Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Retracing the Blurred Boundaries of Twentieth-Century "Amish Mennonite" Identity Part1

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Retracing the Blurred Boundaries of Twentieth-Century "Amish Mennonite" Identity Part1

Article excerpt

Abstract: "Amish Mennonite" is a movement properly understood as a stream of Amish that parallels, but is independent of, the Old Order Amish. One main group within the movement, the Beachy Amish Mennonites, arose in the 1920s as Amish with automobiles, but moved out of the Old Order stream by the 1950s when automobile ownership became a firm boundary delineating the Old Order. What exactly bounded the Beachy movement from then on became contested in each successive generation. The influence of external ideologies, varying levels of emphasis on continuity with previous generations, and population growth all contributed to the rise of alternative movements within this Amish Mennonite movement. Today, several Amish Mennonite denominations and several loose networks exist. Each has developed symbolic boundaries and intercongregational institutions with which to define their movement. The history of the Amish Mennonite movement is one of redefining and retracing boundaries as new groups continued to emerge. This article attempts to clarify the place of Amish Mennonites within the broader taxonomy of North American Anabaptists groups.

The contemporary "Amish Mennonites" are not easy to characterize. Indeed, the origins, historical developments, and group boundaries of Amish Mennonite affiliations have been unclear to both scholars and the Amish Mennonites alike. (1) Even the Beachy Amish Mennonites themselves, the largest contemporary Amish Mennonite constituency, have struggled to define their group. "None of us considers our church to be typical Beachy," the bishop committee stated recently. "As a result, since none of us are typical Beachy, then Beachy becomes whatever we make it." (2) Aaron Lapp, a deacon of the Weavertown Amish Mennonite congregation in Pennsylvania, writes, "There is nothing that we can use to identify our unique church between Amish and Mennonite." (3) Echoing similar sentiments, a network of young adults adopted a playful banner text for their satirical blog: "It's complicated. We are liberal Amish who wish we could be Mennonites, but our consciences (not to mention beards and cape dresses) can't stand such worldly thoughts. We love volleyball but eschew radio waves. Sometimes this affects brainwaves. Remember: It's complex." (4) In his attempt to describe the modifiers "Fellowship" and "Beachy," Steve Yoder, a bishop in the Maple Lawn Amish Mennonite (Ind.) congregation, concluded that "there is no clear distinguishing point. Many are working to the left of center and others so far to the right. ... Yet we overlap so much that the line is at times totally obscured." (5)

Thus far, scholars have been reluctant to investigate Amish Mennonites. The field of Amish studies has generally regarded contemporary Amish Mennonite groups as the less-interesting social residue of the Old Order Amish, lumping them together awkwardly with the Mennonites. (6) Historical treatments of Amish Mennonite groups tend to be spotty and fragmented, often focused on those rudimentary details of their history or identity needed to tell the Amish story. In visual portrayals of Amish life, for example, photographers may slip in a few indoor shots of Amish Mennonites in their gallery exhibitions, as Old Order domestic life is less accessible from the road.

One obvious reason for the absence of scholarship on Amish Mennonite groups is that the identity and boundaries of this movement, as even the Amish Mennonites themselves have observed, are indeed blurred and complex, not easily summarized in tidy sociological categories. Moreover, the movement's decentralization has made denomination-level records nonexistent, and major developments often tend to be the elusive aggregate of numerous micro-level incidents. Despite these challenges, this article represents an attempt to track the history of blurred boundaries that has rendered the Amish Mennonite classification complex and unclear. Drawing heavily on oral interviews and archival research, it retraces the outlines of contemporary Amish Mennonite classification, paying particular attention to both centrifugal and centripetal forces among the subgroups that make up the movement. …

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