phone.
Such open disclosure and confession of the church’s failures is a striking mark of horse and buggy genius. Loewen’s work is the strongest when it permits the humility and modesty of Old Order and Old Colony memory to shine through the stubborn and resilient stances these Anabaptist communities have taken against all things modern.