I read Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress recently. It’s not exactly deep but it does have some amusing moments. Several clarifications are in order, however. First, she glosses over the significant distinctions among Mennonites. Her family is descended from Dutch and North German Mennonites who were invited into Russia in the eighteenth century and created thriving communities there that survived until Stalin. Many had already emigrated to North America in the late nineteenth century, especially to Kansas and the Prairie Provinces of Canada. But many more, including Janzen’s grandparents, fled in the 1920s or even later. Up until the late nineteenth century, they had considerable freedom to organize their lives and communities independent of Russian interference and they developed social, political, and economic institutions and become quite wealthy compared to their Russian neighbors.
Most of what she describes of her Mennonite upbringing and relatives relates to that history: the food (zwieback and borscht), the language (low German), and the cultural experience of living in Russia for over a century.
I grew up in a rather different Mennonite tradition–the Swiss and South German Mennonites who emigrated from those places (and in my case from Alsace as well) to the eastern US in the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century. My ancestors had very limited freedoms in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and had developed a strategy of separation and quietism. Most were farmers in Europe and remained farmers in North America.
Over the years, as I got to know Mennonites from the Russian tradition, I realized how very different our experiences and our cultures were, even though we shared so much. We looked at the world differently; they were much more open to intellectual and artistic pursuits, less suspicious of the wider culture. There was also a tendency to accept influence from the wider Christian tradition. The Mennonite Brethren, to which Janzen’s parents belonged have been strongly influenced by the North American Evangelical Protestant tradition. The other main branch, what once was called “General Conference” Mennonites and merged with the Mennonite Church in the 1990s, was more open to liberal Protestantism. I suspect that it is difficult now, in the twenty-first century, to detect such theological differences. From what little I know, most contemporary Mennonites look little different from most Evangelicals, but I’m willing to be convinced otherwise.
Perhaps what I liked least in Janzen’s book was the flip, post-modern, ironic tone of so much of the work. I finally extricated myself from the Mennonite Church in my early 30s, but it took great effort, considerable anguish, and some guilt. There are times still when I mourn what I was and could not continue to be; at the same time I have flourished in the years since as I never could have, and most importantly, I have experienced and continue to experience God’s grace and love in my life and in the Episcopal Church today in ways I never could as a Mennonite. And that’s what matters most.
What I really want to read is her memoir of teaching at Hope College, but I suppose that won’t come until she’s safely tenured.
Jonathan, thanks for a fascinating footnote to a story about a segment of the Christian family that most of us know nothing at all about. To folks like me, who came to TEC as young people fleeing fundamentalism, the Mennonite tradition has always seemed very culturally and theologically foreign. You give us an interesting glimpse into its history.