The Rhine River: Anabaptist superhighway

One of the things that has always confused me about my family’s history is the term “Pennsylvania Dutch.”

I know where the “Pennsylvania” part comes from. Most Anabaptist American families trace their roots back to the Keystone State. A few years ago, my wife and I decided to take a quick detour through Lancaster County while on a Christmas chocolate procurement mission in Hershey, Pa. As we drove into town and saw the scores of business signs with familiar family names scroll past (Brubacher, Martin, Stauffer, Wenger, Zimmerman, etc.), something joyful clicked inside my head. I called my mother from my cell phone: “Mom!, I’m in ze Fatherland!”

But the “Dutch” part has always been a little tricky. “Dutch” is obviously an English corruption of “Deutsch,” the name Germans use for themselves (Deutschland uber alles!). However, the word “Dutch” in English is commonly used to describe the peoples of Holland and the low countries. Most of my family, with the exception of a few shanghaied Iroquois whom I’ll get to later, spilled out of southern Germany and Switzerland and came to the New World in the 18th and 19th Centuries. As my mother pointed out, our family avoided the usual lineage destruction that occurred on Atlantic crossings. We have a big brown book full of birth records, neatly arranged and cross-referenced, making it easy to trace our begetting back to at least the 16th Century. Our family mostly migrated from Zurich, Switzerland and its environs. Zurich is decidedly not the Netherlands.

Yet we are Mennonites. Our family’s faith bears the name of a man, who, as I’ve said before, was born in Friesland, what is now the Frisia province of the northern Netherlands. This is not a brisk hike. According to Google Earth, it’s about 400 miles, as the crow flies, between the two regions. That’s longer than the geographic distance between Boston, Mass. and Washington, D.C. For you West Coasters, that’s 50 miles more than San Francisco to L.A. But in 16th Century Europe, there were no cars or trains that could whip you between Fiesland and Zurich in half a day.

The Rhine River Valley, Germany

The Rhine River Valley, Germany

But there was a superhighway of sorts.

The Rhine River is the 820-mile winding link that joins the two geographic ends of my family’s history. It originates in the Alps and flows northwesternly past Zurich, spilling out into the North Sea in the Netherlands. The lingua franca of this economic corridor in the 16th Century was Plattdeutsch – Low German – or as my family now simply calls it, “Dutch.” Many of the persecuted early Anabaptists fled along the Rhine to the tolerant Netherlands in the 16th Century, which is no doubt how Menno Simons learned of the movement. (It is also where I was surpised to see Voltaire’s placment of his Anabaptist character in Candide.) The river also carried Simons’ ideas south to Zurich. So, it can be said that my family is “Dutch” in many senses of the word, corrupt or otherwise.

I’m sure the scholars are rolling their eyes right out of their skulls right now, but this was a significant breakthrough for me. It was the key to reconciling my family’s claim that a trick of language is the reason for our being mistaken for descendents of the Lowlands with the fact that much of the family’s religion was originated and codified in the Netherlands.

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One Response to “The Rhine River: Anabaptist superhighway”

  1. […] is it with the Rhine River Valley and religious persecutions? Is it just because the area was a medieval European superhighway? Or is there something in the culture of the region that perpetuated the horrors of the First […]

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