John L. Ruth, a Mennonite storyteller/historian, captures the spirit of Old Order Mennonite and Amish groups in his essays, along with photographs, poetry, and quotations.
About the Author
John L. Ruth is known an loved as a storyteller and historian. Captured by the spirit and past of his people, he has spent years interpreting, writing about and filming the tradition and faith of Mennonite, Amish and Hutterite groups. Ruth grew up in the Franconia area of eastern Pennsylvania. An ordained Mennonite minister, he spent much of his life in the world of English, graduating from Eastern Baptist College (now Eastern College), St. Davids, Pennsylvania, an dcopleting doctoral work in Englishand American literture at Harvard University in 1968. For 12 years he taught literature at Eastern College an the University of Hamburg, Germany. He has been involved with the production of films on the Amish (The Amish: A People of Preservation) and Hutterites, Mennonites of Ontario and Virginia, pioneer schoolteacher Christopher Dock (The Quiet in the Land), and the city of Strasbourg, France (Stasbourg: City of Hope). His books include biography (Conrad Grebel, Son of Zurich), history ('Twas Seeding Time: A Mennonite View of the American Revolution; Maintaining the Right Fellowship: The Narrative Account of Life in the Oldes Mennonite Community in America; a forthcoming history of the Lancaster Mennonite Conference) and four lectures entitled Mennonite Identity and Literary Art. He has also written the texts for two musical works, Christopher Dock and Martyrs Mirror. He an Roma (Jacobs) are the parents of three grown children.
Read an Excerpt
If the "plain people" of North America are to be understood in terms of their own concerns, we must consider sympathetically their own expressions and the biblical cadences they echo. Having maintained, with the tolerance of their society, a simple life as "the quiet in the land," these folk still prize such passé virtues as modesty, humility, and obedience to God's will, as interpreted by a disciplined community of faith. Their values, difficult to appreciate in a world bemused by progress, are seldom if ever articulated, except as curiosities, in our mass media.
A comment by Simone Weil in her thoughtful book, The Need for Roots, is suggestive. "The essential fact about the Christian virtues," she reflected, "what lends them a special savor of their own, is humility, the freely accepted movement toward the bottom." But as she watched Western civilization behaving as though it had lost its center, Weil concluded regretfully that in modern culture the paradox of "a humility of a really high order is something unknown to us. We cannot even conceive such a thing possible. In order to merely conceive it, we should have to make a special effort of the imagination."
John L. Ruth, Harleysville, Pennsylvania
A Biblical Theme
From the Delaware River to beyond the Great Plains and from Ontario to Texas exist many rural communities of North America's "plain people." Ever since their 18th-century arrival on this continent they have experienced a partial victory over the logic of technological advance and secularity. Although they have been explained from time to time by historians, sociologists, and psychologists (Reinhold Niebuhr called the Mennonite farm a "Protestant surrogate for the Catholic monastery"), they maintain a life and values that defy simplistic analysis.
There are well over a hundred thousand of these souls, and although some of their communities are dying or shifting into more modern and thus less visible form, many more are thriving, expanding, and spawning daughter communities in other regions. When these people move, it is almost always in search of less populated land.
The most visible are the Amish and the strictest of their spiritual cousins, the Mennonites of Swiss/South German background. But the observer must be cautioned immediately against oversimplifying. There are equally distinct, if smaller, "Old Order" wings of groups such as the Church of the Brethren and the Brethren in Christ, both dating back to the 18th century. There are also conservative "Old Colony" Mennonite with a history in Russia, and some 30,000 Hutterites, a communalist wing of the same group that produced the Mennonites.
None of these groups is a carbon copy of another. In fact, while they often settle close to each other, they worship separately, and any superficial observation lumping them together, they vigorously refute.
Yet they do have plainness, simplicity, nonresistance, mutuality, and visible identity as ideals in common. They recognize these ideals in each other, and, in speaking to persons in one of the other groups, the "plain" person will readily use the phrase, "our kind of people."
Born in an era of disappointment with the state religions that once held power throughout Europe, these groups have held closely from their very beginnings to the words of Scripture. There they find the story of a dispossessed people with the dream of dwelling in a land of promise-each family under its own vine and fig tree. Their hero is less the scheming Jacob than his peaceable father Isaac, who, rather than striving with jealous neighbors over an inheritance he had laboriously restored, "removed from hence" and dug new wells.
In family Bible-reading and in sermons which usually draw extensively on scriptural passages, they hear that "God setteth the solitary in families," and are constantly reminded that "though the Lord be high, yet hath he respect unto the lowly." The kind of sacrifice God desires, Hebrew writers understood long ago, is "a broken and contrite spirit."
In the words of Mary the mother of Jesus, they hear God being thanked that he has "put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree." They understand the Apostle Paul's admonition that they "study to be quiet," and they believe with him that among the signs of God's spirit in human personality are peace, patience, gentleness, meekness, and temperance. They believe that Jesus was teaching them to see into reality when he said that "the meek" are blessed, and that, as his own teachers had taught, it is the meek who shall, in the providence of God, inherit the earth.
It is deeply ingrained in the plain people's conscience to be respectful of "all that are in authority," insofar as that authority is in principle "ordained by God." Even though they may feel that a moral craziness pervades much of the nation in the midst of whom they live, and even if they feel the government oppresses them, they pray continually for that government, and for the salvation of its officials, always with the hope, in Paul's words, that they may continue to be allowed to lead "a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty."
They are seldom equipped to venture into the marketplace of ideas with their convictions. But where their verbal statement has been undeveloped, their startling visual profile continues to raise spiritual questions in the minds of reflective viewers who are not simply tourists, but questers.
Table of ContentsTable of Contents
A Biblical Theme
"Not That Outward Adorning"
"Simple, Substantial, and Beautiful"
Humus and Humanity
Blessed Are the Peacemakers
Salt and Light
Notes on Photographs
Readings and Sources