Archive for the Mennonite Category

Book review: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

Posted in Anabaptism, Anabaptist, Christian, Christianity, Community, Mennonite, Religion, Theology with tags , on December 6, 2010 by fuzzysoul

I spent the weekend in Lancaster, Pa., which I repeatedly and annoyingly refer to as “ze Fatherland.” I was there for a family funeral, and I was stuck with a bad case of insomnia and an abysmal selection of television channels. So I pulled out my Kindle and finished reading Rhoda Janzen’s memoir “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress” for a bit of topical entertainment.

Janzen is the rare English professor who can actually write. Nay, she can write really damn well. As a result, I didn’t stop reading this book until 2:30 a.m.

Trying to summarize this book is tough, because the underlying structure is simply Janzen’s account of a few months she spent with her Mennonite family after her life spectacularly imploded, complete with a crushing car accident and her husband dumping her for a man he met on the Internet. It’s intensely personal, but rarely self-indulgent. Even in the depth of the book’s most self-help, you-go-girl, chick-lit sections, Janzen’s self-effacing humor and zinging prose kept me reading.

Whether she is observing that “Mennonites tend to live in clumps” or recalling that “my mother braided my hair so tightly that my eyebrows buckled,” Janzen’s four-bladed wit cartridge scrapes her family for the bulk of the book’s material. While occasionally making her family look cartoonish, she seems to do so out of genuine affection or bewilderment, not spite.

If the book has a major flaw, it is one that can be induced by the reader. Janzen has written a humorous collection of personal anecdotes, not a work of sociology or historical scholarship. She tends to take personal observations and extrapolate them to sweeping generalizations, so take her broad pronouncements about Mennonite life with a bit of perspective. Her Mennonite clan came to America’s west coast by way of Canada and the Ukraine, so her family shares different religious and culinary traditions from those of the Pennsylvania Dutch.

Her tendency to extrapolate carries over to the history section of the book, where Janzen gives readers a quick and dirty romp through the complexity of Anabaptist history. I e-mailed Janzen with a couple nit-picky questions about this section, and, to my great surprise, she quickly answered, addressing my questions and suggesting additional reading. So, beware this gracious professor, kids. She hands out lots of homework.


Kissing cousins are … normal?

Posted in Anabaptism, Anabaptist, Community, History, Mennonite, Pennsylvania Dutch with tags , on October 17, 2010 by fuzzysoul

Now here is an interesting Wikipedia article: Cousin marriage.

Such marriages are often highly stigmatized today in the West, but marriages between first and second cousins nevertheless account for over 10 percent of marriages worldwide. They are particularly common in the Middle East, where in some nations they account for over half of all marriages.

Yes, yes. Tell me something I don’t know.

According to Professor Robin Fox of Rutgers University, it is likely that 80% of all marriages in history have been between second cousins or closer.

Well … that was something I didn’t know. Perhaps my family isn’t all that unusual. We’re just better at keeping records.

The hanged man

Posted in Anabaptism, Anabaptist, Catholic Martyrs, Christian, Christianity, History, Martyr, Martyrs Mirror, Mennonite, Patriarchs, Religion with tags , , , , , , , on September 26, 2010 by fuzzysoul

In the tradition of the Tarot, the card of The Hanged Man can symbolize an inability to move forward. And that’s exactly how I felt when trying to understand the fate of Jan Smit in the Martyrs Mirror.

Smit, a Mennonite, was living near Munnekendam in North Holland in 1572 when he got picked up for being an Anabaptist. But, while he was in Catholic captivity, the Protestants captured Munnekendam and released him. He went back to working on a boat and was again captured by a Spanish captain, who took him to Amsterdam. The Spanish decided to put him to work rowing for the Spanish navy against the Protestants. Smit, a good non-bellicose Mennonite, refused to do so. So, the Spanish ordered him to be executed by hanging … from one leg.

I thought the book was pulling my leg, but it was quite serious. There’s even an illustration of the proceedings. Still, one has to wonder about the efficacy of this form of execution. It seems to be more annoying than lethal. Death would come from exposure and dehydration before anything else. Perhaps that was the point.

My searches for an explanation of this bizarre practice led me straight to a host of hokey Tarot card sites. I was annoyed at first, but then I found this discussion, and I finally got some leads. Apparently, this practice has come to be known – accurately or not – as the “Jewish execution,” thanks to a 1955 book by historian Guido Kisch. Kisch maintains (while others dispute) that the practice was employed on unrepentant Jews in various pogroms and lynchings¬† throughout medieval European history. It had various flavors as well. Some times live, panicked dogs were strung up next to the victim and would presumably bite him to death. Sometimes a fire was built under the victim to roast him.

The practice doesn’t appear to be very common, and it was employed against people other than Jews. Various accounts list it as a punishment for debtors and traitors as well. This could be why poor Smit met his end this way.

A touching tale of tonguescrews

Posted in Anabaptism, Anabaptist, Catholic Martyrs, Christian, Christianity, Church, History, Martyr, Martyrs Mirror, Mennonite, Patriarchs, Religion with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 23, 2010 by fuzzysoul

The sentence was arresting, even against the backdrop of routine horror that comprises the Martyrs Mirror:

Seven were burned alive before Easter, their mouths having been screwed together with screws; and the last mentioned four, in like manner, on the 20th of May of said year.


The Mirror has started to take a more horrifyingly detailed turn in its account of the 16th Century with vivid descriptions of Anabaptists being “ruptured” on the rack, hung by their arms with weights on their feet and urine being poured in their mouths. But that is all run-of-the-mill, standard issue medieval justice. This mouth-screwing business was new to me. Fifty pages later, it got a little clearer with the account of the deaths of Abraham Picolet, Hendrick van Etten and Maeyken van der Goes in Antwerp in 1569:

Thus the tyrants satisfied their desire on these three lambs for the slaughter, and had them burned alive the following day, after they had fastened their tongues out of their mouths with screwplates to prevent them from speaking.

Ah! It was a censorship thing. Can’t have these crazed radicals infecting the bloodthirsty mob with their non-violent, delayed dunking theology while our humble public servants are busily trying to barbecue them! It also appears to be big in Antwerp in the late 16th Century. The practice gets a new torturous wrinkle in the story of Jelis Claverss and Co. in Antwerp in 1571:

…These new Pharisees, the monks, on the other hand, caused screws to be put on the tongues of these pious and faithful witnesses of God, and the tip of the tongue touched with a red hot iron, that the swelling should prevent it from slipping out.


I looked up tonguescrews on Google, The Source of All Knowledge, and was dumbfounded that the first page was almost entirely Mennonite sources. At first, I thought Google had finally gone sentient and was trying to cater to my browsing habits, but I gradually came to understand that the tonguescrew is a powerful symbol of oppression and censorship in the modern Anabaptist community, inspiring both a one-act play and the title of a book of poems and essays on the Mirror.

A print from the Martyrs Mirror, depicting the son of Maeyken Wens shifting through her ashes to find the tonguescew used to silence her at the stake.

The favored story of the tonguescrew is the heartbreaking account of Maeyken Wens of Antwerp, who was burned to death with one in her mouth in 1573. According to the story, her 15-year-old son took his 3-year-old brother with him to watch his mother die. He fainted when she was tied to the stake, but came to consciousness after she died and sifted through her smoldering ashes to find the screw and keep it in her memory.

Ultra Orthodoxy…

Posted in Amish, Anabaptism, Anabaptist, Christian, Christianity, Church, Community, Fundamentalism, Fundamentalist, Fundie, Mennonite, Religion, Theology with tags , , on February 18, 2010 by fuzzysoul

The German magazine, Spiegel, has published an article on Israel’s ultra orthodox Jewish communities, which “live in a parallel universe cut off from the modern world in tight-knit communities where everything revolves around religion.”

Sound familiar?

At least the Stauffer Mennonites and the Amish are smart enough to allow Rumspringa

An old family yarn Pt. 3: Those strange black folk

Posted in Anabaptism, Anabaptist, Christianity, Church, Community, Fundamentalism, Fundamentalist, Fundie, History, Mennonite, Pennsylvania Dutch, Religion with tags , , , , on December 29, 2009 by fuzzysoul

I chuckled heartily while reading the part of Willis Brubacher’s Shunned in which he recounted my grandfather getting his bootleg liquor from an old black man down the road when he moved to Southern Maryland. But I outright guffawed when reading JoAnna Stauffer’s depiction in Harry’s Journey of my great-grandfather’s family’s reaction to seeing their first, real-life brown skinned man in 1940s Maryland:

The children were wide-eyed when they met Negro people for the first time. “Mom, we saw a man who was black all over!” one of them said in an awed tone. They had never seen any in Pennsylvania.

“But why are they so dark?”

“That’s how God created them,” Magdalena explained. “They’re just like everyone else otherwise. Don’t stare at them.”

“But their talk is different too.”

“They do speak a little different from what we’re used to,” their mother agreed. “But so do the white people here in the South. You’ll get used to it before long.”

There are so many reasons why this is funny, starting with cousin JoAnna’s use of the term “Negro people,” which would get her more than a few impolite stares of her own at an NAACP meeting. It’s also reminiscent of Chris Rock line about how there are only five parts of the country that have black people.

But the thing that made me Laugh Out Loud was my great-grandmother Magdelena’s admonition about staring at black people. Stauffer Mennonites are spectacular starers. It’s not meant to be intimidating or hostile. They are just easily awed and not very good at hiding it. They stare at outsiders, unfamiliar vehicles, gadgets, “English” girls – you name it. It’s a family pastime and a consequence of living in an insular community. And black people fascinate the hell out of them.

They are getting better at hiding it. For my 30th birthday, I invited some black family friends as well as my Mennonite relatives to a party. I caught the Mennonites staring from time to time, but only the children were obvious about it.

The final reason I find this funny is that racism is not an institutional thing in my family the way it is in some of my white friends’ families. That is not to say that I have no racist relatives, but it’s not part of the fabric of our culture. JoAnna later recounts in her book that my great-grandparents treated their black workers the same as whites, eating with them around the family table at the noonday meal. This upset the local white workers, who threatened to not come an thresh the Stauffers’ wheat fields if they had to eat with “darkies.” The book has Harry Stauffer telling his wife, “Apparently, the Civil War isn’t over yet.”

An old family yarn Pt. 2: Quick roundup

Posted in Anabaptism, Anabaptist, Christianity, Community, History, Mennonite, Patriarchs, Pennsylvania Dutch, Religion with tags , , , , , , , on December 28, 2009 by fuzzysoul

So, I finally forced myself to sit down and read the rest of my cousin’s book, Harry’s Journey, after initially picking it up over two months ago. I didn’t want to to get lost in the stack of new books I received for Christmas. It was a lot to absorb, so I’ll just start with a few minor curiosities and delve into the more weighty stuff later.

  • I’ve remarked already about how uncomfortably intertwined my family tree has been, but reading about how my Stauffer great-grandfather was competing with a Martin boy for the attentions of his future wife, a Brubacher, was especially grueling. I have approximately a million and a half first cousins named Martin, my mother was a Stauffer and my father was a Brubacher. Ugh.
  • I now know what a “shivaree” is and that my great-grandparents were subjected to one on their wedding night. Thinking back to my own exhausting wedding day, I doubt I would have has as much patience or tolerance for a bunch of fools banging pots and pans on my front lawn on that of all nights. Sex be damned. All I wanted at that point was sleep.
  • My great-grandfather apparently made much of his money supplying tomatoes to the Chef Boyardee cannery. I assume this was long before it became the nightmarish approximation of cat food that it morphed into under the ConAgra regime.
  • I finally understand the actual reason that World War II spurred both my Stauffer great-grandfather and my Brubacher grandfather to move to Southern Maryland. The land was cheap, and farmers usually received deferments from the draft. Land was expensive or unavailable in Snyder county, so the young men faced the choice of either moving or violating their pacifist beliefs by serving in the military. My great-grandfather followed this movement after a nasty split in the Snyder County, Pa. church.
  • My great-grandfather was a preacher; hence, my grandfather was a preacher’s kid. Well, that explains the rebellious streak.
  • My family initially settled in Oakley, Md., further north than Loveville, where most of the Old Order Mennonite community is settled today.
  • Mennonites are big on humility. You can’t even become a preacher with out getting a subtle kick in the teeth. The way you are informed that you have been made a deacon, preacher or bishop is with the phrase “God has not spared you.” Ouch. Personally, I think this practice should be put to wider use.