Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Form and Meaning in Central Kansas Mennonite Buildings for Worship

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Form and Meaning in Central Kansas Mennonite Buildings for Worship

Article excerpt

Abstract: A review of three "generations" of buildings for worship among Central Kansas Mennonites reveals variation, experimentation and borrowing of current American styles and motifs, despite a "classic" form built by immigrants. "Rituals of congregational life"--the social observance of corporate worship, communion, footwashing, baptism, preparing and eating meals together, studying together, libraries and even the use of restrooms, lounges and other amenities--and the authority and gender patterns of the congregation, are more significant in the shaping of a building and determining its significance than are theology and architectural principles of elements of built form, space and light. This confirms the contingent, non-determinative nature of Anabaptist-Mennonite views of the material world, and the centrality of community. In historic restorations, cherished memories of community and institution are a greater driving force for preservation than the shape or style of the building.


Central Kansas represents one of the most complex settlement regions of late nineteenth-century Mennonite migration. It includes the historic northern European stream from the Vistula Delta of Prussia and Ukrainian "Russia," the southern stream from Switzerland, Alsace, and the Palatinate, as well as a number of syntheses of these two. This complexity is surely mirrored in the study of worship buildings over the past century.

Mennonite settlers in Central Kansas came from the Molotschna colony of the Ukraine, from Prussia; from Ostrog and Galicia in Eastern Poland; they came as Pennsylvania 'Germans from Pennsylvania and points west; as Amish from Iowa and Illinois; as Swiss from Switzerland; as Palatine Mennonites from Illinois; and as Swiss Volhynians from the border areas of Poland and the Ukraine. Together they formed one of the truly multifaceted modern Mennonite mosaics.

Many spoke a distinctive version of Low German (Plautdietsch) with Dutch, Polish and Russian additions to the language that had once served the Hanseatic League as a lingua franca. Represented in other groups were several versions of Swiss German (Schweitzerdietsch), either of the Jura mountains, of the Swiss Volhynians who had left Switzerland for eastern Poland, or an Americanized version known as Pennsylvania German. Most also spoke High German, the language of the Luther Bible. Virtually all acquired American English by the second generation in the United States, although many believed for a time--a few may still--that German is somehow more godly than English, as reflected in their continued worship in this language. Because language is a central feature in worship, this other-worldly character of the Mennonite world shaped worship spaces, as it did general identity.

These Mennonites and their Lutheran, Baptist, Catholic and Methodist neighbors came not as refugees for the most part but as economically able communities, in some cases as entire congregations who could thus cushion themselves from the relentless Americanizing forces around them, especially in worship. Still, they were players in the westward expansion, having been recruited by the Santa Fe railroad to settle and make fruitful the "undeveloped" lands of Kansas. They were productive grain and livestock farmers, and consumers of building materials, household wares and larger manufactured goods. They built industries, schools, hospitals, insurance companies, church conferences and other institutions. Their places of worship were usually landmarks, not like the spired cathedrals of the German Catholics, but as community centers, often visible for a mile or two on the flat landscape.

These Mennonites either brought along their church identities and affiliations, or in the American way they joined or created new denominations. Represented among the "Russian" Mennonites were the "Kirchliche" as well as the reformist Mennonite Brethren, the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren and the Kleine Gemeinde who eventually evolved into the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren. …

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